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ISIS Shifts Focus To Libya As Pressure In Syria, Iraq Builds

January 2016 saw an acceleration of the movement of ISIS fighters out of Syria and into Libya. There were profound reasons for this “flight to safety” by ISIS, in seeking a new haven as pressures in-creased on its territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria, but there were also significant ramifications for Lib-ya, its neighbors, and for sub-Saharan insurgencies, particularly in Nigeria.

ISIS sees in Libya the opportunity to seize oilfields in Cyrenaica, in Libya’s east, to compensate for the loss of control it has experienced over captured Syrian and Iraqi oil supplies, which had been chan-neled by tanker trucks through Turkey for sale on the international market. Russian air strikes and pub-licity over the ISIS oil supply line to Turkey — and to Bilal Erdo?an, the son of the Turkish President — have severely inhibited ISIS’ revenues and strategic viability.

There is justifiable speculation as to the extent of support for ISIS’ moves to strengthen its base in Lib-ya from the Turkish intelligence service, Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT), but there is little doubt that MIT had been assisting ISIS (and its foundational groups), both in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Libya and elsewhere for several years. Turkey has come under increasing pressure to limit its visible ISIS linkage closer to home, largely as a result of Russian — and to a lesser extent Western — military depreda-tions of the ISIS force, and Russia’s strong exposure of the links which ISIS has had with the Turkish leadership and MIT.

Moreover, the ambiguous links which ISIS has maintained with Turkey and its other foreign sponsors has meant that the Islamist group has also felt that it could “bite the hand that feeds it” from time to time.

There has been speculation — and that is all that it is — that Turkish reports of cooperation in the in-ternational “fight against ISIS” have been meaningless and just lip-service. Turkish military operations in this regard have, however, provided an excuse for Turkey to intervene in Iraq and Syria to suppress Kurdish militant groups and to fight those jihadi groups which were working against ISIS. But with ef-fective Russian, Syrian, and Western military action against ISIS targets, the future viability of ISIS as a geographic entity have been thrown into doubt.

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The upsurge of ISIS strength in Libya, particularly centered around its major geographic holding, the city of Sirte, has come not only from combatant transfers from Syria and Iraq, but also from militants in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, and Mali. It is also understood that fighters from ISIS’ stated ally (or compo-nent), Boko Haram, may be preparing to move out of north-eastern Nigeria to join the group in Libya as Boko Haram’s territory has become compromised by increasingly efficient Nigerian Armed Forces operations against them, coupled with united action by the N’Djamena-based Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) comprised of forces from Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.

U.S. intelligence sources reportedly told Washington journalist Bill Gertz that at least two jihadist groups had announced in late December 2015 that they were aligning with ISIS in Libya: The Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council, in Ajdabiya, and a second terror group based in Misrata.

Egypt’s Position: The move has direct security implications for Egypt, not merely because of the prox-imity of the ISIS operations on its border, but because of the parallel functioning (or perhaps identity of interests) between ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), which has committed itself to the overthrow of the present Egyptian Government of Pres. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi.

The governing Turkish Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party: AKP), which has been covertly supporting ISIS, is, by definition, a Muslim Brotherhood party, and has been outspoken in supporting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party (Hizb al-Hurriya wa al-’Adala), and urging that it be restored to office in Egypt.

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Turkey has been actively supporting Egyptian Muslim Brothers in exile in Sudan, so there is a clear con-nection between the surge of its members coming from there to Libya. Moreover, MIT has been ac-tive in Sudan, working not only with the Egyptian Ikhwan, but also with other groups, such as Boko Ha-ram, in Nigeria.

Egypt has responded militarily against ISIS in Libya in the recent past, when either Egyptian expatriate workers there were seized or threatened by ISIS, or when Ethiopian Christian expatriate workers there were under threat by ISIS.

Six Egyptian Air Force (EAF) Lockheed Martin F-16s hit ISIS targets in Derna and Sirte on February 16, 2015, when ISIS released a video (on February 15, 2015) showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians.

Significantly, the Libyan Air Force coordinated with the EAF, also striking ISIS targets. Egypt had not co-ordinated its actions with the U.S. Government, but did call for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS to broaden the scope of its activities to include ISIS components in Libya. The U.S. was cool to the Egyp-tian-led strikes, and has declined then and subsequently to intervene against ISIS in Libya.

It is worth considering whether Egypt’s actions in Libya could, for a period, be constrained by the pro-cess of building a new Government in Libya as a result of the December 17, 2015, accord between the Council of Deputies — the “internationally-recognized Government of Libya” — and the New General National Congress to create a new nine-member Presidency Council and a 17-member interim Gov-ernment of National Accord, with new elections to be held within two years. As a result of this, a peri-od of “indecision” within the rival Libyan factions could also be seen as a period of opportunity for ISIS to consolidate its position, but it could also ensure that there was no decision-making partner for a pe-riod, in Libya, with which Egypt could coordinate strikes against ISIS.

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As a result, any new Egyptian strikes, if they occurred, might be unilateral in nature, and would almost certainly be criticized by Turkey and the U.S., acting in harmony (given the unequivocal nature of sup-port by the current U.S. Barack Obama Administration for Turkey). The history of covert White House-run operations in Libya, working directly with the Turkish and Qatari governments, to arm and move in al-Qaida (and later ISIS) linked jihadists to achieve the overthrow of former Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in 2011, and the subsequent moves by the three governments to consolidate the imported jihadist groups there, makes the Obama White House a hostage to fortune (and Ankara) in any actions in Libya.

Egypt, however, would likely be discreetly supported in operations against ISIS and the Ikhwan in Libya by the Russian Government and possibly by the Saudi Arabian Government, which could see a threat to Egypt as a threat to the Kingdom’s main strategic partner. France would also support Egyptian oper-ations in Libya.

Nigerian Position: A strengthened ISIS in Libya would ultimately enhance support for Boko Haram fighters in northern Nigeria, and could also help revive jihadist operations in Mali. But a consolidation of ISIS in Libya may take too long to save Boko Haram, and in the short-term the process of winning control of Libyan oilfields would be a major priority for ISIS. This would likely draw in Boko Haram fighters now facing an uncertain future within Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon.

In Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, and Mali, France is also cognizant of the Boko Haram-ISIS links, and would likely work with Egypt to take a holistic view of the conflict. This begs the question, then, as to why Ni-geria has not yet begun coordination of its intelligence sharing with Egypt to counter ISIS links from Libya and Sudan into Boko Haram.

By Gregory Copley via Defense and Foreign Affairs Special Analysis

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