In depth: Europe fears Islamic State expansion in Sirte

Libya Channel

France warned of the increasing risk of Libya becoming a haven for Islamic State combatants on Saturday, after French military aircraft flew reconnaissance missions over Sirte where IS fighters are moving east on the oil crescent.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned IS’s ranks in Libya could swell as western airstrikes against their positions in Syria and Iraq intensified. France has upped its bombing of IS targets in Syria following last month’s a terror attack in Paris which saw 130 people killed. On Thursday the UK followed suit after the British parliament voted in favour of anti-IS sorties.

“We see foreign jihadists arriving in the region of Sirte who, if our operations in Syria and Iraq succeed in reducing the territorial reach of [Is] could tomorrow be more numerous,” Le Drian told the Jeune Afrique weekly.

He ruled out military intervention in Libya but warned the West had to try to foster Libyan unity in the face of such a threat.

“It is a major risk and that’s why there absolutely must be understanding between the Libyans,” Le Drian aded.

It followed a military report released Friday that two French reconnaissance missions were flown in November around Sirte, a central city and the group’s new headquarters in Libya.

The French government had not previously acknowledged carrying out operations over IS zones in Libya.

“Other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights are also planned,” the report said.

 

Meanwhile the internationally-recognised government in Libya launched its own campaign to reduce IS capabilities in the country, as fighters moved on the eastern city of Ajdabiya in the country’s oil-producing heartland. The air force pummeled IS weapons depots to the south of the Ajdabiya on Tuesday following intelligence reports that the group was funneling weapons in to the centre of the city, Air Force Spokesperson Nasser al-Hassi told Libya Channel.

“We got intel from the ground that Isis and their allies were moving weapons stockpiles from their storage unites into the heart of the city. It is clear they expect a strike from us, and want to use residents as human shields. They are also preparing against an uprising from local inhabitants,” Captain al-Hassi said.

“We are trying to take out their supplies before they have a chance to move them,” he added.

It is part of a wider campaign to stop the militants from advancing towards the lucrative oil crescent where the internationally-recognized authorities fear they could make money from selling oil stored there or they could bankrupt the country by scuppering production.

The day before the air raids Sirte residents told Libya Channel that large convoys of heavily-armed IS fighters were leaving Sirte, en route to the oil terminals of Sidra and Ras Lanuf, that lie just before Ajdabiya.

“It’s a plan they have been voicing since last year, but recently it has become the main subject of Friday sermons,” said the resident, who could not be named for security reasons.

According to a UN report released on Tuesday 90 percent of government revenue comes from hydrocarbons which also account of  70 per cent of gross domestic product. While IS in Libya did not have the capacity to generate “assets of any note” from the hydrocarbon sector, the UN warned it could halt production damaging the government.

“It can significantly disrupt production at oil fields and create a situation in which oil installations cease operation due to the unpredictable security situation, thereby denying Libya critical revenue and possibly further destabilizing the country,” the report said.

“Oil revenues,are clearly critical to the Libyan economy,” it concluded.

The report admitted that IS fighters could make some profit from informal oil smuggling across the Mediterrean to Europe – which is steadily increasingly in the escalating lawlessness.

Oil smugglers  – who are mostly local militiamen –  told Libya channel they can make up to $2,200 a day selling petrol products, to places like Malta.

The global terror group first appeared in Libya in October last year when local jihadists pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the eastern city of Derna.

After losing their Derna headquarters in a June uprising by local residents and rival Al-Qaeda linked jihadi groups, they shifted their focus to a 200km stretch of territory from Nofliya to Sirte, the hometown of toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Exploiting the descent back into civil war and the total breakdown in security in Libya, IS has successfully held its territory and recruited local and foreign fighters.

The West increasingly fears that Libya will become one of the main strongholds for terror group as the bombing campaigns in Syria make it harder for them to operate.

In the UN’s Tuesday report it said  that IS saw Libya as “strategically important” due to its “geographical location at the crossroads between the Middle East, Africa and Europe.”

“The [IS] central command in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic views Libya as the “best” opportunity to expand its so-called caliphate,” the report said.

“The country is also viewed as a potential retreat and operational zone for ISIL fighters unable to reach the Middle East,” it added.

Some 3,000 IS fighters were now operating across Libya with at least 1,200 in Sirte headquartered in Gaddafi’s sprawling Ouagadougou Conference Centre.

It first appeared in the eastern city of Derna – when preexisting groups pledged allegiance to the caliphate, under the guidance and direct coordination of IS central command.

Some 800 of the initial IS recruits were Libyan IS Veterans of the Syria and Iraq conflict, the report said.

In 2012, one group of Libyans in Syria declared the establishment of the Battar Brigade. In the spring of 2014 many Battar brigade fighters returned to libya, organizing themselves as the Islamic Youth Shura Council in Derna.

Last september an IS delegation including Yemeni religious judge Abu al-Bara al-Azdi and the Saudi cleric Abu Habib al-Jazrawi, arrived in Libya. After being received by the IYSC, they collected pledges of allegiance from IYSC-aligned fighters in Derna. They then declared the establishment of Wilayat Barqa – or Barqa province.

In the UN Report they identified the leader of IS in Libya as shadowy figure Abu al-Mughirah Al-Qahtani,  who has appeared in IS propaganda videos but whose location is yet to be confirmed.

Little is known about al-Qahtani but Al-Baghdadi sent many other close aides to the Libya to lead the group and bolster recruitment.

The important names included ex-Iraqi army officer Wissam Al Zubaidi  – Abu Nabil al-Anbari – who was jailed with Baghdadi in Iraq. Al-Anbari played a major role in the fall to IS of Beiji and Tikrit in Iraq and was made governor of Salahuddin province before his positing to Libya.

Together with al-Azdi, Al-Anbari was tasked by Baghdadi to cultivate Derna into a new stronghold, with al-Anbari acting as emir and al-Azdi managing the organizational and operational side.

Bahraini operative Turki Mubarak al-Binali  – otherwise known as Abu Sufian – who is a member of IS’s religious council, was also dispatched to Libya but sent to manage the west. Between 2013 and 2015 he operated in Sirte laying the groundwork of the current stronghold.

“Soon after Binali’s first visit, a wave of foreign terrorist fighters arrived in Libya from the Maghreb, Egypt, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and Mali,” the UN report found.

It is this “concrete outreach and cooperation” which separates Libya from other IS affiliates in the region, the report added.

“IS in Libya has thus far been the only known IS affiliate that has benefited from support and guidance by IS in the Middle East,’ the report found.

But despite the huge amount support Wilayat Libya has received it is still regarded by the local community as an “outsider” organisation. It has suffered a limited ability to expand quickly from its current stronghold due to a lack of fighters, the report said.

“The relative sectarian homogeneity in Libya prevents IS from taking advantage of sectarian rifts and societal discord to quickly increase its domestic recruitment base,” the report found.

It is also unclear how it is funded. Pre-existing smuggling network plays a role the report found in the form of “”weapons, migrants, drugs, and other commodities, such as cigarettes and subsidized goods”.

The myriad smuggling routes through Libya cross through IS territory giving it an opportunity for checkpoints and racketeering.

It is not yet confirmed that IS profit from people smuggling but it engages in extortion, intimidation, armed robbery and forced taxation.

Meanwhile residents on the ground in Sirte told Libya’s Channel that the fighters were trying to turn their town into a Raqqa replacement.

The town’s radio stations broadcast 24-hours news of IS’s victories across the region, and updates on the war in Syria.

Additional checkpoints – manned by foreign fighters that hail from groups including Nigeria’s Boko Haram – have been erected. Religious police now sweep through Sirte’s main university enforcing strict dress codes for the female students, that is now a niqab and losing fitting abaya.

Women are bared from moving around the city without a male guardian. While a sharia law courthouse deals out harsh punishments like lashing, amputations and beheadings for those who flout the caliphate’s laws.

The latest development is focusing on training children – the first batch of graduations for the “Caliphate cubs” a group comprising of some 85 boys aged between 14 and 20 years olds,  occurred on Friday.

The youth, who come from IS held towns of Sirte, Huwara and Nofliya, were sent to training camps for five weeks to learn how use weapons, build IEDs and be suicide bombers, locals told Libya’s Channel.

As IS expands it’s empire, Europe has increasingly sounded the alarm.

France plans further recognaissance sorties across the country soon – fearing that IS’s increasing Libyan reach could see it merge with other jihadists groups like Boko Haram, which  pledged allegiance to IS in March and which has been bringing terror to Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

“There is a major risk of a link being forged with Boko Haram,” said Le Drian, urging Libya’s rival administrations to push forward with dialogue.

But Le Drian insisted that France would not countenance military action.

“That’s not on the agenda. One cannot release the Libyans from their responsibilities by suggesting there might one day be an intervention. They must find solutions themselves,” he said.

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