• Isis has rapidly expanded in Libya since late 2014
  • Expansion has positioned it to launch attacks in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria
  • IHS says group is focusing on building capacity by securing arms, recruits and funding

The jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) will become the dominant armed group in Libya within 12 to 18 months, according to US-based defence intelligence company IHS Jane’s 360.

It says Isis militants in Libya have more experience of intense urban fighting and are more professional than armed groups aligned with the country’s two rival governments.

“Isis comprises fighters hardened during fighting with the LNA [Libyan National Army] in Benghazi over the past year, and is led by a cadre of experienced foreign fighters who have been through the crucible of Syria’s civil war,” the consultancy says.

“More importantly, Isis is also winning the battle of ideas. Neither Libyan government is able to espouse a compelling reason to fight for it, in contrast to Islamic State’s triumphalist pan-Islamic jihadist doctrine.”

IHS says Isis’ recent gains position the group to use Libya as a springboard to launch attacks against energy assets in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, in line with the strategy it has employed in Iraq and Syria.

The warning from IHS comes after a swift expansion in the jihadist group’s capabilities in Libya since late 2014.

“Isis’ progress in Libya has been rapid, transforming from one of a proliferation of armed groups in the country to posing a serious challenge to one of its most powerful militias,” the company said in a statement released on 28 May.

“In the probable absence of peace between Libya’s rival governments, the group is poised to become the country’s most powerful armed group.”

Isis consolidated its hold over the eastern city of Derna in November 2014 and now controls territory in the coastal city of Sirte as well as in Libya’s second city of Benghazi and the nearby town of Ajdabiya.

It has also carried out attacks in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, including the raid on the luxury Corinthia hotel, which saw five foreigners killed in January 2015.

According to IHS, Isis now has operations in the southern city of Sebha and the western town of Sabratah, which it says has been assessed as “a major training location for aspiring jihadists”.

“Control of these locations places Isis fighters within several hours’ driving of all Libya’s major urban areas, and most of its oil production and export facilities,” the report says.

IHS believes the group is using existing migrant-smuggling routes to move fighters and materiel into Libya, and has control of several key transportation arteries within the country.

In the report, IHS says Isis’ presence in Sirte, Ajdabiya, and Benghazi gives it access to the Gulf of Sirte oil terminals of As Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa al-Brega and Zueitina, as well as nearby oil fields.

“IHS assesses that the group is probably currently focused on building its capacity through securing arms, recruits and funding,” the report says.

“It is likely to seek to profit from the opaque system of payments surrounding the export and sale of oil in Libya, probably by infiltrating or co-opting members of Ibrahim Jadhran’s Ajdabiya-based Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), which has controlled the Gulf of Sirte terminals since late 2011.”

IHS believes Isis’ activities have increased the risk of improvised explosive device (IED) and vehicle-borne IED attacks against government buildings, militia checkpoints, and commercial property in Misratah, Tripoli, Bayda, and Tobruq in the coming months.

It also warns that the rapid expansion of the jihadist group means attacks on foreign nationals within the country, particularly Westerners, are more likely.

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