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What We Know About ISIS In Libya

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 5/02/2016 Nick Robins-Early

The self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has long been making a push to capitalize on the chaos in Libya.

For over a year, it has carried out terror attacks, taken over territory and released propaganda from its franchise in Libya. Now, a new assessment from the Pentagon states the number of ISIS fighters in Libya has doubled since the fall to over 5,000, spurring fresh debate among security officials over the possibility of foreign intervention.

Analysts and officials worry that Libya is increasingly becoming a sort of fallback option for ISIS as it loses territory and power in Syria and Iraq.

“If we look at the raw numbers, the presence of ISIS [in Libya] is definitely strengthening and growing. I think the security threat they pose is definitely going up,” Riccardo Fabiani, senior North Africa analyst at political risk research firm Eurasia Group, told The WorldPost.

The threat ISIS presents in Libya is different than in other nations, and is related both to the group's changing capabilities and to the country's ongoing instability.

ISIS Builds A Franchise In Libya

The rise of the Islamic State affiliate in Libya coincides with the country's continued conflict. Libya has been in a state of turmoil since a popular uprising backed by a NATO-led airstrike campaign ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Part of the key to ISIS's success as a terror organization is its ability to  metastasize in places that lack a strong civil society or central government. This was most evident in the group's large period of growth between 2011 and 2014, when it benefited from the civil war in Syria and seized much of the territory it still holds.  

In Libya, ISIS has found similar conditions in which to thrive. Since 2014, powerful militias have controlled the country, which is split between two rival governments -- one based in the western city of Tripoli and another in the eastern city of Tobruk. Efforts to establish a U.N.-backed national unity government have failed, and much of the country is lawless.

The Islamic State group has managed to establish itself wherever rival militias have not already carved out territory for themselves in Libya. The group first announced plans to establish a presence in the country in 2014, as part of its so-called "wilayat" model to start offshoots outside of Syria and Iraq. It signaled its arrival by attacking a luxury hotel in Tripoli in January 2014 and releasing a propaganda video a month later that appeared to show 21 Egyptian Christians being beheaded on a Libyan beach.

Libya's ISIS affiliate differs from other parts of the militant organization, however. Analysts say that the nation's dismal security situation has allowed militants to go beyond simply staging isolated terror attacks.

“ISIS in Libya is the only franchise outside of Syria and Iraq that has actual control over the territory,” Fabiani said. "ISIS has a real rooted presence on the ground.”

What ISIS Actually Controls In Libya

It's important to note that while ISIS does control some territory in Libya, it equals only a tiny fraction of its holdings in Syria and Iraq. The group currently holds parts of the small coastal city of Sirte, birthplace of Gaddafi, and not much else. In June 2015, local militias and citizens ousted the group from the city of Derna, which it had occupied since December 2014.  

ISIS's chances of taking over major urban centers in Libya -- as it did in Mosul in Iraq or Raqqa in Syria -- are also very low, analysts say. 

“It's quite clear the conditions on the ground are not as conducive to a quick expansion of ISIS as they are in Syria and Iraq,” Fabiani said.

But even without a territorial base in Libya, ISIS could be a potentially dangerous and destabilizing force. Libya's proximity to states that export a large number of militants, such as Tunisia, makes the country an easy destination for extremists. Likewise, Libya is close enough to Europe to become a staging ground for attacks there.

ISIS's Libya affiliate has already proven its capacity to launch domestic attacks, claiming responsibility for attacks on locations ranging from a prison to foreign embassies

Islamic State militants also pose a threat to Libya's immense oil reserves, which it could take over as a means of funding, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday. The group attacked the nation's oil port of Sidra last month.

What's Next?

As security officials debate what actions to take against ISIS in Libya, it's unclear what favorable options remain. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that some of U.S. President Barack Obama's security aides are pushing for increased military action in the country.

The U.S. conducted an airstrike against ISIS in Libya last November, killing one of its leaders. Egypt also conducted airstrikes against ISIS's Libyan affiliate in February 2015. 

Yet these actions have failed to stop ISIS's growth in Libya, leaving the possibility of having to work with local militias.

"Basically, without a coordinated, effective, significant response from Libyan militias on the ground, this intervention will be completely useless," Fabiani said.

Complicating any potential coordination with these groups, he adds, is the problem that many militias firmly reject the idea of foreign intervention.

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