The threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Libya has received much international attention. Media reports suggest that ISIL has a major base in the North African state and that its fighters are poised to infiltrate Europe, smuggling their fighters across the Mediterranean using migrant trafficking networks. Other reports indicate that thousands of young radicals from around the world are flooding into Libya to join ISIL’s ranks.
Not only are these reports misleading, but they also detract from Libya’s deep political crisis. Libya remains entangled in a protracted conflict that no side is strong enough to win. Since the ouster in 2011 of Libya’s longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the country has been at the mercy of various armed groups and brigades. Libyan authorities have failed to bring these groups into line or impose any centralized control.
Two competing political authorities have dominated Libya since August 2014, when a coalition of brigades known as Operation Libya Dawn took over the capital, Tripoli. On one side is the House of Representatives, the officially recognized parliament. Elected in June 2014, it is holed up in the remote eastern town of Tobruk. On the other side is the General National Congress. Although its electoral mandate expired in February 2014, Operation Libya Dawn reinstated the group after its victory. Both sides claim sole legislative authority, boast their own military forces and are competing for control of Libya’s national institutions.
The United Nations has been trying to bring the two groups together to negotiate a new political road map and national unity government. But its efforts have thus far come to naught; neither side is willing to compromise and relinquish power. More important, the real players behind the two forces — Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army behind the House and the various brigades and militias that make up Operation Libya Dawn — still seek a military rather than political solution.
Despite the permissive security environment resulting from this deadlock, ISIL’s Libya branch remains fragmented, weak and caught up in localized power struggles. For example, media reports have portrayed the northeastern coastal town of Derna as an ISIL stronghold. But ISIL is just one among an array of militant groups operating there. In fact, ISIL is considerably weaker than the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, a coalition of rebel groups that came together in 2014 to fight Haftar’s forces. Since June 9, when ISIL fighters killed its deputy, Nasser al-Aker, the Derna Council has launched a series of major attacks against ISIL. The ensuing clashes demonstrated that ISIL controlled only certain pockets and areas of the town, from which it has now been largely pushed out.
ISIL has a more definite hold in the coastal city of Sirte and the nearby towns of Nawfaliya and Harawa. Yet, contrary to claims about the influx of foreign fighters, ISIL fighters in these towns are mostly local men who previously belonged to Libyan Islamist group Ansar Al-Sharia.
“The group whose members are keen on calling themselves ISIL are the same as Ansar Al-Sharia,” Muftah Marzouq of the Sirte Elders’ Council told a local reporter in March. “All of them are from the town. We know them and their families personally.” The militants, who were already providing security in their local areas, adopted the ISIL brand simply as a means of bolstering their power and prestige.
This is not to say ISIL doesn’t pose any threat. ISIL certainly has a presence in Libya. The group has carried out several grisly atrocities, including the February car bombings in the city of Qubbah, which killed at least 45 people, and the beheadings of Egyptian Copts and Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians. It has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide attacks in the port city of Misrata and controls a stretch of land that runs along the coast. This has prompted fears that ISIL may turn its attentions to the oilfields and ports to the east.
Yet such fears are also inflated. For one, it took ISIL three months to seize the small and poorly defended town of Harawa. In addition, the eastern energy facilities are guarded by the Libyan National Army and the Petroleum Facilities Guard, meaning that ISIL would not be able to take them without a serious struggle. More important, ISIL in Libya appears more interested in settling old scores than expanding ISIL’s global brand. After Gaddafi’s fall, Misratan revolutionaries ransacked Sirte, his hometown, because of its associations with the regime. Thus any attempt by Misratan forces to tackle ISIL in Sirte will inevitably take on a regional dimension, pulling in local forces from Sirte who may not share ISIL’s rigid ideology but who would balk at any attempted takeover by militants from Misrata.
Such a battle appears to be in the offing. Misratan brigades, which until recently appeared reluctant to engage ISIL militarily, are said to be preparing their forces for a major offensive against the group in Sirte, where they have already started bombing.
ISIL has yet to fully implant itself in Tripoli, which is already crowded with Islamist brigades and other armed forces. It has also failed to make any real inroads in Benghazi despite the town’s reputation as a key Islamist hub. For all the alarm, ISIL’s Libya branch remains fragmented and incoherent, with limited control that encompasses few southern towns.
Yet the scaremongering that has accompanied ISIL’s emergence in Libya continues to obscure the bigger issue: Libya is a morass of competing groups, brigades and forces of varying ideological persuasions, for whom local interests have subsumed any wider sense of nationhood. Unless these groups come together and reach a genuine political compromise, Libya will remain held hostage, locked in a vicious cycle of violence and destruction for some time to come, enabling ISIL to grow stronger and more entrenched.