By Mirco Keilberth, Juliane von Mittelstaedt and Christoph Reuter
Chaos, disillusionment and oppression provide the perfect conditions for Islamic State. Currently, the Islamist extremists are expanding from Syria and Iraq into North Africa. Several local groups have pledged their allegiance.
The caliphate has a beach. It is located on the Mediterranean Sea around 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Crete in Darna. The eastern Libya city has a population of around 80,000, a beautiful old town and an 18th century mosque, from which the black flag of the Islamic State flies. The port city is equipped with Sharia courts and an “Islamic Police” force which patrols the streets in all-terrain vehicles. A wall has been built in the university to separate female students from their male counterparts and the disciplines of law, natural sciences and languages have all been abolished. Those who would question the city’s new societal order risk death.
Darna has become a colony of terror, and it is the first Islamic State enclave in North Africa. The conditions in Libya are perfect for the radical Islamists: a disintegrating state, a location that is strategically well situated and home to the largest oil reserves on the continent. Should Islamic State (IS) manage to establish control over a significant portion of Libya, it could trigger the destabilization of the entire Arab world.
The IS puts down roots wherever chaos reigns, where governments are weakest and where disillusionment over the Arab Spring is deepest. In recent weeks, terror groups that had thus far operated locally have quickly begun siding with the extremists from IS.
In September, it was the Algerian group Soldiers of the Caliphate that threw in its lot with Islamic State. As though following a script, the group immediately beheaded a French mountaineer and uploaded the video to the Internet. In October, the “caliphate” was proclaimed in Darna. And last week, the strongest Egyptian terrorist group likewise announced its affiliation with IS.
The Latest Label of Horror
Several inconsequential groups have also pledged loyalty to Islamic State, while others have gone so far as to announce their support for the group, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and the Taliban in Pakistan. All of them are seeking to benefit from the attraction and the brutal reputation of the Islamic State, in addition to the weapons, money and fighters that are easier to assemble using the latest label of horror.
Many such groups once joined al-Qaida for similar reasons, but Osama bin Laden’s forces have long-since become overshadowed by IS. Whereas al-Qaida was an ideological establishment with far-flung franchises, Islamic State seeks to exert control over entire regions, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called “caliph.”
Now, Tunisia of all places, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has supplied the largest number of foreign jihadists to Islamic State. Many in the country are deeply disappointed with the new freedoms they now possess, and Islamists have also long been able to recruit new followers in Tunisia. In Egypt, where a new military dictatorship took control following the revolution, radical terror organizations have sprouted. And in Libya, fighting among militia groups has resulted in a complete collapse of state order.
Moreover, Islamists were long persecuted in these countries prior to the deposition of their secular rulers. The result was that for decades, jihadists under the thumb of Hosni Mubarak, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Moammar Gadhafi left their home countries. But now, a few old jihadists and many who recently joined IS in Syria are coming back, and they have thrown their support behind Islamic State.
LIBYA: WHERE THE STATE HAS DISAPPEARED
Darna has long been a radical stronghold, having produced the greatest number of foreign suicide attackers from one single city in Iraq after 2004. Oppression by Gadhafi’s security forces made it easy for Islamists to sell the jihad as an alternative to living under a dictatorship and the regime was happy to let them go. Every Islamist who left to fight the Russians or the Americans was one less danger back home.
After Gadhafi was toppled in 2011, many rebels headed for Syria to fight against Bashar Assad. At the same time, the revolution gave birth to several militia groups, not all of which were radical but some leaned Islamist. Extremists subsequently found a foothold in eastern Libya and perpetrated a series of bloody attacks against the police and the army, leading the state to pull back. The extremists remained. Today, Darna is ruled by several militia groups, the most important of which is the Islamic Youth Shura Council, an organization founded in the spring after splintering off from the Libyan terror group Ansar al-Sharia. In Darna, the leaders of Ansar al-Sharia have joined forces with Islamic State while in Benghazi they have not.
Initially, IS emerged in Libya in the form of a group of fighters returning from Syria. The so-called al-Battar Brigade brought Darna under its control by murdering politicians, judges and attorneys — but also by killing commanders of other militias. Then, in September, an “emir” sent by Islamic State arrived in Darna, a previously little-known Yemenite named Mohammed Abdullah. On Oct. 5, the first meeting was held between the men from the Islamic State and Shura Council leaders, during which they announced their alliance and the founding of Islamic State’s “Barka Province.” At the end of October, hundreds of citizens publically proclaimed their loyalty to the “caliph.”
Afterwards, an activist named Mohamed Batoha asked the predominantly foreign extremists what business they had being in Darna. Two days later, he was shot to death by gunmen in a passing vehicle, just as dozens of other critics had been before him.
‘Hardly Different from Syria or Iraq’
“The fight against Gadhafi began in Benghazi on Feb. 17, 2011. But it is here where it will be determined whether the fight against the Islamists will escalate into a conflagration across all of North Africa,” says a young activist who asked to remain anonymous. He is one of the few who has the courage to report from Darna. He too has been shot at by the Islamists, and he only barely escaped with his life. Since then, he has been trying to leave, but the extremists have set up roadblocks all around the city. “Eastern Libya is hardly any different from Syria or Iraq,” he says.
The militias hunt down everybody who voices criticism, be it even just a comment posted on Facebook. Just last Tuesday, three young anti-IS activists were beheaded on camera in Darna. Suspected criminals are lashed. A murderer was executed in the local football stadium. Islamists are treated no better. The leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi has been missing ever since he refused to join the “caliphate” — in all likelihood he was killed. A further militia leader has applied for asylum in Turkey.
The militias operate four camps on the outskirts of the city where they train several hundred foreigners for the fight in Syria. But ever since the Libyan army, under the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar, took over large sections of Benghazi, which had been controlled by Islamists until then, the jihadists have focused their efforts here. Some have even returned from Syria to provide support. They are thought to have established weapons depots in the forested mountains above Darna and to have stored short-range missiles in a warehouse belonging to a textile factory.
Last week, Darna was bombarded for the first time by the air force under General Haftar’s control, which is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. But such strikes will hardly eliminate the Islamists. More plausible is that the bombings will increase the danger that militias, operating independently thus far, will join forces to fight the general’s troops — and will become part of the Islamic State alliance. Last week provided a look at the dangers facing the country. Islamists detonated a series of bombs at state facilities and at the embassies of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in Tripoli.
Since summer, the Libyan capital has been under the control of an Islamist alliance calling itself “Fajr Libya” — Dawn Libya. The group doesn’t belong to Islamic State, but the route to the “caliphate” nevertheless runs through Tripoli. In August, Fajr Libya took control of Mitiga Airport in Tripoli, leaving the terminal in ruins and destroyed jets at the gates. A plastic tarp hanging over the entrance reads “International Airport Tripoli.” And Mitiga is an international airport, even if there is essentially only a single destination: the “caliphate.”
Flights originating in Mitiga are not allowed to land in many cities, but there are several flights weekly to Istanbul and Casablanca. “Libya is the hub for Islamists from Europe and North Africa,” says a Libyan activist who escaped to Tunis. The Jihad route leads from Tunisia via Tripoli into Turkey and on to Syria. Thousands have followed the path into Syria, and only a few have returned.
TUNISIA: THE COUNTRY OF JIHADISTS
Mohammed Soussi, from Tunis, is one of those who traveled the Jihad route. Soussi, 27, holds a degree in economic science and had never been particularly devout. The soldier, who had served his country for two years, recently called his parents. But he placed his call from Turkey. “I am fighting for the Islamic State,” he said, “for the liberation of Palestine and against Bashar Assad.”
Taoufik Soussi, a 63-year-old retired military officer, has reconstructed the path his son took and he now knows where everything got started: in the Elmanar Mosque not far from the technical university in Tunis. Mohammed met an imam there who told him about the Islamic State and who ultimately paid his fare for a collective taxi, which took him to the Libyan border. Fighters with an Islamist militia from Sabratha were waiting on the other side, part of the Ansar al-Sharia network. Presumably, they brought Mohammed to Sabratha, as they had many other Tunisians, and spent several weeks training him for the fight in Syria. They then took him to Mitiga Airport.
According to government figures, 2,400 Tunisians have traveled to Syria, though other estimates place the number of people from Tunisia fighting for the al-Nusra Front or IS at 3,000. The Interior Ministry claims that a further 8,000 men have been prevented from traveling to Syria. Some potential jihadists were identified because they only possessed a one-way ticket to Istanbul while others were arrested at the Libyan border. Some 400 men have returned from Syria, according to government statistics, with most of them now in prison.
Tunisia is the country where the Arab Spring got its start. And while dictators or chaos have followed uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Libya, Tunisia has since held two parliamentary elections. Just recently, there was a peaceful transfer of power from the moderate Islamist party Ennahda to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. On average, the Tunisian population of 11 million is better educated than the people in almost any other county in the region. Why, then, do so many people from this country join the jihad?
READ MORE HERE: