US President Barack Obama is planning to open yet a third front against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), this time on the shores of war-torn Libya. In the remaining months at the White House, Obama wants to go down in history as the American president who defeated Daesh solely in Iraq, jointly with the Russians in Syria — and perhaps jointly in Libya as well. His Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin would love to be part of any offensive against Daesh in North Africa. It would be sweet revenge for President Putin, who still complains that the US and its allies cheated him on Libya during the Nato war of 2011. Back then, Moscow approved the imposition of a no-fly zone for “humanitarian reasons” but the west took it a step further, going full throttle with a deadly war that toppled and killed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Putin vowed to never let it happen again, and put his full weight to abort similar western-backed regime change in Damascus.
The blueprint for cooperation on Libya can be found in the latest offensive on Ramadi in central Iraq, about 110km west of Baghdad. Although the Iraqi Army was the public face of the battle of Ramadi, it wouldn’t have happened without US-Russian cooperation.
The Iraqi Army advanced on Ramadi from the north, while Sunni tribesmen pushed from the south, backed by the Americans who were bombing Daesh from the skies. Hovering nearby was the Russian Air Force, striking at Daesh reinforcements that were due to arrive from neighbouring Syria. High level US-Russian cooperation is currently underway in Syria, where Russians began a major military offensive last September. So far it has been far more successful than that of the US-led coalition, paving the way for more joint — and perhaps silent — cooperation on Libya.
According to US officials, the new US campaign could start in a matter of weeks. Whether it succeeds or not is a totally different matter. Daesh, after all, has been present in Libya for two years now but red flags were raised just earlier this month when the terror group overran two key oil terminals in eastern Libya, which handle 80 per cent of the country’s oil reserves. The oil flow is vital for Daesh, which is bracing itself for a major battle with the US and Iraqi Armies in Mosul next summer. Additionally, the country is a gateway not only to Europe but to Libya’s six neighbours; Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan. Daesh already enjoys an affiliate in sub-Saharan Africa, with the notorious Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram pledging allegiance to Daesh in March 2015. No doubt it will become a magnet for African extremists.
The Libyan Army is currently holding much of the country’s east, while an assortment of Islamic militias occupies western Libya, headed by the Daesh affiliate, Majlis Shura Shabab Al Islam (MSSI), which translates as “Shura Council of Muslim Youth”.
Little is known about MSSI except that it was established in April 2014 and pledged its oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in June of the same year. According to Libyan estimates, Daesh has up to 3,000 fighters in Libya and controls 300km of the country’s coastline. Of that number 300 are Libyan militants who fought with Daesh, first in Deir ez-Zour and then in Mosul.
In November, 2014, Daesh fully occupied the Libyan city of Darna, 240km east of Benghazi, officially annexing it to Daesh. Videos of Libyan extremists made the rounds online, carrying machine guns and wearing beige fatigues, taking down mannequins from shop windows and shutting down hairdressers. They now control schools, police, mosque pulpits, and the city’s local radio. Al Baghdadi refused to send any weapons or money to his Libyan proxies, advising them to make money from trafficking, kidnapping and other illegal means, just as they did in Syria. Instead he sent them two of his top aides to advise on how to run the state; an Iraqi named Abu Nabil Al Anbari and a Saudi who goes by the name of Abu Baraa Al Azdi. Both had spent time with the “caliph” at his US jail in Camp Bucca in Iraq.
Many of the extremists operating in Libya today are Yemeni and Tunisian veterans of the Iraq and Syria wars. Local extremists are ex-Gaddafi supporters who went underground after their leader’s death in October 2011, similar to how ex-officers in Saddam Hussain’s army took up arms with the extremists after their president’s fall in 2003.
Daesh is feeding off the uncontrollable chaos and ruling Libyan cities by striking fear into the hearts of the locals. In August 2014, they executed an Egyptian citizen at a Libyan football stadium, with one shot through the head. In January, 2015, they attacked the luxury Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, killing four foreigners and four Libyans. In March, 2015, they laid claim to a car bomb in the capital Tripoli, which went off near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The video was posted in Daesh-style on the Libyan extremist forum, decorated with Daesh iconography. They also seized nine foreigners at the Al Ghani Oilfield and last May, took Sirte International Airport.
The major wake-up call was when Daesh thugs executed Egyptian Copts last February not in the deserts of Iraq but off the shores of the Mediterranean, facing Europe. In an online video, the Daesh militant leading the execution points to the ocean — to nearby Italy — threatening with the now famed, “We will conquer Rome!”
Because of oil and that specific direct threat to Europe, the world will come after Daesh in Libya today. The process could drag on for decades. Daesh is already investing in sleeper cells and lone wolf attacks to strike behind enemy lines — clearly from Paris last November. Taking them down won’t be easy, since the extremists of Libya — apart from name — are not the same as those of Iraq and Syria. They are just affiliates, meaning that Al Baghdadi can quickly find replacements. He is a good strategist who realised that it would be military madness to send arms, real men and money to Libya. He didn’t want to leave his main base in Syria unchecked and prone to invasion by his many enemies. To date he hasn’t offered more than lip service and technical advice to his proxies in North Africa. If the Americans and Russians do go to war in Libya, it would achieve nothing so long as the terror group thrives in Syria and Iraq. New Libyan extremists would emerge — with different names — to continue the fight with Daesh.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of “Under the Black Flag” (IB Tauris, 2015)