By Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran
For the past three decades, Libya has been a rich recruiting ground for the global jihad.
Investigating the precursors and then subsequent evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist actors throughout this period presents actionable insights into how jihadist actors coalesce; how they interfere in post-conflict state building; the threats they pose to civilians, nascent economies, and external states; and finally, what complexities remain when their hold on territory has been eradicated, but their adherents have not been killed nor their ideology debunked.
In “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya,” Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran examine ISIS’s pre-history, birth, expansion, consolidation, and dispersal in Libya, as well as the broader political context of the country –offering advice and recommendations for how Western governments and militaries should approach jihadist actors globally.
Over the last three years, ISIS has become the enemy of the vast majority of the Libyan people. By ignoring Libyan tribal norms — killing too many people and brutally crushing resistance — ISIS first lost the city of Derna in early 2015, and then later, its stronghold in the city of Sirte in late 2016.
This fits into a larger regional dynamic, whereby ISIS’s brutality has tended to backfire, while its administrative capacity has won it support. As such, ISIS initially thrived in vulnerable localities in Libya because it exploited local cleavages and because previous central governments were reluctant to devolve power to local authorities. Surveying this history, the authors conclude that Western policy must seek to get militias and local councils to take ownership of governance and justice issues, rather than merely directing them to fight ISIS or other jihadists.
True national reconciliation and inclusiveness in Libya, especially between formerly pro-Qaddafi actors and rebels, and between anti-Islamist and pro-Islamist actors, is required to end the cycle of statelessness and radicalization in Libya.
Significantly, this report sheds light on Libya’s constantly evolving position within the global jihadist networks connecting Afghanistan, Iraq, Europe, and North Africa.
It is out of this milieu that Salman Abedi, the British-Libyan suicide bomber involved in the May 22, 2017, Manchester Arena attack, sprung. His father supported the al-Qaeda aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1990s, and it was a natural progression for Salman to transition from that milieu to ISIS.
As western governments address this constantly evolving threat, they must understand that there is no such thing as a purely military strategy to defeat ISIS in Libya. The group is a symptom — rather than a cause — of broader Libyan problems, especially weak governance.
The dysfunctional tyranny exercised by Libyan militias is at the heart of the country’s instability over the past five years and contributed to attracting ISIS. Therefore, the authors explain, any anti-ISIS strategy for Libya cannot be based on counterterror efforts alone; international and Libyan policy must treat the root causes that made Libya’s governance vacuum an effective incubator for jihadist operations.
Click here to read the full report (The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya).
1. Brutality Backfires
Our data show that, over the last three years, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has become the enemy of the vast majority of the Libyan people. By killing too many people and brutally crushing resistance, ISIS first lost Derna and in December 2016, lost Sirte. This fits into a larger regional dynamic, where ISIS brutality occasions backlashes: ISIS lost in Yemen because they were too brutal and acted against tribal norms, undermining their ability to compete with more established groups like al-Qaeda. Furthermore, in Libya, ISIS has been doubly challenged by its inability to rely on sectarian cleavages to marshal support from the Sunni population as it has done in Iraq and Syria.
2. Statelessness Created ISIS
There is no such thing as a purely military strategy to defeat ISIS. ISIS is a symptom of broader Libyan problems, especially weak governance. The tyranny exercised by Libyan militias has been at the heart of Libya’s instability for the past five years. It constituted a major contributing factor to the environment that attracted ISIS in the first place. Therefore, international and Libyan policy needs to treat root causes. Any anti-ISIS strategy for Libya must include a plan for bolstering Libyan institutions and dealing with Libya’s militia menace. Merely evicting ISIS from Sirte has not and will not solve any of these underlying problems as ISIS cells maintain a presence in Libya and their ideology persists. Libya’s ongoing statelessness allows it to be used as a training ground and communications hub for ISIS to project power abroad. The unique effectiveness of Libya’s governance vacuum as an incubator for jihadist operations was showcased to devastating effect with the May 22, 2017, Manchester Arena bombing. To rebuild Libya, militias must be folded into civic life—their functions professionalized through new, coherent security institutions. Now that ISIS has lost its territorial control of Sirte, Western governments should provide further support for efforts to formalize, institutionalize, and restructure Libya’s security institutions.
3. Necessity to Decentralize Authority
ISIS was allowed to thrive in vulnerable localities in Libya because previous central governments have been reluctant to devolve power to local authorities. Western policy must seek to get the militias and local councils to take ownership of governance and justice issues, rather than merely directing them to fight ISIS or other jihadists. The governance of Sirte in the aftermath of liberation from ISIS control is a case in point.
4. Marginalization in Libyan Society Enabled ISIS
ISIS has been able to exploit, and seek refuge within, communities that suffered in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. Communities vulnerable to ISIS’s exploitation have included both pro-Qaddafi elements and more radical elements of those militias that supported the uprisings. True national reconciliation and inclusiveness in Libya, especially between formerly pro-Qaddafi actors and rebels and between anti-Islamist and pro-Islamist actors, is required to end the pattern of radicalization in Libya. This can be achieved by building a genuine reconciliation process into any new unity government plan and into the new Libyan constitution.
Recommendations: A Purely Counter-Terror Approach To ISIS in Libya Is Insufficient
Targeted Capacity-building Programs to Fill Power Vacuum Exploited by ISIS
ISIS is a symptom of Libya’s underlying disease: lack of governance. The country does not require nation-building assistance writ large, nor does it need injections of development aid. Treating the cause of Libya’s instability, and not just its symptoms, requires targeted capacity-building programs that empower Libyan actors to fill the vacuums that have allowed for jihadist expansion. In its assistance efforts, Western actors, including the United States, should be wary and mitigate the risks of becoming embroiled in the complex environment.
If the United States continues to prioritize countering ISIS globally and containing the migrant crisis, it will need to focus on Libya more than it has in the past. Foreign assistance budgets are expected to tighten under the Trump administration; however, while prioritizing Libya’s jihadist threat will require more funding, the challenge for the US government will be deciding shrewdly where to allocate scarce resources for maximum impact. In the current foreign assistance climate, the United States will likely only be spending money in Libya on projects that are perceived as having a direct bearing on US national security interests. To date, these have been viewed in counter-terror terms. We counsel that the current view of US national interests be expanded to include governance, especially at the local level, in Libya.
Jihadist organizations have been able to survive and thrive in Libya because they offer governance functions to a population that is starved for them. Even if ISIS fades as a phenomenon, other jihadist groups will persist and will likely continue to control pockets of territory as the Benghazi and Derna Revolutionary Shura Councils currently do, even as they come under increasing pressure from Haftar’s forces in early 2017.
ISIS provided more extensive governance than any of its jihadist competitors in Libya. It was uniquely brutal because it was not really run by Libyans and was oblivious to their social and cultural sensitivities. This was more responsible for its demise than any anti-ISIS military offensives, airstrikes, or special operations.
As ISIS’s direct territorial threat fades, policy makers must ask how a new framework of decentralized Libyan governance can be encouraged to prevent ISIS, and similar groups, from reemerging. Only a national governance solution that takes into account local Libyan particularities can diffuse the appeal of jihadist groups, while building Libyan political, social, and military mechanisms to contain them.
Throughout 2015 and early 2016, ISIS failed to establish itself as a significant player outside of Sirte and its environs. It was only a brief interloper in Derna and Sabratha. Although ISIS successfully played the role of spoiler throughout Libya, it was never the sole, most deeply-rooted, or even most militarily powerful jihadist group in Libya.
It follows that international efforts to return Libya to peace and prosperity should not focus on ISIS exclusively or be curtailed in ISIS’s wake. Instead, foreign governments should seek to help Libyan-led efforts to eradicate the existence of a permissive environment for jihadist recruitment, training, and territorial control.
This can only be achieved by ameliorating the causes of conflict between Libya’s mainstream groups and not by supporting one faction over another. It is critical that Libyans recognize that these mainstream groups include members of tribes and residents of cities perceived as loyal to Qaddafi. Any solution—such as the 2013 Political Isolation Law—that institutionalizes these groups as second class citizens will be perennially unstable.