While the world stood horrified at ISIL gruesome video dated 3rd February 2015 showing the killing of Jordanian pilot Muaz Al Kassassbeh being burnt alive, reactions ensued with Jordanian forces carrying out air strikes on ISIL positions in Mosul, Iraq the following day. A worldwide outrage and anger provoked at atrocities committed by IS militants in the Middle East. The Islamic State succeeded in galvanizing audiences in the Arab world to reject its brutality as “unislamic”, with Egypt’s Al Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim religious authority issuing a fatwa prohibiting the showing of the terrorist group’s videos.
But IS did not only rally the world against it, it also managed to divert the attention- albeit temporarily, quite tactical maybe- from an almost forgotten conflict in North Africa because the world was busy recovering from the extent of IS’s theatricality of macabre execution styles. Until 15th February, the group resurfaced with its release of another disturbing video purporting it was shot in the coastal town of Sirte, 450 km east of the capital Tripoli, showing 21 Coptic Egyptians in orange overalls and being led along the beach by men clad in black. They were decapitated and their blood flowing in the Mediterranean Sea added to the world’s horror at the continuous terrorist group display of savagery. In act of defiance, one of the perpetrators of the execution of the 21 Coptic Egyptian workers (who were abducted in December 2014 in Gadadfi’s hometown) vowed to “conquer Rome” and defeat the “Crusaders”, while pointing the knife towards the turned-red sea in the direction of Europe. Europe that has been mobilized for a possible IS’ attack since 2014, when the group conquered swaths of lands in Syria and Iraq and has been threatening to conquer more lands in the region.
Prior to the video, IS has carried out a successful operation in the heart of the Libyan capital Tripoli, when two suicide bombers, one Tunisian and the other Sudanese , braved security of the luxurious hotel Corinthia. The hotel is where former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan used to stay (and was abducted by local militias in October 2013). It is also where a few Western embassies and companies have based themselves. The attack killed nine people, all foreigners and was claimed by the Islamic State of Tripoli, an IS-linked group.
It remains a mystery who the members of IS in Libya are in the current chaotic atmosphere where radical groups such as Ansar Sharia and other Al Qaeda-linked groups are also thought to have either defected with IS in order to
Now Libya has become the next target for IS’ expansionist projects, putting the North African strife-torn country in the headlines again since summer 2014 conflict. A conflict that pitted General Khalifa Hiftar and his Dignity Operation to the Tripoli-based Libya Dawn operation, supported by a coalition of Islamist-affiliated groups and the General National Congress which has been voted out in the June elections by the current House of Representatives and its Tobruk-based parliament.
Out of touch, out of coverage: what’s the frequency in Libya?
“Finally Libya is making the headlines,” exclaimed some Libyans on social network earlier this month. The world is finally going to care about Libya, its lingering conflict, but most importantly the international community will start acting about Libya, instead of just condemning, complained others. Libya again made headlines for the same (wrong or right) reasons: Islamic State.
The beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic workers 15 February 2015 brought Libya back into the headlines and the world attention, that has been diverted since summer 2014- when the country started to disintegrate into two rival governments, parliaments, torn apart by rival militias all vying for control of this oil-rich North African nation- by events in Syria, Egypt and more recently Yemen and the Huthis’ renewed rebellion that ousted president Abed Rabbo Yasser Mansoor on January 2015.
But amid the attrition war that claimed the lives of about 2,500 Libyans for the years 2014 alone and thousands more since the ousting of Gadadfi in October 2011, saw two of its main airports, Benghazi and Tripoli, literally destroyed after heavy fighting between pro-General Hiftar forces with his Dignity Operation, allied to the House of Representatives elected in June 2014, based in eastern Libyan town of Tobruk and the Islamist loosely allied factions to the General National Congress of Libya Dawn, elected in June 2012 and is based in the capital Tripoli.
Mapping IS growth in Libya
But why has the world abandoned Libya, some commentators wondered?
Simon Speakman-Cordall, a British freelance journalist based in Tunis and currently writing a book about jihad and democratization in Tunisia, told me that in December of last year that he has been telling his fellow media people in the North America that it was worthwhile focusing on the Libyan turmoil and the unfolding events of Dignity and Libya Dawn operations that led to a dead end in the resolution of the conflict and the rise of IS, which he credits its first inception in 2012 after the assassination of US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. They gave him a cold shoulder about it.
Speakman-Cordall who attempted a few times to go to Libya to research IS but each time his visa was declined by the Libyan embassy in Tunis, he resigned himself to do his work from Tunisia. The town of Derna is the focal point of his upcoming book, where he is tracking the journey of Tunisian jihadists (radical Islamist fighters).
Indeed, the eastern Libyan town has become notorious for being the North African hub for Al Qaeda fighters since the fall of the Gadadfi regime and having become historically the safe haven for Libyan returnees Afghan war against the Soviet, Iraq war against the Americans and more recently the Syrian war against Bashar Al Assad regime in 2012. Joined by foreign fighters particularly Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Palestinians to name but a few of the other nationalities, the town made bayaa (paid allegiance) to the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi earlier this year.
The BBC has published a map of Libya describing the different locations and spots of different actors on the ground from IS to Ansar Sharia and other loosely-affiliated Islamist groups, with the most extremist with radical, “jihadist” outlook to the least extremist outfits made up of former Libyan rebels who fought the war against Gaddafi and those with tribal allegiances, the most important of which is Libya Dawn.
According to Nomane Ben Otman a counter-terrorism expert with the Quilliam Foundation, the first world-renowned center that researches extremism and radical Islam based in London, IS represents a serious threat to Libya and it is trying to establish an emirate in eastern Libya, he told CNN in November 2014.
This goes counter to a narrative in Libya that IS is a phenomenon that is being much exaggerated that it almost gives credit to it. Some doubted the veracity of the Sirte video, claiming that the town is IS-free, in contrast to the show of force by IS in the streets when their militants paraded last week in defiance, managed to occupy the local radio, took the university and placed snipers on the rooftops, reported a local form Sirte on his Twitter on 19 February 2015.
However, Libya Dawn claimed on a visit to Sirte last week that they found out Gaddafi loyalists among IS, which could give credit to the neighboring city of Misrata, 200 miles east of Tripoli that its militias that are instrumental in the Libya Dawn coalition that they are fighting Gaddafi loyalists and protecting the Libyan revolution from counter-revolutionary movements. Is IS part of this movement that could threaten the very existence of Libya’s third largest city? A plausible answer may lie in the recent Derna-based IS brigade, Al Battar’s warning to Misrata about interfering in its operations and that “his head would end up on the entrance of the city,” Al Battar Media Foundation, IS brigade media office stated a few days ago. Misratan militias that have been struggling to wrest control over Sirte since 2011 competing for control with Ansar Sharia and other radical Islamist groups more or less linked to Al Qaeda.
This power struggle as evidenced in the rivalry between different militias across Libya is symptomatic of the continuous fragmentation of the Libyan state. The country has become a failed state since the summer 2014 where factionalism as well as political and social void exacerbated the already deteriorating security, political and economic situation of the country. The entry of IS in this anarchic setting is a red indicator that unless national dialogue between warring factions of Libya Dawn-backed GNC and Operation-Dignity backed House of Representatives in UN-brokered peace and reconciliation talks in Geneva and Ghadames since January of this year, the conflict may linger and even deteriorate if some of those factions shift allegiances and decide to join IS as part of the power struggle logic.
Response to IS execution in Libya and aftermath of operations
When General Abdul Fattah Al-Sissi responded to the execution of the 21 Egyptian Copts by carrying out strikes in Derna in reprisal, jet fighters bombed IS training facilities and ammunition stores, a statement broadcast on Egyptian TV on 16 February 2015. The strikes caused the death of scores of civilians, including women and children.
The Derna attack outraged many Libyans, especially anti-Hiftar and the GNC as well as Derna Shura Council condemned the airstrikes and promised a harsh response against Egypt.
On 20 February 2015, a car bomb killed around 40 people, all civilians in the town of Guba, between Beida and Derna. IS claimed responsibility for the attack in reprisal to the Derna attack and that suicide bombers were involved in the attack. The GNC and House of Representatives firmly condemned the Guba massacre, along with the UN and the international community. It prompted some dialogue delegates in the UN-brokered dialogue process boycotted the round of talks which was due to start on 22 February in Morocco, but have been suspended in protest at the massacre. Seething anger in Libya grew and many Libyans especially in the east accused the UN, the UK and the US of favoring Libya Dawn and the Muslim Brotherhood, accusations that have been refuted by the US and the UK. Frustration with UN security council’s refusal to lift embargo on weapons to Libya after a plea presented by House of Representatives, along with Egypt pulling back its demand for an international intervention in Libya on 18 February isolated Libya and pushed back to UNSMIL plan for a united national government in Libya and which is supported by Tunisia, Algeria and Italy.
The US , France and the UK followed suit urging for the unity government and hoping for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, hoping that the “urgency of IS will bring factions together”.
The situation in the south of Libya is as dire as in the north of the country where locals have been struggling with different militia groups vying for control of illegal activities such as weapon smuggling and human trafficking since the war in Mali in 2012 and the return of Tuareg Islamist militants to Libya. The situation that has been made worse with neighboring Chad and Niger mobilizing forces to fight Boko Haram, while warning about the spillover of Jihadi groups in Libya’s into their territories. In December 2014, during a forum on security in the Sahel region in Senegalese capital Dakar, Chadian president Idris Déby-Itno warned about the Libyan quagmire by calling NATO to finish the job of securing Libya from terrorist organizations that are linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and the Sahel region.
Meanwhile, the security situation in Libyan remains fragile in particular for Egyptians, who were urged by Libya Dawn to leave the country following Egyptian strikes on Derna last week. Thousands have already crossed the Tunisian and Egyptian border crossing with Libya. In addition to the difficult economic situation, people continue to suffer sever power and water cuts, as well as delay in payment for government employees of their salaries. With oil production dipping to a severe low level with 200,000 barrels a day in late 2014, the country, whose economy depends at 95% on oil production may be facing bankruptcy unless it managed to end the political turmoil and restore security in the country to ensure stability and return of investors and international companies to get the country back on track.