The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) remains a “persistent threat” in Libya and could rise again unless the country’s long-running conflict is brought to an end, a new study has warned.
The study, conducted by the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College, says ISIL is “regrouping, quietly expanding capacity … until [it] might once again be strong enough to be a challenger in Libya”.
It said the armed group retained its capacity to launch “small-scale” attacks in Libya, which was a deviation from its earlier strategy of high-profile “shock and awe” raids.
“They engage in small-scale attacks and skirmishes necessary to establish themselves in the criminal smuggling network that link sub-Saharan Africa to the Libyan coast in the north,” according to the study conducted by Azeem Ibrahim.
Oil-rich Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 overthrew longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed.
The country has since split between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west and renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east.
Each faction is backed by militias and foreign governments. While the GNA is supported by Turkey, the LNA is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
In April last year, Haftar launched an offensive to seize the Libyan capital, Tripoli, from the GNA. But the 14-month campaign collapsed in June this year when the GNA gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of Tripoli and other western towns.
After a months-long campaign by GNA forces, ISIL was expelled in May 2016 from the coastal city of Sirte, the biggest territory controlled by the armed group outside its then heartland in Syria and Iraq.
According to the study, after ISIL’s removal from Sirte, most of its activity moved to Fezzan in the southern Libyan desert, “where the group has increasingly embedded themselves in the local human and illicit goods trafficking, particularly along the refugee migration routes through Libya”.
“ISIS [ISIL] in Libya is overwhelmingly composed of non-Libyan foreign fighters, further diminishing their capacity to embed themselves in the local political landscape,” it said.
However, Ibrahim warned the situation could change if the Libyan civil war is prolonged, and called on the international community to ensure stability in the country.
“[The] longer the instability persists, the longer we go without a central government that does not need to fight everyone else and can keep a closer eye on what ISIS and other groups like it are doing in the hinterlands, the higher the chance that ISIS [or someone similar] will stage a large-scale resurgence.”