In the past week, the self-proclaimed Islamic State terror group has targeted a new front well outside of its core area of influence in Syria and Iraq, extending the reach of its violent ideology to Libya — where the country's political instability has allowed radical militants an opening to exploit the unrest.
Last Sunday, the group released a gruesome video showing the execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic workers in Libya, pledging that they would soon "conquer Rome." On Friday, Islamic State loyalists claimed responsibility for three simultaneous bombings in the eastern Libyan town of Al Qubbah, which killed at least 40 people.
Over the weekend, unconfirmed reports claimed that militias affiliated with the group took possession of a cache of chemical weapons left behind by the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi — including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin — and another group allied with the Islamic State claimed responsibility for attacks at the residence of the Iranian ambassador in Tripoli and at the Labraq international airport in the east. No one was killed in the attacks.
Regional and world leaders who are already concentrating on battling the group to the east have been alarmed by developments in Libya, but the Islamic State has been steadily building a presence there as Libyans who have fought with the group in Syria and Iraq return to a deeply fragmented country.
While much of the world is only just starting to take notice, some Libyan residents have witnessed public executions and the enforcement of religious rule by Islamic State loyalists for months. Their presence in Libya is so far centered in a few areas — and being contested by a number of other groups — but the country was on the brink of collapse long before the militants claimed a spot on its messy political stage.
In fact, the Islamic State's ascent in Libya might be more a reflection of the group's media strategy than of its actual influence within the country.
"The video of the beheadings immediately turned everyone to focusing on the Islamic State in Libya, a country that hasn't really had much media scrutiny," Charlie Winter, a researcher at the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, told VICE News. "They knew that they would get attention with that atrocious video, and it immediately had the effect of creating an image of Libya as the new place where the Islamic State is setting up shop."
"They basically ran the other groups to the ground in terms of propaganda, but the reality is very different," he added. "It's nowhere near as binary. There are myriad groups which are competing for regional dominance."
Libya's Continued Civil War
The civil war that toppled Qaddafi after 42 years in power was followed by a second civil war that divided the country last year after a fragile government failed to unite dozens of tribal militias and insurgent groups, many of which remained well armed after the revolution in 2011, and some of which control strategic ports and oil fields.
Libya is essentially split between the internationally recognized government that fled Tripoli for the city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, and a coalition of Islamist militias that took over the capital. But while the current conflict has been seen as a struggle between Islamists and Arab nationalists — pitting former Qaddafi general (and US citizen) Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared Libyan National Army's campaign against Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, which the US designated a terrorist organization following the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi — the reality on the ground is not so simple.
Haftar has also taken on a plethora of loosely allied Islamist militias known as Dawn of Libya, from which Ansar al-Sharia has distanced itself.
The picture is further clouded at the local level, where different tribal groups and city militias have jockeyed for influence and formed volatile alliances.
"There are ideological divisions within those camps — politicians and fighters in each camp are not 100 percent aligning with each other," Osama Buera, a spokesman for the rebel group Cyrenaica Political Bureau in eastern Libya, told VICE News. "The aligning hasn't taken a final shape yet."
Meanwhile, loyalists who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State have seized the opportunity to build a presence in the country — most notably in the eastern city of Darnah. Some are comparing the city to Raqqa, the terror group's stronghold in Syria, though the group's control of Darnah is far less secure.
The Islamic State's leaders appear to have taken a keen interest in Libya's developing front, which relieves them of some of the pressure they are facing from a US-led coalition of Western and Arab governments and offers a strategic gateway to North Africa and Europe. But the group's Libyan ascent seems to be more a re-branding of Islamist militias that were already there, aided by the return of fighters from Syria and Iraq, than a formal extension of its reach into new territory.
"There have always been jihadist groups in Libya," Frederic Werhey, an expert on Libyan politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VICE News. "What has happened is that ISIS has exploited and moved into the vacuum created by the civil war," he added, referring to the Islamic State by an alternative name.
An estimated 300 fighters who returned from Syria and Iraq are the core of the group's presence in Libya, where they have poached disillusioned members from other Islamist factions.
"Since then you had the weakening of al Qaeda-affiliated groups and the defection of some of their members to ISIS," Werhey said. "The ISIS brand has been more appealing, ISIS has been more assertive. But ISIS in Libya is a very local outgrowth."
The group is particularly attractive to younger militants. Ansar al Sharia originally rejected the caliphate's authority in a generational split similar to that between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, but several of its members appear to have switched ranks, while other groups have formed opportunistic alliances with the newcomers.
Like other alliances in Libya, those with the Islamic State are also volatile.
"With any sort of pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State there's always a huge amount of negotiation going on in the background. A group, regardless of their beliefs, will not pledge allegiance to them, effectively subordinating their own cause, unless there's a significant amount to be gained from doing so," said Winter. "There's a lot of pragmatism behind these pledges of allegiance."
While the rivalries between different groups have been subsumed by their shared effort against the Libyan National Army, those tensions are likely to resurface later on.
Besides fighters returning, top Islamic State figures have also made the trip. Abu Nabil al Anbari, an Iraqi close to the group's "caliph," Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was sighted last September in Darnah, where he reportedly helped arrange the Mujahideen of Libya's pledge of allegiance. Sheikh Turki al-Bin'ali, a prominent Bahraini cleric within the insurgency, preached in the Islamist stronghold of Sirte in 2013 and late last year, and he is rumored to be back in the country once again.
"To have someone who's pretty high profile making that journey does suggest there's a significant amount of importance placed on Libya as a potential destination to expand the Islamic State's base of support," said Winter. "There does seem to be an exchange of sorts in terms of logistical advice."
In January, a notable supporter of the group who claims to be in Libya shared a manifesto on a jihadi forum, describing the country as a "strategic gateway" for the Islamic State. Though not an official edict of the Islamic State, the document appears to reflect its leadership's vision.
"Libya, by the permission of God, is the key to Egypt, the key to Tunisia, Sudan, Mali, Algeria and Niger too," he wrote. "It is the anchor from which can be reached Africa and the Islamic Maghreb."
The Islamic State's latest attacks seem to signal the group's effort to boost recruiting, and project a political dominance that it does not in fact exercise. It optimistically unveiled an organizational scheme last fall that divided the country into three provinces.
"It's very difficult to tell who is making up the ranks of the pro-Islamic State factions, but what is very clear and something the Islamic State is desperately trying to hide is that it's not a homogenous base of support, even in Darnah," said Winter. "It's kind of like a microcosm of Libya as a whole: it's such a fluid situation, it can change any time."
The Islamic State and the World
So far, the Islamic State's presence in Libya seems to be limited to Darnah, Sirte, and a few other isolated pockets. The group has not seized any of the strategic ports and oil fields controlled by other militias.
"It's unclear if they have military capability to take over resources: they have tried to attack oil fields, they've executed soldiers, but in terms of actual geographic territory that they control, it's fairly limited," said Werhey.
But while they don't reveal much about its military capability, a series of killings and attacks have lent the Islamic State an aura of ubiquity and fueled fears of its ability to strike in different areas.
"Islamic State propagandists are trying to get as big a reaction out of regional powers as possible," said Winter. "They're trying to bog down the region in as much chaos as possible."
The beheadings of the 21 Egyptians, in particular, have drawn a firm response from Egypt, which has responded with airstrikes on Darnah that have been carried out in coordination with the internationally recognized Libyan government.
Human rights groups monitoring the area have noted that the strikes on Darnah have caused civilian deaths, and fears abound that such casualties will increase as the conflict escalates. The Islamic State's provocation is meant to spur such losses and boost recruitment.
"The airstrikes are having a polarizing effect — they're forcing people who would actually be against ISIS to rally with them against this common enemy," said Wehrey.
The recent bombings in Al Qubbah also mark an escalation of the Islamic State's tactics in Libya, which seem aimed at exerting authority locally and drawing regional powers into a conflict that will only exacerbate Libya's divisions.
"Targeting civilians directly is a new shift," said Buera. "It's an attempt to create a religious dictatorship by terrifying people. The ultimate goal is definitely political."
"The rise of the Islamic State fighters on the western borders of Cyrenaica will complicate the political conflict and the militias' fights in various areas in the country, leading to a greater status of anarchy," he added. "It will be difficult for the international community to determine which groups to ally with in the fight against the Islamic State in the current circumstances."
For the time being, Western powers fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have shown little desire to get dragged into conflict on this new front, insisting instead that Libya needs a political solution and a unity government.
"No one faction can confront alone the challenges facing Libya," France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States said in a joint statement last week. "The United Nations-led process to establish a national unity government provides the best hope for Libyans to address the terrorist threat and to confront the violence and instability that impedes Libya's political transition and development."
Slightly more than 100 miles of sea separates Libya from Italy, which has seen a massive influx of migrants and refugees from the region owing to the civil unrest.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called for "prudence and a sense of the situation," dismissing calls for an intervention that followed the Islamic State's recent pledge to conquer Rome, as well as fears that militants could use the boats that leave the Libyan coast loaded with migrants almost daily to enter the country.
"What is happening is very complicated. We are following events closely and with concern but there is no need to jump from total indifference to hysteria and an unreasonable reaction," Renzi said. "The situation in Libya has been out of control for three years, we have been saying this in every forum and will continue to do so."
"If it wants to, the international community has the means to intervene," he added, calling for a UN resolution. "The strength of the UN is clearly greater than that of the radical militias."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi