Libya has long been a barometer of the stability or more specifically, the lack of it in the Sahara and the Sahel regions. This reality was explicitly emphasised by Niger’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Bazoum, who stated amid an interview that violence in Libya is “fuel on the fire” in terms of its impacts on regional stability, fearing that the continuation of violence will eventually spill over and worsen the security landscape in the region.
In fact, the Libyan crisis and lack of law enforcement across its vast territory have been one of the main drivers on the increase of transnational criminal networks specialised in human and drug trafficking as well as the steep increase in inter-communal violence and militancy across the Sahel. Indeed, the fall of the Gadaffi regime in 2011, had a direct impact on the surge in militancy and armed conflicts in the Sahel, due to the proliferation of weapons hailing from Libya into Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso among other countries after the disintegration of the state. Thus, the ongoing battle across Tripoli has brought extreme concern among regional leaders, who see the continuation of this violence as a direct threat to their stability.
Since the beginning of the LNA offensive against Tripoli on April 4, the Islamic State (IS) is trying to exploit the void left by the LNA and its allies in southern Libya in order to reassert their influence and establish a foothold following it loses in Benghazi and Sirte. IS has restructured its organisation in the country, organising themselves in Sarayas, small strike platoons of up to 30 men in order to conduct operations on villages and security forces via attacks on security garrisons or road ambushes. Over the last couple of months IS has increased their attacks and clashes with LNA forces around the Haruj Mountains, which given their remoteness appear as an ideal hideout for IS forces. While the above has not been framed as a clear stronghold for IS forces, most of their activities have been focused around the Haruj Mountains east of al Fukaha.
In this context, as the main Libyan forces focus on the standoff on Tripoli, there is a distinct threat for IS to bolster and entrench its presence across vast swaths of land in central and southern Libya. Thus, the group could possibly seize the opportunity to build a continuous network of IS affiliates across the region, further worsening the current security landscape in the Sahel.
In fact, there is a record of increasing cooperation between the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) operating in the Lake Chad region and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the tri-border between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. This, coupled with the increased emphasis given by the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to Mali and the Sahel over recent months, shed light on the group’s ambitions in the area. Thus, the lack of rule of law in southern Libya, and in turn, IS’ potential entrenchment in this region has the potential to devolve into a transnational crisis that might replicate the challenges posed by IS in Iraq and Syria.