Mil­i­tants fill void in Libya’s civil war

Ter­ri­tory could be used as launch­pad for at­tacks

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY HAS­SAN MO­RA­JEA AND ERIN CUN­NING­HAM

MISURATA, LIBYA — As the Is­lamic State scores new vic­to­ries in Syria and Iraq, its af­fil­i­ate in Libya is also on the of­fen­sive, con­sol­i­dat­ing con­trol of Moam­mar Gaddafi’s for­mer home town and stag­ing a bomb attack on a ma­jor city, Misurata.

The Is­lamic State’s growth could fur­ther desta­bi­lize a coun­try al­ready suf­fer­ing from a dev­as­tat­ing civil war. And Libya could of­fer the ex­trem­ists a new base from which to launch at­tacks else­where in North Africa.

The Libyan af­fil­i­ate does not oc­cupy large amounts of ter­ri­tory as the Is­lamic State does in Syria and Iraq. But in the past few months, the lo­cal group has seized Sirte, the coastal city that was Gaddafi’s last re­doubt, as well as neigh­bor­hoods in the eastern city of Derna.

A key rea­son for the Libyan af­fil­i­ate’s ex­pan­sion is the chaos that has en­veloped this oil-rich na­tion since the 2011 Arab Spring re­volt. The coun­try has two ri­val gov­ern­ments and is rent by fight­ing be­tween mili­tias that emerged from the anti-Gaddafi strug­gle.

Although the Is­lamic State claims al­lies in many coun­tries, the Libya

branch is es­pe­cially close to the main or­ga­ni­za­tion. Its core fighters in Libya are vet­er­ans of the Syr­ian civil war.

Se­cu­rity ex­perts es­ti­mate there are as many as 3,000 fighters loyal to the Is­lamic State in Libya. The coun­try has be­come one of the pri­mary lo­ca­tions to train with the group out­side of Syria and Iraq. Vol­un­teers from Tu­nisia, Al­ge­ria, Egypt, Saudi Ara­bia and other coun­tries have flocked here to fight with the ex­trem­ists and other ji­hadist or­ga­ni­za­tions. The Is­lamic State also has suc­ceeded in pulling away mem­bers of other Libyan ex­trem­ist groups.

In the lat­est signs of their grow­ing strength, Is­lamic State fighters last month seized the air­port and an ad­ja­cent air base in Sirte, where they have con­trolled most gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions since Fe­bru­ary. The mil­i­tants also took over the nearby head­quar­ters of a mam­moth net­work of pipes that pump fresh wa­ter to Libyan cities.

Then, on May 31, the mil­i­tants dis­patched a Tu­nisian sui­cide bomber to Misurata, 170 miles west of Sirte. He rammed his ve­hi­cle into a ma­jor se­cu­rity check­point, killing five.

Five days later, Is­lamic State fighters cap­tured the town of Harawah, 46 miles east of Sirte.

Misurata’s mili­tias gained a rep­u­ta­tion as some of the coun­try’s tough­est fighters dur­ing the 2011 up­ris­ing. But the pow­er­ful mili­tias have been deeply em­broiled in a fight against forces aligned with Gen. Khal­ifa Hifter, the Libyan army chief who de­clared war on the coun­try’s Is­lamists in 2014.

The Misurata com­man­ders have been cau­tious about tak­ing on the Is­lamic State, even though the mili­tias clashed with ex­trem­ist fighters in Sirte. But the re­cent sui­cide bomb­ing has prompted the com­man­ders to shift their fo­cus.

“They see the threat, and they are re­ally fo­cused on it now,” said Fred­eric Wehrey, a Libya ex­pert at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace.

Misurata’s mili­tia lead­ers held meet­ings in Tripoli, the cap­i­tal, this past week to co­or­di­nate a coun­ter­at­tack, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial from the city’s mil­i­tary coun­cil. Misurata sits along the coast be­tween Tripoli and Sirte.

“The pri­or­i­ties have shifted,” Wehrey said. “Misurata is get­ting hit [by the Is­lamic State], and they are just down the road.”

Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, this city of about 500,000— Libya’s third-largest — has en­joyed rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity. Thanks to ad­vanced in­fra­struc­ture and the city’s port, Misurata has again es­tab­lished it­self as a Mediter­ranean trade hub.

Ad­vanc­ing in Libya

Gaddafi cracked down on do­mes­tic Is­lamist groups dur­ing his four-decade rule. But Is­lamists be­came pow­er­ful af­ter the 2011 re­bel­lion, with some join­ing the gov­ern­ment and oth­ers openly run­ning armed fac­tions.

Still, the Is­lamic State did not ap­pear in Libya un­til mid-2014. A group of Libyan mil­i­tants who had pledged al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State while fight­ing in Syria re­turned home and be­gan to or­ga­nize in the eastern city of Derna, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts and Libyan Is­lamists.

At the time, Libya’s weak gov­ern­ment was frac­tur­ing into two en­ti­ties: an Is­lamist-led ad­min­is­tra­tion in Tripoli, and a Hifter-aligned author­ity in the eastern city of To­bruk.

Later in 2014, the Is­lamic State lead­er­ship sent a del­e­ga­tion from Syria to Libya to for­mally re­ceive pledges of al­le­giance to its self-de­clared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi. The Libyan group set up three caliphate “prov­inces” in the east, in Tripoli and in the south. Each prov­ince has an Is­lamic State gover­nor, but there is no sin­gle spir­i­tual or mil­i­tary leader in­side Libya, ex­perts say.

For the Is­lamic State, Libya is at­trac­tive be­cause of its lo­ca­tion along the Mediter­ranean Sea, mak­ing it a po­ten­tial launch­pad for at­tacks on places such as Egypt and Tu­nisia, an­a­lysts say. The coun­try’s vast desert re­gions and gen­eral law­less­ness also mean the Is­lamic State could op­er­ate quite freely.

In Fe­bru­ary, Is­lamic State fighters drove a con­voy of ve­hi­cles mounted with heavy weapons into Sirte, cap­tur­ing a clus­ter of gov­ern­ment build­ings and a lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion.

Soon the mil­i­tants be­gan en­forc­ing their own brand of strict Is­lamic law. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal news re­ports, mil­i­tants es­tab­lished check­points to in­spect ve­hi­cles and con­fis­cate items such as CDs and cig­a­rettes, which they say are not Is­lamic.

“Th­ese ex­trem­ist forces were not so strong a few months ago,” said Mo­hamed Lagha, a Libyan jour­nal­ist who has re­ported from Sirte. But “they have con­tin­ued to grow” and now con­trol most of the city, he said.

The Libyan Is­lamic State mil­i­tants caused an in­ter­na­tional out­cry in Fe­bru­ary when they re­leased a video show­ing the be­head­ing of 21 Egyptian Chris­tians who had been ab­ducted in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary. In April, the group re­leased a sim­i­lar video in which mil­i­tants be­headed 15 Ethiopian Chris­tians and shot 15 more in Libya.

The Is­lamic State also has claimed ter­ror­ist at­tacks in cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi.

De­spite the ex­trem­ists’ ad­vances, there are sev­eral fac­tors that will prob­a­bly hin­der their growth, Wehrey said. The coun­try’s 6.2 mil­lion peo­ple are mostly Sunni, so there are not the kind of sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions that have al­lowed the Is­lamic State to grow in Syria and Iraq.

Lack­ing in rev­enue

The Libyan af­fil­i­ate also lacks a stream of rev­enue, ham­per­ing its abil­ity to of­fer so­cial ser­vices. In Syria and Iraq, the Is­lamic State has far more in­come be­cause of its con­trol of some of the coun­tries’ oil pro­duc­tion, as well as its abil­ity to im­pose taxes and col­lect ran­soms from kid­nap­pings. Libya’s petroleum re­sources re­main un­der the con­trol of the two gov­ern­ments.

Still, the Misuratan mil­i­tary of­fi­cial said the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Sirte are ca­pa­ble fighters.

“We are not sure how many [fighters] there are, and they are pretty well-armed,” the of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to com­ment to the me­dia. “Of course they are a threat.”

Wehrey said the num­ber of mil­i­tants in Sirte is prob­a­bly in the low- to mid-hun­dreds.

The mil­i­tary of­fi­cial said the Misurata fac­tions plan to move against the Is­lamic State in Sirte be­fore the end of the month, but they might not have enough man­power to attack so soon. The Misuratan brigades, which are made up of as many as 40,000 fighters, are de­ployed across Libya in their fight against Hifter’s forces.

The United Na­tions has for months worked to ham­mer out a peace deal be­tween the two Libyan gov­ern­ments, which have been un­able to co­op­er­ate in con­fronting the mil­i­tants.

“We need the peo­ple up­stairs to get their act to­gether and agree that th­ese ex­trem­ists must be fought,” said Is­mael Shigh­mani, a Misurata po­lice of­fi­cer who was close to the check­point that was at­tacked re­cently. “They are the main threat in Libya now.”

GO­RAN TO­MA­SE­VIC/REUTERS

Libya Dawn fighters mon­i­tor Is­lamic State po­si­tions near Sirte, Libya. Se­cu­rity ex­perts es­ti­mate there are as many as 3,000 fighters loyal to the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group in the war-torn African na­tion.

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