The Next Disaster Islamic State Expands as Libya Descends into Chaos

With two separate governments waging war against each other, Libya is crumbling. Islamic State is taking advantage of the turmoil to put down roots in the country. The US is weighing intervention.


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The brass band starts playing. The musicians march along the Corniche, their blue uniforms starched and instruments polished and shining. The foreign minister has arranged for the celebration of several grand openings. Shops and cafés have opened their doors and red-black-green flags have been strung up all over, marking the fifth anniversary of the revolution.

Nothing in the capital city of Tripoli hints that Libya is in the throes of a civil war.

Still, an advance car equipped with a signal jammer that is supposed to block the detonation of any remote controlled explosives drives ahead of the foreign minister's motorcade. And there are only a few consuls from neighboring countries walking along with the parade. After a brief address, the foreign minister plants an olive tree and then inaugurates a new low-rise government building. As he does so, secret service operatives dressed in civilian clothing go after a cameraman from the US TV station HBO. His offense is having filmed one of their white automobiles parked on the side of the road, though around three-quarters of all cars in Libya are white. They jerk the camera away from him amid the loud protestations of his crew. The band continues playing and then cake is served.

The scene is reminiscent of an operetta. Ali Abu Zakouk is the foreign minister of a government that is not recognized internationally. Politicians in Tripoli act as though they are running a state -- but it is one that has in fact already broken into three pieces and is now on the verge of coming undone completely. The militaries of two Libyan governments are threatening each other, an array of militias and clans are involved as well, and the population is divided. Meanwhile, amidst this chaos, Islamic State (IS) is expanding.

  Map: A country split in three.

Map: A country split in three.

The terror has begun spilling over into neighboring countries. Last week, a shock troop that appeared to be Islamist conducted an attack in Tunisia. US aircraft have bombed IS positions in Libya and the Americans and other Western countries are considering the possible need for a broader intervention. Moreover, the country is dependent on oil, but the wells, pipelines and terminals are extremely vulnerable. Taken together, these are the perfect ingredients for Libya to become the Arab world's next drama.

When rebels toppled Muammar Gadhafi in the fall of 2011 after 42 years as the country's dictator, Libya held elections, passed an interim constitution and quickly ramped oil production back up to prewar levels. But then old differences bubbled up again. Islamist parties fared poorly in elections held in the summer of 2014 and, in response, the government declared the results invalid. Newly elected members of parliament fled to the eastern part of the country to the cities of Baida and Tobruk, where they established the internationally recognized parliament.

Since then, the country has had two governments and, more crucially, two militia coalitions that have several times engaged in combat against each other. Fighting in Benghazi only ended two weeks ago after the most powerful general aligned with the eastern government, Khalifa Haftar, drove out militias backed by Tripoli.

Islamic State Gains Ground

The current volatility in Libya creates ideal conditions for Islamic State. Early on, IS jihadists put out feelers in Libya, because if the Islamists are defeated in Syria or Iraq, Libya could serve as an ideal fallback. In February 2015, Islamic State quickly captured Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte. Since then, it has controlled an almost 300-kilometer (186-mile) long strip of the Libyan coast. It is believed to have grown to a force of 6,000 men.

The rival governments are scarcely in a position to stop IS. Instead, they each insist on the exclusive right to make decisions for their country. They would both also need to grant their approval for foreign troops to enter the country. For the two sides to take decisive action, they would need to join together and form a single government. Instead, though, some Libyan militias have already said they would fight against the Americans if Washington were to lose patience and conduct a massive military intervention. That would put Islamic State under military pressure, but it would also likely lead to political gains for the Islamists, widening their base of support in the country.

The two conflicting blocs did sign a United Nations-brokered peace plan in December, which provides for the creation of a unity government, but both sides are now balking. In Tripoli, Vice President Awad Mohammed Abdul-Sadiq resides in Palace I, in the middle of a park filled with mansions Gadhafi once had built for state visitors. He's now refusing to make any of the major concessions demanded by the UN plan. "We control the capital, the majority of the population and have the most armed people on our side," he told DER SPIEGEL.

Despite such statements, his government's hold on power is very fragile, as unwittingly demonstrated by events at the end of February. Government officials had reported that the situation in Sabrata, just under 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the west, was completely under control again. The announcement came after the US military had bombed an IS training camp near Sabrata, killing more than 40 people. Only a few days later, though, Islamic State dispatched its terror squads to simultaneously attack in several places and behead people.

But now journalists can go in again, the government spokesperson assures, although he recommends traveling by helicopter. IS isn't the only force present there, after all. The Warshefana tribe, notorious for its kidnappings, controls a large area between Sabrata and Tripoli and has closed all roads heading west.

Intense Combat

After a five-hour delay, the aged Russian helicopter lifts off from the only airport in the city still operational after the other burned down in 2014. The aircraft immediately veers out over the sea and begins flying parallel to the coast. This precaution, too, has nothing to do with the jihadists, as a doctor on board explains over the deafening chopping of its rotors. It's "because of the Warshefana," he shouts, adding that the tribal fighters shot down a helicopter a few months ago using an anti-aircraft weapon. On board were three commanders with Libya Dawn, the militia that has control of Tripoli and its security forces. The militia commanders had wanted to put a stop to the kidnappings being carried out by Warshefana.

After 25 minutes, the helicopter lands at the empty Zuwara airport near the Tunisian border. The sentries on duty look confused. Nobody from the capital informed them, they say, that foreign journalists were coming.

"It's impossible for us to take you to Sabrata," one of them says tersely, leaving no room for negotiation. "Our men are engaged in intense combat." Waiting is pointless, he adds, and dangerous. "Go back immediately!"

Before take off, seven civilians who have been waiting for days for the chance to get out of the area are crammed into the helicopter. Overloaded, the helicopter begins its wobbly ascent before landing in Tripoli a short time later as if nothing happened.

Informants and Sleeper Cells

With Islamic State spreading across the country like the underground root system of a noxious weed, the peace in the capital is deceptive. The Islamists have informants and sleeper cells and they move freely along uncontrollable desert routes through the south.

"We have been warning for four months that Islamic State is inside Sabrata," laments a commander with Tripoli's Special Deterrence Force, an elite unit attached to the Interior Ministry. "But nothing has happened." Even Deputy Defense Minister Mohammed Al-Naas is critical, saying the political leadership "has no plan for stopping IS. We are doing our best to dispatch at least two or three battalions toward Sirte, but the army is in a deplorable state." Incidentally, he says, the greater opponent is General Haftar in the east. "Once he's gone, 80 percent of all problems will be solved." The government in the east, of course, has similar things to say about its rival in Tripoli.

The city that could ultimately determine who will win militarily or whether reason will perhaps indeed prevail is located between the two adversaries -- and in the direct vicinity of IS: Misrata. The rich, powerful trading city paid a terrible price in 2011 for resisting Gadhafi, whose troops besieged and shelled it for months. Still, the well-organized brigades from Misrata, who had been armed by local businessmen, proved decisive in the ground war.

Misrata long remained loyal to Tripoli, but that support is now crumbling. The designated head of the transitional government established by the UN -- which isn't recognized by either of the other two governments -- was welcomed here.

'We Have to Get Back to Business'

It is the subversive power of capitalism that drives the powers that be in Misrata to follow their own path. They are primarily concerned with making money and need peace in the country to do so. "We have to get back to business," says planning engineer Mohammed Eltumi, who is head of Project Misurata 2018, leader of the Libya Business Forum and by far the least patient interviewee in the country. His mission: "port expansion, development of the free-trade zone and we also need a new airport." As he is talks, he drums his fingers on the arm of the sofa. "We have an investor group in Kuwait that wants to invest $500 million!"

But the chaos in the country is disastrous for business. Toyota is the last major global company still present in the free trade zone, with warehouse space spreading over several hectares. "But with our location, we could be the perfect North African hub for many," says Eltumi.

Yet even as Eltumi and others want to launch into the 21st century, there are others, located just 100 kilometers further east, who are working with murderous persistence on returning to the 7th century. Islamic State has dug in where the sparsely vegetated hills surrounding Tripoli give way to the flat desert of central Libya -- in Sirte and its surroundings.

Sirte is the hometown of Libya's former dictator Gadhafi and, as the elderly Sheikh Mohammed Hanash admits, it's no accident that IS gained a foothold there. Hanash is one of the thousands of Sirte refugees who are now in Misrata. "We allowed it to happen," he says. "We were the city of losers, without protection, without help. And then these jihadists arrived, at first under a different name. They behaved amiably, mediated clan disputes, offered assistance and opened Islamic centers. More and more of them came and then, suddenly, at the end of last March, things shifted. The local radio station began broadcasting vows of loyalty to Islamic State and religious songs from Iraq. They took over all power and those who resisted simply disappeared or had to flee. They shot one of my sons and blew up our three homes. But I am not afraid. Only God will judge me!"

IS' Lightning Fast Strike

The sheikh's meager accommodations in Misrata have become a meeting point for many who have fled Sirte. With the fear of IS vengeance too great, few are willing to talk. The jihadists precisely repeated the pattern they followed when conquering parts of Syria: first friendly infiltration followed by a lightning fast strike. The Islamists murdered charismatic opponents and established a system of air-tight control that made local resistance all but impossible.

Just as in Syria, IS in Libya profits from having long been underestimated by its opponents. In Misrata, those in power are slowly realizing the dangers posed by their new neighbors. But the means available to them to do anything about it are limited.

The road from Misrata to the front lines leads 100 kilometers through the desert. Refugees fleeing Sirte in pick-up trucks loaded with their belongings are searched at lonely checkpoints.

At one of these checkpoints, our journey comes to an end. It is too dangerous to continue. A couple of men in uniform insist that the troops promised by Tripoli will soon be arriving. But they plead for foreign assistance for their wounded. "Complicated gunshot wounds can't be treated anywhere in Libya. We fly the wounded out to Turkey, but many of them die on the way," one of them says. A sentry comes outside with us so that the others can't hear him. "We've been sitting here for eight months. For eight months, we have been promised that reinforcements are on their way so that we can finally go on the attack. We wait and wait."

In front of him, the arrow-straight road stretches into the sand dunes, with IS-held territory beginning just over the horizon. "We are trying to build up a state here," the soldier says, staring through the shimmering heat into the distance. "We really are trying." But, he adds, there is nothing to prevent the IS from appearing out of the desert and attacking. "If we don't advance, they will."

Time Is Ticking

That's why those in power in Misrata don't want to send their troops to fight in the budding Libyan civil war. That would render their own city defenseless against IS.

Misrata isn't alone. An increasing number of Libyans are tired of the power struggles and of the corruption and criminality. One city after the other has taken control of its own destiny. In Zuwara, located in northwestern Libya, the Masked Men militia has taken up the fight against human smugglers after 183 dead bodies, all of them drowned, washed up on the beach in a single day last August. The militiamen wear masks because they often detain members of their own extended families. The city council of Bani Walid, a stronghold of ex-Gadhafi loyalists southeast of the capital, hopes to keep its 120,000 residents completely out of the east-west conflict and has even created its own flag. It is totally black, devoid of white writing so that nobody mistakes it for Islamic State's banner.

In Tripoli, the power supply and police force are working better now than they did months ago. The fact that the Interior Ministry's most effective unit in the fight against Islamists and criminal groups is led by a full-bearded Salafist militiaman is part of the peculiarity of the situation.

The only detonations that one can hear in Tripoli are the fireworks lit off during wedding parties. For couples who really want a show, the €50 selection called "NATO" is available.

But with their country racing toward bankruptcy, the Libyans don't have much time left. One of the country's leading oil executive receives his guests in the countryside estate near Tripoli. He doesn't want to provide a name and begins our conversation by saying that sarcasm is the only way he is able to remain calm about the situation. "Several of the major pipelines, oilfields and loading terminals have been destroyed. Others have been occupied by clans and sometimes we don't even know why. Do they want money? Jobs? We never learn why and they aren't even interested in negotiating." The pipelines slice through the country at head height, but from above they look like thin, fragile threads upon which the country's economy depends.

Daily oil output has plunged from 1.7 million barrels to just 350,000 and is still falling, the oil executive says. "But pumping costs are climbing at the same time because thousands of new people are being hired to keep residents near the facilities quiet. That means that the less we produce, the more expensive each barrel becomes. Already, our costs are over $20 per barrel. With the oil price barely above $30 per barrel, there isn't much left over."

The state will take in $4 billion in 2016, the manager continues, compared to around $7 billion in 2015. But spending will be at least four times as high. "We are using up our hard currency reserves," the executive says. "We still have between $60 and $70 billion. But if the situation doesn't change, we'll be in the shit in late 2017."

On that Sunday morning in Tripoli when the foreign minister inaugurated the building to the music of the marching band, the apex of the festivities came immediately after the cake: Masked policemen moved out ahead to secure the area. The Foreign Minister Ali Abu Zakouk strode up to christen -- with the name "Libyan Unity" --what is perhaps the most fitting symbol possible for the country: a traffic circle.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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spiegelerin 03/16/2016
1. This is about to get so good!
So Libya destabilizes, troops go in, ISIS the countries nearby and destabilize them...more immigrants. The "safe" countries of Morocco and Tunisia and south will NOT be safe and yep, all the Moroccans and Tunisians and other Africans will HAVE to flee to Germany. Start building Lagos sized cities, Germany, cause NOBODY is going home. HERE are your entrepreneurs and will get growth with returns like developing countries in Africa. It's boomtown time for Deutschland!
mishoj 03/16/2016
2. Why bother fighting violence in the sandbox of insanity
Sure, the USofA could spend a few trillion US Dollars fighting these violent groups, but they will be exactly where the are today with AF-PAK and Iraq - I believe if they allow these groups to kill themselves off, then after 10 or more years, when these violent tribes finally organise and form some type of government - allow them to prove themselves worthy of assistance or trade - not unlike the modern Vietnam we see today! Now if the USofA plans to go after ISIL, they should do so using very well paid mercenaries with no, repeat NO prisoners. Pay very well, then you will not have the problems we see today with retired soldiers around the world with all types of psychological disorders, not unlike PTSD - but even then, these middle-eastern people will not be happy unless they are KILLING each other!
hranttop66 03/16/2016
3. I have a remedy to that problem
Simply ask Russia to go there and to do it. Obviously the west will not do what has, or should I say must be done. So let Washington and other western capitals weep and cry foul. David Cameron is very capable of that for example. Your beloved Angela will have yet another opportunity to show how concerned she is for the refugees, only this time Libyans. Maybe she will dance with them too on the streets, while taking selfies. Meanwhile couple of dozen of Sus and MiGs would be doing the right thing and thus saving Europe's southern borders. What would you say?
lou_rodgers 03/17/2016
Best to stay out of this conflict. If you interfere for any reason you will be hated and war will resume when you leave
Rafiq 03/19/2016
5. And ... the USA and NATO
just wanted to encourage 'Democracy', right? (How stupid do they think the public really is?). If I recall correctly only Merkel 'excused herself' from taking part in the stupid bombing of Libya. If they would have wanted 'just' to take out Ghaddafi they could have done it 'Usama bin Laden' (or Noriega) style. By bombing the country they got what they really wanted: destruction and destabilization. Congratulations. Your real aim has been achieved nicely.
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