By Christina Gathman Contributing Writer March 2, 2015

In mid-February, news broke of yet another brutal round of executions carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This time, the carnage took place not in Syria or Iraq, but in Libya. An ISIS affiliate in Libya beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians after abducting them from the northeastern coastal town of Sirte. While the extreme actions of ISIS threaten to drag Libya’s neighbors into the conflict, outside actors cannot overlook the importance of restoring political stability as a prerequisite for addressing Libya’s myriad security challenges.

In recent months, ISIS has actively targeted Libya to expand its self-declared caliphate. The campaign began in the eastern city of Derna, which holds a well-established reputation for fostering radical Islamist ideology and supplying foreign fighters. In October 2014, the Islamic Youth Shura Council in Derna declared its allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who soon after gave a speech formally incorporating the group into his caliphate. Al-Baghdadi also sent some of his higher-ranking officials, including Abu Nabil al-Anbari, to promote the ISIS brand in Libya. Overall, ISIS in Libya represents a conglomeration of returned Libyan jihadists who fought alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria combined with rebranded militants from other Libyan Islamist groups.

After building up a solid base in Derna, ISIS announced the establishment of three wilayat, or provinces, in Libya: Wilayat Barqa, Wilayat Tripolitania, and Wilayat Fezzan. The growing ISIS presence across the country has been highlighted through a series of violent attacks that culminated with this latest mass execution. In Tripoli, the group carried out several assaults over the past several weeks, most notably a car bombing and shooting spree at the Corinthia Hotel that killed ten people, including one American. In the northeast, three oilfields were targeted just outside the city of Sirte: Bahi, Mabrouk, and Dahra. The group also claimed responsibility for a triple car bomb attack that left 38 dead in the eastern town of Qubbah. The less active southern branch, Wilayat Fezzan, allegedly carried out a January attack on an army checkpoint near Soukna.

While a handful of attacks does not a caliphate make, the increasingly bold actions of the Islamic State in Libya are amassing pressure on an unstable state already engulfed in civil war between two competing governments and their outside backers. Libya’s unrecognized Tripoli-based government continues to downplay the threat of ISIS in Libya in an attempt to depict the areas under its control as secure and to discredit the opposing Operation Dignity coalition. Domestically, most armed factions in Libya remain opposed to or unaffiliated with ISIS. Yet the group has actively sought to recruit fighters from other Libyan Islamist groups, including repeated overtures to Ansar al-Sharia—the militant group that carried out the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Though the broader competition between Al Qaeda and ISIS for resources and recruits will surely play out in Libya, ISIS has proven particularly adept in its recruitment techniques.

Increasingly weak security and poor border controls exacerbated by continued fighting also present an opportunity for ISIS to export its brand further into North Africa and the Sahel, especially if it is able to craft alliances with the transnational Islamist groups that have found refuge in the anarchic southern region of Libya. As ISIS comes under mounting pressure in Syria and Iraq, Libya’s porous southern borders and lack of security make it a logical and attractive pressure valve. As coalition airstrikes continue to exert their toll on the group, the possibility of relocating to Libya could become more appealing to ISIS. The return of Libyan foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria has already demonstrated the ease with which this can be accomplished. Moreover, the country’s strategic positioning as Africa’s gateway to Europe and well-established human smuggling routes allow for easy migration to Italy and the rest of the Schengen Area, a strategic benefit that ISIS plans to exploit.

Egypt responded swiftly to the latest Islamic State massacre by immediately carrying out airstrikes and sending the internationally recognized Baida government 400 containers of munitions in violation of the UN arms embargo. The Tripoli government has long accused Egypt and the United Arab Emirates of providing covert support to Baida-allied Operation Dignity forces. Thus, it came as no surprise that Tripoli promptly denounced the air strikes as a violation of Libyan sovereignty and retaliated the following day with the first-ever airstrikes from its own Libya Dawn coalition. Egyptian President Sisi’s plan to request UN Security Council permission for an intervention in Libya will further polarize Libyan political forces and prompt additional involvement by Qatar and Turkey, the international allies of the Dawn coalition.
Libya risks deterioration into a major proxy war if current policies continue to ignore the political dimensions of the conflict. Instead of focusing on securing their respective interests within the country, Libya’s neighbors must pursue a political compromise focused on strengthening the state’s ability to govern. Regional players must also hold Libyan politicians more accountable at a domestic level. With UN-brokered talks between the Tripoli and Baida government factions ongoing, willingness on both sides to cooperate is a prerequisite to combating the numerous security problems throughout the country. While sustained military action against Islamic ISIS may yield some positive short-term gains, current circumstances in Libya indicate that far more fundamental problems face the country. Any solution that ignores the political aspect in Libya is destined to fail.

Christina Gathman is a Master’s candidate in International Affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where she specializes in the Middle East and International Security Studies. Her studies at the Elliott School brought her to Beirut, Lebanon, where she lived and worked for eight months. Christina received her B.A. in International Relations and Philosophy from Tulane University.