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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, each with varying degrees of affiliation to each other and to the country’s two rival governments. They also have conflicting demands and expectations, and rivalries going back decades. Among these groups, however, sectarian tensions are not as heightened as they are in Iraq and Syria (over 95 percent of the population is Sunni). Moreover, Libya's local political actors are stronger and less likely to present ISIS with any opportunities to foment further divisions and create strongholds.
It will be hard for ISIS to navigate the maze of competing local, ethnic, tribal, ideological, and political groups. Most all of them are ultimately self-serving and self-interested, and ISIS’ advance would threaten their own political and economic agendas. Armed groups already compete fiercely for control of the lucrative smuggling networks that traverse the region. ISIS’ attempts to take a piece of the pie for itself would not go over well, nor would any efforts to gain control over oil and gas infrastructure. At present, these groups are likely able to resist ISIS’ attempts to gain control over these strategic interests. In addition, greater ISIS presence in Libya could even provide a common enemy for the armed groups, bringing them together—at least as long as the threat remains.
Even if ISIS were able to take over some of Libya’s prize oil and gas infrastructure, the group would most likely struggle to make much money from it; oil output has already fallen to 350,000 barrels per day, down from total capacity export levels of around 1.6 million, a figure nearly reached in 2013 following a strong resurgence in the hydrocarbons sector immediately after the 2011 uprising. Hydrocarbon assets are generally located in inaccessible areas of the desert, with refining capabilities in large facilities far away on the coast. To turn a profit, then, ISIS would have to get control of the oilfields, the pipelines, and the export terminals. It would also face the extremely difficult task of organizing illicit exports. Although ISIS may be able to conduct low-level oil smuggling, talk of Libya as a potential gold mine—including claims from a number of Libyan ministers and officials in the Gulf that Libya could bankroll ISIS—may be premature.
ISIS' strength in Libya has so far been untested and its initial spread has been relatively easy; predisposed militants willingly latched on to the group’s brand to gain notoriety. But ISIS’ successes have so far been concentrated amongst Libyan militants in areas that already have a history of Islamist radicalism, such as Sirte, Derna, and Benghazi. The momentum may be difficult to sustain. ISIS does not enjoy broad support in Libya, and efforts to maintain recruitment levels will be complicated by Libya’s small population, the lack of serious sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia, and the potential backlash against barbarous acts carried out in the name of ISIS.
At the same time, Libya is undoubtedly exposed; should the chronic political crisis reach a tipping point, spiraling levels of violence could provide ISIS-affiliated groups with greater space to operate, filling the vacuum left by defunct institutions and a fragmented society. The prolonged political crisis is already causing splits within Libya’s two main political blocs, and hard-line factions within both are agitating for more extreme action. ISIS may find willing recruits among these fringe radicals, as well as among foreign fighters from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been struggling to remain relevant.
Still, an ISIS stronghold in Libya is hardly a fait accompli. Further attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups are almost certain, but the group will face more hurdles in building a caliphate than a cursory narrative about Libya’s impending state collapse suggests.