The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) flourished in the vacuum created by the civil war in Syria. More recently it has found a similarly fertile environment in Libya.
The elected government in Tripoli collapsed last August after a coalition of militias called Libya Dawn drove it out of the capital and took control. The deposed government fled to Tobruk, 800 miles to the east, close to the Egyptian border. The rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, supported by regional militias, have fought a civil war ever since.
An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, seen in Derna, eastern Libya on Oct. 3, 2014.
An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna’s Islamic Youth Council, seen in Derna, eastern Libya on Oct. 3, 2014.
Many veterans of Libya’s first civil war against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi travelled on to join the uprising against Bashar Assad in Syria in 2011. An estimated 1,000 and 3,000 Libyans fought with a variety of rebel groups, but many have since joined ISIS.
Last year, a group of around 300 Libyan ISIS veterans returned to Derna on the country’s Mediterranean coast as the civil war continued. In October, ISIS took over most of the city and declared its allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They were joined in their pledge by Ansar al-Sharia, the extremist group that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens on September 11, 2012.
As long as there is civil war in Libya, ISIS will be able to maintain a foothold in the country. Bassam Ghellal, the Libyan managing director of Whispering Bell, a Dubai-based security risk consultancy, believes that unless talks—so far floundering—between Libya Dawn and the elected government succeed, tackling ISIS’s growth in Libya will be very difficult, for example through foreign intervention. “There are two options for Libya, and I don’t believe there is a third one: To have two opposing governments work together. Right now, we are in a state of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ So that will allow these groups to thrive.”