Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Fighting Islamic State

The fight against Islamic State in Libya continues to be hampered by regional meddling and internal bickering, with international intervention offering no solution either, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The political and social disputes and conflicts between Libya’s diverse social, cultural and political components have helped the Islamic State (IS) group strengthen its presence in some of the more sparsely populated parts of the country, which is almost half the size of neighbouring Egypt.

It has focussed on Derna, Sirte, Benghazi, Ijdabiya and parts of central and southern Libya where there is a total absence of state institutions and structures. That void has been prolonged and aggravated by the ongoing bickering between the most influential parties in Libya.

This has hampered a proper assessment of the situation and formulation of a clear and effective strategy to counter the alarming proliferation of terrorist groups and organisations. Neighbouring countries now feel threatened and regard Libya as the base, staging point and place of refuge for terrorists.

In Sirte, the political capital of the country in the Gaddafi era, the 28 May withdrawal of Brigade 166, which had been entrusted with protecting the city, cleared the way for IS to seize full control over the city. The capture gave IS a vantage point over the Gulf of Sidra, one of the seven largest gulfs in the world and strategically close to Libya’s main oil fields and oil exporting ports.

IS is now trying to consolidate its position in the area. It has been working to win over members of influential tribes in Libya’s central coastal region. Simultaneously, it has been secretly trying to establish linkages with other extremist organisations along the North African coast, in the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

It is also trying to draw members away from Al-Qaeda affiliates such Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and similar organisations in Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Algeria.

IS is focussing its energies on Sirte after having lost its previous stronghold in Derna, to the east, where rival Islamist militia, backed by the local populace, succeeded in driving IS out of their city and its environs.

IS had declared Dirna its first “possession” in Libya in October 2014, operating through a faction of the Shura Council of Youths of Islam, consisting primarily of recent converts to takfiri jihadism. But even after its expulsion, IS elements have continued to mount attacks in the region of Dirna in an attempt to draw attention away from the IS drive to consolidate its position in Sirte and central Libya.

But IS has entered an undeclared rivalry with certain influential parties in the region, most notably the Qadhadhfa tribe (to which the ruler of the previous regime belonged), the city of Misrata which leads the Libya Dawn coalition, and Al-Farjan tribe which, with the support of General Khalifa Haftar, seeks to control the nearly 400-km stretch of coastline from the so-called petroleum crescent in the east to Misrata in the west.

All of these parties, including IS, believe that controlling this strategic area will strengthen their hand in the processes that determine any future arrangements.

IS in Sirte included elements from Ansar Al-Sharia, following the assassination of that group’s general commander in Benghazi, Mohamed Al-Zahawi, in November 2014. It has ceaselessly campaigned to recruit religious youth in the city against the backdrop of the general security breakdown and constantly flaring tribal and other conflicts that are being fuelled by interventions by regional powers.

It is noteworthy that local and regional parties concerned with the crisis in Libya have not focussed attention on attempts led by Misrata and the Libya Dawn coalition to fight IS in Sirte.

At the outset of 2015, this Misrata-led coalition spearheaded the “Sunrise Operation” which sought to regain control of the oil crescent region from Ibrahim Al-Jidran, who initiated a blockade of the country’s main oil exporting ports in 2013.

The coalition confronted IS in Sirte and the villages of Jawad, Harawa and Al-Nufaliya and succeeded in liberating these villages. However, hostile fire from forces from the Haftar camp forced them to withdraw to Sirte. Haftar’s military aircraft continued the pursuit of the Libyan Dawn forces in Sirte.

This is what led Misrata to order the forces stationed in Sirte to withdraw, so that they would not fall victim to the two-pronged war of attrition by Haftar aircraft and IS, and so that they could sustain their strength for future battles.

Some parties, locally and abroad, have been escalating media, political and social attacks against the Misrata forces, which are now based in Al-Jafra area and the south, blaming them for having withdrawn from these areas at a time when there were no other forces able to take on IS.

It was suggested that this contributed to putting IS in a position to further its designs, which are to drive southwards toward the Libyan borders with Chad and Niger and carve out a geopolitical entity. Such a situation would also give parties that want to partition Libya a de facto reality.

If this occurs, observers say that it would lead to still further fragmentation. Clearly what is needed is for the Libyan people to unify ranks, for they are the most capable of confronting the organisation.

However, under current conditions it is out of the question to relinquish the hard power that Misrata can pit against the organisation. It has the strongest, best organised and most capable forces, outstripping even those led by Haftar.

Although backed by air power, Haftar so far been unable to impose his control on the ground in Benghazi and other areas, and over which hangs a cloud of suspicion for corruption, which has also helped strengthen the position of IS through the sales of arms and ammunition.

As for confronting the organisation by means of international intervention, this is unlikely to work. In fact, it would only strengthen the power of IS on the ground, as it would move to cast itself as a symbol of resistance. Intervention, which many Libyans oppose, would give IS a historic opportunity to recruit more numbers than ever, even among those who oppose IS’s presence in Libya.

International efforts in Libya must focus on supporting the forces of the army and police in Tripoli. They must also pressure regional and international parties that are currently supporting various militias to redirect their support to the army and police.

These forces are dealing with the cumulative weight of the errors of the Gaddafi regime, which operated through militia brigades commanded by his sons and “revolutionary committees.”

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