The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya

June 26, 2017 – Camille Ford*

This piece is based on a panel discussion held at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC on June 20th 2017, with Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, Karim Mezran, and Chris Chivvis, on the occasion of the publication of their report titled: “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya.” The report is published by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and deals with  ISIS presence and activities in Libya in the post-Qaddafi era.

 Libya: A Unique Case in the ISIS network

In the preface to the report, four major findings are oulined: the emergence of ISIS as a reactionary force in the face of Libya’s ongoing statelessness; the negative Libyan response to ISIS brutality tactics; the emergence of ISIS in Libya as a result of marginalization in the post-Qaddafi era; and the necessity of decentralizing authority as a solution to issues of governance and justice in Libya.

The Mutability of Jihadism and Libyan Statelessness

Prompted by Atlantic Senior Fellow Karim Mezran, Jason Pack [1], the leading author of the report, kick-started the discussion by honing in on the mutable nature of jihadist groups. He asserts that while each specific jihadist group may claim a unique ideology, all jihadist groups share a common anti-western sentiment which drives their overarching ideology. This shared mission allows these groups to evolve and grow quickly, without sharp boundaries dividing them. In the Libyan militia context, Pack asserts that loyalty is fostered at the local level. In line with this, the local actors and regional factors hold greater importance than the needs of their umbrella organization, whether this be ISIS or any other, thus allowing for Jihadist groups to form, merge, or disappear rapidly.

This mutability is a central factor in understanding the growth of ISIS in the post-Qaddafi years. Pack asserts that ISIS is in fact just a symptom of broader Libyan issues, with the cause being the statelessness that has ensued since 2011. ISIS saw an opportunity for proliferation in the blatant political vacuum and the fragmentation of the state in Libya, and seized it. Localized Islamist groups, whose influence over local actors has trumped the formation of a truly unified nation-state, have undermined efforts towards a centralized authority. This became evident in 2011, when Libya was divided into two territories, governed by two competing governments, both claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. One faction based itself in the East, in Tripoli, and is comprised of a broad union of Islamist groups known as Operation Libya Dawn, and the second, based in the West, in Benghazi, is led by anti-Islamist General Khalifa Haftar.

From then on, a series of efforts, led by the UN and local actors, in 2014 and 2015, sought to undertake the daunting mission of creating a unity government. The project, however, has repeatedly failed as the UN was unable to convene the people of true influence, military leaders, to the negotiating table; and local actors remain faithful to their own factions.

Libya and Jihadism: A Historical Affair

Following Jason Pack, Chris Chivvis [2], from the RAND Corporation, highlighted the historical presence of jihadism in Libya, as well as the long-standing involvement of Libyan Jihadists in the Syrian crisis, which began in 2011. The ISIS-centric view of this phenomenon fails to account for the fact that ISIS is just one piece in the jihadist network, serving as an agent of jihadism, rather than its own structure. As such, the Pack, Smith and Mezran report highlights this historical relationship, tracing the roots of Libyan jihadism to the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s, when Libyan volunteers travelled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. This allowed the Libyans to develop military skills, and contacts, through the jihadist networks, which they would then use back in their country. The ISIS presence today represents a new wave of Libyan jihadists who have been deeply involved with global jihadist networks since 2011.

Derna: ISIS Brutality and Libyan Marginalization

According to the Report, this aspect is best exemplified in the case of the Libyan city of Derna. In 2016, data leaked by a defected ISIS fighter exposed the profound links between Libya and ISIS. Among the 3,600 foreign fighters who had registered with ISIS in the Syria-Turkey border regions between 2013 and mid-2014, “Derna and environs had the single highest per capita rate of foreign fighters joining ISIS of any other global province recorded.” It is no surprise that Derna became the first ISIS outpost in Libya in 2014. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formally recognized the “Derna emirate” in November of the same year. The ISIS presence in Derna was short-lived, being evicted from the center of the region in mid-2015, and once again, from the peripheries, in mid-2016, due to the ongoing competition for power among various groups. As of late 2016, after a brief occupation of the city of Sirte, ISIS no longer controls any significant territory in Libya, but still exercises some influence in the region. Derna thus highlights the ties between Libyans and Jihadists groups, who travelled to Syria and other countries where Jihadists are active, and developed skills and contacts which were used to create ISIS outposts in Libya.

The Derna example ties in two of the major findings proposed by Pack, Smith and Mezran: the disapproval of the Libyan people of ISIS brutality; and the impact of marginalization of some regions and cities on the emergence of ISIS in Libya. Derna, prior to its role as an ISIS outpost, was a largely neglected city in the post-Qaddafi era, leaving it vulnerable to outside influence. Its historical ties to global jihadism made it the ideal location for ISIS to establish itself. However, the ISIS presence was short-lived due to the brutality of its attacks in the region, which triggered a local counter-response, and led to the eventual demise of ISIS in both Derna and Sirte. The public beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in February of 2015, or the series of suicide car bombs staged in Sirte in July and August of 2016, are examples of such brutal attacks.

Conclusions: Decentralization of Authority and Limited Foreign Intervention

In the concluding remarks, Pack, Smith, Mezran and Chivvis addressed Western involvement in the Libyan conflict, and the necessity for a decentralized authority in Libya. Pack expressed his strong opposition to any type of strictly counter terror approaches, and advocated for a targeted focus on resolving the greatest underlying issue of the Libyan conflict, namely the lack of a governance system. As put forth in the report, he offers a solution in which he emphasizes the decentralization of power, and empowering local actors. To achieve this, Pack suggests support for bureaucratic, and media training, as well as the implementation of educational and vocational programs in order to remedy the economic instability in Libya, which has fostered the growth of an extensive black market.

All in all, the “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya” is a thorough report on the development of  jihadist movements which have plagued Libya. Its focus upon issues of statelessness and governance, as a root cause for the proliferation of ISIS provides a critical understanding of the Libyan case, and pragmatic solutions on both the domestic Libyan, and Western foreign policy front. Now, only time will tell whether the recommendations put forth by the report will carry any weight in the world of foreign policy, and whether the Trump administration will see cause in supporting Libya.

[1] Jason Pack, is the founder and emeritus director of Eye on Isis in Libya, as well as the executive director of the US- Libya Business Association, and founder of Libya-Analysis, a consultancy organization which produces reports on Libya for Western companies and governments.

[2] Chris Chivvis is the associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center, as well as a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He is also an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

*Camille Ford is an International Studies and Islamic Civilizations Double Major at Boston College (Class of 2018). She is currently a research intern for the Maghreb Center.