Islamic State’s Libyan Expeditionary Force

The reach of the Islamic State (ISIS) has most recently spread to the North Eastern Libyan city of Derna. The ominous black flags of ISIS are now flying over government buildings and sharia law has been imposed upon the local population. Derna is now no different than ISIS cities such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Around 300 Libyan fighters from ISIS’ al Battar Brigade returned to their home country to expand the territory of the Islamic State to the northeastern coast of Libya. This is significant because the force represents not just a group of local jihadists swearing loyalty to the Islamic State, as has been seen elsewhere, but an actual “expeditionary force”, presumably in direct contact with Islamic State leadership, and operating under their direction.

Additionally, this is the first instance in which ISIS forces have taken territory non-contiguous with their perceived Islamic state in Northern Syria and Iraq. It also solidifies fears that foreign ISIS fighters returning to their home countries will caused increased instability. How did this happen? First, the northeastern region of Libya has a history of Islamic fundamentalism especially the coastal cities of Derna and neighboring Benghazi. Second, post-Qadaffi Libya is on the verge of becoming a failed state with the internationally recognized government forced out of the Capital and unable to re-establish control of the country.

The historical pre-disposition of the northeastern coast to Islamism along with the power vacuum left by an ineffective Libyan government provided returning Libyan ISIS fighters with a perfect opportunity to seize control of Derna without meeting any opposition. While the U.S. and coalition air power is targeting ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, the estimated 800 ISIS fighters currently holding Derna are relatively free to operate and exert full control over the territory. Libyan air force jets have since conducted attacks on ISIS targets in Derna but have not been persistent or yielded significant results.

ISIS forces in Libya are already showing the intention to spread their influence throughout the country by establishing chapters in al-Bayda, Benghazi, al-Khums, and Tripoli. What will be most interesting to see is how ISIS will interact with the two neighboring cities of Tobruk and Benghazi. Tobruk is a short distance from Derna to the east and is where the internationally recognized government has been operating from since losing the capital city of Tripoli to Islamist militias in August.

Tobruk could be an eventual target for the ISIS fighters in Derna given its close proximity and it being the last bastion of western influence in Libya. To the west is Benghazi where the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia has been fighting pro-government forces for control of the city.

Even though Al-Qaeda and ISIS have their differences, Ansar al-Sharia has had a noticeably softer stance on ISIS since they established the caliphate. Given that there is a stable relationship between the two organizations, it is possible that they could cooperate with one another to remove the final remnants of the internationally recognized government.

ISIS also seems to be doing outreach to the Islamist militia movement in Libya, the Libyan Dawn. The Libyan Dawn is the Islamist militant group that is currently in control of Tripoli and have claimed to establish a “national salvation government” under the leadership of Omar Hassi. The Libyan Dawn is a collection of Islamist militias reported to be politically aligned with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and fighting on their behalf. Initially, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was competing with Libyan nationalists for power in the new parliament elections that were intended to replace the General National Congress (GNC) with the Council of Deputies. The Muslim Brotherhood did not win the number of expected parliamentary seats and refused to recognize the authority of the Council that was dominated by Libyan nationalists. Conflict between Libyan Dawn Islamist militias and the Zintan nationalist militias erupted, resulting in the Libyan Dawn taking control of Tripoli and exiling the elected government to Tobruk. The overall goal of the Libyan Dawn is to supply the Muslim Brotherhood and allied organizations with a military force able to bolster political Islam in the region. They currently support Ansar al-Sharia in their fight for the city of Benghazi against nationalist forces led by Khalifa Hiftar.

It is unclear what the long-term intentions of ISIS are in Libya and how they will interact with the pre-existing Islamist groups. So far, they have shown to have a diplomatic posture by establishing chapters in Tripoli and Benghazi. They may be using this soft approach towards other Islamist groups so that they are not seen as a threat. This doesn’t mean that conflicts will not eventually erupt, just not at this time. It would be foolish for ISIS to be confrontational with the dominant Islamist factions such as the Libyan Dawn or Ansar al-Sharia when they have such a small force. ISIS seems to be attempting to gain traction in the Libyan Islamist community with its non-aggressive expansion tactics and may offer their assistance in the fight against Hiftar in Benghazi or remove the remaining government entities from Tobruk. If there is to be confrontation between ISIS and other Libyan Islamist groups, it would be after Hiftar is defeated and the internationally recognized government is effectively removed.