Libya’s IS expansion puts Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria under threat

Already weakened by years of instability and collapse of their economic resources, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria are the neighboring countries most affected by the Islamic State’s control over Libyan cities.

al-monitor An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, consisting of former members of militias from the town of Derna, drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya, Oct. 3, 2014. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

tunisia, sirte, libya, is, egypt, algeria, abu nabil anbari, abu bakr al-baghdadi

Mar 15, 2015

A political solution in Libya does seem far-fetched. Each time that the parties sit at the dialogue table in Morocco or Algeria — or in Geneva before that — military confrontation is ablaze between the Libya Dawn forces and the Dignity movement. In the meantime, the returnees from Syria fled to Libyan cities, especially Derna and Sirte, on the way to carry out attacks in Tunisia, Algeria and other western and southern neighboring countries.

The lack of state control is burdening the neighboring countries at the social, political and military levels. These countries will have their share of internal destabilization, if the organization [Islamic State] was able to disseminate its dormant and active cells in Libya’s neighboring countries.

Months ago, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had sent his prison mate Abu Nabil Anbari (whose real name is Wissam Abd al-Zubaidi) to contribute to the establishment of an IS branch in Libya and North Africa, in addition to Al-Yamani Shanqeeti, who has already been appointed IS governor of Derna. Anbari is a fierce fighter. After the fall of Mosul, he was the one who led the bloody attack on the cities of Tikrit and Beiji, which he forced the Iraqi forces out of, before he was appointed wali (governor) of Salahuddin province.

Egypt can be considered as the neighboring country that is affected the most by IS control over Libyan cities. In addition to the hotbeds, armament and recruitment activities that have come close to Egypt's western border, 21 of its citizens were beheaded. This is not to mention the strident popular reactions and government pressure to respond militarily to this crime. However, what prompted Cairo to refrain from proceeding with the airstrikes is the international reservations about the participation in a broad coalition to strike armed militias in Libya. These reservations were made clearer in Algeria’s rejection of meeting Egypt's call for the military option. They were also seen in the shift in stances in Rome and Paris. Italy and France were the most enthusiastic about engaging in the international coalition to launch raids on IS positions in Libya before they shifted to calling for a political solution. This general position with reservations is in line with the US position, which was expressed by US ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones. She wrote in a Libya Herald article on the fourth anniversary of Libya’s revolution against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime that “only Libyans can save Libya.”

At the social level, the massive return of Egyptian workers to their country will place heavy burdens on the country, in light of the authorities’ inability to provide all or even some of the returnees with employment opportunities. This means that Egypt — which is also busy with its war on armed groups inside the country — is harmed the most by the consequences of Libya becoming a failed state.

Tunisia, infiltrated?

Tunisia is the second-most affected country by the new crisis in Libya. This is because IS control of the cities and regions in neighboring Libya will destabilize Tunisia, and make it vulnerable to a danger that the country is not yet prepared to counter at all levels. Tunisians are very careful in dealing with the Libyan crisis, in order to keep equal distance from both parties, out of fear that Tunisians working in Libya are kidnapped or killed. The Libyan crisis has left its military, economic and social repercussions on Tunisia. IS expansion into Libya has made the risk of infiltrating into the Tunisian border only a matter of time. This is particularly true since there are local armed groups supporting al-Qaeda, such as Ansar al-Sharia and Uqba ibn Nafi.

The proof lies in the rise in the number of Tunisians fighters in Syria and Iraq to 3,800 members, according to Tunisian Interior Ministry estimates. It is not unlikely that many of them will return to their country.

In Libya, there are currently at least 1,500 Tunisian fighters, trained and armed, and they undoubtedly would like to return to their country. It seems difficult for the Tunisian army, which has limited armament, to impose strict air and ground control on the common border, stretching over 500 kilometers (about 310 miles).

In the same vein, Tunisia will find itself facing security challenges beyond its control, which will make the government unable to combine developmental and defensive missions. It is noteworthy that the Tunisian Interior Ministry recently confirmed that hundreds of Tunisians fighters in IS’ ranks have recently returned to their country, and they are active as sleeper cells, while some of them joined the ranks of Ansar al-Sharia.

It could be argued that the worst-case scenario for the Tunisians is the escalation of the violent conflict in Libya between IS, on the one hand, and Karama Brigade and the Dawn of Libya, on the other, which would push hundreds of thousands of civilians to migrate toward Tunisia, in a replay of the 2011 scenario during the NATO’s military campaign against Gadhafi.

The Tunisian state has no power today, as it has been weakened by four years of instability and the collapse of its economic resources. It is unable to bear the burdens of receiving a million refugees, in addition to tens of thousands of foreigners already living in Libya, such as what happened four years ago. Tunisia currently accommodates nearly 2 million Libyans and suffers the economic and social security burdens this results in.

Algeria: Fragile borders

Algeria is considered one of the high-risk countries due to IS expansion in western Libya. The Algerians are more rigorous in their opposition of any military intervention in Libya, whether it was at the international or the Arab level. Algeria has an experienced and resourceful army with sophisticated military equipment, unavailable to its neighbors. This is what makes Algeria more resilient when it comes to IS-affiliated members infiltrating its territories.

Yet, there is no guarantee that Algeria would remain safe in the face of IS expansion and infiltration into its territories, as it is not possible to monitor the long border it shares with Libya.

The joint military command — which was set up by Niger, Mauritania, Mali and Algeria — has proved its inefficiency, especially following the kidnapping of hostages in Tiguentourine gas field in the desert triangle between Algeria, Tunisia and Libya .

Sahel-Saharan States

Security is lax in the Sahel and desert on the southern border of Libya, where the state is completely absent and tribes are unable to control the security situation. Tribes could be working directly or indirectly with the armed groups, or taking part in drug smuggling and trafficking.

Given the weak armed forces in these countries — stretching from Mauritania southern border all the way to the Niger and Nigeria in the south — France has backed up the armies there, providing them with weapons and military equipment.

The Sahel and Sahara region remain uncontrollable on the border areas, especially when two of Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous brigades (Yusuf ibn Tashfin and Trek Bin Ziyad) arrived to the Adrar des Ifoghas in northern Mali.

Chadian President Idriss Deby warned in a previous interview with Le Figaro that the armed groups “who had no land have found themselves today a foothold in southern Libya and northern Mali. They set up training camps back when they did not even possess any weapons. Today, they can easily acquire them, in any type or size. Before, they used to operate underground. Today, they publicly flex their muscles and set out to apply Sharia law.”

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from   Rachid Khachaneh