Wars and Military Conflicts

Why we should worry about Libya...again


Since the fall of controversial Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, a civil war has raged in the the country. Now there are widespread fears that the power vacuum in Libya could allow the so-called Islamic State to gain control, spreading the Islamist militant group's presence westwards from Syria and the Middle East.

The international community is worried about the rise of IS in Libya and on Tuesday, officials from 23 nations met in Rome to discuss the fight against IS (or ISIL as it is also known) and the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, which was also attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, was expected to focus on the group's growing presence in Libya and how to prevent it seizing more parts of the country.

Flames rise from a storage tank filled with crude oil at an oil facility in northern Libya's Ras Lanouf region after it was set ablaze following fresh attacks launched by Islamic State (IS) group jihadists to seize key port terminals, on January 21, 2016.

In a press statement after the meeting, Kerry said the coalition was seeing "renewed activity" in Libya and hinted at military aid for the Libyan authorities who are in the process of forming a government of national unity.

"And as everybody here knows, that country (Libya) has resources. The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue. So it means we need to push full speed ahead with training security personnel and we need to ensure that there is a decisive military edge not just to clear territory but to create a safe environment for a government to begin to stand up and operate," he said.

Worrying developments

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Since the start of 2016, IS fighters in Libya have tried to expand their territory beyond the coastal city of Sirte and earlier this month they attempted to seize two of Libya's most important oil terminals while conducting attacks on others.

Riccardo Fabiani, senior analyst of Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa, told CNBC that recent developments in Libya were worrying.

"The Islamic State is reported to have expanded its presence in Libya over the past weeks, thanks to an influx of people coming from neighboring countries as well as Syria/Iraq. This is worrying, because they are now estimated to have around 3,000 men, which is a relatively significant force in Libya's currently fragmented military landscape," he told CNBC on Tuesday.

There are concerns now that Libya could be the next frontier for IS with deep divisions on political, tribal and ideological lines in the country allowing the Jihadist group to take advantage of various regional weaknesses.

Libya's civil war is now entering its fifth year but it has been overshadowed in recent years by more urgent fears over the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, where IS already controls swathes of territory.

Asked what damage IS could inflict in Libya if it was able to expand, Fabiani was unequivocal: "(We could see) terrorist attacks against Libya's main institutions and cities, damages and destruction of the existing oil infrastructure and, potentially, a considerable threat to southern Europe if they were able to stabilize their control of central Libya," he said.

While rival groups in Libya attempt to form a fragile government, there are concerns that the country's authorities are ill-equipped to deal with the IS threat. Eurasia Group's Fabiani believed that the authorities could do with more international support.

"More needs to be done – there is no official coordination between anti-IS militias in Libya and the political class is still absorbed by the formation of the new national unity government, as they consider IS a minor threat that they can exploit to score political points with the international community rather than a real risk for themselves. Only lately a sense of urgency has become apparent among Libyans, but there is still a lot to do to prepare an effective military response to IS in Libya," he warned.

How the mighty have fallen

Back in 2010 there was hope that democratic change could and would sweep across northern Africa and the Middle East following a series of popular uprisings and protests against the old elite of leadership like Gaddafi who had clung onto power for decades.

Spreading from Tunisia to Libya and Bahrain, Egypt to Syria among other countries, citizens took to the streets and city squares to demand change.

And while there were some immediate "successes" for government opponents – such as the overthrowing of Libya's Gaddafi, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali government – hindsight has shown that the uprisings were the easy part in the long process of building a stable, democratic government.

In fact, the removal of the old vestiges of power has left power vacuums and in many countries that experienced the brief period of hope dubbed the "Arab Spring," civil war has followed, leading to more instability, as seen in Libya.

"The combination of political fragmentation and rivalries between competing militias has created a de facto security and political vacuum in Libya, which has ultimately allowed the Islamic State to emerge and proliferate in the country," Ludovico Carlino, senior analyst of Middle East and North Africa at IHS Country Risk told CNBC on Tuesday.

"The group is now trying to capitalize on the negotiations for the national unity government, accelerating its operations against the energy sector so as to undermine the potential implementation of the UN-backed agreement, whose collapse would guarantee the persistence of that vacuum," he added.

The worst scenario, according to Carlino, was a political impasse that would allow ISIS to further cement and expand its position in Libya and force the West to take same form of action against the group bypassing the Libyan authorities.

"The Islamic State has probably not yet reached its peak in Libya in terms of capabilities and strength, but you have all the ingredients in Libya for this scenario to be materialized in the next six months, especially if the group will continue to operate unchecked".

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.