Friday, 12 February 2016

LIBYA: The IS' gains

The country is under militia rule; there are two parliaments and governments, in the west and the east; Rival militias in Libya have thrown the country into civil war and made it easy prey for the Islamic State. IS is spreading; IS is capturing new territory each day.

But the dissolution of Libya started long before. In last parliamentary elections, Islamist parties associated with the militias in Misrata, an important trade city, fared miserably and have been unwilling to accept their defeat. Under the leadership of the Libyan Dawn, the militias captured the capital city of Tripoli. They deposed the newly elected and internationally recognized parliament and reinstated some members of the previous parliament, leading the elected members to flee to Tobruk.

Since that split took place, the country has effectively become home to two parliaments, but also two governments and two armies. Both sides have been fighting each other since, attacking airports, oil terminals and cities. The bloody power struggle is leading to Libya's collapse. Oil production has fallen dramatically, from over 1.6 million barrels a day to under 500,000. Revenues are still sufficient to cover the salaries of government workers and to subsidize gasoline, but there isn't enough left over to maintain hospitals or cover necessary infrastructure repairs.

IS' strategists have been waiting for precisely this kind of chaos. The conflict has weakened the state to such a degree that is easy to capture. IS, for its part, would like see this vulnerability persist. Should intense conflict erupt once again in Libya, the jihadists would benefit from the power struggle by constantly shifting its loyalties. It is a strategy that worked well in Syria, even allowing it to militarily outmaneuver stronger rebel groups such as the Nusra Front.

IS expands its sphere of influence from Sirte on the coast to the east, west and south. there are already bridgeheads and cells in the south, and if IS is allowed to join forces with terrorist organizations in Chad and Niger, then it will be more difficult to push IS back.

The city of ''Sirte'' is the Islamic State's new center of power in Libya. A short time ago, the terrorists took over TV and radio stations here, which have since been broadcasting jihadist songs and speeches given by IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. In addition, offices of the authorities have been occupied, oil terminals attacked and foreign workers beheaded. Just recently, government employees were even forced to publicly apologize for having worked for the Libyan state. IS, in Sirte,  has also gained supporters in Benghazi and Tripoli. Members of Islamist militias are defecting to IS.

IS is already expanding its reach to the south. In the city of Sabha, IS is planning the possible establishment of the Fezzan Province of the Islamic State. If that happened, it would place the smuggling routes for refugees, weapons and drugs in IS' hands and create a corridor for the group to other Islamist groups south of Libya.

Last week, IS' fighters reached the oil terminal at Ras Lanuf. If things keep on going like this, they will soon capture it. But the awareness that people need to be coming together to counter this threat is still lacking.

Today, Darna is ruled by several militia groups, the most important of which is the Islamic Youth Shura Council, an organization founded in the spring after splintering off from the Libyan terror group Ansar al-Sharia. In Darna, the leaders of Ansar al-Sharia have joined forces with Islamic State while in Benghazi they have not.

Initially, IS emerged in Libya in the form of a group of fighters returning from Syria. The so-called al-Battar Brigade brought Darna under its control by murdering politicians, judges and attorneys -- but also by killing commanders of other militias. An "emir" sent by Islamic State arrived in Darna, a previously little-known Yemenite named Mohammed Abdullah. Last Oct. 5, the first meeting was held between the men from the Islamic State and Shura Council leaders, during which they announced their alliance and the founding of Islamic State's "Barka Province." At the end of October, hundreds of citizens publiclly proclaimed their loyalty to the "caliph."

IS now hunts down everybody who voices criticism, be it even just a comment posted on Facebook. Three young anti-IS activists were beheaded on camera in Darna. Suspected criminals are lashed. A murderer was executed in the local football stadium. Islamists are treated no better. The leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi has been missing ever since he refused to join the "caliphate" -- in all likelihood he was killed. A further militia leader has applied for asylum in Turkey.

The Libyan capital, Tripoli, has been under the control of an Islamist alliance calling itself "Fajr Libya" -- Dawn Libya. The group doesn't belong to Islamic State, but the route to the "caliphate" nevertheless runs through Tripoli. Last August, Fajr Libya took control of Mitiga Airport in Tripoli, leaving the terminal in ruins and destroyed jets at the gates. A plastic tarp hanging over the entrance reads "International Airport Tripoli." And Mitiga is an international airport, even if there is essentially only a single destination: the "caliphate."

IS' influence is fast spreading to individuals too. IS also receives support from Abdul Wahhab al-Gayed, a former member of Libya's parliament. As the head of the Border Guard, he received around €250 million from the government in mid-2013. However, the money never went where it was supposed to. It is believed that al-Gayed used it to procure weapons for his militia, which has joined forces with IS.

There have been other criminal efforts to raise money for IS as well. In October 2013, members of the Ansar al-Sharia terrorist group robbed a central bank money van in Sirte that was reportedly carrying €39 million. Now it appears that Ansa al-Sharia is merging with IS.

There are now three urgent reasons for political agreement: the first is the spread of IS; the second is the miserable condition of living: 2,4 million Libyans are reliant on humanitarian aid, with 1.3 million requiring food assistance and the third is the financial situation at the central bank, whose reserves have shrunk enormously, from $280 billion in 2011 to just 50 billion, largely due to the drastic decline in oil production. It is a question of time before Libya runs out of money.

Because the political process will progress more slowly than military process, the US is considering conducting air strikes in Libya against IS. As the past has shown, air-strikes alone do not defeat terrorists. This is a battle for oil fields and refineries, a battle for cities and strategic positions, and for that, Libya needs ground troop, the rebuilding of its army an adequate training. But there is no readiness on the part of the International Community or the United States, UK and France for that kind of engagement.

The truth is that Libya is well on its way to becoming a failed state -- making it the perfect prey for IS. Furthermore, Libya is close to Italy, has plenty of oil and offers a possible corridor to Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as to Islamists in Mali and in the Sahara. Indeed, if IS succeeds in solidifying its presence Libya, the terrorists could pose a threat to Southern Europe in addition to destabilizing all of North Africa.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Investigative Journalist
Political Analyst/Writer
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: Courtesy of -Agence France Presse