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Islamic State gains Libya foothold

18 February 2015
By Farouk Chothia
BBC News
The Islamic State (IS) has wreaked havoc in the Middle
East, seizing vast areas of Iraq and Syria and now it is
taking advantage of Libya's collapse into anarchy.
It has gained a foothold in key towns and cities in the
mostly lawless North African state, prompting Egypt seeing itself as the bulwark against Islamists in region - to
launch air strikes against the group.
After the two war-ravaged Middle Eastern states, IS has
launched its most high-profile attacks in Libya, bombing
an upmarket hotel in the capital, Tripoli, in January, and
releasing a video earlier this month showing the
beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians it had
For UK-based Libyan academic, Mohamed Ahdash, the
emergence of IS affiliates in Libya is not surprising.
"There is a study which shows that after Saudi Arabia,
most of the fighters who went to Syria were from Libya,"
he told the BBC.
'Magnet for African jihadists'
Libya's UN-backed government believes the fighters are
now returning, following a shift in IS thinking to promote
local jihad, and are under the command of a Tunisian
named Abu Talha.
Libya, analysts say, is an obvious target for IS - it has been
chaotic since the overthrow of long-serving ruler
Muhammar Gaddafi in a Nato-backed offensive in 2011.
There are currently two rivals governments, dozens of
groups armed with weapons looted from the former

regime's arsenal, and smugglers who roam freely across

porous borders in the desert region.
Moreover, Libya is rich in oil and earlier this month,
gunmen claiming to represent IS raided a French-run oil
facility in al-Mabruk, south of Sirte city, killing at least 11
Libyan oil is a potentially lucrative source of funding for IS,
though it will find it difficult to export it because of the
foreign navies patrolling the Mediterranean coast.
Mr Ahdash says Libya has become a magnet for jihadis
from other parts of Africa - especially those who fled
northern Mali after a French-led military operation
recaptured territory from them in 2013.
"They are under one umbrella, but they are very different
and very divided. It is difficult to work out who is who," he
He says Islamists had a presence in Libya during Col
Gaddafi's rule, but they were heavily suppressed.
So it does not surprise him that they have now gained a
foothold in cities like Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011
revolution that overthrew Col Gaddafi, and Derna, the
coastal town being targeted by Egypt's military and where
the first IS affiliate emerged in October.
But what surprises him, Mr Ahdash says, is that they have
secured a presence in Sirte, the birthplace of Col Gaddafi,
which had been seen as hostile towards Islamists.
He says either foreign jihadists have infiltrated the city or
Gaddafi loyalists, including military officers, have joined
the militants, just as they did in Iraq after Saddam Hussein
was overthrown by US-led forces in 2003.
"I'm worried that could happen in Libya; that there could
be a marriage of interest," says Mr Ahdash, pointing out
that Ahmed Gaddafi al-Dam, an influential cousin of the
former ruler, has publicly hailed IS as "pure".

Nevertheless, he does not believe IS or its affiliates have a

huge presence in Libya.
"Most Libyans are moderate Muslims, and they hate
Daesh," Mr Ahdash told the BBC, referring to the name by
which IS is known in the Arab-speaking world.
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer, is quoted by
Foreign Policy magazine as saying that there are an
estimated 1,000 to 3,000 fighters loyal to IS in Libya,
many of whom acquired combat experience in Iraq and
IS-linked fighters operate in Tripoli, the south-western
region of Fezzan, and the eastern region of Barqa, which
includes Benghazi and Derna.
However, Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War
Journal, says that while IS has grown in Libya, its strength
should not be exaggerated.
"These zones are more aspirational than they are real," Mr
Joscelyn told Foreign Policy.
Even if IS control in Libya is limited to a few small areas, it
still has the potential to make the country's desperate
situation even worse, threatening regional stability.

Why is Libya lawless?

27 January 2015 Last updated at 16:18 GMT
By Farouk Chothia
BBC News
Libya has been hit by instability since the overthrow of
long-serving ruler Col Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.
Numerous militias each govern their own patches of
territory, with successive governments struggling to
exercise control.
Who is in control of Libya?
No-one - that is the problem. There are lots of different
armed groups - up to 1,700 - with many different goals.
But money and power are the common denominators.
During the uprising, anyone with a gun could command
respect and some do not want that to change. Instead,
they seem more determined than ever to gain more
territory and impose their will.
They are also ideologically divided - some of them are
Islamists, others are secessionists and yet others are
liberals. Furthermore, the militias are split along regional,
ethnic and local lines, making it a combustible mix. Some
fear Libya could descend into civil war.
They were united in their hatred for Col Gaddafi - but
nothing more. There was no single group in charge of the
rebellion. Militias were based in different cities, fighting
their own battles.

Several felt they had paid a particularly high price during

the conflict and should be rewarded. And after more than
four decades of authoritarian rule, they had little
understanding of democracy. So, they were unable to
forge compromises and build a new state based on the
rule of law.
As a result, Libya has had at least five governments since
the 2011 revolution. In June 2014, it held its second
democratic election since Col Gaddafi's overthrow, but the
poll worsened stability as the losers refused to accept
Libya now has two rival governments, one based in the
main city, Tripoli, and the other - the winners of the June
election - about 1,000km (620 miles) away in the port city
of Tobruk.
Has Libya received outside help?
Very little. The US had pledged to help the new
government recover weapons - especially anti-aircraft
missiles that had been gone missing when Col Gaddafi's
government crumbled.
But Libya remains what some security analysts describe
as an arms bazaar. It is awash with weapons which have
also ended up in the hands of other armed groups in the
region. Weapons from Col Gaddafi's looted arsenals are
also said to have been smuggled to the Sinai, Gaza and
even Syria and Iraq.
The UN belatedly launched a mediation effort in 2014, but
it has had little success so far - although partial ceasefires
have been announced.
As for regional bodies like the Arab League and African
Union (AU), they have shown minimal interest in the
Libyan conflict.
The Arab League appeared to be more concerned about
the instability in the Middle East and Egypt. As for the the
AU, it has little influence in Libya - it opposed the Nato-

backed offensive to oust Col Gaddafi, and is viewed with

deep suspicion by Libya's authorities.
Yet African countries are most concerned about the
conflict, fearing it could worsen instability in countries
such as Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
Western powers have now started to take a greater
interest in Libya, fearing that the Islamic State (IS),
rivalling al-Qaeda as the world's premiere jihadi
movement since its emergence last year, is gaining a
foothold in the country.
The New York Times has reported that there are IS
affiliates in each of Libya's three provinces and in
December, US Africa Command head David Rodriguez said
the IS had set up training camps in eastern Libya, but he
ruled out military action in the foreseeable future.
From bases in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was
suspected to have launched air strikes against militias in
Tripoli in August in a failed to attempt to help the Tobrukbased government regain control of the city.
Have foreigners been threatened?
Yes. There have been a spate of attacks on diplomats
since 2012. They include the killing of US Ambassador
Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, where the uprising
against Col Gaddafi began, and the kidnapping of the
Jordanian ambassador Fawaz al-Itan, who was released in
exchange for a jihadist jailed in Jordan. There were also
attacks on the Italian consulate in Benghazi, as well as the
French and the Russian embassies in Tripoli.
And British school teacher David Bolam was taken hostage
in Benghazi in May 2014. He was released some five
months later apparently after a ransom was paid. In
January this year, two Tunisian journalists, Sofiene
Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, were killed after being taken
The US appears to be carrying out covert operations in
Libya to neutralise the threat posed by militants. It
responded to Mr Stevens' death by capturing al-Qaeda

suspect Anas al-Libya in Tripoli in October 2013 and in

June 2014, Ahmed Abu Khattala was seized near Benghazi.
Militias have also seized oil terminals, operated by
Western firms. It has led to a huge fall in production, but
has not had a major impact on the global oil market.
Which are the main militias?
Libya Dawn controls much of western Libya, including
Misrata and Tripoli. It is led by fighters from Misrata, the
city which took pride in putting up the most fierce
resistance against Col Gaddafi's forces. Libya Dawn also
includes in its ranks fighters from Zintan, Warshafan and
Its seizure of Tripoli in August 2014 had the backing of
Libya's most senior Islamic cleric, Sheikh Sadik AlGhariani, who broadcasted messages of support from a
location in the UK, urging Libya Dawn to take a "firm hand"
in their newly acquired city, according to the Londonbased Guardian newspaper.
Ansar al-Sharia is in control of the second city Benghazi,
the cradle of the 2011 revolution. It is said to be the most
dangerous Islamist armed group in Libya, along with its
ally, the 17 February Martyrs Brigade.
Ansar al-Sharia was blamed for Mr Stevens' killing, and is
said to have forged links with other Islamists groups. Some
analysts say it includes men who fought in Syria, though
there has been no independent confirmation of this.
The Islamic Youth Shura Council is the most prominent ISaffiliated militia group. It is based in Derna, a small town
on Libya's north-eastern coast and some 720 km (450
miles) from Tripoli. In October, its members - said to be led
by Saudi preacher Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi - declared that
Derna had become the first Libyan town to join the global
caliphate that IS has vowed to create.
General Khalifa Haftar also has a powerful militia, the
Libyan National Army (LNA). He has cast himself as the
main opponent of the Islamist militias and has the backing

of the Tobruk-based government and is said to have coordinated military activities with Egypt.