It’s clear now that Russian and Western air strikes against ISIL (Islamic State) militants in Syria and Iraq in recent months have inflicted huge human and financial losses upon it. Under these circumstances the Islamic State is desperately looking for new Muslim countries to operate in. The Islamic State leadership is seeking ways to compensate for the financial losses it has suffered, and establish new backup outposts outside the Middle East. That is why ISIL has been fairly active in plans to take control of Libya, which is particularly rich in “black gold”, as well as Afghanistan, with is home to a profitable narcotics market.
Some may wonder about the staggering progress ISIL has been able to achieve in Libya, but it’s hardly a surprise to experts, since in recent years thousands of citizens of this country left their homeland to join Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq. Approximately one thousand of these hardened fighters have already returned to Libya to join the local ISIL forces. It should be noted that Libyan Islamists were responsible for some key operations in Syria and Iraq. In particular, they were part of Al-Battar battalion, known for its constant suicide attacks, ruthless extermination of the local population and the brutal suppression of the uprising in Deir ez-Zor.
Therefore the warning that was voiced on December 1, 2015 by UN observers that Libya is turning into a key stronghold of ISIL, while being in the immediate vicinity of coastlines of the EU, may truly reflect the extent of ISIL expansion.
The Islamic State has already established its control over more than 240 kilometers of Libyan coastline. The number of militants of the Islamic State in the area is estimated to exceed 5,000 militants, and among them one can find not only Libyans alone, but also former citizens of various Arab and European states.
Reconnaissance flights launched back in November 2015 by the French carrier Charles de Gaulle confirmed the strengthening of ISIL in the area, with numerous military camps being spotted across Libya.
Today one of the prime objectives of ISIL militants in Libya is to establish control over its oil exports. This goal is to be achieved by getting hold of Libyan ports, strategically important roads, intersections, and the better part of Libya’s oil terminals to the south of Ajdabiya. The fact that in January Islamists assaulted the port of Es Sider, getting stuck in a violent firefight with the defense units that were entrusted with port’s security reveals that they have been actively pursuing this goal. The estimated income one can get from Libya’s oil amounts to a whopping sum of 100 billion dollars a year.
At the same time ISIL is attempting to control contraband operations in Libya, since there’s a considerable amount of weapons being smuggled across Libyan territory. The destruction of the Libyan state as a direct result of Western military intervention in 2011 marked the uncontrolled spread of weapon supplies in the country and along its borders. As a result, the Islamic State was able to take control of weapons supplies destined to government militias in Tripoli, even despite the fact that it has been fighting it at the same time. A key figure that controls the money flows for the arming of the militias of Misrata and Benghazi is field commander Wissam bin Hamid, who is closely associated with the extremist Islamist militias. He was the leader of a very powerful Benghazi militia at the time of the attack on the US consulate in September 2012.
As for the access of ISIL to the banking operations, this problem is greatly simplified for them in Libya in the context of the ongoing dual power in the country: on the one hand – there is the elected parliament, sitting in the city of Tobruk, on the other – pro-Islamic universal national congress, sitting in Tripoli. Under these circumstances, and taking into account the specific operations of the Libyan Central Bank, which transfers money to both governments, ISIL has no trouble gaining access to international financial flows. “Hawks” in Tripoli are more concerned with the eventual victory over the forces of the Islamist brigades of General Haftara, but not ISIL.
Against this background, the countries of Western Europe have been increasingly concerned with the strengthening of ISIL positions in Libya. If this country is transforming into a base for the Islamic State, Islamists will be able to launch terrorist attack in Europe from it, hiding their suicide attackers under the guise of poor Libyan refugees. For this reason the leading European states have been discussing the possibility of creating a new coalition for months, which should be able to deal with the growing ISIL influence in Libya.
Back in February 2015 Italy made it clear that it was prepared to send ground troops to confront the Islamic State in Libya, that had been drafting its various plans some 350 kilometers away from its territory.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian voiced his concerns over the situation in Libya a year earlier – in 2014, stressing the need for carrying out a military operation in Libya and for launching air strikes. Shortly before last Christmas Le Figaro stated that the French Defense Ministry is considering a six months long military intervention in Libya to be launched before spring.
Paris perceives such a military initiative as a timely measure, especially against the backdrop of considerable military forces being deployed in the region. The presence in the region of Charles de Gaulle carrier allows France to easily redirect up to three dozen warplanes that are now being employed in Iraq and Syria. In addition, French military experts believe that the special operation can be carried out with the support of the Madam French military base in northern Niger, while stressing the fact that this operation is aimed at ensuring the safety of the civilian institutions of the new Libyan government. It should be remembered, as the Huffington Post notes, French and British special forces have already been deployed in Libya back in 2011 in the Nafusa mountains.
The United Kingdom is also considering the possibility of sending a considerable military force to oppose the Islamic State in Libya after receiving approval from the parliament on December 2, 2015. In particular, UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon has stated that London can send up to one thousand soldiers to Libya, thus extending British military engagements in Syria and Iraq to one more country.
The possibility of a NATO military operation in Libya has been confirmed by a Libyan representative in the United Nations. According to him, four NATO countries (the United States, Italy, France and the United Kingdom) are prepared to launch airstrikes against the stronghold of the Islamic State in Libya, that would be later supported by ground troops, which should establish control over the territories occupied by ISIL.
So the year 2016 – the year of the “fiery monkey” will begin with a new military intervention in Libya, where chaos has been reigning solely due to the shortsighted actions of NATO “hawks” who unleashed armed aggression against this country back in 2011. It’s only natural to wonder if any of these “hawks” would ever be brought to justice for the chaos they created in North Africa and the Middle East? And for how long will people be paying with their lives for the greed of Western defense contractors?
Martin Berger is a Czech-based freelance journalist and analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.