The post-revolution Libya has been an ideal hub for the arrival of ISIS foreign fighters from the region and sometimes beyond. Following the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, terrorists have taken advantage of the instability, chaos, and anarchy spread in the country, and in the absence of a strong government, ISIS established strongholds all across the country starting from its first proclaimed caliphate in Libya, Derna, to then expand to Cyrenaica, Fezzan, Tripoli, and Sirte. (Image on the top: ISIS motorcade drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya, on October 3,2014. Source: Newsweek)
The exact number of foreign fighters in Libya cannot be verified, but reports have proven that the majority of fighters that have joined the various militant groups, mainly ISIS, are not Libyans. On February 28, 2015, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Dairi told Libya Herald that there are 5,000 foreign combatants fighting alongside extremists in Libya. On May 25, 2015, the Algerian news outlet Al-Fadjr described Libya as the focal meeting point of the different terrorist organizations in Africa and said that it has attracted an astounding number of foreign militants. ISIS has even appointed foreign leaders to head its presence in Libya.
According to reports made to well-informed algerian newspaper Echorouk on May 25, 2015, ISIS faced difficulties in Derna’s leadership until al-Baghdadi personally intervened and replaced the Saudi emir with a new Iraqi leader to head the organization in Libya. Al-Baghdadi held his Libyan fighters responsible for the battles on the field, but the leaders have always been appointed from abroad like Tunisia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
Sources to Sudan Today revealed on February 26, 2015 that jihadi-salafists pour into Libya on a daily basis from over ten Arab, African, and even European countries coming from Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. Observers believe that the reason for this flow of foreign fighters into Libya can be attributed to the tight control practiced on the border-crossings between Syria and Iraq and the other countries. This has led to the transformation of the borders between Libya and North African countries into a safe haven for radical fighters that manage to easily infiltrate into Libya. Furthermore, terrorists are using innovative approaches to get to their destinations.
The Guardian reported on May 23, 2015 that British jihadis are taking an immigration route opposite to the current popular one. Sources monitoring the movements of British jihadis say that to avoid security measures at UK airports, ISIS recruits are crossing the channel by ferry then heading to continental Europe from where they sail south to North Africa, frequently landing in Tunisia before crossing into Libya. Libya is now the third biggest stronghold for the group, and it is very important for ISIS to maintain this status quo because Libya is the group’s bridge towards North Africa and Europe.
Therefore, a national reconciliation in Libya would prove devastating to ISIS on so many levels.
The Libyan researcher and expert in security affairs Dr. Naaman Ben Othman told Echorouk that the Islamic State in Libya will resort to all measures to impede the Libyan national dialogue and protect its interests. Even though the terrorist organization doesn’t currently control the country’s oil fields, it has succeeded in prohibiting Libyan authorities from benefiting from oil revenues. Also on the economic front, an article published on Foreign Affairs on March 1, 2015 reported that more control of Libya could potentially bring ISIS access to substantial revenues through well-established smuggling networks that deal in oil, stolen cars, contraband goods, and weapons.
Despite their fierce rivalry, the two national parties in Libya strongly condemn the Islamic State’s increasingly devastating influence in their land. While briefing the Security Council on the Libyan crisis, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, Bernardino Leon, said on March 4 that the rival parties in Tripoli and Tobruk have expressed great concern about the spread of terrorism in Libya and the State’s limited capabilities to confront it. More importantly, however, both sides refused to allow terrorism to hold their national dialogue hostage.