ISIS has built up a significant presence in Libya, according to a new U.N. report
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi exerts more control over its Libyan affiliate than any other chapter of the group outside Syria and Iraq, the report says
A report released on Tuesday by a United Nations monitoring group examining terrorist groups in Libya warns ISIS has built up a significant presence in Libya and could further expand the territory it controls through local alliances, but will likely face a number of challenges and constraints in the months ahead.
Outside Syria and Iraq, Libya has proved to the most promising ground for ISIS expansion with the group entrenching its control of the former Gadhafi stronghold of Sirte in recent months and over a hundred miles of coastline bordering the city. The group also retains a presence in eastern Libya where it is in a pitched contest with al Qaeda affiliated groups.
According to the U.N. report, which was based on information and intelligence provided by U.N. member states, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi exerts more control over its Libyan affiliate than any other chapter of the group outside Syria and Iraq and views Libya as the best opportunity to expand its so-called caliphate, a conclusion in line with U.S. intelligence assessments. Social media accounts run by ISIS sympathizers have begun calling on volunteers to travel to join ISIS in Libya instead of Syria and Iraq.
The report will increase concerns in European capitals about the potential threat ISIS poses Europe from Libya in the wake of the Paris attacks, and the pivot by the group towards international terrorism.
The southern islands of the European Union are just a few hundred miles away from the Libyan coastline (or just a few hours in a fast speed boat). According to U.N. figures, more than a hundred thousand migrants are leaving Libya on boats for Europe annually. In neighboring Tunisia, ISIS has claimed it was behind attacks on a museum and a beach this year which killed dozens of Western tourists, both of which were perpetrated by gunmen trained in Libya.
Tunisia also closed its border with Libya after a recent attack against a bus carrying members of the presidential guard, which ISIS claimed credit for.
Reporting to Baghdadi
In the last two years, Baghdadi has dispatched several senior aides to Libya to build up the ISIS franchise there. As CNN first reported a year ago, among these was Abu Nabil al Anbari (real name: Wissam al Zubaidi), an Iraqi ISIS veteran who had spent time with Baghdadi in a U.S. detention facility in Iraq.
According to U.S. officials, al Zubaidi was the most senior ISIS figure in Libya when he was killed in a U.S. strike in the Derna area on November 13. Another senior ISIS figure who has played a significant role in Libya is the Bahraini cleric Turki Binali.
According to the report, non-Libyans dominate the top leadership of the group.
ISIS recently announced in its English language magazine that its titular leader in Libya was Abu al Mughirah al Qahtani, a previously unknown figure, but the monitoring group said it was not able to verify his identity, location or position in the ISIS hierarchy.
According to the report, about 800 Libyan ISIS veterans who have returned from fighting Syria and Iraq provide the backbone of ISIS in Libya, bringing with them skills in explosives and urban warfare.
But the report says the group has also attracted a significant number of North African recruits (the largest foreign contingent of fighters) as well as fighters from Egypt, Yemen, the Palestinian terrorities and Mali. As many as 200 members of the Nigerian ISIS affiliate Boko Haram are now present in Sirte, according to a recent study published in CTC Sentinel.
A large contingent of fighters from elsewhere in the Sahel-Sahara region, Tunisia and the Sudan are also present in the city according to the U.N.
There is also concern more hardened Libyan fighters could return home in the future, as around 3,500 Libyans are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq, according to the U.N. (It says the numbers setting off for those countries from Libya have slowed).
Although a majority of the group’s Libyan fighters are veterans of the Syrian Jihad, the group has recruited hundreds of locals attracted to its banners in part by better pay, according to the report. In total, ISIS has as many as 3,000 fighters in Libya, half of whom are based in Sirte, the report stated.
ISIS, over the last year, has taken advantage of a political chaos and the simmering civil war between Islamists based in Tripoli and Misrata and a secular leaning rival government based in Tobruk to expand its presence in the country.
But Libya may not offer quite as fertile territory as Syria and Iraq. The U.N. report notes that “while the group is benefiting from the appeal and notoriety of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, it is only one player among multiple warring factions in Libya and faces strong resistance from the population, as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances.”
Other limiting factors to its territorial expansion are the fact that it is more difficult for the group to exploit sectarian tensions because most Libyans are Sunnis and the fact that thus far it has only been able to muster a few thousand recruits, according to the report.
In June a militant coalition sympathetic to al Qaeda drove ISIS out of Derna, after what the U.N. called an eight month takeover of the city by ISIS. As CNN previously reported, the group was not able to gain the support of locals in Derna who were alienated by its attempts to institute medieval Islamic law. The clashes forced ISIS to retreat to the to the Fatayeh region outside Derna and led to hundreds of ISIS fighters moving to Sirte. By all accounts ISIS remains determined to take back the eastern city.
A third ISIS capital
According to a study published by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy this summer, ISIS cemented its control of Sirte in June after it took control over the local power plant. It success in the city, he argued, was explained by several factors including co-opting the support of the local affiliate of Ansar al Shariah and recruiting former dissatisfied Gadhafi loyalists in a similar fashion to its recruitment of former Baathists in Iraq.
According to the United Nations, ISIS runs its Sirte operations from Ouagadougou Conference Centre in Sirte. The top ISIS figure in the city is Abou Abdellah Al Ouerfalli who was appointed as the emir supervising Sirte, while the operational command is led by a Tunisian national known by his nom de guerre Abou Mohamed Sefaxi. Hassan al-Karrami a firebrand preacher previously active in Benghazi and Derna has also emerged as a key ISIS preacher in the city.
After an effort to win over hearts and minds in the city through proselytizing, the group began implementing fierce punishments like it has in Syria and Iraq including beheadings and crucifixions, according to the U.N. report.
ISIS has its eyes set on Ajdabiya eastwards down the coast, where a local ISIS cell composed of former Ansar al Shariah fighters is attempting to expand its presence. The U.N. report said this group is reportedly coordinating between ISIS branches in the eastern and central regions of Libya and is considered a rear base for ISIS activities in Benghazi, a town in which the local chapter of Ansar al Shariah, the al Qaeda ally responsible for the September 11, 2012, U.S. Consulate attack, still holds more sway.
ISIS still only has a fledgling presence in Tripoli, where it carried out an attack on an international hotel in January killing eight including an American, the report states.
The report noted that ISIS operatives in Libya have received help from the group in Syria and Iraq in creating propaganda output, including a grisly video of the beheading of Egyptian Copts on a beach near Sirte earlier this year.
The report notes that “despite its relatively sophisticated propaganda machinery, ISIL in Libya is not yet able to recruit internationally on the same scale as ISIL in Iraq and the Syria.”
Before two French nationals were arrested in southern Tunisia earlier this month on their way to Libya, the report noted there were no cases of European individuals having left Europe directly to travel to join ISIL in Libya.
“Furthermore, in contrast to ISIL in the Levant, no cases of families or women traveling as foreign terrorist fighters to the country have been reported to the monitoring team,” the report stated.
Not rich yet
The U.N. notes that ISIS in Libya has yet to grow rich like ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but has obtained sufficient funding to sustain its operations.
“Member states indicated that ISIL was preparing to launch a more organized ‘taxation’ system in Sirte, and that it even envisaged establishing a state-like system in Libya, inspired by its quasi-bureaucratic organization in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq,” the report said.
The report also notes there is concern that it could eventually cash in on the human smuggling networks transporting migrants from Africa and the Middle East through Libya to Europe, including one route which runs through Sirte.
The report states that it will be more difficult for ISIS to raise money from oil in Libya than in Syria and Iraq, and that it has so far followed a strategy of sabotaging Libya’s oil infrastructure rather than trying to profit from it.
“ISIL currently lacks the capacity to secure, hold and manage oil fields and related oil infrastructure in Libya. In addition, Libya has no established domestic black market for smuggled crude, and the location of ISIL in Libya would make it difficult to access potential markets in the region,” according to the report.
“Distances between its current stronghold in Sirte towards the land borders of the country are larger than in the Syrian Arab Republic or Iraq where the territory under ISIL control borders neighboring countries. Transportation of stolen crude would be problematic as it would require a large number of tanker trucks given that ISIL does not control a pipeline or a port with an oil loading terminal,” the report says. “Furthermore, there is no evidence that ISIL has developed crude refining capability in Libya, including mobile refineries, as it managed to do in the Syrian Arab Republic, and it currently does not control any of the five Libyan refineries.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report