On Thursday, the U.S. government officially added the ISIS affiliates in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen to the list of designated terrorist organizations.
As CNN observes, this is not so much a change in how the U.S. views the nature of these organizations, as a reassessment of their threat level. Until now, the groups in question have been seen as sympathetic to the Islamic State. Now they are regarded as formal affiliates — which would also imply formal recognition that ISIS holds territory in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
“All three affiliates of the Sunni terrorist group have carried out deadly attacks in their countries,” CNN noted. “ISIS in Saudi Arabia has staged attacks on Shiite mosques in the Kingdom and in Kuwait, killing more than 50 people. ISIS in Yemen claimed responsibility for suicide bombings on mosques there that killed more than 120. And ISIS in Libya, which has attacked on government and civilian targets, staged a highly publicized kidnapping and execution of 21 Egyptian Christians.”
That was only the first atrocity perpetrated by ISIS savages in Libya. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a report on the ISIS occupation of Sirte, the coastal city taken over by the militants in 2015.
The report chronicles “scenes of horror,” including the seizure of property by militants, the theft of public money, food shortages, kidnappings, imposition of strict sharia law — with punishments for violators ranging from cash fines to public floggings — and of course beheadings in the public square, a staple of Islamic State domination. Some of the people executed by ISIS in Libya were accused of “sorcery.”
“It took them long enough,” sneered Russia’s RT.com of the U.S. State Department decision, noting that all three branches of ISIS have been active since 2014 and were long ago recognized as official elements of the “caliphate” by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Russians won’t be the only ones to suggest the Obama administration has been very slow to officially recognize the expansion of the Islamic State, which was supposed to be contained and degraded by Obama’s policies.
Official acknowledgement of ISIS as a power in Libya — arguably one of four major governments in the country, since the recently ratified “unity government” has not yet unified the feuding governments of Tripoli and Tobruk — will also bring the United States and its allies under more pressure to do something about the threat growing out of Sirte. Given the profound instability of post-Obama, post-Clinton Libya, it’s no surprise the administration was reluctant to acknowledge a horrific problem it would then be expected to solve.