16 Feb 2015

Could the rise of Islamic State prove fatal for Libya?

I had two kinds of response on Twitter when I asked Libyans what they felt about the Egyptian air force bombing Islamic State targets in their country.

First, ‘my country right or wrong’:

Second, I don’t care who does it, just get rid of the jihadis:

In the last few months IS has taken advantage of the anarchy that prevails in Libya. Libya Dawn forces who control the capital and surrounding area have always denied that IS exists on their territory. They nonetheless allied themselves with Ansar al Sharia, a jihadi group born in the eastern town of Derna. On October 6, Ansar al Sharia declared its allegiance to IS.

Last week Libya Dawn forces took control of Sirte, the coastal city that used to be Colonel Gaddafi’s stronghold and where he met his death. This was where the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were kidnapped in January – jihadi factions were already there but not completely in control.

Libya Dawn militia took up positions at the airport and port. According to sources in the town, fighters from Misrata were accompanied by Ansar al Sharia who put the black IS flag on the green and white striped Ouagadougou Conference Centre, built by Gaddafi to host African Union meetings. Suddenly local radio and TV were playing only religious incantations and messages from IS leaders. Workers in the Immigration and Customs building were reportedly forced to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

Five hundred miles to the east, Libya’s elected government sat in the towns of Beida and Tobruk, wringing its collective hands. They have the support of the western governments who helped them oust Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 but control a vanishingly small portion of Libyan territory. They also don’t have much of a military.

Last year, a Gaddafi era officer, General Khalifa Heftar, commandeered a few planes and started attacking jihadis in Derna and Benghazi, with some success. Derna is still an IS stronghold but Benghazi is largely back in government hands, thanks to his unilateral efforts backed by Egypt and the UAE.

Read more: Could IS really have its own air force?

Heftar’s forces – dubbed Operation Dignity – have now merged into a new Libyan air force. They have a handful of ageing MiG fighters and have been shopping for more. Today the head of the air force, Commander Saqer Aljaroushi, says they’re coordinating with the Egyptians to attack IS positions in Sirte, Derna and Bin Jawad.

Many Libyans who fought to overthrow Gaddafi’s dictatorship are in despair. Their government is weak. They mistrust Heftar, whom they regard as another Gaddafi in the making, but they know that their failure to curb the rise in IS could be fatal for their fragile, disintegrating country.

“Heftar is the only person who pushed back,” said one Libyan friend. “I hate him as much as the next person but he’s the lesser of two evils.”

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