Extremists Compete for Control in Libya

CEP Research Analyst


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The February beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS-alligned extremists in Libya grabbed international headlines, as did the reality that ISIS’s influence had spread far beyond Syria and Iraq.

Since the beginning of 2015, forces loyal to ISIS have attacked a Tripoli hotel, killing nine people, including an American contractor.  In February, gunmen attacked a French-Libyan oil field, killing nine guards. While seemingly growing bolder, the presence of Islamic extremists in Libya is hardly new. Islamist activity has been steadily growing there in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 ouster.

In the spring of 2014, approximately 300 Libyan militants fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq returned to Darna, a port city in Eastern Libya. There, they united many of the city’s extremist Islamist factions and founded the Islamic Youth Shura Council. The council pledged allegiance to ISIS on June 22, 2014, renaming Darna as Wilayah Barqa (province of eastern Libya), to rebrand the city as a province of the larger ‘caliphate.’ In November 2014, ISIS ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially announced the expansion of ISIS into Libya, as well as other African and Middle Eastern nations. Libyan ISIS militant Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi was appointed Darna’s ‘emir.’

Returning Libyan fighters recognized the strategic importance of capturing Libya for ISIS. According to an ISIS document recovered in February 2015, ISIS sees Libya as a “strategic gateway for the Islamic State” and once conquered, plans to use Libya as a base for launching attacks on “Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia,” as well as “the southern Crusader states, which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat.”

Further complicating the situation on the ground, part of Libya’s powerful Islamist movement Ansar al-Sharia Libya (ASL) has pledged allegiance to ISIS, while another part of ASL rejected ISIS, as did the al-Qaeda affiliated Martyrs of Abu Salem Brigade. Clashes among the rivals are ongoing. Amidst this discord, ISIS has tightened its grip on Libya’s northeast, securing a presence in the cities of Sirte, Nofilia, and Benghazi, in addition to Darna. Its ambitions in the region are aided by the fact that Libyans represent the second largest number of foreign fighters in ISIS’s core ranks after Saudi Arabia.

Some of the Islamists’ power is the natural outgrowth of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, under which Islamists were heavily suppressed. After his ouster, Islamist factions proliferated in the power vacuum.  Without any central authority as a counterweight, and with economic conditions weakened, extremist ideology spread quickly. Islamists have been further aided by the vast weaponry left over from Gaddafi’s many years in power. Several years after Gaddafi, Libya’s political landscape remains fragmented, as symbolized by two warring governments: an internationally recognized government based in the eastern city of Tobruk and an Islamist government based in Tripoli.

Currently, rival factions in Libya fall into three main power blocks:

  • Libya Dawn: Controls northwest Libya, including the capital, Tripoli. Composed of Islamist and non-Islamist militias allied with the illegitimate Tripoli government.
  • Operation Dignity: Controls most of eastern Libya, capital of Tobruk. Composed of the internationally backed government and an army  led by General Khalifa Haftar.
  • Islamist jihadist groups: Includes ISIS, part of Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda, and other factions.

The video of the beheading of the Egyptian Coptic Christians was one of ISIS’s strategies to strengthen the legitimacy of its Darna ‘province.’ According to ISIS expert Cole Bunzel, "A bloody, provocative video in Libya shows the world that it's serious about its gambit here. [ISIS] wants these 'provinces' to be seen as full-fledged members of the 'caliphate' with its base in Iraq and Syria."

The world can hope that the brutality seen in the execution of Coptic Christians is never repeated.  However, until there is a legitimate government in Libya that has the power to restore order and stability, the fierce competition among armed groups makes it almost inevitable.