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'Islamic State' network expanding

Interview: Peter Kaper, DLFFebruary 17, 2015

Fighters from a Libyan offshoot of the terrorist "Islamic State" militia murdered 21 Egyptian hostages. There's a danger of instable Libya becoming a new IS-stronghold, terrorism expert Guido Steinberg warns.

"Islamic State" fighters marching. (Photo: AP Photo/File)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Q: The self-styled "Islamic State" terror network is now also in Libya. How did it get there?

Guido Steinberg: Up until now, I had the impression that there were just small groups in Libya simply claiming to be IS, based on the success of IS in Iraq and Syria.

But in the last few weeks and months, we've seen that it's actually more than a declaration of intent from these little splinter groups. In Libya there are three that have joined IS. And it looks like they do have some contacts that support them.

And that doesn't just go for Libya. We have an IS-offshoot in Egypt, a small one in Yemen, a small one in Algeria, one in Afghanistan. And that leaves room for us to worry that the IS organization is building an international network, just like al Qaeda did after 2001, and that they're growing stronger because of it.

That almost sounds like Jihadists change their jerseys like European soccer players and go from fighting for one terror organization to fighting for another. What logic, which criteria lie underneath all of that?

It's first of all about success and the soccer analogy is rather fitting. After 2001, the development of a so-called offshoot-network could be observed. One offshoot popped up in Saudi Arabia in 2003, one in Iraq in 2004 and so on. It often seemed to be the case that when these people took over the al Qaeda label, they had access to recruits mainly from the Gulf region, but also from all over the world. And they got access to the funding as well. It seems to be similar with IS.

Guido Steinberg. (Photo: DW/S. Amri)
Steinberg: the West needs reliable local alliesImage: DW/S. Amri

There are pretty detailed news reports by now that the Egyptian offshoot did send delegations to the "Islamic State" militia in Iraq and Syria and got financial support after that. And ever since this offshoot, which mainly acts on the Sinai Peninsula and is called "Province Sinai," joined IS, it has become a lot more effective.

This danger is also present in Libya. One only has to look at the video where the 21 Coptic hostages are killed - it's technically and PR-wise just as good as other IS videos. Long story short: this alliance makes the PR and the military activity of these single groups a whole lot more effective.

It looks like Libya is as fragmented a nation as the areas of Iraq or Syria controlled by IS. Does the fight against IS have to be extended to Libya?

Yes, at least that would be good. It's as if Libya could become North Africa's new epicenter of Jihadist terrorism. But there's the big question of how to conduct this fight in Libya. After all, there's a similar situation to Syria, in so far as there are basically no allies for Western politics.

There's an Islamist group, there are criminal militias, and there's a former military man, Khalifa Haftar, who wants to re-establish a secular dictatorship together with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

I think that the first step for Europeans would be to stabilize the neighboring countries, but this is going to be hard in Egypt and it's mostly the Gulf states involved with this. But I'm mostly thinking of Tunisia. That continues to be the only possible success story of the Arab Spring.

The Tunisians are worried because of what's happening in Libya. They keep asking for weapons from Europe and for help in securing the border with Libya. I think this could be one aspect where the Europeans could play a role: to secure Tunisia's southern border to allow the Tunisian experiment the chance to be successful.

In Libya the civil war will intensify, I think, and Europeans unfortunately won't be able to stop that.

What has the Coalition of the Willing achieved in the fight against IS so far?

Well, they stopped IS and pushed it back a little. That is definitely a success that can be attributed to the airstrikes by the Americans and their allies, but also to the support the Germans for example provided to the Iraqi-Kurdish troops.

Fighterplane viewed from below. (Photo: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)
Airstrikes won't be effective against IS anymore, says SteinbergImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Ghirda

But the big problem in Iraq and Syria is that these airstrikes are now becoming less effective, because all large targets are destroyed. It's becoming clear that this type of fight against IS isn't working there either.

It will now be about finding local allies and that's a big problem. In Syria, it'll very, very hard. In Iraq there are a few starting points, but we see there, and elsewhere, that the rise of IS goes back to political mistakes made by the government.

The Shiite Iraqi government is still not willing to approach the Sunni population in the country and convince them that the Iraqi government is the better alternative, not IS. Without this happening, there will be no real success against IS in Iraq. And without this happening in Libya, for example, the organization will grow stronger there as well.

When you talk about local allies, do you mean it takes troops on the ground to beat IS?

Yes, of course. It takes Arab Sunnis in Iraq, to truly and effectively fight IS. Those don't exist. It takes rebels in Syria, Arab Sunnis that the West could cooperate with. At the moment, it's becoming apparent that the West only has very bad allies - the Kurds or Shiite militias, with whom one cannot successfully fight IS in Sunni areas. That's why we will be dealing with this organization for a long time. And we'll see that it'll grow further in the Arab world.

Guido Steinberg is a terrorism expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs. His research areas include the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East.

The interview was conducted by Peter Kapern of German domestic broadcaster Deutschlandfunk (DLF).