While Western nations focus on taking ISIS out in Iraq and Syria, the terror group’s influence in Libya is rising as it works to build a potential “back-up capital” if its stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, falls.
A New York Times reporter who recently returned from covering ISIS (also known as the Islamic State and ISIL) in Sirte, a coastal city in northern Libya, told radio host Hugh Hewitt Thursday that he was “shocked and alarmed” at how much ISIS has grown there.
“I have to say I was personally shocked and alarmed at what I found on this last visit,” Times reporter David Kirkpatrick told Hewitt.
“When I had last been near Sirte earlier this year in February and March, it looked like a bunch of local militants with their own local agenda just hauled up the Islamic State flag to make themselves look tough,” he said. “When I went back this time, not only did I find that they had vastly expanded their terrain … but the city of Sirte had become a kind of actively managed colony of the Islamic State leaders in Raqqa.”
ISIS is “sending in their own administrators, many of them from the Gulf, as well as their own military commanders, often Iraqis and former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army to lead their operations there, and recruiting foreign fighters from around the region,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick explained that Libya is a failed state full of cities that are governed by local militias.
“Some of those militias are ideological, and increasingly, they have picked up into two big teams fighting against each other mostly for money and power, but with a sort of vaguely ideological overtone,” he said. “And into this landscape comes the Islamic State … and it’s been expanding its own empire so that it now has a full and exclusive control of 150 miles of Libyan coastline.”
The base of operations in northern Libya also brings ISIS closer to the West. Kirkpatrick pointed out that Sirte is only 400 miles away from Sicily, Italy.
And if ISIS does eventually scale back its operations in Syria and shift its focus to building out its base in Sirte, it might be more difficult for Western states to intervene and stop them.
“You’re talking about a failed state surrounded by weak and fragile states,” Kirkpatrick said.
“I can’t think of any of the neighbouring states that could launch an intervention against the Islamic State or even host a Western intervention against the Islamic State. The closest thing is Egypt, and Egypt hasn’t been able to solve its own Islamic State problem,” he said.
Kirkpatrick continued: “And again, because this little Islamic State colony in Libya is amid the chaos in Libya, it’s surrounded by other militias, tribal or ideological militias, all of which are fighting against each other, and none of which would welcome a column of American troops marching through their territory. So it’s a big mess.”
At the end of the show, Hewitt called Libya the “newest, latest nightmare for the West.”
The Times reported last month that ISIS’ branch in Sirte is the only one outside of the group’s core territory in Iraq and Syria that ISIS central leadership directly controls.
The Wall Street Journal also reported on ISIS’ expansion in Sirte, noting that ISIS leaders in Libya have reportedly adopted a slogan that reflects Sirte’s heightened profile within the jihadist organisation: “Sirte will be no less than Raqqa.”
ISIS’ Libya affiliate has reportedly gone from 200 fighters to about 5,000 since ISIS announced its branch there, The Journal reported. (The Times reported that Western put that estimate at 2,000 fighters.)
Sirte is governed like other ISIS-controlled cities in the Middle East. The group has reportedly set up propaganda “media points” in the city and started imposing its strict laws, like requiring women to wear Islamic veils in public and permitting public executions.
But there are problems with ISIS’ franchise in Sirte. While the group has tried to build up the city to mirror Raqqa — with bureaucratic buildings, a “police” force, and courts — ISIS is having a hard time meeting the basic needs of the population, according to The Journal. Gas stations and hospitals aren’t functioning, and checkpoints make travel difficult.
As a civil engineer who recently fled told The Journal: “Sirte has gone dark.”
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