ISIS atrocity in Libya demonstrates its growing reach in North Africa

(CNN)ISIS is under pressure in parts of Iraq and battling a variety of adversaries in Syria, but it’s metastasizing at warp speed elsewhere, most dangerously in Egypt and Libya.

It also has support in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the leader of the group ravaging northern Nigeria, Boko Haram, has expressed his admiration of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The savage killing of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya — all of them dressed in ISIS’ trademark orange prison garb — is another indication of ISIS’ ability to take advantage of collapsed or collapsing states and of its growing presence in North Africa. Most significantly, the atrocity took place in Sirte, a long way from ISIS’ first stronghold around Derna in the east of the country.

ISIS’ presence in Sirte, a town of 50,000, has been growing. The Egyptians were abducted in November, and more recently, the extremists strengthened their presence by taking over government buildings and a radio station.

In Libya since autumn

The ISIS terror threatAlleged ISIS militants stand next to an ISIS flag atop a hill in Kobani on Monday, October 6. Safi al-Kasasbeh, right, receives condolences from tribal leaders at his home village near Karak, Jordan, on Wednesday, February 4. Al-Kasasbehs son, lt;a href=quot;http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/03/world/gallery/jordanian-pilot-reaction/index.htmlquot; target=quot;_blankquot;gt;Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh,lt;/agt; was burned alive in a video that was recently released by ISIS militants. Jordan is one of a handful of Middle Eastern nations taking part in the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS.A Kurdish marksman looks over a destroyed area of Kobani, Syria, on Friday, January 30, after the city had been liberated from the ISIS militant group. Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, had been under assault by ISIS since mid-September.Smoke billows in Kirkuk, Iraq, as Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take position against ISIS militants on January 30. The aim of ISIS is to create an Islamic state across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria.Kurdish people celebrate in Suruc, Turkey, near the Turkish-Syrian border, after ISIS militants were expelled from Kobani on Tuesday, January 27.Collapsed buildings are seen in Kobani on January 27 after Kurdish forces took control of the town from ISIS.Junko Ishido, mother of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, reacts during a news conference in Tokyo on Friday, January 23. ISIS would later kill Goto and another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa.ISIS militants are seen through a rifles scope during clashes with Peshmerga fighters in Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, January 21.An elderly Yazidi man arrives in Kirkuk after being released by ISIS on Saturday, January 17. The militant group released about 200 Yazidis who were held captive for five months in Iraq. Almost all of the freed prisoners were in poor health and bore signs of abuse and neglect, Kurdish officials said.Smoke billows behind an ISIS sign during an Iraqi military operation to regain control of the town of Sadiyah, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, on Tuesday, November 25.Fighters from the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units join forces to fight ISIS in Kobani on Wednesday, November 19.Fighters from the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units join forces to fight ISIS in Kobani on Wednesday, November 19.A picture taken from Turkey shows smoke rising after ISIS militants fired mortar shells toward an area controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters near Kobani on Monday, November 3.Iraqi special forces search a house in Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraq, on Thursday, October 30, after retaking the area from ISIS.ISIS militants stand near the site of an airstrike near the Turkey-Syria border on Thursday, October 23. The United States and several Arab nations have been bombing ISIS targets in Syria to take out the militant groups ability to command, train and resupply its fighters.Kurdish fighters walk to positions as they combat ISIS forces in Kobani on Sunday, October 19.A U.S. Air Force plane flies above Kobani on Saturday, October 18. Heavy smoke rises in Kobani following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition on October 18.Cundi Minaz, a female Kurdish fighter, is buried in a cemetery in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruc on Tuesday, October 14. Minaz was reportedly killed during clashes with ISIS militants in nearby Kobani.Turkish police officers secure a basketball stadium in Suruc on October 14. Some Syrian Kurds were held there after crossing from Syria into Turkey. Tens of thousands of people fled Kobani to escape ISIS.Kiymet Ergun, a Syrian Kurd, celebrates in Mursitpinar, Turkey, after an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in Kobani on Monday, October 13.In this photo released by the U.S. Air Force on Saturday, October 4, a U.S. Navy jet is refueled in Iraqi airspace after conducting an airstrike against ISIS militants.A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier who was wounded in a battle with ISIS is wheeled to the Zakho Emergency Hospital in Duhuk, Iraq, on Tuesday, September 30.Syrian Kurds wait near a border crossing in Suruc as they wait to return to their homes in Kobani on Sunday, September 28.Tomahawk missiles, intended for ISIS targets in Syria, fly above the Persian Gulf after being fired by the USS Philippine Sea in this image released by the U.S. Navy on Tuesday, September 23.Turkish Kurds clash with Turkish security forces during a protest near Suruc on Monday, September 22. According to lt;a href=quot;http://time.com/3423522/turkey-syria-isis-isil-refugees/quot; target=quot;_blankquot;gt;Time magazinelt;/agt;, the protests were over Turkeys temporary decision to close the border with Syria.Syrian Kurds fleeing ISIS militants wait behind a fence in Suruc on Sunday, September 21.A elderly man is carried after crossing the Syria-Turkey border near Suruc on Saturday, September 20.A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter launches mortar shells toward ISIS militants in Zumar, Iraq, on Monday, September 15.Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire at ISIS militant positions from their position on the top of Mount Zardak, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Tuesday, September 9. Iraqi volunteer fighters celebrate breaking the Amerli siege on Monday, September 1. ISIS militants had surrounded Amerli, 70 miles north of Baquba, Iraq, since mid-June.Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard at their position in the Omar Khaled village west of Mosul on Sunday, August 24. Kurdish Peshmergas fight to regain control of the town of Celavle, in Iraqs Diyala province, on August 24.Peshmerga fighters stand guard at Mosul Dam in northern Iraq on Thursday, August 21. With the help of U.S. military airstrikes, Kurdish and Iraqi forceslt;a href=quot;http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/18/world/meast/iraq-mosul-dam/index.htmlquot;gt; retook the damlt;/agt; from ISIS militants on August 18. A breach of the dam would have been catastrophic for millions of Iraqis who live downstream from it.Displaced Iraqis receive clothes from a charity at a refugee camp near Feeshkhabour, Iraq, on Tuesday, August 19.Peshmerga fighters inspect the remains of a car that reportedly belonged to ISIS militants and was targeted by a U.S. airstrike in the village of Baqufa, north of Mosul, on August 18.Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire at ISIS in Khazair, Iraq, on Thursday, August 14. Aziza Hamid, a 15-year-old Iraqi girl, cries for her father while she and some other Yazidi people are flown to safety Monday, August 11, after a dramatic rescue operation at Iraqs Mount Sinjar. A CNN crew was on the flight, which took diapers, milk, water and food to the site where as many as 70,000 people were trapped by ISIS. But only a few of them were able to fly back on the helicopter with the Iraqi Air Force and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.Thousands of Yazidis are escorted to safety by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and a Peoples Protection Unit in Mosul on Saturday, August 9.Thousands of Yazidi and Christian people flee Mosul on Wednesday, August 6, after the latest wave of ISIS advances.A Baiji oil refinery burns after an alleged ISIS attack in northern Selahaddin, Iraq, on Thursday, July 31.A Syrian rebel fighter lies on a stretcher at a makeshift hospital in Douma, Syria, on Wednesday, July 9. He was reportedly injured while fighting ISIS militants.Peshmerga fighters clean their weapons at a base in Tuz Khormato on June 25.New army recruits gather in Najaf, Iraq, on Wednesday, June 18, following a call for Iraqis to take up arms against Islamic militant fighters. Kurdish Peshmerga forces, along with Iraqi special forces, deploy their troops and armored vehicles outside of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 12.Children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS militants in Mosul on Tuesday, June 10.Civilians from Mosul escape to a refugee camp near Irbil, Iraq, on June 10. 01 syria unrest 100501 week in photos 020601 iraq isis 013002 iraq isis 013003 isis 012802 isis 0128 RESTRICTED04 isis 0128 RESTRICTED05 isis 0128 RESTRICTED06 isis 012808 isis 0128 RESTRICTED09 isis 012831 week in photos 1107 RESTRICTED01 ISIS 103001 isis 102306 isis 102003 isis kobin 101801 isis kobani 101805 syria 101406 syria 101402 syria 101429 week in photos 101002 iraq 100227 week in photos 1003 RESTRICTEDnavy missiles isis38 week in photos 092603 syrian refugees 092202 syrian refugees 092201 week in photos 0919 RESTRICTED02 iraq crisisiraq 090101 iraq 0827 RESTRICTED02 iraq 0827 RESTRICTED03 iraq 0827 RESTRICTED01 iraq 0821iraq airstrike 081801 iraq 081408 week in photos 0815iraq 0809 RESTRICTEDRESTRICTED 02 iraq 0807iraq 0731 RESTRICTEDsyria 070907 iraq 062701 iraq 061902 iraq unrest 061303 iraq unrest 0613 RESTRICTED27 week in photos 0612

ISIS first announced itself in Libya in October. Amateur video showed a large crowd of militants in Derna affiliated with the Shura Council for the Youth of Islam chanting their allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Sources told CNN at the time that ISIS had up to 800 fighters in the area as well as training facilities in the nearby Green Mountains. They were bolstered by the return from Syria and Iraq of up to 300 Libyan jihadists.

    A short while later, al-Baghdadi recognized three Libyan « provinces »: Barqa (in the east), Tripolitania (west) and Fezzan (south) as being part of the « caliphate. »

    Since then, ISIS has stepped up its presence across Libya. Late last month, a suicide bombing and gun attack on a hotel in the capital, Tripoli, killed 10 people, including an American. The attack was swiftly claimed by Wilayat al-Tarabulus, ISIS’ name for the province. Politicians in Tripoli disputed the claim.

    ISIS has also been active in southern Libya, attacking a Libyan army checkpoint in Sokhna in January and killing 16 people.

    While a growing presence, the Libyan affiliate is some ways from being able to mimic ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with its bureaucracy and governing structure. Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting says that « even in the jihadi stronghold of Derna, (ISIS) does not rule independent of a broader coalition of like-minded, but ultimately distinct groups. »

    « While ISIS may prove to be an enduring terrorist threat in Libya, it is very unlikely to be able to develop to the point where it controls a meaningful amount of territory, » Porter says.

    But as in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has launched an effective social media campaign in Libya. It has also made a concerted effort to attract seasoned fighters from other groups, such as Ansar al Sharia.

    ISIS Libyan affiliate has also started to exercise some forms of social control in areas where it is strong. « The group has publicized hisba activities such as burning cigarette cartons; destroying water pipes used for smoking; demolishing « polytheistic » statues and shrines, » says Andrew Engel of the Washington Institute.

    ‘A threat to international peace’

    Outgoing Israeli army chief: Coalition against ISIS must work

    Hours after the Egyptian air force carried out retaliatory airstrikes Monday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry warned that « leaving the situation as it is in Libya without a firm intervention to curtail these terrorist organizations would be a threat to international peace and security. »

    The Italian government has suggested an international peacekeeping presence in Libya. Italy is acutely aware that it’s the jumping-off point for a growing flow of migrants and a base camp for terrorism, just hours across the Mediterranean.

    Bernardino Leon, U.N. envoy to Libya, has floated the idea of international monitors when a peace agreement between rival factions is hammered out. But « when » seems a long way off, despite the beginning of talks between rival factions in Geneva. And U.S. and European officials fear that putting boots on the ground would be a bug light to ISIS supporters.

    In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Leon admitted that « terrorism is becoming a problem beyond the east [of Libya.] It is growing into the west and now the south, and from the west they might go to Tunisia and Algeria. »

    Porter agrees there is a risk to Tunisia.

    There are hundreds of Tunisians among ISIS’ ranks in Syria and Iraq, and the government is already battling a jihadist presence at home in the Chaambi Mountains. « Although Tunisian security services have improved their capabilities in the last 24 months, they fear that they would be overwhelmed by the emergence of a cross-border threat originating in Libya, » Porter says.

    Egypt’s Sinai nears anarchy

    Egypt: We will defend our people from ISIS

    While Libya is ISIS’ most notable franchise, jihadists in Egypt have made the vast Sinai desert almost ungovernable.

    Chief among them is ISIS’ freshly minted Sinai Province, formerly called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Late in January, it killed at least 30 people in a series of co-ordinated attacks on security outposts, leading Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to shake up the military command in the Sinai. And just last week, it released a video showing the beheading of eight alleged spies.

    With Israel on one side and a military-dominated government in Cairo on the other, Sinai Province has powerful enemies close by.

    « That said, » writes Aaron Zelin, a leading scholar of jihadist movements, « if the Egyptian government continues to operate in a brazen manner, militarily it will create new local recruits that could sustain the Islamic State in north Sinai. »

    Less developed but worth monitoring are self-declared supporters of ISIS in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which the group now calls the province of Khorasan. One of them was a former Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Rauf, who was killed a week ago in a drone strike in Helmand Province. He had split from the Taliban, and analysts are watching for further fragmentation of the group.

    Several commanders of the Pakistani Taliban also pledged to al-Baghdadi, but it’s unclear yet whether their departure has more to do with the rifts that have torn the group apart in the last two years. The Long War Journal concluded that most of the new ISIS group were low- to mid-level militants — a sign of « the competition between smaller and emerging militant groups in South Asia, some of which are seeking to align with the Islamic State brand. » within the group.

    The most intriguing development in recent months has been the desire of the Nigerian group Boko Haram to fly the ISIS flag, literally and metaphorically. It has begun to hold territory and talk of its own Caliphate in northern Nigeria. Its propaganda machine has become much more ISIS-like. And it has incorporated the ISIS symbol into its own flag.

    It has also begun inflicting ever more gruesome punishments, including beheadings, on its victims. Boko Haram’s leader, Abu Bakr Shekau, has expressed his admiration for ISIS and al-Baghdadi on more than one occasion — but ISIS has not officially acknowledged any link between the two groups.

    For now at least, it is the long coast of Libya and its deep empty interior, its lack of government and many porous borders that seem the most promising territory for ISIS.

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