So far ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has been kept away from oil facilities and major cities by local militias. While ISIL currently controls only a few towns along the coast they are expanding wherever they find little resistance. Thus over 500 kilometers of the 1,800 kilometers long coast is now under ISIL control or threat. ISIL has about 6,000 fighters in those places. That force is growing because of local and foreign recruits. A large number of Libyans (several percent of some four million people left in the country) who still believe Islamic terrorism will fix all the problems in Libya and that ISIL is the best practitioner of this savage and ultimately futile strategy. Nearly all older Libyans realize ISIL is a dead (and deadly) end but many teenagers are still believers. These pro-ISIL teenagers are often found at the many mosques in the country run by radicalized clergy. In some areas the radical clergy have been arrested or killed and radical mosques turned into moderate ones or destroyed if conversion was difficult. Islam is still important for most Libyans but there is a growing intolerance of the more radical forms. So many of the most radical Libyans are flocking to Sirte and other places under ISIL control. In addition it appears that ISIL is directing many of its new recruits to Libya instead of Syria.
Officially ISIL describes their Libyan operation as just another “province” in their Islamic state. But in fact Libya is the largest concentration of ISIL personnel outside of the 20,000 in Syria and Iraq. Libya is also where an unusual number of key ISIL personnel (leaders, tech experts, trainers) are showing up. The reality is that ISIL is establishing another relatively secure base in Libya, one that could serve as a backup headquarters if the core of the current “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria is lost. ISIL also has franchises in nine other countries but none as strong and secure as Libya.
ISIL is trying to seize oil fields and export terminals so that it can try and raise cash by smuggling oil out. Actually doing that has proved very difficult but ISIL needs the money. ISIL, as a whole, is suffering from a severe cash shortage. ISIL personnel in Syria and Iraq report pay cuts of up to 50 percent and many are not getting paid on time. The reason for that is increasing air attacks on revenue producing operations (mainly oil pumping and smuggling) in Syria. In 2014 ISIL seized huge (over a billion dollars) amounts of cash and access to many salable items like antiquities and slaves. This helped ISIL operate and expand. The many nations fighting ISIL soon figured that out and went after those sources of income. By the end of 2015 ISIL was feeling the effects and the Libyan operation was ordered to pay its own way. In Libya this is being done via theft, extortion and smuggling (mainly of illegal migrants into Europe). Obviously one way to limit ISIL growth in Libya is to attack the income producing activities. That is difficult because a lot of the smuggling is protected from attack by the presence of the illegal migrants. On land ISIL is also using human shields to gain some protection from the growing number of Western air attacks. The human shields won’t work if Arab warplanes get involved. So far that seems unlikely as Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria have all refused to attack any targets in Libya and instead reinforce their border security and internal counter-terrorist operations. This has worked for these nations so far and they don’t want to get involved in a neighbor’s civil war. The neighbors do not oppose other nations (especially Western) from bombing Islamic terrorists in Libya. These Arab nations will assist in preventing ISIL from smuggling any captured oil out of Libya. ISIL has made it clear that it will continue trying to capture Libyan oil fields and export ports intact and use them. Preventing that is something everyone (including most Libyans) can agree on.
Despite the growing importance of Libya ISIL still considers Syria its primary concern. About two-thirds of ISIL resources are devoted to the war in Syria, the rest to Iraq. ISIL is losing everywhere but shows every sign of fighting to the end. ISIL has been losing territory (mainly in Iraq) and personnel. Its personnel strength in Iraq and Syria has declined about 20 percent (to some 20,000 members) since early 2015. The losses in Iraq and Syria are from casualties, desertions and fewer foreign volunteers. Many of those missing foreign volunteers intended to join in Syria but instead were told to head for Libya.
Military commanders in the forces loyal to the Tobruk government have admitted that French, British and American special operations troops are operating in Libya. These admissions are later officially denied but it is no secret that some Western special operations forces have shown up in eastern Libya, especially around Benghazi. France and Britain admitted they have some forces in Libya and the U.S. admitted that its special operations forces have been in Libya for specific missions but did not stay like the French and British operators. Apparently the British forces have been there since late 2015 and the French began showing up in January 2016.
A majority (51 percent) of the members of the parliament (in Tobruk) said they would vote to approve the new unity deal (Government of National Accord or GNA) arranged by the UN. But a vote on that was not held because many of the pro-unity members say they have received death threats from parliament members who oppose the deal. Greed, corruption and factionalism has been key in preventing the formation of a national government or dealing with the growth of Islamic terrorism (and calls for turning Libya into a religious dictatorship). If the parliament does vote to approve the GNA the rival government in Tripoli (dominated by Islamic conservatives) must also approve the deal. Many Western and Arab nations are willing to intervene militarily against ISIL in Libya but only once the GNA is approved and the new national government formed. So far not enough Libyans have united to get the GNA approved. Meanwhile many Libyan leaders are well aware that ISIL will continue to exist and expand in Libya unless there is a powerful offensive to clear them out. That requires a united Libya and some foreign assistance. None of that will be available without the GNA.
It is feared that Libya will go through the same process Somalia did; several decades of chaos before the factions decide to cooperate. That process is not unique to Libya and Somalia but most of the rest of the world has already passed through the phase of social development. What makes Libya a special case is that it has the largest oil reserves in Africa. That’s $5 trillion worth in the form of 77 billion barrels of oil plus the equivalent of ten percent more in the form of natural gas. Analysts at the National Oil Company calculate that Libya has lost $68 billion in oil income since 2011. Currently only about 400,000 barrels a day is being refined for local use or exported. That is a quarter of what production was in 2011. Without increasing oil production Libyans face widespread starvation within a year or two (as cash reserves are exhausted).
Italy admitted it has allowed American UAVs to operate from an Italian air base since late 2014 but has restricted those UAVs to surveillance missions and even those must be only for “defensive purposes”. Many Italians oppose any use of force against Islamic terrorists in Libya, especially if that involves U.S. aircraft operating from Italian bases. All this is a common attitude in West Europe but it strongest in Italy. The Americans continue trying to get Italy to allow armed UAVs to operate from Italy for operations against ISIL in Libya. The stronger ISIL gets in Libya the more likely Italy will allow armed UAV missions against ISIL in Libya, but in a case by case basis.
February 25, 2016: The UN released a report detailing the war crimes it knows have taken place so far in Libya. This includes numerous instances of murder (of prisoners or assassination of opponents), rape and torture. No group was innocent but the Islamic terrorist organizations were the worst offenders.
February 24, 2016: Local forces finally succeeded in driving ISIL out of Sabratha, a coastal city 66 kilometers west of Tripoli and about the same size as Sirte. ISIL has controlled parts of Sabratha since mid-2015 but no one has controlled all of Sabratha since 2011. There has been constant fighting, especially with ISIL. The various local militias in Sabratha united, got reinforcements from other militias in Tripoli and began a coordinated surprise attack on ISIL positions yesterday. The militias are now hunting for any stray ISIL members who did not flee. This offensive took advantage of the destruction (by a U.S. air strike) of a major ISIL base in the city on the 19th. Pro-Tobruk forces are also succeeding in pushing newly formed ISIL groups out of the eastern city of Benghazi. This success in Sabratha and Benghazi shows that Libyans can defeat ISIL. In Benghazi some of the army commanders credited French assistance for the recent successes against ISIL.
February 19, 2016: American F-15Es operating from an airbase in Britain used smart bombs to destroy an ISIL training camp outside the coastal town of Sabratha. The main objective of this dawn attack was to kill ISIL leader Nureddine Chuchane, who is believed responsible for organizing two terror attacks in Tunisia during 2015. One of those attacks killed 30 British tourists and that did a lot of damage to Tunisia’s tourism industry. This attack was made possible by Tunisia and Britain, as both nations wanted Chuchane dead. It appears that Chuchane did die in the attack, along with more than 40 other ISIL members and recent recruits. Serbia later said that two of their diplomats, being held for ransom by ISIL (after being kidnapped in Tripoli last November), were also killed by the air strike. The United States examined the Serbian evidence and denied the claim.