While ISIS conducts wildly successful, multipronged assaults on targets in Syria and Iraq, it might be easy to forget that the fight against the Islamic State is raging across the Muslim world. From the coast of the Atlantic in Nigeria to the Persian Gulf, from the Southern shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the teeming and expansionist Islamic State has reinvigorated the militant Islamist movement. Among the many forgotten battlefields where ISIS seeks to expand its nascent caliphate is the failed state of Libya. There, the West’s democracies sought to correct for George W. Bush’s oft-criticized policy of regime change by ironically embracing it, but with slightly less acumen or foresight. As ISIS gains a foothold in the Libya that took shape after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and subsequent murder, that country is growing increasingly likely to be next front in the war against Islamic radicalism.
Reports from the region suggest that Libya has become a popular site for veterans of the Syrian civil war, as well as Iraqi and Tunisian extremists, to practice their newfound skills of seizing and holding territory. “[A]ccording to Libyan security sources, ISIS now has about 2,000 fighters in Sirte and an estimated 700 in Sabratha, famous for its Roman ruins, in the northwestern corner of Libya just 41 miles from Tripoli,” The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer wrote on Monday.
The Islamic State’s advance into the key Libyan port city of Sirte has accelerated in the last several hours. In the early morning, forces loyal to the government in Tripoli fled a power plant in the port city of Sirte amid an assault by ISIS fighters. According to ISIS forces, which had seized much of this city last year and captured its international airport two weeks ago, the remaining holdouts still loyal to the acting Libyan government soon capitulated.
“The Islamic State group claimed to have seized full control Tuesday of the Libyan city of Sirte from the Fajr Libya militia, including a power plant, according to a US monitor,” the AFP reported. With the fall of that key port located just a few hours from the Sicilian coast, ISIS is now a Mediterranean power.
The fall of Sirte coincides with a nationwide offensive by ISIS fighters that consists of mounting attackson soft targets inside Tripoli, laying siege to the country’s oil fields, and executing suicide bombings in a number of Libyan cities. The ISIS-linked fighters in Libya have reportedly adopted the practice of summarily executing minorities, including Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians. Defense officials reported on Tuesday that the Islamic State had captured 88 Ethiopian Christians in their effort to flee North Africa and escape by boat to Europe.
An estimated 50,000 have already fled to southern Italy, igniting fears that a humanitarian crisis in Europe is imminent if the chaos in North Africa continues – a prospect that seems today to be more than likely.
On Monday, representatives from the G-7 states advised the various groups vying for legitimacy in post-Gaddafi Libya to make “bold political decisions,” put aside their differences, and unite before the nation they seek to lead has utterly collapsed. But the West will have to adopt a more substantial approach to this crisis, including a material commitment to provide support for the strongest and most reliable anti-Islamic force in the country.
And they will have to do it soon.
“Forces loyal to the eastern government have been fighting Islamic fighters in the eastern city of Benghazi for a year but have been unable to control the entire city,” the Saudi-based news agency Al Arabiya warned on Monday. “Last week, the eastern army said it was short of ammunition.”