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In retreat, IS takes advantage of Libya's political divide

Rival forces in Libya are fighting an Islamic State insurgency after the group suffered major blows across the country.

CAIRO — The Islamic State (IS) is remobilizing in southern and central Libya, penetrating towns where lawlessness, tribal tensions and poverty are rife. No longer able to seize large swaths of land, the group is waging an insurgency to weaken the country’s competing authorities. The strategy is working, though experts and fighters from the western port city of Misrata, do not expect IS to reclaim the power it had in 2016.

The aspiring caliphate has a personal vendetta with Misrata after forces from the city — united under the banner of Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous (BAM) — defeated IS in the southern city of Sirte in December 2016. US airstrikes, which supported the forces, were vital to the mission.

BAM is nominally aligned with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, and continues to cooperate with the United States to hunt down IS cells south of Sirte today. On Nov. 17 and 19, US drones ostensibly hit two IS outposts in the central town of al-Fuqaha, Libyan officials told reporters.

“The group isn’t going to reclaim the strength it once had,” Col. Ali Rafideh, a fighter in BAM, told Al-Monitor. “IS militants are hiding in the desert, but we are looking for them. We know that most Libyans do not accept this group in our country.”

IS still poses a major threat, even though it is on the run. On Oct. 4, the group hit a courthouse in Misrata, killing four people and wounding more than 40. Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) — the nemesis of militias in western Libya — is also struggling to keep the group at bay. In August, IS ostensibly attacked an LNA checkpoint in the southern town of Jufra, beheading nine fighters and two civilians.

“BAM and LNA are fighting Daesh [Arabic acronym for IS] on different fronts and under different leadership,” Rafideh said. “That’s the biggest issue Libya faces to fully defeat the group.”

Young Libyans at least are not as drawn to IS as they used to be. Lydia Sizer, a terrorist expert focusing on Libya and a guest contributor to the Middle East Institute, explained that the group’s senior leadership is mostly made up of Saudi nationals. Tunisians, Egyptian and Sudanese men comprise much of its lower ranks. Men from Senegal, Eritrea, Chad and Gambia are also reportedly fighting with IS in Libya.

“IS does not enjoy significant domestic support among the Libyan population,” Sizer told Al-Monitor. “IS [in Libya] also doesn’t have the attraction it once did for recruits; it no longer has significant territorial possessions, and it’s seen globally as being on the defensive.”

The group can still target civilian centers to damage the legitimacy of ruling powers. Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst and frequent contributor to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that stopping them requires competing authorities to come together to address Libya’s security vacuum. IS particularly poses a major threat to civilians in Sirte and Misrata, and in areas surrounding the southern town of Ubari, which competing governments have neglected, enabling IS to bribe residents for shelter.

“Some semblance of economic and security control must be levied across Libya, so that communities aren’t desperate to tolerate the risk of an IS presence for money,” Megerisi told Al-Monitor. “[IS’] ability to move across the country would then be heavily compromised.”

Uniform governance is unlikely without a new political agreement that binds all of Libya’s major players. However, IS appears more willing to cooperate with rival jihadis and Islamist groups, hoping to subsume them if it regains enough power.

Hifter's rhetoric is largely to blame. Since returning to Libya in 2014 — after spending more than two decades in exile in Virginia — the strongman has branded all his opponents as terrorists. His bravado is pushing several armed groups, which might have been willing to negotiate, into the hands of extremists. He also refuses to compromise, threatening to retake the capital Tripoli by force, though he does not have the manpower to do it.

In Megerisi’s view, IS will try to exploit the ongoing power struggle. The group could, for instance, recruit fighters that were uprooted by Hifter’s forces in the east. IS may also pay smugglers in the north to maneuver around the country, while embedding cells in the pro-Moammar Gadhafi town of Bani Walid, located in the east. Marginalized by the revolution, tribes in Bani Walid are staunch opponents of the current political order.

“The trajectory of the country is toward further conflict between large parties and an increasing fracturing of existing power groups and militias,” Megerisi said. “This will increase the intensity of local conflicts and provide more cover for IS to act as mercenaries.”

Civil society is also assuming a larger role to curtail extremism due to the absence of durable state institutions. Emad Badi, a youth activist from Tripoli, told Al-Monitor that it is particularly important to assuage tribal tensions in the south, where fighting over smuggling routes and oil fields is common.

“Community divisions have resulted in some tribes coordinating with IS [to settle scores with their rivals],” said Badi. “If civil society can improve social cohesion, then terrorist groups will have a harder time to exploit disadvantaged youth, or create further chaos.”

While that may be true, weak governance and the absence of a national army remain the biggest hindrances to eradicating IS. According to Rafideh, too many militias have political ambitions, while others prefer profiteering from the chaos than combating terrorism.

“The only way to defeat IS is to unify our country,” he said. “We need an army that unites fighters from across the country. Libya needs an army that is solely responsible for protecting the homeland and its people.”

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