ISIS Thrown out of Syria & Iraq Is on the Terror-Path in Libya
The Islamic State, thrown out the Libyan town of Sirte last fall after its “caliphate’s” ouster in Syria and Iraq, has set itself up as a new “army” and established its next base of operations in Libya’s lawless southern desert. This region, known for major smuggling operations and human trafficking rings, has been marked out as the new ISIS frontier, causing alarm in North African security services. From there, ISIS is aggressively targeting Libyan army outposts and checkpoints. It used suicide bombings to attack the army in southern Libya. In May, Libyan sources forecast a surprise ISIS operation to seize Ajdabiya, in the northeastern Oil Crescent, from the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The Islamic State-Libya has meanwhile reinvented itself with a merger of three groups loyal to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is led by a Libyan-born jihadist named Al Mahdi Salem Danqo, aka Abou al-Barakat, who is believed to have participated in the 2015 massacre of 21 Egyptian Copts which prompted Egyptian air blitz over Libya. Before that, he is reported to have served Al Baghdadi in the Sharia courts of Mosul, when it served as the caliphate’s Iraqi capital. The group claims its jihadist army in Libya has drawn 2,600-3,500 new recruits from 41 countries in the past three years, the pace of the influx accelerating after ISIS’ defeats in Syria and Iraq. Around 1,500 have come from Tunisia.
Coinciding with the ISIS expansion in southern Libya, al-Qaida affiliates in the area have come over with support. The two rival terrorist groups “have never attacked each other here and now we have evidence that they are actively cooperating,” said Libyan Defense Minister Mahdi Barghathi. “Al-Qaeda is providing logistics and support to help [ISIS] re-group and launch attacks.” It is still led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Although believed killed in 2016, three years after leading a deadly on attack on an Algerian gas plan and killing 37 Western hostages, Belmokhtar is still alive, the minister affirmed.
All this jihadist activity is stoking the turmoil in southern Libya, which is already home to African mercenaries. Recent clashes erupted in the strategic city of Sabha when Libyan Army Commander Brigadier Gen. Khalifa Haftar initiated operation “Law Enforcement.” Libya’s air force conducted airstrikes on the mercenaries’ camp to restore order. However, Libyan law enforcement faces a much larger threat from the ISIS-Al-Qaeda partners. According to the UN Libya Panel report, ISIS has been buying the support of southern Libyan tribes with cold cash. The jihadists are also entrenching themselves solidly in the region by offering to protect smuggling networks in exchange for long-term financing.
The United States has meanwhile doubled the number of air strikes against ISIS targets in Libya from four to eight between September 2017 and January 2018. Most are carried out by armed MQ-9 Reaper drones. This month, US Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of AFRICOM, reported in testimony to Congress: “We are heavily involved in counterterrorism in Libya.”