Islamic State in Libya targets foreign assets and personnel

Islamic State in Libya targets foreign assets and personnel

Islamic State (IS) is expanding its focus to Libya, with an emphasis on targeting foreigners and foreign assets.

As a consequence of the attack led by Sunni extremist fighters against the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli on January 27th, the international media’s attention focused on the progressive rise of the Islamic State in Libya. The target was chosen carefully, and it marked the goal of the Islamic State subgroup operating in the capital, also known as the Islamic State Tripoli Province (ISTP), to target foreigners in Libya.

While the security environment of Libya has been marred by enduring inter-militia fighting since the fall of former dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, the current rise of IS in Libya marks a stern evolution of the threat posed by Sunni extremists to foreign interests in the country.

Indeed, IS in Libya is basing its current strategy on two pillars: the ‘nation-building’ effort that has characterized the organization’s success in Iraq, and a more specific attempt to target foreigners and their assets.

Attempts at nation-building

The expansion of groups associated with IS began from the eastern town of Derna in April 2014. Libyan militants who had participated in operations in Syria and Iraq began supporting local groups expressing an ideological proximity with IS.

The Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI) officially called for the creation of an Islamic Emirate in Derna in April 2014 and began clashing with local Sunni radicals opposed to IS. The MSSI is a group of reactionary youths that began opposing the local Islamists linked to Ansar al-Sharia in an effort to expand their operations and ignite a wave of localized instability aimed at facilitating the imposition of an IS-style control.

Following a period of instability, in late October 2014, the MSSI organization demonstrated a show-of-force with a military-style parade on the streets of Derna. The MSSI declared allegiance to Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Since then, the IS-linked militants have expanded their reach in Benghazi and Sirte.

This strategy has been based on IS’s way of coupling battleground territorial gains with atrocities committed against the targeted groups (mainly non-Muslims, prisoners of war and Muslims not abiding by the strictest tenets of Islamic law) and an effort to win hearts and minds through social and economic support activities, including food and gas distribution.

The latest territorial expansions by IS-affiliates in Libya have been recorded in the Sirte area when in mid-February Sunni extremists were able to take over a local radio station and begin transmitting speeches by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other IS top leaders. The Libyan geography and strategic environment provide a sensibly different area of operations for IS related fighters.

Sunni extremists linked to the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the organization have so far been able to expand their control over areas with a weak militia presence without posing a direct challenge to the two major groups in the country, the Zintanis and the Misratans.

The success of the current territorial expansion of IS in Libya will depend on its ability to confront larger and better equipped Islamist armed groups in control of areas spanning from Tripoli to Sirte and the nationalist forces operating in Benghazi and eastern parts of country.

IS in Libya targets foreign assets and staff

While the attack on the Corinthia Hotel was a stand-out incident, other events underscore the potential threat the group can pose to foreigners operating in Libya.

In early February 2015, militants linked to a Libyan branch of IS attacked al-Mabrook oilfield south of Sirte. The attack resulted in the death of at least 13 people, including five foreigners.

The operations from al-Mabrook are jointly coordinated by the Libyan National Oil Corp (NOC) and the French Total firm. While Total had already evacuated its staff from the site, the implications of the attack are twofold: it underscores IS elements’ will to conduct direct attacks against oil infrastructure and to kill foreign staff operating oil assets.

A second noteworthy incident occurred in mid-February. The execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by IS-affiliated operatives in Sirte prompted a strong response by the Egyptian government. The victims had been kidnapped in late December 2014 and were beheaded following the script of previous assassinations filmed by IS in Syria and Iraq.

The massacre of Egyptian civilians led Cairo to conduct airstrikes against IS positions in Derna. IS affiliates conducted a string of bombings in Qubbah killing more than 40 people in direct response to the Egyptian raids.

In late February, IS militants claimed responsibility for a mainly demonstrative bombing in front of the empty Iranian embassy in Tripoli. The reach of IS attacks against foreign targets may be diminished only by the fact that the majority of western personnel in the country has already been evacuated following a protracted period of instability.

Further attacks likely in the short term

Given the current trend of attacks carried out by IS-affiliates Libya, it seems likely that Sunni extremists will try to conduct additional violent actions against available foreign personnel and assets in the country in the immediate-to short-term. These attacks are likely to entail the kidnapping and assassination of foreign civilians, acts of sabotage of critical energy infrastructure and bombings of diplomatic and/or private compounds in which foreigners may reside.

While the degree of cooperation between the Middle Eastern branch of IS and the Libyan one remains unclear, it is certain that Islamists pledging allegiance to IS in Libya are so far the most concrete expression of the territorial expansion of the IS ideology. The special focus given to targeting foreigners in key areas of Libya, such as Tripoli and the country’s oil field, mark an evolution from the initial local strategy of IS in Syria and Iraq.

While the majority of private operations in Libya have already ceased, taking into consideration the long-term commercial value of Libya for European countries as well as the geographical proximity of the country to the EU, questions should be raised concerning the potential European response to the evolving threat posed by the rise of IS in Libya.

Egypt, and potentially other Arab countries are likely to conduct additional air strikes against IS positions in eastern Libya. However, European countries are unlikely to continue to outsource their security concerns in the long run.

This increases the long-term probability of further military actions against Sunni extremists in Libya, a scenario that would destabilize the current dynamics in the southern Mediterranean.

In the immediate term, the IS will to expand its area of operations in Libya is likely to lead to greater inter-militia tensions, further deteriorating the local security environment and leading to greater instability in the country.

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.