This used to be the Algerian embassy in Tripoli.

Photographer: Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Islamic State Tightens Its Grip on Shaky Libya

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The U.S. war against Islamic State has not yet extended to Libya. But the terror group is rapidly expanding its presence and activities there, and the embattled government is asking for Washington to include Libya in its international fight against the Islamic extremists.

Top U.S. intelligence officials have publicly stated their concerns about IS expansion in North Africa, following the group’s ramping up of its public acts of mayhem. It has taken credit for the brazen attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which resulted in the death of 12 people including one American contractor. Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee this week that "with affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, the group is beginning to assemble a growing international footprint that includes ungoverned and under-governed areas."

That’s no surprise to the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk, which has been battling IS in several Libyan cities, including Benghazi. (It is also in a civil war against a rival government in Tripoli, the capital, under Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi.) A top Tobruk government representative told U.S. officials during a visit to Washington this week that IS expansion in Libya is much worse than what is publicly understood.

“We are seeing an exponential growth of ISIS in Libya,” Aref Ali Nayed, Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates told me in an interview. “Libya, because of its resources, has become the ATM machine, the gas station, and the airport for ISIS. There is an unfortunate state of denial about all of this, and that is the most dangerous thing.”

IS has had an operations base in the port city of Derna for years, but has now established a headquarters at the main conference center in Sirte, where it controls the airport. It has also expanded in southern Libya, recruiting and setting up bases, and has held open marches in Tripoli.

Islamic State has long used Libya as a route for money and other supplies going to the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and as a training base for its fighters headed to Syria and Iraq. But the group’s social media propaganda and official statements now assert that it plans not only to expand its "caliphate" to Libya but also to use Libya as a base of operations for further attacks on the West. This could be ominous for nearby Europe, which is still reeling from the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

Nayed estimated there are between 2,000 and 3,000 Islamic fighters in Libya pledging allegiance to IS, a number that could not be independently confirmed. He added that the Libyan parliament in Tobruk last week issued a statement calling on the U.S.-led coalition against IS in Syria and Iraq to expand its airstrikes into Libyan territory.

“What happened in France is just a sign of things to come,” he said. “It makes no sense to do this in compartments. You cannot have a consortium that is bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq and not doing so in Libya.”

The Kalam Research and Media organization, an Arab think tank based on Dubai and Tripoli with which Nayed is affiliated, has compiled an exhaustive list of IS's recent activities in Libya (PDF version here). The report includes three car bombings and four beheadings in November in the eastern province of Barqa, a car bombing outside the Algerian embassy in Tripoli in December, the kidnapping of Egyptian Coptic Christians in Sirte, and a January attack on Libyan forces in the southern region of Fezzan.

 “As noted in the 5th edition of ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq, its largest foreign base of support is Libya," the report states. "The drastic increase in bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings throughout Libya by organizations allied to ISIS seems to have proven these claims true. ISIS in Libya has been able to take advantage of the nation’s post-revolutionary political turmoil to establish a base of support, though to a lesser degree, using the same tactics as in Iraq and Syria.”

The Pentagon’s Africom commander, General David Rodriguez, told reporters last month that the U.S. intelligence community has mixed views about the scale of IS expansion in Libya, but that its training sites there were well established.

Harleen Gambhir, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, told me that many of the IS fighters who had transited through Libya on their way to Syria are now coming back. There were reports last September that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State emir, sent an emissary to Derna to preside over the Libya caliphate and expand its activities.  In November, Baghdadi released an audio statement announcing the expansion of the Islamic state to Saudi Arabi, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Algeria.

Gambhir cautioned that determining which groups in Libya are IS, IS-affiliated or IS-wannabes is no easy task. “Derna is a foothold and from there we are seeing smaller ISIS efforts come up, especially in Benghazi and Tripoli, with operational capacity,” she said. “The difficulty in tracking what is and isn’t ISIS activity in Libya is the fact that there are so many Islamist groups operating in Libya under various monikers.”

ISIS has actually benefited from the Libyan government’s limited progress against other extremist groups, such as Ansar al-Shariah, whose leader was killed by the Tobruk government's forces late last year.

Michael Smith, a principal at Kronos Advisory, a research firm that tracks Islamic extremism, said that because IS is in direct competition with other jihadist groups, it has an incentive in the short term to ramp up their violent attacks.

“Much information available about IS’s membership in Libya suggests these jihadis were previously affiliated with much lower-profile militia enterprises," he explained. "Given that there is little evidence many IS members in Libya are very influential figures within the larger jihadist spheres present in the country, it is very likely that, in order to elevate their profile so as to attract local support, these jihadis will continue resorting to attention winning-attacks.”

A senior Obama administration official told me that while the U.S. government will continue to recognize the Tobruk government, it is not contemplating expanding U.S. airstrikes against IS to Libya at this time. The White House is betting on United Nations negotiations in Geneva, although neither side in Libya's civil war has much faith in that process.

President Obama explained in a CNN interview this weekend why he wants to keep strict limits on the U.S. fight against Islamic State forces. He said the U.S. can’t play “Whac-A-Mole” by sending armies to fight every terrorist group, and that Americans shouldn’t overestimate the danger posed by these groups.

“When you look at ISIL, it has no governing strategy. It can talk about setting up the new caliphate, but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually in a sustained way feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work,” Obama said. 

Experts sympathetic to the administration position agree on the need to differentiate between those terrorist groups posing a threat to the U.S. and those who are currently only active in their own region. But many also note that the Obama White House has not paid close attention to the situation in Libya since the international intervention that toppled Muammar Qadaffi in 2011.

“People identifying with ISIS and acting in ISIS’s name are expanding in Libya. It is a huge problem for Libya, but the U.S. point of view is that Libya is not a priority for the U.S.,” said Brookings Institution scholar Dan Byman.

Washington used to operate by what Colin Powell referred to as the Pottery Barn Rule: you break it, you bought it. But the Obama administration has always said their Libya intervention was a better model than the George W. Bush administration’s nation-building. U.S. power and influence should be used sparingly, and post-revolution countries would have to rely on themselves to solve big problems.

Yet the current government(s) in Libya simply can’t deal with the presence of IS and they are sounding the alarm. History has shown that failed states where terrorists have free reign can end up being very direct threats to American interests, including the Sept. 11 attacks. The requested air strikes may be a bridge too far, but let's hope the Obama administration finds a middle ground before it’s too late.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net