As western countries ramp up strikes against ISIS’s de-facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, the terrorist group is looking to Libya as a potential back-up option at which to base its operations, according to The New York Times.
While ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) has other affiliates throughout Africa and the Middle East that have pledged their allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s branch in Sirte is the only one that ISIS central leadership directly controls.
The Wall Street Journal reports 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.”
The Sirte affiliate is also much closer to western Europe than ISIS’s territory in Syria and Iraq:
ISIS’s influence in Sirte has been growing over the past year, as it has evolved into what The Times describes as an “actively managed colony” of the central group.
The growth has been swift — the Libya affiliate has gone from 200 fighters to about 5,000 since ISIS announced its branch there, The Journal reports. (The Times reports that Western put that estimate at 2,000 fighters.)
And Libya might be an ideal location for ISIS’ fallback capital. The country lacks a functioning government and is rich in oil resources, which ISIS uses to finance its operations in Syria and Iraq, where it holds most of its territory.
Fathi Ali Bashaagha, a politician from Misrata, Libya, told The Journal: “We don’t have a real state. We have a fragmented government. Every day we delay on a political deal, it is a golden opportunity for Islamic State to grow.”
Rival governments in Libya agreed to a draft peace accord in October, but so far it has not been implemented, according to The Journal.
As ISIS has accomplished in Syria and Iraq, the group is successfully exploiting “deep divisions” in Libya, according to The Journal. ISIS has encouraged sectarian hatred in Syria and Iraq to further divide the population and convince Sunni Muslims that they need ISIS to protect them from Shiites.
Also as it did when it started seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS might also have its sights set on expansion in Libya. Local and Western officials told The Times that recent attacks suggest that Ajdabiya, a city further to the east, could be the next area ISIS looks to seize. It would give the group control of nearby oil fields, according to The Times.
Another sign of ISIS’ intentions in Libya comes with the people starting to suddenly appear in the North African country. Senior Iraqi leaders from ISIS are reportedly arriving from across the Mediterranean, which mimics how ISIS set up its base in Raqqa. The leaders of ISIS-controlled cities in Syria are predominantly Iraqi.
Sirte is also being 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.
ISIS might already be using Sirte as a base for its operations in North Africa. Neighbouring Tunisia has been hit with attacks from terrorists who trained in Libya, and Tunisia is now building a wall along its border to prevent extremists from easily crossing between the two countries, according to The Journal.
The group has also backed off of insisting that Muslims travel to Syria to join its Islamic “caliphate” and is now suggesting that recruits go to Libya instead, according to both The Times and The Journal.
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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