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isis libya

It is a hard fact that terrorism thrives and develops every time areas of social instability are created following traumatic events (such as wars), or thanks to the poverty and hardship imposed by totalitarian regimes on their subjects. It has already happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Conflicts are definitely a factor and it is not a coincidence that terrorism finds space to operate each time a dictator or a regime falls. There are presently thousands of hardcore terrorists that move from one country to the next in search of adventure or of a cause to die for.

If tomorrow a deal for a decent transition were found in Syria, if social peace were re-established in Iraq and if ISIS, as promised by countries across the world, were defeated militarily, Al Baghdadi's adventure would definitely come to an end. But this would not mean that the terrorist phenomena that supported his rise would be over. The extremists would simply move somewhere else, be it the Middle East, Africa, possibly in Asia. They would have plenty of places to go to in order to continue their fight in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. The Sinai, Nigeria, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Somalia or even Afghanistan are all potential destinations for the professionals of terrorism.

It is hence legitimate to ask oneself which destination could become the ideal target in case of a defeat of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Where can we find the most favorable conditions to build a new Islamic State? This is a question that the leadership of the ISIS has already posed itself, and so have the countries that are fighting it.

Some analysts may object that the Islamic State has now become a brand that can be used in any circumstance, be it an attack in Sharm el Sheikh or in Paris or in any conflict involving a Muslim community across the Middle East or Africa. There could be no need to find a new haven, isolated incidents can virtually take place anywhere across the globe.

Yet the ISIS is not just a terrorist movement. It is terrorism aiming to transform itself into a State and if they fail in Syria and Iraq, they could propose that same model elsewhere. Hence the need to find the ideal location for a new Islamic State. In evaluating the pros and cons, the terrorists will surely take into account environmental, social conditions and the chance of succeeding or failing.

The promised land

The Sinai peninsula has some serious drawbacks: it is a deserted and scarcely populated area; the morphology of the terrain does not offer sufficient hiding places; there would be limited impact on mass media; the area would grant troops led by General Abdel Fattah al Sisi the possibility of operating freely without having the international community on their backs; it is too close to Israel, a country that will not spare efforts or resources in the fight against terrorism and will not shy away from a cross-border attack. Furthermore, if the Islamic State were to decide to resettle in the Sinai, the circumstance would probably lead to a stronger alliance between Israel and Egypt.

The Boko Haram stretches across the north of Nigeria and in some areas of Cameroon and Chad. They are an Islamist group that is definitely too African. The hardcore terrorists that form the backbone of the ISIS are mainly Arab and can be more effective in Arabic countries. They would be immediately singled out in a place like Nigeria. The same could be said of Somalia.

Although in Africa, Mali could be a potential target for Islamic terrorism. The country is poor and social unrest could be fueled across the Sub-Saharan region. Such a choice would spark a conflict in the desert, a complicated, scarcely populated combat zone that has witnessed in-fighting between the groups opposed to Bamako. Furthermore, Malians are predominantly Sunni Sufi muslims, not Salafi. On the other side of the barricades, the terrorists would face both the French (and potentially the Germans) and the Algerians.

Yemen, instead, is a country where Al Qaeda and its Arabic Peninsula branch have been operating for quite some time. The civil war offers an opportunity to expand, but this would mean having to face Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is probably one of the few countries out there that cannot be accused of apostasy. It would be hard to push forward a religious conflict against them, despite the presence of the Zaydi Shia minority that represent 30% of the Yemeni population. Furthermore, Yemen's geography poses a series of logistical issues: the country is isolated by land (as it is surrounded by Saudi Arabia and Oman) and sealed off by the sea (several international military vessels patrol the area). Plus, on the opposite coast lie the military bases of both the French and the Americans in Djibouti.

Finally, Afghanistan brings back old memories for those that fought in the ranks of Al Qaeda, but such a choice could reignite the feud between al Baghdadi and Ayman al Zawahiri. A drawback is given by the fact that the Afghan civil war is not a religious struggle, but a sectarian one. It would be hard for the ISIS to exploit it in its favor and especially now that there is a lot of infighting among the Talibans. Yet Afghanistan remains an open option, one that could allow to expand or hide in an area spanning all the way to Pakistan.

al zawahiri al baghdadi
Al Zawahiri and al Baghdadi

The Libyan option

Technically speaking, the Libyan option is the most attractive one for the ISIS. It is a huge country in a state of complete social dissolution ruled by a number of factions, including Islamic ones (Ansar al Sharia and the Council of the Shura of the Mujahidin); it has rich oil resources that can be exploited (as is happening in Syria and Iraq); Islam already has an outstanding influence on the population (just think of the Senussi Confraternity); local tribes can be bought or become allies of your cause; its coast is so long that it is difficult to control and the same can be said of its land borders stretching out to a number of unstable countries that can be easily drawn into the equation. Finally, Libya would also overcome the geographic limitations imposed by the Middle East and project the ISIS towards a fresh perspective: a war targeting Europe and an extension of its influence in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

It is just not a coincidence that among all the affiliates of the ISIS, the Libyan branch has been the only one to have direct links with the Islamic State founded by al Baghdadi. The circumstance is confirmed by the fact that in 2014 the creation of the Libyan ISIS was headed by an envoy of the Caliph: Abu Nabil alias Wisam Najm abd Zayd al Zubaidi. A former police officer in Iraq and an Al Qaeda militant, Abu Nabil was allegedly killed in a US air strike on November 13, 2015, in Derna. Before being killed, he was able to create, expand and consolidate the military presence of his militias in Libya. Another high ranking ISIS official has also been spotted in Sirte. His name is Abu Ali Anbari, an Iraqi Turkmen and Major General under Saddam Hussein. He allegedly reached Libya via sea.

What this means is that the expansion of the ISIS in Libya was a plan conceived in Raqqa and carried out by personnel ferried on location by the Islamic State. Presently the majority of the militants deployed in Libya are foreign fighters from Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The leadership is composed of mainly Iraqi commanders. The ISIS exported its franchise and added local forces from Ansar al Sharia and other extremist groups to its nucleus of hardcore fighters. The estimated force is between 3 to 4 thousand combatants.

The potential offered by Libya is proven by how much the ISIS has been capable of expanding its influence in a short period of time, from scratch, with very few fighters. The group has taken control of Sirte and is now targeting neighboring areas. What is striking is that a majority of foreign manpower was employed in the operations. The infighting between Libyan factions has paved the way for the expansion of the Islamic State. Such a careless approach has allowed ISIS to consolidate and move on. Similarly, the international community paid very little attention to what was happening.

The conquest of Sirte has a strong symbolic value (this is where Muammar Gaddafi was born) and is a strategic point (Fezzan is somewhat out of the struggle between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania). Furthermore, Libyan factions have facilitated and bankrolled the expansion of the ISIS. The Libyan Central Bank has continued to pay the wages of all public employees, even those living in the areas controlled by the Caliphate. Weapons are purchased thanks to a deal with the militias in Benghazi that are opposed to General Haftar. Oil, instead, is supplied directly through the seizure of trucks that transit on their territory and on the black market.

To consolidate its power, the ISIS has also negotiated a series of deals with local tribes and, most importantly, with the influential Awlad Suleiman tribe. Clashes with other groups have been resolved through donations or compensations (as Gaddafi did to support his own power). Similarly, a non-aggression agreement has been reached with the militias of Misrata that are against the expansion of the ISIS.

In the territories under its rule the ISIS has begun to gradually impose its repertoire of social norms, religious schools, Islamic tribunals, religious police, bans on music and smoking and its financial system that imposes zakat, taxes and levies on commercial activities and lorries. And, as usual, the media machine was put into motion with its beheadings, crucifixions and killings (as for those 20 Egyptian Copts that were slain on a beach in February 2015). A situation that we've already seen in Raqqa and that tries to balance consensus with threats on the road to an Islamic State on Libyan shores.

Muhammar Gaddafi

The road ahead

Now that power has been consolidated in Sirte, the ISIS will try to expand. The local militias will not be able to stop them unless the army led by General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar gets in their way with the support of Egypt. The deal reached with Misrata and the indirect support coming from Tripoli mean that Cyrenaica could be their next target.

Several analysts fear that the next city to fall to the ISIS will be Abajdya. There are several elements pointing in that direction, as a series of targeted assassinations of notable individuals that usually anticipate the advance of the ISIS are already taking place. Abajdya could complicate things terribly for those opposing the Caliphate. The city controls maritime trade, it is a crucial passage for migrants coming from the desert and controls oil routes. Furthermore, Islamic militias are already present in Derna and Sabratha.

Libya has a population of around 6 million people and a vast territory. Back in 1969 it had been extremely easy for Gaddafi to take over power in a bloodless coup. The same could now happen with the ISIS thanks to its consolidated know how.

The defeat of the Islamic State can come from two directions: a negotiated solution between Libyan factions that will unite to fight the Caliphate or a direct international intervention. The first option is difficult to achieve and time has nearly run out. The increasing aerial campaign in Syria and Iraq has already pushed thousands of combatants from the ISIS towards Libya and Afghanistan. The second option will depend on the will of the international community. There could also be a third option that could be faster and more effective: give Egypt the mandate to deal with the ISIS together with the Libyan national army supported by the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and just look the other way as they deal with the terrorists.

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