Analysis: Former US Marine killed by Islamic State’s Tripoli ‘province’

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Note: A version of this article was first published at The Weekly Standard.

Two gunmen entered the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli Tuesday morning. When their shooting rampage was over, at least ten people had been killed. For jihadists in Libya, the hotel was an inviting target. Foreign diplomats, Western tourists and officials from Libya’s rival governments are known to frequent it. Indeed, the victims were five foreigners, including an American, and five Libyans.

The American killed in the attack has been identified as David Berry. According to The New York Daily News, Berry is a former US Marine who worked as a security contractor for Crucible, LLC. The company’s web site says that Crucible “provides high-risk environment training and global security solutions to employees of the U.S. Government, NGOs, and multinational corporations who live and work in dangerous and austere locations worldwide.” The company has not identified the client Berry was working for at the time of his death.

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In the past, it could take weeks or months for a terrorist organization to take credit for an attack. Sometimes there is no claim of responsibility at all. Before the siege of the Corinthia Hotel had even been ended, however, a group calling itself the Islamic State’s province in Tripoli claimed on Twitter (see image above) that the attack was the work of its members. In short order, the group posted photos of the two gunmen (seen on the right), identifying one as a Tunisian and the other as being from the Sudan.

The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls much of Iraq and Syria as a self-declared “caliphate,” announced the establishment of several “provinces” in North Africa and the Middle East in November of last year. The group’s provinces are more aspirational than real, as none of them controls much territory.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State, argues that all other jihadist groups, and indeed all Muslims, in his provinces’ territories owe him their loyalty now that the caliphate has expanded. From Baghdadi’s perspective, this means that more established jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, are now null and void. AQAP, which rejects Baghdadi’s assumed role as “Caliph Ibrahim,” naturally takes offense to the Islamic State’s proclamations. An already heated rivalry became even testier after the Islamic State’s announcement in November.

Baghdadi’s international sway is often exaggerated. The Islamic State has failed to usurp the power of organizations such as AQAP and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which remain loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. AQIM and its allies maintain a strong presence in Libya. And we cannot be sure how much of an operational relationship there is between the Islamic State’s headquarters in Iraq or Syria and the groups that fight in Baghdadi’s name in Libya and elsewhere.

Regardless, the Islamic State’s international network, and the threat it poses to American interests, is real. The establishment of “provinces,” which was intended to cut into al Qaeda’s dominant share of the global jihadist market, has had some success.

In fact, Berry is not the first American victim of the Islamic State’s provinces.

Late last year, the Islamic State’s province in the Sinai claimed responsibility for the death of a petroleum worker named William Henderson. The Sinai province was formed by a faction of another group, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), which split over the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Henderson was actually killed in August 2014, before ABM’s Sinai presence officially swore allegiance to the Islamic State’s Baghdadi. But there are credible reports of cooperation between ABM and the Islamic State before their formal alliance.

The Sinai province has launched a string of attacks already this year, focusing on Egyptian security forces and others.

Earlier this week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani, announced the formation of a province in the “Khorasan,” a geographical region that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries. A former Pakistani Taliban leader was named as the Khorasan province’s “governor.” His deputy governor is a former Guantanamo detainee known as Abdul Rauf Khadim.

The Islamic State’s Khorasan province is not the strongest jihadist organization in its home turf. The Taliban, al Qaeda and their allies have a much firmer foothold in South Asia. And the Khorasan province’s leaders include jihadists who lost internal power struggles in their previous organizations, paving the way for the Islamic State to garner their allegiance. Khadim, for example, was once a senior Taliban commander. After Khadim was forced out of the Taliban, Khadim and his supporters threw their lot in with Baghdadi. It wasn’t the pull of the Islamic State that led Khadim to switch allegiances, so much as the Taliban’s push, which was caused by Khadim’s disagreements with his fellow jihadists.

Still, Khadim has been an effective commander and the Khorasan province is already active in southern Afghanistan. There have been skirmishes between Baghdadi’s followers and their rivals in the Taliban, which is clearly gunning for Khadim. One report says that the Taliban has captured Khadim and dozens of his followers, but that has not been confirmed.

In the months to come, the Islamic State’s provinces will claim more victims, including perhaps more Americans.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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