Libya’s Daesh (ISIS) branch has expanded its grip on Libyan territory through multiple parallel tactics. The sluggish pace of negotiations between the feuding governments in Tripoli and Bayda has only contributed to this expansion. The confrontation between the two factions has led to a paralysis in the capacity of legitimate forces to combat the expansion of "terrorist organizations" in many parts of the country. The United Nations-mediated agreement signed by some representatives of the two parliaments, political parties, civil society, local government and other stakeholders in the Moroccan city of Skhirat in December establishing a Government of National Accord, has not been universally accepted in Libya. Doubts remain over whether this government can ever establish itself in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. ISIS is taking advantage of this state of anarchy and confusion to carry out a sophisticated strategy to establish itself in the territory.
After local rivalries and tribal dynamics obstructed the Daesh attempts to control the eastern city of Derna, the group moved to the central coastal city of Sirte. Showing a capacity to learn from their previous experience in Derna, the leadership of the militant group has instead chosen to take advantage of local dynamics rather than trying to dominate it. As the hometown of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Sirte plays host to most of the loyalist tribes. When not directly antagonizing them, the new postrevolutionary elite have largely marginalized these tribes and blocked access to the political process. Daesh has exploited their malcontent and resentment against the new political system to build consensus for its penetration and expansion into the strategically located city in central Libya. After establishing itself through a mix of imposing order and security in town and brutality against its opponents, the terrorist organization has proceeded to ensure the survival, and indeed the expansion, of its territory.
Daesh has based its strategy on three tactical pillars. The first involves instilling fear in its opponents in Tripoli and Tobruk. It has succeeded through a series of car bombings and suicide bombings against selected targets in the territories controlled by the two governments. This tactic remains an ongoing part of the general strategy and will likely continue with increasing levels of bloodshed.
The second pillar involves developing connections with the criminal organizations mushrooming in Libya, both in the southern desert region as well as in the coastal areas, as criminal and Islamist interests coincide. The recent bloody truck bomb attack against the coastguard barracks in Zliten demonstrates this convergence. Zliten is a major center for the smuggling of migrants and goods. Daesh would resist any attempt by the Tripoli government, with which the Zliten city council is allied, to combat criminal organizations. The murder of the city’s Counter-Criminal Agency director on Dec. 29 and the attack against the coastguard recruits who were receiving training to combat smugglers both weakens government control and law enforcement over the area.
This second pillar of the Daesh strategy is the most dangerous one, combining the territorial control of emerging criminal gangs with the military capacity of a terrorist organization that does not shy away from adopting the most brutal tactics to reach its objectives.
The third pillar of the Daesh strategy involves the classical expansion through rapid and devastating attacks against its enemies. The operations against the oil installations of Es Sidra, Brega and Ras Lanouf, are part of this more direct strategy. The attacks are not meant to occupy the oil structures to control them and sell the oil abroad as the mother organization is doing in Syria and Iraq. Thanks to the Western and international blockade, no actor can sell Libyan oil outside of the official channels. Rather, Daesh means to destroy Libya’s infrastructure to prevent the country’s legitimate institutions from utilizing the resources and obtaining revenues vital for the reconstruction of the country. By degrading its enemy, the terrorist organization achieves elements of the first two pillars. If achieving this goal is accompanied by additional territorial acquisitions – such as in the conquest of the Bin Jawad village – all the better.
The Libyan political factions and the international community will face many difficulties before they can establish the necessary order and stability to adequately confront Daesh. To even begin to reverse the negative trend in which the country has been plunged, the main Libyan factions must put aside their differences, rivalries, and jealousies and agree to work together.
Daesh and other criminal organizations have begun entrenching themselves in the country, requiring immediate and effective strategies to confront them. The GNA could, despite the flaws that have accompanied its inception, provide a point around which to rally Libyan forces and Western support. While essential, constructive international support needs an invitation and a plan from the legitimate Libyan authorities.
Prime Minister-designate Fayez Sarraj can use this opportunity to demonstrates the necessary attributes for this role: the courage to go to Tripoli and install his government, despite the threats, the leadership to coalesce the Libyan factions around his government, and the wisdom to request the international support needed to defeat the enemies of peace, legality and democratization.
By Karim Mezran
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