Mary Fitzgerald: Isil has exploited power vacuum to carve out a foothold in Libya
Western powers hope the fragile unity government will be the first step in unifying Libya’s factions to fight Isil together
It has been a bleak beginning to 2016 for Libya. Almost five years after the uprising that eventually dislodged Muammar Gaddafi was sparked, Isil has made its growing presence felt with an unprecedented wave of attacks this month.
In the latest issue of its propaganda magazine 'Dabiq', Isil boasts of a suicide truck bombing it carried out on a police training centre in the western town of Zliten some weeks ago. More than 60 people were killed in what was Libya's single deadliest attack till now, yet the atrocity barely made headlines outside the country. Isil has also sought to assert itself in Libya's oil crescent this month, carrying out a series of raids on oil infrastructure which have left massive tanks blazing in what the country's National Oil Corporation has described as an "environmental catastrophe".
The attacks have been launched from Isil's stronghold of Sirte, ironically Gaddafi's hometown and located on the coast just across the Mediterranean from Europe. Isil militants, including a large cohort of foreigners - among them Tunisians, Egyptians and Sudanese - took control of the city last year. Residents have been subjected to multiple horrors, including beheadings, as Isil sought to consolidate itself. Recently, the group posted images online showing the executions of four men shot in a public square in Sirte after they were accused of theft, heresy and belonging to pro-government forces.
Given the number of Libyans who joined Isil in Syria and Iraq, it was always a question of not if but when an affiliate would emerge in Libya. A group in the eastern town of Derna declared allegiance to Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2014. The group comprised local returnees from Syria as well as foreigners - other Isil branches in Libya have a similar make-up. Members of other militant groups in the country's second city, Benghazi, have defected to join Isil as they become more assertive. The number of Isil fighters in Libya is estimated to be around 3,500.
Isil has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks last year, including one on the five-star Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, during which over a dozen people were killed, and several on oil facilities south of Sirte. They also abducted and later beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts near Sirte. During my last visit to Libya in September, Isil carried out a car bombing in central Tripoli and attacked Maitiga, a sprawling compound that houses the capital's only operating airport.
Isil's expansion in Libya is causing increasing alarm in Europe. This week, the EU's counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, warned that the group's losses in Syria and Iraq may prompt some of its leaders to relocate to Libya. Already some senior Isil figures have spent time in Libya helping build up the franchise. Libya is now the only country outside Syria and Iraq where the group controls territory, though last year it was routed from the eastern town of Derna and it has yet to manage to seize and hold oil infrastructure despite several raids.
"We know that the senior leadership in Syria is really monitoring what is happening in Libya. So if they feel the pressure is too high, there might be a temptation to move to another hotspot," de Kerchove said. "There, for the time being, it's the perfect chaos they like."
Libya's chaos is due to a bitter political power struggle which began in 2014 and resulted in the country being divided by rival governments and rival parliaments, all backed by a myriad of armed groups. Isil saw an opportunity in the ensuing vacuum as the squabbling factions were more concerned about prevailing over their opponents than tackling the growing threat posed by the group.
For the past year-and-a-half, the UN has been trying to mediate an end to this crippling power struggle that has allowed Isil to thrive. After a UN-brokered deal was signed in December, a national unity government is beginning to take shape but it faces huge challenges, not least the fact that it is opposed by significant players, including powerful militias. Tellingly, the nascent government is based in Tunis for now, because the capital is not considered safe due to armed groups hostile to the UN deal.
Western powers hope the fragile unity government will be the first step in unifying Libya's factions to fight Isil together. Some also anticipate the new administration will authorise some form of intervention against the group, though views differ as to what form that may take. US air strikes killed a senior Isil figure in eastern Libya late last year and a more robust aerial campaign may happen in the next months. Western special forces have been on the ground in different parts of the country engaging with local armed groups to assess capabilities for the fight against Isil. But the UN mantra remains the same: only by uniting against Isil can Libyans hope to purge its growing menace.