Extremist groups in Libya feed off the small battles over territory that take place every now and then between local forces and tribes. Western countries seem more interested in the issue of illegal immigration, and protecting their own economic interests in Libya than anything else, although they supported the war on Isis in Sirte in 2016. Today Isis seems to be growing back in the vast Libyan desert.
Ordinary people are the ones paying the price for the conflicts between competing factions, as dozens of people were killed and injured just in the past few weeks.
The main forces in Libya are led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar in the east, and the armed forces loyal to the internationally recognised presidential council led by Fayez Al Serraj in the west, and the heavily armed forces of Misrata in the central-north.
In the east, Field Marshall Haftar had succeeded in eliminating the extremist threat. But the situation in Misrata, in Tripoli, and in the south remains of great concern, especially with extremists fleeing from Syria, Iraq, and the African Sahel countries to the Libyan desert, which is rich in gold, oil and fresh water.
Wolfgang Pusztai, a European security and political analyst, says Libya has become more attractive to jihadists, especially to foreign fighters fleeing Syria, Iraq and African countries.
Sherif Elhelwa, an American political and economic analyst, describes the movement of Isis fighters in and through Libya as “normal”, because it is a point of transition for them. He added, “Libya is 2 million square kilometres, with open borders.”
Isis changed strategy in Libya
It seems that Isis changed its operational strategy in Libya after the defeat in Sirte and a series of defeats in Iraq and Syria. It instructed its members to assemble in smaller groups in the vast southern desert, which is where Al-Qaeda is based. This indicates an unannounced cooperation between the two organisations.
One of the people most wanted by the West, the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is active in southern Libya. He has supervised assassinations and the kidnapping of westerners in west Algeria, Mali and Mauritania in the past few years. Western air forces have attempted to hunt him down at meetings in the Libyan desert, but he always got away at the last moment.
Belmokhtar is still loyal to Ayman Al Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda. He gave some of his supporters freedom to cooperate and coordinate with the leadership of Isis in Libya and across the borders, while he has personally remained well out of the spotlight in recent months.
Extremist groups occasionally execute operations in areas of weakened security, like the explosion that took place at the election commission in early May in Tripoli, or the attacks on security bases controlled by Marshall Haftar’s army in the east two weeks ago in Sirte.
Instances in which extremists manipulated the divide in Libya
One of the most obvious examples of the threat posed by the political and military divisions in Libya is in the area that lies between Tripoli and the Tunisian border; there are two military leaders, Ausama Aljoweili, loyal to Al Serraj, and Idrees Madi who follows Haftar. The two are originally from the Zintan area that lies to the south west of Tripoli.
Abdullah Naker, the leader of the Libyan summit party, also originally from Zintan, says the appointment of the two leaders created confusion in Zintan, as residents question who they should follow.
Isis took advantage of the conflicts in Zintan to execute an operation that led to the death of a group from the Bani Walid area who intended to mediate a tribal dispute in the area.
The same appears to be the case in the south. The leader of the Oulad Suleiman tribe who are fighting the Toubou tribe for influence in the province of Fezzan, said that extremists including Isis had taken advantage of the war between the two tribes, and crossed over the border into Sabha, the historical capital of the province.
An official source in the military intelligence services revealed that members of Isis and Al-Qaeda are becoming active in the areas between the forces of General Haftar and the Misrata forces which defeated Isis in Sirte a year ago. The area of Isis and Al Qaeda activity extends to several thousand square kilometres. It goes from Sirte down to the southern border with Sudan, Chad and Niger.
The extremists’ convoys appeared in remote areas that separate the disputed tribes and cities, such as the Oulad Sulieman and Toubou in the south, Misrata and Bani Walid in the middle, Zintan and Mashasia south west of Tripoli, the Amazigh and Arabs west of the capital, and Toubou and Zuwayya on the eastern Libyan borders.
Growing Isis threat in the South, with little international attention
Barak Barfi, a researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington, says Isis took advantage of the instability in Libya, but concentrates its activity in the south of the country so its impact appears limited.
Elhelwa does not think the movements of Isis fighters in Libya are of great concern at the moment, but the political divide in Libya could lead to the strengthening of Isis in the region in the future.
A source in Libyan security stated that Isis aims to establish a centre for operations in the south of the country as a base to target other areas. In recent weeks there have been attacks in the heart of both Tripoli and Benghazi.
This source, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not permitted to speak to the media, said Isis and a number of groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda had found safe havens in many areas, including places close to cities, and in other remote spots in the desert. Amongst the places closest to the cities are Al Khums, east of Tripoli, Sibrata, west of the capital, and Derna, east of Benghazi.
In the desert, these groups were monitored in Kufra, Ubari, Haruj, Black Mountains, Qatrun, Umm al-Granayk, Qarara Khalaf Allah, and the gold mine close to the border with Chad.
The source said that the extremists in these areas are well trained and have good command of firearms, in addition to having established communications through satellite lines.
He says extremists receive supplies, including fuel for cars and power generators, in trucks from inside Libya and nearby countries with weak border controls. He stresses that to counter this threat, regional and international cooperation is required as it targets everyone and not just Libyans.
“The priority for the Europeans is illegal immigrants from Africa who pass through Libya to the other side of the Mediterranean. We see the threat of Isis in Libya as much bigger than illegal immigrants on boats to Europe,” he added.
Barak Barfi says the US has not been interested in getting involved in Libya since the days of the Obama administration; there is greater interest in Iraq.
Extremists in South of Libya and domestic efforts to defeat them
Libyan military personnel continue their effort with only modest resources to counter the threat from Isis. A military official said Isis are not always victorious, for example in a recent clash with security forces on the road between Zala and Mourada in the south. The security checkpoint had stopped a car and identified the driver as an Asian extremist who had fled the war in Derna and was known as “the Chechen”.
According to a military investigation, “the Chechen” fled Derna with a group of extremist leaders during an airstrike in October last year. His fellow fighters continued their incursion into the south, including the Egyptian, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, who decided to join a group operating near the Mourada district which falls under the control of Boko Haram.
The Chechen was killed in the confrontation at the checkpoint, and had been visiting the Al Khums area, along with many other African extremists. The Libyan authorities suspect that a large Boko Haram cell is growing fast in Qatrun, near the southern borders with Sudan, Chad and Niger.
According to a source close to the extremists, Boko Haram do not work in line with Isis plans all the time. He said Boko Haram affiliates do not trust the leadership of Libyans, Tunisians, Algerians and Egyptians. It seems that the leaders of Boko Haram are more harsh and radical than the Arab leaders in Isis.
The security authorities tracking Isis found that the organisation is desperate to establish a foothold in the city of Bani Walid, which has historical disputes with Misrata.
When the war started between the Oulad Sulieman and Toubou tribes over the capital of Fezzan, a group of extremists from Chad, Sudan and other African countries was able to get to Sabha to acquire more supplies and occupy military bases that belonged to the army during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi.
In Barca, not far from Sabha, an Egyptian extremist named Saeed leads a group of fighters who fled from Syria and Iraq, in addition to a group of Egyptian extremists that fled Derna. The latter group previously tried to form the “Free Egyptian Army”, led by “Al-Muhajer” who has dropped out of sight in recent weeks.
According to smugglers on the Libyan Sudanese borders from the Zuwayya tribe, they have witnessed recently about 150 fighters crossing the Libyan borders in smaller groups of 7-10 members using desert SUVs.
A source close to the extremists mentioned that amongst the leadership that arrived in recent days are Rashid Marwan and Yasin Al Hebli, known as the Syrian “Joulani” Brigade. He said they arrived to Qatrun with a group of fighters, then disappeared in the desert a few days later, their destination or mission unknown.
Despite the rugged Libyan terrain, and the weakness of the divided security authorities, the forces were able to capture a number of extremists, and they are now in prison in Tripoli, Surman, Benghazi and Misrata - among them 9 Algerians, 14 Palestinians, 19 Tunisians, 23 Syrians and 25 Egyptians. It seems clear to many that Isis must either be completely defeated in Libya, or it will regain strength and become a major regional threat in North Africa.