The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham is rebuilding its military power and establishing a safe haven in central Libya as Libyan factions focus on securing their political interests on the populated coast.
Fighting Forces in Libya: December 2017
The UN action plan stalled in its first phase.
The political deadlock incentivizes rival factions to pursue their objectives militarily, causing instability that draws security forces and militias to the eastern and western coasts and leaves a security vacuum in central and southern Libya.
ISIS is exploiting this vacuum by establishing transportation hubs and supply bases in central Libya.
It has demonstrated increased strength and freedom of movement in recent months by establishing checkpoints in central Libya and conducting attacks to fix security forces into defensive positions.
ISIS leadership has called on fighters to use Libya as a gateway to Europe and will employ its renewed safe haven to facilitate more attacks in European cities.
ISIS and other Salafi-jihadi groups also use Libyan safe havens to infiltrate and attack Libya’s relatively stable neighbors.
Libya is headed for renewed civil conflict that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to establish a permanent base in the country.
Fighting Forces in Libya: July 2017
By Emily Estelle
The Trump administration and the French president are considering cooperating more closely with Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA)
Egypt and the UAE already support Haftar, conducting air strikes on behalf of the LNA. Backing a strongman to stabilize Libya risks driving support to Salafi-jihadi groups and exacerbating civil war.
Haftar has been consolidating his position in Libya. His forces have both strengthened their hold on their stronghold in eastern Libya and advanced westward into critical terrain since May 2017.
The LNA recently declared victory in Benghazi, ending a three-year campaign to control Libya’s second-largest city, and ousted rival Islamist militias from key military bases in central and southwestern Libya.
Haftar’s ability to navigate Libyan tribal dynamics enabled him to take control of most of Libya’s oil infrastructure. He aims to seize Derna city to complete his control over eastern Libya.
Haftar’s rise will not stabilize Libya
A low-level insurgency continues in LNA-held Benghazi and will likely continue as LNA abuses fuel opposition.
The LNA and other groups are competing for control of Sirte, on the central Libyan coast and Tripoli, Libya’s capital on the western coast.
Militias aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) recently ousted rivals from Tripoli, but conflict continues on the city’s outskirts and will likely return to the capital.
Jockeying for control of Sirte may also escalate as the population returns.
Islamic State (ISIS) militants are mobilizing outside the city, possibly preparing for a bid to re-enter their former stronghold.
Haftar will not prioritize defeating the ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates, which are regrouping in remote parts of the country, over consolidating control of the populated coastline.
Haftar’s campaign to eradicate political Islam, which has the full backing of the Egyptians and Emiratis, adds to his appeal as a Libyan strongman but is part of the problem.
His intolerance of Islamists creates ground conditions that eliminate their political options, driving them toward supporting violent Islamist groups, including Salafi-jihadi groups within al Qaeda’s network.
The addition of Libyan individuals and groups to the new terrorist list issued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain provides Haftar with cover to pursue these actors even under a French-brokered conditional ceasefire.
The ceasefire terms permit continued counterterrorism operations. Haftar previously defined rivals as “terrorists,” and will do so again to advance his own interests.
Western support for Haftar may bring the appearance of stability in the short term, but it will not resolve the Libyan civil war or arrest the growth of Salafi-jihadism.
Emily Estelle – is an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. Her research focuses on al Qaeda affiliates and associated movements in the Gulf of Aden and western and northern Africa.