Tunisia gave birth to the Arab Spring and became the only Arab country to establish a democracy after overthrowing its dictatorship. Now, this year, it has suffered two murderous attacks against foreign tourists carried out by Islamic State in Libya. Chief editor Gary Lakes investigates this new branch of the deadly terrorist group.
IN the terrorist attacks that have shaken Tunisia’s tourist industry to the core two gunmen killed 22 people in an attack on the Bardo National Museum in March and a lone killer slaughtered 38 tourists on Sousse resort beach in June. A Libyan branch of Islamic State (IS), claimed responsibility.
It is known also in the West as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), and in the Middle East as Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIL – but this is also derisory because the plural form daw’aish means bigots who force their views on others.
The attacks in Tunisia targeted the tourist industry, which could harm the country’s economy enough to threaten the stability of the fledgling democracy. The gunmen in both attacks were trained in neighboring Libya. Seifeddine Rezgui, the Sousse jihadi, was said to have trained at an Ansar al-Sharia camp near Sabratha, close to the Tunisian border.
In February black-clad Daesh killers carried out the mass beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.
The extent and power of extremist Islamist groups in Libya is unclear. Some estimates say Daesh Libya has 2,000 fighters, others put its members at a few hundred.
The Islamist Libya Dawn controls a large part of western Libya. It is based in Misrata and supports the Islamist-oriented General National Congress government in Tripoli, which is the rival of the internationally recognized government that was forced to relocate to Tobruk last August after Libya Dawn seized the capital.
The two rival governments in Libya have failed to reconcile despite prolonged UN attempts to mediate. This suggests that conditions in Libya – in line with current thinking on Daesh – can only get worse before they get worse.
“Libya has a jihadi history,” Claudia Gazzini, Libya Senior Analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told Global Sources Magazine. “Several areas of the country, particularly Derna, Ajdabiyah and Sirte, have always sent a flow of jihadi fighters to places like Afghanistan, Iraq and then Syria.”
Gazzini, now based in Rome, lived in Tripoli until two months ago. She said Daesh Libya evolved from a series of events in the post-Gaddafi deterioration of the country that led to the militarization of Ansar al-Sharia and eventually brought Daesh envoys from Syria and the return of Libyan fighters from there. Ansar al-Sharia has shifted from being a group focused on doing good works for the community to an extremist militia, first affiliated with al-Qaida and now allied with Daesh, Gazzini said.
She estimates that half of the jihadis with Daesh Libya are foreigners, including some from the Sahel. “Certainly there are a lot of Tunisians, but I have yet to learn of any Egyptians in the [Daesh] ranks,” she said.
The group is not large, but it has a stronghold in Sirte stretching 200 kilometers east to Ben Jawad. At present the group does not have the strength to push further east and take the oil export terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, Gazzini said.
Until several weeks ago Daesh controlled much of the eastern town of Derna, but media reports in early July said it was driven out by a rival Islamist group, the Mujahedeen Council of Libya. Daesh also controlled large parts of Benghazi, but has lost ground there to the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by the Gaddafi-era general Khalifa Haftar, who is allied with the Tobruk government. In mid-July Daesh claimed to have killed one of the LNA’s top commanders, one said to be ruthless in pursuit of the extremists.
Daesh and Ansar al-Sharia also control parts of Ajdabiyah, south of Benghazi. In June the Tobruk government reported that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who led the attack on a BP gas processing plant in southeast Algeria in January 2013, and a leader of Al Qaida in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), had been killed in a US airstrike in Ajdabiyah.
A security specialist who visits Libya frequently told Global Sources Magazine that many of Daesh Libya’s members are regional jihadis back from the war in Syria and Iraq. The source said they include Tunisians and Egyptians disillusioned by the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to seize power in their home countries. The source also alleged that Daesh Libya was being used by Turkey, Qatar and sometimes Iranian intelligence to “promote certain agendas,” but did not identify any specific action by the group to support this contention.
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told Global Sources Magazine that Daesh Libya has many former Gaddafi supporters, who, after being marginalized, have found in Daesh “a way to exact revenge and play a role.”
“Daesh’s potential to expand in Libya is limited by the construction of the society which is divided into tribes and clans,” Mezran said. “For example, if one [tribe or clan] joins, its traditional rivals will reject it, limiting its potential for expansion.”
Mezran said the composition of Daesh Libya is unclear but he added that there could be some Egyptian fighters and his sources had confirmed that several dozen Tunisians are in its ranks.
Global Sources Magazine sources say Daesh Libya does not in itself pose a serious threat to Libya, North Africa, or to Europe. But it can radicalize and train individuals like Rezgui to send them on missions and, as Rezgui’s attack proved, action by just one individual is enough to destroy lives and alarm powerful governments.
“Some [analysts] suggest that Daesh may even play a positive role by uniting the competing forces against it, thus helping to overcome the polarization [in Libya] and help solve the current crisis.” Mezran said.
“But,” he added, “in my opinion it is a threat to the stability of the country no matter what. It has proved its deadly capacity to inflict pain through car bombs and suicide attacks. If a government of national unity is formed and tries to bring order and security back to the country, it will find Daesh to be a powerful and subtle enemy.”