By Aaron Y. Zelin
This new study offers a deeper understanding of the foreign-fighter phenomenon, its evolution, and its potential trajectories.
Over the past seven years of revolution and civil war, Libya has experienced a massive influx of foreign fighters.
External Operations, Returnees, and the Future
A final risk to Africa and Europe related to Islamic State foreign fighters in Libya involves the possibility of external operations by returnees or operatives through “remote-controlled” plotting. Having already reviewed cases of external operations planned both by AST/ASL
and the Islamic State in Tunisia, along with future challenges tied to the large number of Tunisian foreign fighters in Libya, this paper will now look into plots, attacks, and possible future scenarios based on precedents set in Africa and Europe.
In the strategic work “Libya: The Strategic Gateway for the Islamic State,” written in January 2015 by a little-known IS in Libya member, Abu Irhim al-Libi, the author reflects that “Libya looks upon the sea, the desert, mountains, and six states: Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia … It is the anchor from which Africa and the Islamic Maghreb can be reached.”
Furthermore, he plays upon European fears of jihadism, writing as follows: “Add to this the fact that it has a long coastline and looks upon the southern Crusader states, which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat … It is even possible that there could be a closure of shipping lanes because of the targeting of Crusader ships and tankers.”
The latter has yet to occur, but, as noted, Italian officials are keenly worried about IS operatives infiltrating migrant flows into Italy and Europe more generally, a goal IS has already achieved by infiltrating with Syrian refugees traveling from Turkey into Greece and beyond.
Although IS exploitation of refugee flows for external operations has drawn more attention in the Syrian than Libyan context, one should remember that many figures involved in the major 2015–16 attacks in Belgium and France had previously trained with Katibat al-Battar al-Libiyah while still based in Syria.
A good number of these members have since returned to Libya, suggesting the potential for sophisticated know-how on the ground. Still, as yet, no known cases have emerged wherein IS in Libya engaged in full command-and-control over an attack or plot.
Allegations of involvement, however, have touched Moez Fezzani, a previously mentioned Tunisian IS leader in Sabratha who is reported to have had contact with a cell in Milan.
Nothing more came of these hints, possibly in part because Fezzani was arrested by Tunisian security forces in the failed IS attempt to take Ben Gardane in March 2016.
More notable still are IS in Libya’s connections to the December 2016 Berlin Christmas Market attack and the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.
For the former, based on available information, Anis Amri, the perpetrator of Tunisian nationality, alongside his connections to extremists in Germany, was involved in what can be described as a remote-controlled attack, meaning he was guided via encrypted messaging from IS members—in this case, from Libya.
According to the North Rhine–Westphalian State Office of Criminal Investigation, Amri had been in contact with two Tunisian IS members in Libya on the encrypted-messaging application Telegram since February 2016.
Furthermore, a month after the attack, the U.S. military conducted an airstrike on an IS training camp and base twenty-eight miles southwest of Sirte, claiming it was in response to security threats emanating from the group against European allies.
Yet U.S. officials and Libyan intelligence also suggest that the IS members in touch with Amri were based at this location, perhaps hinting at why U.S. forces chose the target in retaliation. The Manchester Arena case involved a lengthy gestation period from involvement to exposure to militancy and action.
The larger context here was the return of Libyan expatriates and former LIFG members from Britain to take part in the fight against the Qadhafi regime. One such returnee was the imam of the Didsbury Mosque, attended by Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the Manchester Arena attack.
Abedi’s father, Ramadan, a former member of the LIFG, also returned to Libya to fight in the revolution. While visiting his father, the sixteen-year-old Salman engaged in fighting and gained exposure to the jihadist milieu.
Like many of his peers, though, Salman would reject the jihadism of his father’s generation in favor of IS-styled jihadism.
According to Salman’s brother Hashem, who was arrested by the Tripoli-based RADA Special Forces after the attack based on his involvement in its planning, the brothers became sympathetic to the Islamic State through their network of friends, a number of whom joined IS in Syria, as well as through online jihadist propaganda.
In the year or so leading up to the attack, Salman met, while in Libya, with IS operatives who had previously been part of Katibat al-Battar al-Libiyah in Tripoli and Sabratha, in the estimation of intelligence officials.
Therefore, despite the lack of direct confirmation that he underwent training while in Libya, Raffaello Pantucci suggests that his determination to build the bomb immediately on his return to Manchester suggests receipt of some training during his final trip to Libya.
As a result, based on currently available information, this attack can best be described as the result of training with midlevel operatives. Just as Europeans first became involved, on a large scale, with the transnational jihadist movement during the 1990s in Bosnia, the mobilization to Libya represents the first such case for sub-Saharan Africans.
Worth noting here, of course, is that while Muslims were a minority in European states, they constitute a majority in many of the states from which jihadists flowed to Libya, perhaps reducing the likelihood that wider extremist movements could flourish based on inherent minority grievances.
Still, countries in which a Muslim minority does exist, such as Ghana, Kenya, and, to a lesser extent, Eritrea, could be riper for such jihadism and therefore worth watching.
In Eritrea, particularly, authoritarianism might narrow the overall space for jihadist proselytizing and recruitment, while the democratic character of Ghana and Kenya could make such efforts more feasible.
Further, Ghana has no history of jihadist activism, whereas Kenya has faced problems with recruitment of Kenyans and attacks by the Somalia-based al-Shabab.
Some African countries have already taken steps to preemptively defend against blowback, whether or not they expect jihadist returnees from Libya. Such measures are likely driven in part by fears related to disruption caused by major AQIM attacks in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali in recent years.
Thus, in early January 2017, Chad closed its border with Libya to protect against foreign fighters fleeing into the country after the Islamic State’s ouster from Sirte. More generally, countries like Benin and Gabon are aiming to increase their security as well as their counterterrorism infrastructure.
As Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba noted in May 2016, “Most of us [West Africans] do not have the experience to fight terrorism. It’s new to us.”
Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Libyan Attorney General’s report on foreign fighters, majority and minority parties in the Ghanaian government have joined together to intensify monitoring of internal security as well as build closer ties to Libya, with the latter initiative aimed at ascertaining information on the 50–100 of its citizens who joined IS in Libya.
In limited cases, jihadist suspects have been arrested or killed in places with virtually no history of militancy. For example, in mid-January 2016, two AQIM-linked individuals from Guinea-Bissau, along with a senior AQIM cleric from Mauritania, were arrested in Boké, a city in the western part of Guinea.
On the other side of the continent, in Rwanda, in late January 2016, police shot Muhammad Mugemangango, the deputy imam at Kigali’s Kimironko Mosque, who served as an IS recruiter for Iraq and Syria, while also arresting some of the individuals Mugemangango had recruited, who were planning to join IS in Libya.
The peril associated with these outliers need not be blown out of proportion, but instead taken to illustrate the future risk of exploitation of countries lacking a history of jihadist activism.
They also represent potential sites for casing new targets with the goal of expanding the jihadist area of operations, as AQIM has done in the past few years. Likewise, the Islamic State’s unofficial affiliate in the Sahara region, which is led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and based mainly in Mali and Niger, could take advantage of these situations.
Furthermore, the Islamic State is innovative and is still looking for ways to exploit various weaknesses. For example, recent warnings by officials in both Morocco and Nigeria reflected worry that IS could exploit migrants stuck in Libya who are in the process of being repatriated to their respective home countries.
This has postponed the return of Moroccans, given that Morocco’s security services, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, identify such individuals and whether they should be deemed a threat. Similarly, Dr. Ona Ekhomu, president of the Association of Industrial Security and Safety Operators of Nigeria, advised the Nigerian government that “some of these people might have pledged [allegiance] to ISIS. They need to be separated out from those who migrated for economic reasons.”
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at The Washington Institute, where his research focuses on Sunni Arab jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria as well as trends in foreign fighting and online jihadism.