Libya’s Islamic State Threat Should Not Be Overstated

The war between Libya’s rival governments, and the loyalties they command, matters more.

The Islamic State threat in Libya should not be overstated. In the long term, the outcome of the struggle between the country’s two rival governments, and the fate of the various armed groups that are loosely affiliated with either, will matter far more.

Although militants in central Libya have taken advantage of the chaos to align themselves with the jihadists who declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria last year, they are mostly confined to the city of Derna and are believed to have a small presence in Benghazi and Sirte.

The bigger Islamist group in Benghazi is Ansar al-Sharia which carried out an attack on the American diplomatic presence there in 2012. Even if it shares many of the Islamic State’s goals, it competes with the group for members.

Egyptian aircraft bombed training sites and weapons storage areas in Derna last month and called for a United Nations mandate to “defeat terrorism” in Libya.

Earlier, Emirati special forces likely destroyed an Islamist camp near Derna as well.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are both apprehensive about the spread of radical Islamism in the region and support the internationally-recognized Libyan government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani that took refuge in the eastern city of Tobruk after being chased out of Tripoli by Libya Dawn, a broad coalition that includes some Islamist groups but also fights militants of the Islamic State.

Libya Dawn is primarily supported by militants from the city of Misrata. Thani’s government leans on militias from Zintan as well as the army of General Khalifa Haftar, a former military officer who fell out with Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi before he was deposed and killed by rebels in 2011.

Hafed Al-Ghwell, a senior nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, writes for Al Jazeera that the two rival governments each hold only about 10 percent of Libyan territory. The rest is divided up between smaller militias whose loyalties are not fixed.

The vast majority of violent attacks in the country are carried out by these domestic groups, writes Geoffrey Howard in Foreign Affairs magazine — “including tribes, ethnic minorities and members of the security forces and militias.”

If anything, the infighting between so many local groups should make it difficult for a transnational organization like the Islamic State to gain more than a foothold in the country.

Libya is highly fragmented. Multiple competing power centers front their own armed groups and political structures, each with varying degrees of affiliation to each other and to the country’s two rival governments. They also have conflicting demands and expectations and rivalries going back decades.

If the Islamic State tried to “take a piece of the pie for itself,” it would not go over well with most other groups, Howard predicts, “nor would any efforts to gain control over oil and gas infrastructure.”