The Islamic State terrorist group is expanding its operations in Libya with high-profile attacks following the recent beheadings of 21 Christians, according to a State Department security report.
In Libya, Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL, formed out of existing al Qaeda-affiliated and Islamist extremist groups in early 2015. It is said to number between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters and has been exploiting the conflict between two Libyan groups fighting for control of the oil-rich North African state, Libya Dawn and Operation Dignity.
The Islamist and pro-al Qaeda Libya Dawn and the anti-Islamist Operation Dignity, headed by Lt Gen. Khalifa Haftar, have created rival parliaments and military forces and are said to receive foreign government support.
“Without an agreement between Operation Dignity and Libya Dawn and coordinated anti-ISIL efforts, we may see the group make more significant gains and attempts to control more territory in Libya,” the report said.
There is growing international concern in the region and among European states across the Mediterranean Sea over Libya’s decline into a failed state that is allowing groups like IS to expand their operations.
The European Union is considering greater involvement in stabilizing Libya but will only take steps in that direction if a unity government is achieved.
Three terrorist groups in Libya have pledged loyalty to Islamic State and are now operating inside the country. They are Islamic State Barqa Province, in the eastern region of Cyrenaica; Islamic State Fezzan Province, in the southwest; and Islamic State Tripoli, in the western region.
“An expanding security vacuum has given ISIL an opening to establish a legitimate foothold,” the report says. “ISIL is capitalizing on the conflict to conduct sophisticated attacks, but so far has made only limited territorial gains, and is already facing backlash from Libya Dawn,” one of two groups vying for power.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist, said Islamic State’s growth in Libya is the greatest untold story outside of jihadist inroads in Egypt’s Sinai.
Islamic State in Libya is “following the same scenario that led to such success before,” said Gorka, the Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University.
The terrorists are exploiting the vacuum created by the lack of U.S. leadership and are leveraging the civil war in Libya to recruit fighters and provide its forces with real, in-theater experience and training, he said.
“The U.S. has again fallen into the trap of obsessing on the ‘shiniest’ and closest object of attention,” Gorka said. “For more than a decade all we cared about was al Qaeda, only to be surprised by the Islamic State. Now all we can focus on is ISIS, whilst the jihadist threat expands and grows stronger in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, and elsewhere.”
The State Department report warned that increased violence in Libya had reached critical level in the past year. “But rise of ISIL in Libya marks a direct shift in which foreign nationals and western private-sector interests are being targeted specifically for ideological purposes.”
“The emergence of ISIL compounds an already severe threat environment,” the report said, noting that many U.S. businesses have evacuated or scaled back operations.
The report also warned that Libya’s government appears incapable of protecting many of Libya’s oil fields, some of which were attacked earlier this month by Islamic State militants.
The Libyan National Oil Company on March 4 declared a force majeure for 11 of its oil fields in central Libya as a result of Islamic State targeting of oil facilities. The declaration was designed to provide legal protections from claims against future disruptions. It followed a Libyan government announcement that it cannot protect the oil fields.
Reports from the region have provided limited information on how much territory the group controls.
IS Tripoli has carried out several attacks in the capital and is said to control the town of Nawfaliya in the central part of the country.
Islamic State groups also have been reported operating in Sirte, where they took over several buildings. Several television and radio stations the group has taken over have broadcast propaganda messages from Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani.
Last week, Libya Dawn militiamen fought Islamic State terrorists in Sirte in a bid to drive them from the city. The Libya Herald reported that a senior Tunisian Islamic State leader was killed in the fighting.
In Barqa province, Islamic State claimed to control the city of Derna, an Islamist extremist stronghold, but reports of its control were disputed by other terrorists.
In Derna, a group called the Islamic Youth Shura Council said it was pledging loyalty to Islamic State.
“ISIL Barqa Province continues to operate in the city, reportedly controlling a handful of neighborhoods and maintaining training camps just outside the city,” the report said, adding that about 800 ISIL fighters are in Derna.
Additionally, some Libyan fighters who went to Syria and Iraq to fight with IS appear to be returning to Libya, including some 300 fighters from the Islamic State’s Al Battar Brigade who have moved to the so-called Barqa province.
Islamic State’s Libya group gained international attention by releasing a shocking video Feb. 15 showing the execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach. The mass murders were used by the group to announce its presence in Libya.
The day after the video surfaced, Egyptian military forces conducted bombing raids against Derna, targeting weapons storage and training sites and killing approximately 40 militants.
The report, produced by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said Islamic State’s success in Libya will depend on its ability to navigate local tensions.
“ISIL’s advance in Libya may be more similar to Syria, where the group can take advantage of a larger conflict to grow,” the March 18 report states.
“Similar to Syria, the Libya conflict is home to a number of local and regional groups with complex alliances, and ISIL may purposefully confront groups that will provide it strategic gains and permit its growth.”
Islamic State in Libya is targeting foreign facilities and critical infrastructure in a bid to prevent opposing forces from gaining control.
“Recent incidents have involved attacks on high-profile establishments utilized by foreign nationals and businesses, repeated targeting of energy infrastructure, and kidnapping of foreign nationals,” the report said.
Recent attacks included a Jan. 27 car bombing of a parking garage in Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel and the subsequent storming of the hotel, where foreign and Libyan hostages were taken.
Following a standoff, the gunmen killed themselves with a grenade, killing five foreign nationals and five Libyans. The attack was carried out by IS Tripoli, which claimed it was retaliation for the U.S. capture of Abu Anas al-Libya, who recently died in U.S. custody.
Other attacks took place Feb. 3, Feb. 13, and Feb. 20.
The Feb. 3 operation was carried out against the Mabruk oil field, near Sirte, and killed nine guards. During the attack, the terrorists destroyed oil tanks and a control room. The strike is expected to disrupt production for a year.
The video of the massacre of Christians was released Feb. 15, and on Feb. 20, two suicide bombing attacks killed 40 people killed in Qubba near Derna. The bombings, for which IS Barqa claimed responsibility, were carried out by a Libyan and a Saudi.
On March 3, Islamic State terrorists attacked the Dahra oil field about 310 miles southeast of Tripoli and temporarily took control.
Three days later Islamic State terrorists struck the al-Ghani oil field, about 440 miles southeast of Tripoli. During the attack, militants beheaded eight guards and kidnapped nine foreign oil workers, who remain missing. The hostages include four Filipinos, an Austrian, two Bangladeshis, a Czech, and a Ghanaian.
The attackers also blew up the facilities’ largest oil storage tank.
Two other Islamic State attacks near Tripoli were carried out on March 12 and March 15.
The report stated that the March 15 bombing in Janzour coincided with a car bombing in Misrata the same day. Both locations are controlled by Libya Dawn and “may signal a growing confrontation between Libya Dawn and ISIL.”
The nature of the connection between the Islamic State groups in Libya and the mainline Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is not completely clear.
“While ISIL in Iraq and Syria has a clear hierarchy and structure, it is also believed to allow its regional and local leadership to operate with a high level of autonomy,” the report said.
“Unlike ISIL in Iraq and Syria, ISIL Libya Provinces does not control critical infrastructure or territory, and has not yet become a significant fighting force in the pre-existing domestic conflict.”
The report concludes that: “ISIL’s emergence in Libya is unsurprising given the country’s prolonged descent into chaos following the 2011 civil war.”
Libya’s decline into a failed state is one of the major consequences of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which worked with the NATO alliance to provide military support to Libyan rebels who ousted the government of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Subsequent governing arrangements have been unable to maintain stability.