When ISIS began rearing its head and taking broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria last year, there were obvious questions about where the group was likely to spread next. Libya was a clear natural vulnerability, given the ongoing chaos driven by inter-militia violence and the vacuum of leadership following the collapse of the Gadhafi regime. There was a perception, however, that the country’s position on the coast of the Mediterranean and its proximity to Western Europe would limit ISIS’s spread into the region. Most observers believed that spreading into Libya would be, in some ways, an invitation for Western intervention.
Not so, as we have seen in recent months. In fact, ISIS, or the Islamic State, now fully occupies the major port city of Derna along the Mediterranean coast. This puts their strongest foothold in Libya in dangerous proximity to Tobruk, where what remains of Libya’s central government is based. News sources are reporting that while most of the population of Derna does not welcome governance by the Islamic State, the lack of a strong central government to fight the group leaves no clear opportunity for an ouster from the city.
The ISIS presence in Libya has emerged from various sources. There are an estimated 300 Islamic State fighters who have returned to Libya after fighting in Syria and Iraq. Others are Libyan members of other militant groups that are now swearing allegiance to ISIS. According to CNN, “amateur video from the end of October showed a large crowd of militants affiliated with the Shura Council for the Youth of Islam chanting their allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The new ISIS wing in Derna calls itself the “Barqa” provincial division of the Islamic State, the name given to the eastern region of Libya when Islamic rule replaced the Roman Empire.
Tobruk and Derna both lie along the Libyan Coastal Highway, constructed under the rule of Benito Mussolini in colonial Italian Libya. ISIS has already established footholds or has staged major attacks in other cities along this highway, including Benghazi, Sirte, Al Bayda, Al Khums, and the capital city of Tripoli. Libya’s major oil export facilities—now famous for their many repeated disruptions—including Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Zuetina, and Zawiya, lie along the same stretch of coast.
In addition to bombings, kidnappings, and occupations in these coastal cities, the Islamic State has made itself known in the oil producing regions. Libya’s oil exports have been jumpy at best, but until recently, its disruptions in oil output have stemmed from political disagreements. Groups seized oil fields, ports, and infrastructure as a means to achieve financial concessions or other political gains. Now, thanks to ISIS attacks, Libya’s already beleaguered oil industry has seen physical damage to rigs, pipelines, and storage facilities. Expect the situation to get worse before it gets better.
View our map below to see where ISIS attacks have taken place.