IS in Libya bids to emulate Iraq, Syria success
MISRATA, Libya: The attack bore all the traits of Islamic State in Iraq. A small unit of militants, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and suicide belts, hit the Tripoli prison just before sunrise. Blasting through a wall, four fighters worked their way through the heavily guarded compound before firing a rocket-propelled grenade to breach the cells inside. Their target, security sources say, was a jailed Libyan Islamic State militant. Clashes erupted. Two of the attackers, a Moroccan and a Sudanese, detonated suicide belts and shortly afterwards all four, and the militant, were dead.
The prison break failed. But it was another illustration of the tactics employed by an Islamic State front determined to emulate the success of the group’s founders in Iraq and Syria. “When we see them fighting, they are well trained. There were only four, but they destabilised the whole base,” said Muaad Khalil, a spokesman for forces at the Maitiga base. “Who would have thought to attack this base, but they did.”
Four years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is locked in a conflict between two rival governments - an official one in the east, and a selfdeclared one controlling Tripoli - and the many armed factions that back them. Far from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has steadily grown in Libya’s chaos, controlling the city of Sirte, and worrying Western governments who fear it can only become stronger in the postrevolution mess.
They have left their mark on the North African state. They have massacred Christian Egyptians on a Libyan beach, publicly flogged criminals in Sirte, stormed oilfields, and attacked a five-star Tripoli hotel. But while Libya’s turmoil and history of jihadism offered fertile ground, Islamic State has run up against the heavily armed factions and rival Islamists already in place. Even as they lay claim to Sirte, Libya’s Islamic State followers have been ousted from Derna city by local fighters, and have shown they cannot hold ground or muster the finances and oil resources they benefit from in Iraq. “They clearly want to expand from Sirte,” one Western diplomat said. “They continue to maintain the ability to carry out oneoffs outside their main area, but they are still small.”
Jihadist History Libya has a long history of jihadism. Men from the Libya Islamic Fighting Group fought in Afghanistan. Later, Libyan al Qaeda militants were accused in the US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. After the fall of Gaddafi, and with the steady fracturing of Libya between rival brigades of former rebels, the Islamist militants among them found room to grow. One group, Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, was blamed for the 2012 attack that killed the US ambassador there.
As in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State draws recruits from local groups, security sources and local residents say. But Derna also showed their limits. Even after Islamic State leaders arrived to recruit in July, fighting erupted as Derna Islamists and citizens fed up with foreign jihadists drove Islamic State out. But in Sirte, security sources and residents say, they found a more suitable base by tapping into frustrations in Gaddafi’s home town, where many felt sidelined after the revolution. “Daesh saw Sirte as the perfect place. Some Gaddafi followers are now Daesh members,” said local military commander Ismail Al-Mjaree, using an Arabic name for the group. “In Derna, they didn’t have that environment.”
Targeted assassinations of rivals and security officials began last year, and Islamic State forces moved in force on Sirte in February and March, taking a radio station and other important buildings. Forces from Misrata - a port city that is home to one of the country’s more powerful military factions - arrived to take back Sirte. But fearing large-scale casualties and blaming a lack of support from Tripoli, they retreated, although hostilities may be resumed at some point. — Reuters