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Libya: IS forecourt in North Africa

Diana Hodali / jsJuly 14, 2015

Libya is stuck in a civil war, collapse is near and the "Islamic State" is expanding in the region, endangering the entire region. That's why the US wants to station drones along the Libyan border, reports Diana Hodali.

Libyen Islamisten Demo in Bengasi 31.10.2014
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Hannon

Libya is sinking ever deeper into violent chaos. A number of militias from various cities and tribes are warring with one another, and the fact that there are two rivaling parliaments shows just how divided the country really is. Since August 2014, Islamic insurgents have been ruling in Tripoli, forcing the internationally recognized parliament to move its seat eastward, to Tobruk.

Despite the fact that leading representatives, with the mediation of the United Nations, have agreed to a new peace accord and thus increased pressure on the rival Islamist government in Tripoli, the lack of centralized political leadership has led to an increase of extremism in Libya.

"This situation has given the so-called 'Islamic State' (IS) a chance to expand," says Günter Meyer, professor of economic geography and head of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz. That's why the US wants to take its fight against IS to Libya - with drones.

Influx from other terrorist groups

The IS terrorists began their Libyan victory march in October 2014, in the northeastern province of Darna, which "was already an Islamist stronghold under former dictator Moammar Gadhafi," says Meyer. After that, Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and Sabratha, near the Tunisian border, were also taken by IS.

Since then, a number of attacks in Libya, as well as the beheading of 21 Christians there, have been credited to IS. A large number of IS' Libyan henchmen have fought in Syria or Iraq. Now they have returned home, and Meyer says they are the backbone of the Libyan terrorist movement.

Marokko Politische Parteien in Libyen stimmen UN-Friedensplan zu
In Morocco, political parties signed a new peace plan for LibyaImage: picture-alliance/AA/Jalal Morchidi

Many of those that are now fighting under the IS flag in Libya come from other extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia. "From underdog to top dog - people are thronging to join IS," says Meyer. Libya is the North African forecourt of IS terrorists, and thus threatens the entire Maghreb region. They have taken over existing Islamist training camps in the east of the country that were already booming under Gadhafi, and now they have built new ones. "Even recruiting, training and weapons smuggling operations run through Libya now," says Meyer.

Libya's borders with neighboring countries are porous and open. That's why following the recent terror attack in Sousse, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced that Tunisia wants to build a 168-kilometer (105-mile) long fence along the Libyan border to protect their country from extremists.

The wall is also intended to make it difficult for homegrown IS supporters to cross into Libya. Tunisians make up the largest number of IS' foreign fighters. The attacker from Sousse was also a Tunisian who was trained at a camp in Libya. He returned, and murdered 39 tourists.

Ever more followers

Despite large numbers of Tunisian fighters, IS still has no real base there. But its leadership wants to change that. And the terrorist organization seems to be having some success in recruiting more fighters from neighboring countries than other Islamist groups, like the Algerian Islamist group Jund al-Khilafa, which split off from Al-Qaeda and swore allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

"There is also a danger that IS can establish a foothold in Morocco, as well," says Meyer. Morocco has become sort of a transit country for IS terrorists on their way to Syria. Those who don't make it to Libya to travel from there simply fly to Morocco.

Expanding the war against IS?

Citing a high ranking US official, the "Wall Street Journal" recently ran a story detailing the fact that the United States is planning to set up drone bases along the Libyan border in order to halt the expansion of IS. The US wants to use the drones to see just what IS is up to in Libya, and to get rid of a major "blind spot" in the US war on terror.

Another report states that it cannot be discounted that the drones will be used for attacks. With that, the US would expand its offensive against IS. So far, the anti-IS coalition has limited its activities to airstrikes against the terror group in Syria and Iraq.

At this point, it's unknown which countries the US is negotiating with about the drone bases. It is also possible that the US intends to use existing air bases. Libya borders Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan.