Recent US airstrikes in Libya and Tunisia underline a growing concern that ISIS is deepening its reach across northern Africa. Increasingly, Libya is becoming the main target of the group, but why? And what are the national and regional consequences?
Libya’s political and security vacuum: Is it next Syria?
Five years ago NATO overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. The dictator’s fall, however, precipitated a rapid slide into civil war, creating a huge political and security vacuum with no reliable government to rule Libya.
Given this state failure, it is not surprising that the strongest and most violent actors have tried to fill the political and security vacuum.
At the same time, Western coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have smashed ISIS, with the number of total ISIS fighters falling from 315000 to 25000. Geographically, meanwhile, the group has lost 40% of the territory it once controlled.
The near-constant assault has also pushed the organization to relocate its training camps. With a chaotic civil raging across the country and no government to rule the country, Libya is the perfect choice for ISIS’ geographical expansion into Africa. Indeed, the number of fighters in Libya has nearly doubled, reaching 6500 fighters.
The threat of ISIS has largely evolved because of these trends. And crucially, it has the ability to metastasize in places lacking strong civil society and central government, as previously underlined by ISIS’ profit from the Syrian civil war.
Worryingly, Libya now exhibits a number of similarities to that of Syria’s civil war. Since 2014, two rival militias – one based in Tripoli and th
e other in the city of Tobruk – have been fighting to control the country. Despite UN efforts to support a national unity government, negotiations have failed and have left the country lawless. This has allowed ISIS to take control over a territory relatively easily.
ISIS’ strategy towards the Libyan oil sector: keeping Libya a failed state
ISIS has also been multiplying attacks on oil ports and setting fire to oil tanks. These attacks may inflict long-term damage to the nation’s energy industry, bearing in mind that the country has Africa’s largest crude-oil reserves and the potential to produce 1.5 million barrels a day. But with oil production is a cornerstone in the Libyan economy, why would ISIS want to destroy the oil rather than extract it itself?
Importantly, the attacks prevent any group from gaining oil revenues. This includes ISIS, of course. But it is a risk worth taking.
For ISIS, depriving Libya’s two main rivals of any oil revenue is a shrewd move strategically. Unlike ISIS, their adversaries are heavily dependent on oil revenue to finance their militias. Without their main source of revenue, therefore, fighters may soon defect, leaving the two main groups weakened and vulnerable. This, in turn, would pave the way for ISIS to engage these competitors head on in a bid to gain more territory.
On the other hand, the main threat to ISIS in the long-term is that the UN-led government is getting back on its feet and starts to provide national security. But by destroying essential oil infrastructure, ISIS is also preventing the unity government to function effectively going forward.
Undermining regional security: destabilizing Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria
No matter the consequences of Western involvement in the Middle East, continued unrest in Libya has meant the country is now an ideal base for recruitment and planning operations.
The Libyan stronghold also allows ISIS to project attacks into neighboring countries such as Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt.
Since their internal situation is dangerous because of low standards of living, lack of education and distrust authorities, those three countries will be prime targets for ISIS’ recruitment campaign and attempts at to destabilize the region.
Tunisia, for example, does not have the ability to adequately respond to the flow of refugees caused by ISIS’ destabilization of Libya. Indeed, it is already accommodating nearly 2 million Libyan refugees. This has led to grave economic, social and security challenges. Receiving more refugees would only exacerbate this.
The evolution of ISIS’ treat: a multi-faceted menace: from Africa to Europe
Given its geographic proximity and long history with violent jihadist networks, a failed state in Libya would be disastrous for Africa and Europe.
Libya might be a stepping stone for ISIS’ attacking other states in Africa. And Africa, it should be said, represents a perfect pool of potential terrorist for ISIS. Not only has ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram grown exponentially in Nigeria in recent times, but the Sahel-Saharan population is also extremely poor. Already sensitive to radical Islamism, they represent easy targets to for potential recruitment.
Furthermore, in some regions, the state is completely absent, which makes them completely uncontrollable.
Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, had warned about the danger of a failed Libyan state and the dangers of terrorists capitalizing on the chaos. Many of these groups, he said, would pose a grave threat to the west.
That threat has now materialized, with Libya becoming a hub for foreign fighters unable to travel to the Middle East but still wishing to undertake training. This training, security officials warn, may lead to returning fighters undertaking attacks on their European homelands.
The closeness of Libya to Europe – ISIS controlled Libyan coasts are at 350km from Lampedusa – may also encourage ISIS to send terrorist operatives across Europe.
A new theater in the war on ISIS?
ISIS has capitalized on the strong divisions and lack of unity government in Libya in order to establish a stronghold that may even outlive its operations in Syria and Iraq.
Contrary to its previous strategy, rather than benefiting financially from Libya’s oil reserves, the group is destroying it to prevent the efficiency of any future UN-led government and hurt its rivals in the country.
On a regional scale, ISIS has also shown a willingness to destabilize neighboring countries as a means for attracting new recruits to its cause. The group’s ultimate goal remains creating a wide arc of instability in North Africa that threatens Africa and Europe.