Black flags over Libya show ISIS is on the warpath

ISIS is attempting to lure Italy, France, and the U.S. to intervene in Libya

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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With the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts, and the kidnapping of 21 more Egyptians, ISIS is attempting to lure Italy, France, and the U.S. to intervene in Libya. Over the past few days, ISIS has released two important statements: “A Message to France” that threatens not only Paris but all French speakers and also Belgium, and “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross” targeting Christians, significantly France and Italy and especially Copts, to bring the Crusaders to Libya. ISIS is clearly using the same tactic as was used by the ISIS in Syria to lure Jordan into the fight in the Levant with the fiery, savage execution of Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh.

This development, with ISIS fighters spreading their rule of law, is filling ungovernable gaps between the democratically elected Libyan government in Tobruk and the Islamist-led General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli. ISIS is opening a second, major front in Libya that seeks to engulf all of northern Africa and threaten the soft underbelly of Europe. There is now a two front war going on.

Do not be surprised if the West and Arab allies are attacking ISIS in Libya and in the Levant simultaneously

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The chaos in Libya is now attracting up to 3000 ISIS adherents to the Darna vilayat and its sub-administrations. These battle-hardened ISIS fighters are returning to Darna vilayat from the Levant to help build the military force necessary to support the Barka vilayat and ultimately, corridors of governance. Now with the uptick in ISIS activity, more fighters from North Africa and the Levant will flow towards Libya.

ISIS’ targeting of Libya

ISIS’ targeting of Libya has been obvious for almost a year. Let’s not forget that “Caliph Ibrahim” or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi designated these entities late last year with the appropriation of Jund al-Khilafah (Algeria), Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Sinai) and Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (Libya). Stakeholders need to recognize that ISIS is growing and not shrinking as the Black Flags of ISIS fly over parts of Libya.

Last year, the Derna Vilayet’ Islamic Youth Shura Council (MSSI) MSSI began to conduct hisba (accountability) within the city, essentially calling individuals to account for their “non-Islamic” behavior, sometimes through vigilantism and executions. In addition, ISIS’ online magazine Dabiq even featured “the spoils of war” in Libya, glorifying their ISIS fighters and boasts of attacks on GNC leader Omar al-Hassi and his officials and security forces as the battle against the murtadd (apostate).

ISIS is on the warpath

Now there is no doubt that ISIS is on the warpath in Libya. In January alone, ISIS launched the Corinthia Hotel attack that killed an American and a Frenchman and beheaded journalists near the eastern Libyan city of Derna. Then ISIS captured temporally the al-Mabruk field. Simultaneously, Libya’s ISIS attacked Es-Sider again, killing six guards. ISIS is also making moves on Sirte in order to expand its territory taking over the local radio station and playing al-Baghdadi sermons. The mercantilist nature of ISIS is evident in Libya.

Last week, a high level U.S. defense official expressed concern about ISIS branching out of Iraq and Syria: “Particularly concerning has been the spread of ISIS beyond Syria and Iraq. With affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, the group is beginning to assemble a growing international footprint that includes ungoverned and under governed areas.” This statement by the U.S. defense official is noteworthy: Although the ISIS pattern of state development in the Maghreb has been present since last year, there is now official acknowledgement of the risks posed by ISIS in North Africa by the United States.

The link between the growth of ISIS in Libya and U.S. President Barack Obama’s War Powers Act request is also significant. As currently written, the resolution grants Obama the power to extend the fight against ISIS beyond Iraq and Syria, giving him the authority to strike “associated persons or forces.” This act is a necessary evil. While most eyes are on Coalition operations in the Levant, there is no doubt that America and other European states, including France and Italy, are preparing for action against the Caliphate appendage metastasizing in Libya.

The internationally-recognized democratically elected government in Tobruk is making itself heard on the threat of ISIS. Tobruk Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni is asking America, France, and Italy to intervene in Libya. An Arab official noted that France and Italy are assisting al-Thinni’s colleague General Khalifa Haftar in terms of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) for Operation Dignity and that these assets are to be used in a future intervention to battle ISIS. France and America are operating from Mali and Niger respectively. These forward operating bases (FOBs), if you will, are geared up potentially for the beginning of a possible air campaign against ISIS in Libya along with sites from Southern Europe. There is no choice in the matter; it is time to expand the fight against ISIS to another theater. But ISIS in Libya knows better; they just launched the first salvo with the executions of the Egyptian Coptics.

The key question

The key question, then, is where the GNC and Libya Dawn will sit in this equation. If ISIS is already attacking the GNC as “apostates” then, logically, the GNC should be on the side of Tobruk. That won’t happen given the animosity between the competing sides as well as those in Libya Dawn who are sympathetic to al-Qaeda and to ISIS. But there is more trouble: ISIS is also attracting to its ranks Misratans and some members of Libya Dawn that helps to augment the North African polyglot of fighters streaming to Libya. Any ground operation is going to have to be headed by General Haftar who is now seen as a national folk hero.

That Libyans of different stripes - regional, tribal, and ethnic - may find fighting alongside ISIS in the short term beneficial and this needs to be prevented at all costs. This potential outcome sounds exactly like what happened in Iraq with ISIS’ capture of the al-Anbar province where some Sunni tribes are colluding with ISIS. But in Libya the situation may be much worse because of the geo-spacial tribal and ethnic ethos of the extremists. President Obama’s War Powers Act against ISIS is open ended to include North Africa and should be quickly recognized by all observers. Do not be surprised if the West and Arab allies are attacking ISIS in Libya and in the Levant simultaneously. ISIS wants to be attacked in order to meet their eschatological requirements.

The Egyptian military has answered ISIS' call to battle with airstrikes, coordinated with General Haftar's air force, on the Derna Vilayet. Do not be surprised....


Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets: @tkarasik

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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