ISIS' Next Prize

Will Libya Join the Terrorist Group's Caliphate?

Women hold up pictures of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS in Libya, February 17, 2015. Muhammad Hamed / Courtesy Reuters

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is no longer just an Iraq and Syria problem. For months now, ISIS (or groups affiliated with it) has been pushing into Libya as well. The country has long been vulnerable; the vacuum created by the deepening political crisis and collapse of state institutions is an attractive arena for terrorist groups. Further, control of Libya could potentially bring access to substantial revenues through well-established smuggling networks that deal in oil, stolen cars, contraband goods, and weapons.

It should perhaps not have been surprising, then, when Libyan militants claimed Derna, in the country’s lawless northeast, as an ISIS province in late 2014. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi welcomed the declaration and sent an emir to lead operations in the town. He also announced the creation of three other ISIS provinces in the country: Barqa in the east, Tripoli in the west, and Fezzan in the south. More recently, groups linked to ISIS have claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including in Tripoli, Sirte, and Gubba, and they have seized urban centers, including Nawfaliyah and parts of Sirte. In early February, moreover, an ISIS-allied group beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, demonstrating the seriousness of ISIS’ intentions.

Yet it is easy to overstate ISIS’ influence in Libya. Libya is home to a broad range of militant groups, and the vast majority of violent attacks in the country are carried out by domestic groups—including tribes, ethnic minorities, and members of the security forces and militias—who are motivated by more local grievances tied to the rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi (he encouraged rivalry between factions), the 2011 uprising (which was itself a series of localized pockets of resistance rather than a nationwide movement), and subsequent fighting for control of the country (which has deepened the old divisions).

Indeed, Libya’s post-uprising political dynamics may actually hinder ISIS more than any airstrikes. Libya is highly fragmented. Multiple competing power centers front their own armed groups and political structures,

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