June 9, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s North African Momentum
History might not repeat itself but the so-called Islamic State sure does. In Libya, the group recently seized the coastal city of Sirte, the hometown of former dictator Muammar Qadhafi. A year ago, the Islamic State not only seized Mosul but also Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As in Tikrit, Sirte was more than the hometown of the dictator, it was a strong support base of the former regime. The taking of both Tikrit and Sirte were symbolic and strategic moves. While it was pushed out of Tikrit in March by a combination of Iraqi military and militias, Iranian support, and a U.S. air campaign, the Islamic State very much remains in the area. There is no comparable opposition to the group in Sirte. As the Libyan group—which is much closer to the core of the Islamic State than any other wilayat—successfully repeats the tactics and strategy of its Iraqi predecessor without similar pressure, it might remain in Sirte and other towns far longer than many assess.
In the year before the fall of Mosul and Tikrit, as the Islamic State gathered strength in Syria and in places like Fallujah and deep inside Mosul, the group made the most out of its strongholds. It is comparable to the Allied ‘Island Hopping Campaign' in the Pacific during World War II that initially bypassed huge fights to establish bases from which to project power just a little further. Once the Islamic State infiltrates a population center, it gathers strength and then momentum in short order. In Iraq, the group had the leverage of widespread Sunni resentment of the Shi’a government in Baghdad. What Libya lacks in a divisive sectarian government it makes up for by having not one but two dysfunctional governments that further weaken opposition to the Islamic State. While it does not have Shi’a pilgrim processions to target as in Iraq, the group does have refugees and poor workers, particularly Eritrean Christian refugees and Egyptian Coptic Christians to target for kidnapping and mass execution.
Much is rightfully made of the intensely complicated nature of Libya's tribal dynamics that could serve as a brake on the Islamic State’s momentum. The same was said about Iraq and Syria—both of which are internally complicated, with countless local tribes, subtribes, and alliances that shift like sand. Yet the Islamic State did well not in spite of those complexities, but thrived precisely because of them. At every stage, the group’s ability to adapt and seize momentum was as underestimated as the ability of its opponents to effectively unite against the group was overestimated. The conditions in Libya, and certainly in the places where the Islamic State is settling in, are ideal for a tragic repeat of the group’s expansion in Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq, Syria, and now Libya, the group consistently pursues achievable targets that combine symbolic import with tactical and strategic value: Tikrit, Mosul, Raqqa, Aleppo, Palmyra, Ramadi, and now Sirte. It tries to control critical road junctions, natural resources, and military bases while attempting to protect its cross-border movement to allow for tactical pullbacks and repositioning of forces. In Libya, the group first set up in the far eastern town of Derna, some 260km from the border with Egypt, a long-restive town with bad relations with the former regime and little-to-no relations now with either of the two warring pseudo-governments. Importantly, it was from Derna that many of the Libyan foreign fighters and suicide bombers came during the worst of the fighting in Iraq between 2003-2007. Controlling any fraction of the coastline from Sirte east towards Benghazi and then to Derna, would add a maritime dimension, however nascent, to the up-until-now land-locked mobility of the group. Maintaining a presence along the western border puts the group in proximity to extremists in Tunisia; a presence on the southern border puts it in direct contact with Boko Haram, the group’s official West African wilayat.
As in the Iraqi and Syrian playbook, the Libyan Islamic State is quite publicly exploiting two key factors common to all but actually more prevalent in Libya: a divided battlefield in which groups fight each other as much as they concentrate on the Islamic State; and an international community that will focus resources and attention on an ad hoc basis and with ad hoc local partners, depending on whichever atrocity drives the issue to the fore. Given the sheer number of conflicts in the region, and the inevitable quagmire and worsening conditions seen in recent military interventions, the international response to Libya is as unsurprising as it is tragic. The Islamic State did not create the conditions that allowed it to take root in Libya but, as in Iraq and Syria, it will seek every opportunity to ‘remain and then expand.’
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