A few months ago U.S. officials were arguing reassuringly that the militants of the self-styled Islamic State, formerly ISIS, were focused to the exclusion of all else on the consolidation of their caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq—and therefore posed no immediate major transnational threat beyond the bite of a “lone wolf” sympathizer.
But in the last week, with deadly attacks mounted by groups claiming allegiance to ISIS in North Africa and Pakistan, the rhetoric of ‘what happens in Syria will most likely stay in Syria’ has looked alarmingly misplaced.
ISIS seems determined to go transnational as soon as possible. And last week the group—or at least its affiliates—demonstrated an ability to do so, with an attack in Egypt’s Sinai that saw at least 30 security personnel killed; another on a luxury Tripoli hotel that left 10 dead; and a bombing of a Shiite mosque in Pakistan. Established jihadist groups that ISIS had wooed away from al Qaeda carried out the attacks in Egypt and Pakistan, while the assault in Libya was launched by the so-called Tripoli Province of the newly minted "Mujahideen of Libya,” which announced its formation last October in the eastern Libyan city of Derna and is thought to number about 800 fighters.
Of all the attacks the most alarming in many ways, analysts say, is the one mounted in Libya—if for no other reason than the country’s proximity to Europe and its strategic position in North Africa, bordering Egypt, Tunisia (the one relatively stable post-Arab spring country) and Algeria. Last summer British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that unless Western powers took action to curb jihadists, a terrorist state could well emerge on the southern shores of the Mediterranean—a short boat ride from Europe.
Bringing that prospect a little closer was the assault by gunmen in downtown Tripoli on the Corinthia hotel, popular with UN and EU officials and foreign diplomats. Five foreigners were among the dead, including an American security contactor.
Speaking over the weekend, days after the Corinthia hotel attack, President Obama said he was determined to avoid “playing whack-a-mole wherever a terrorist group appears,” but the fear is growing that ISIS will take as much advantage of that strategy as it and other jihadists have of the political chaos engulfing Libya, a country now riven by militias in ever shifting alliances battling on behalf of two competing governments and two rival parliaments.
So far, the Islamic affiliate controls little Libyan territory but it is seeding cells along Libya’s coastal strip. The Corinthia attack was well-planned and it came after three busy months for the new group, which in January abducted 21 Coptic Egyptians in the coastal city of Sirte and has beheaded citizen journalists near the eastern Libyan city of Derna. Those attacks were seen initially by the West as yet more tawdry episodes in the bewildering post-Gaddafi anarchy engulfing the North African state, which at one time had inspired Arab Spring hopes of a successful transition to democracy and the rule of law.
Since the dashing of those aspirations, starting with the 2012 razing of the U.S. mission in Benghazi and the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens, Western powers have all but washed their hands of Libya, save for bouts of frustrated hand-wringing and warnings from some French and Italian defense officials of the perils of leaving Libya to stew and allowing safe havens in the country to spring up for jihadists—whether ISIS-affiliated or aligned with rival al Qaeda.
A few days before the Corinthia attack, French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has constantly urged Western powers to focus on Libya, warned: “Libya is chaos today and it is a breeding ground for terrorists…We think that the moment has come to ensure that the international community tackles the Libyan problem.”
That problem is only likely to worsen.
In the past two years, the jihadist infiltration of Libya has grown pell-mell—fed by both domestic and external sources. Exploiting the drift into regional and warlord-based civil conflict that is tearing the country apart, jihadists have used the ungovernable space of Libya for training and recruitment, the trafficking of weapons and arms for use elsewhere in the region and even more ominously for affiliate shaping.
Last year, U.S. and Libyan security officials warned that three regional al Qaeda affiliates—al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Mulathameen Brigade, a group loyal to Algerian militant, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January 2013 attack on an Algerian natural gas plant that left more than 30 hostages dead —had all established training camps in Libya. They warned also the groups were forming links with homegrown jihadists such as Ansar al-Sharia, which was involved in the razing of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. The big influx in terms of numbers started following the France’s intervention in Mali, with jihadists fleeing into Libya to escape the French offensive.
Other jihadist recruits from Tunisia and sub-Sahara Africa used Libya as a training stopover on their way to fight in Syria.
An attack like that on the Corinthia was only a matter of time—in much the same way as in 2012, in the run-up to the assault on the U.S. mission, it was clear that something more ominous was in the offing. Without any central authority in Libya to combat the jihadists, they have had little to fear—an attraction for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, too.
The importance he places on Libya was signaled last autumn when he dispatched his deputy in Syria, Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former major General in the Iraqi army, to orchestrate the final ISIS takeover of Derna, a city of 100,000 that has been a hotbed of Salafism since the 1990s.
Derna became internationally notorious when U.S. troops discovered al Qaeda documents in northern Iraq in 2007 suggesting that the town had provided more foreign fighters for the insurgency against them than any other town outside Iraq.
Since the jihadist influx from Mali started, Libyan security officials questioned whether al Qaeda would decide to play a bigger role in Libya—or just use the country as a safe haven for training and recruitment for the launching of terrorist attacks outside the country. Salafist sources in eastern Libya told The Daily Beast back in 2013, after the Benghazi assault, that hardline Libyan Islamist groups had requested al Qaeda refrain from mounting operations inside Libya and had been warned to avoid the spilling of Libyan blood.
Al Qaeda affiliates observed the request, with the exception of a bomb attack mounted on the French embassy in April 2013—retaliation for the French intervention in Mali.
But ISIS hasn’t been restrained and has followed exactly the same playbook it has used in Syria to assert itself. Last summer Libyan jihadists who had fought in Syria in ISIS’s al Battar Brigade started returning to Derna, acting as enforcers for a pro-ISIS Shura Council in the town.
As in Syria, so in Libya: assassinations of rivals started with the returning fighters targeting members of local militant groups before declaring an emirate in the town under the control of the "Mujahideen of Libya,” claiming the group was sub-divided into three provincial branches: Barqa, Tripoli, and Fezzan.
Noticeably, though, ISIS’s Libya branch has not clashed with any al Qaeda groups that have set up training camps in the country, say Libyan security sources loyal to the Western-favored Tobruk government, which is being battled by mainly Islamist militias. They believe ISIS has formed ties with Islamist militias—in much the same way it did in northern Syria at first—and was behind a suicide bombing last year in Tobruk that left one dead killed and 14 wounded.
Ominously, in recent weeks al-Baghdadi has spoken increasingly in messages released on social media about the Maghreb. On January 20 he called on "brothers everywhere, be they in Libya, Mali, or Algeria, to pledge allegiance to the state of the caliphate.”