Don’t Count the Islamic State in Libya Down Yet

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 13, 2016

Islamic State convoy, Anbar Province, January 2014

Islamic State convoy, Anbar Province, January 2014

In Libya, the government of national accord (GNA)—in this case militias largely from western Libya, specifically Misrata, and the guards from the oil installations—claimed to have driven the Islamic State (IS) from Sirte on 11 June. Backed by artillery and airstrikes, with tanks moving in on the ground and some street clashes, the GNA-flagged troops had reached the city centre on 9 June. Expelled from Derna in the east in June 2015 and cleared from Sabratha in western Libya after a brief occupation earlier this year, this left Sirte as IS’s only major urban stronghold.

At the end of 2015, IS had controlled about 200 miles of coastline, from Abuqrayn (100 miles west of Sirte) to Nawafaliya (80 miles east of Sirte). On 12 May, an offensive began to take Sirte, coordinated through al-Bunyan al-Marsoos (The Solid Structure) Operations Room. The attack began from the Misratan militias in the west and by late May the eastern front had been opened up. At the end of May, IS lost Nawafaliya, and the collapse of territorial control has been steady since then, with IS now controlling about forty miles of coastline. A Libyan government official was quoted saying, “The battle wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be.” While this is true—100 pro-GNA troops were killed and 500 wounded—there are reasons to be sceptical of the idea that this is the end for IS in Libya, and not just because IS still holds even areas of the Sirte.

IS had been in occupation of Sirte for almost exactly a year, meaning it has been able to accrue considerable resources, and had between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters in the city—composed of defectors from Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda), local tribes, elements of the fallen regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and operatives from IS core. IS has made a show of resistance, but the number of reported IS casualties is low, and the speed with which IS has fallen back makes such early reports plausible. In combination with the continued politico-military dysfunction of the ostensible governing authorities, this is very worrying.

Revolution and Forming a Unity Government

Colonel Qaddafi fled his capital in August 2011 and two months later was dragged from a drainage ditch and killed. Elections in June 2012 empowered nationalist and tribalist forces over Islamists, and the same occurred in June 2014. In response, in August 2014, Islamist militias known as Libya Dawn took by force what they couldn’t get through elections and pulled off a coup d’état in Tripoli. Libya Dawn claimed the legitimacy of the General National Congress (GNC)—essentially the parliamentary blocs who lost the 2014 election, who served as the legislature of the new regime, styled a “national salvation government” (NSG). This government received support from Qatar and Turkey.

The elected, internationally-recognized government decamped to Tobruk, with the MPs forming a House of Representatives (HOR) that soon joined with General Khalifa Hiftar, who was formally made the commander of the army. Hiftar had set himself up, with Egyptian (and some Emirati) support, as one of the most powerful actors in eastern Libya, and had, Sisi-style, declared war on all Islamists—from Jihadi-Salafists to the Muslim Brotherhood—with Operation DIGNITY in May 2014.

It was in this context of political dysfunction that IS began expanding, and Libya’s proximity to Europe and large oil supplies made this a matter of some international urgency.

The 17 December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) led to the formation of the GNA. Under the LPA’s terms, the HOR is the legitimate legislature and most members of the GNC/NSG have been transferred to a body called the State Council, a consultative body that has some powers of appointment and decision-making in collaboration with the HOR. A nine-member Presidential Council (PC) is to function in the interim as the Head of State, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, one of the MPs Libya Dawn put to flight in 2014.

This theory has been somewhat put into practice, with the arrival in Tripoli of eight members of the PC from Tobruk on 30 March 2016. While the Prime Minister of Libya Dawn/GNC/NSG, Khalifa al-Ghwell, initially called the members of the PC “illegitimate infiltrators” and demanded they “either hand themselves over … or to go back to where they came from,” on 5 April al-Ghwell disbanded his government and formally handed executive authority to al-Sarraj and the PC. This did not stop the U.S. Treasury imposing sanctions on al-Ghwell on 19 April for inter alia “actively work[ing] to obstruct the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement establishing the GNA.” Al-Ghwell was also sanctioned on 1 April by the European Union, as was Nouri Abusahmain, the president of the GNC, and Aguila Saleh, president of the HOR. Nonetheless, throughout April the PC, as a representative of the GNA, appeared to be consolidating control in Tripoli with numerous ministries and the all-important oil industry, specifically the Central Bank and the Petroleum Facilities Guard, plus ten town councils, pledging their allegiance to the GNA. As well as political support, the PC/GNA has the loyalty of militias from Misrata to assert its authority.

The apparent elimination of the GNC/NSG and allies as a strategic threat to the GNA does not remove them as a disruptive factor—on Friday, twelve prisoners held for crimes against protesters in 2011 were released and twenty-four hours later murdered—and they are by no means the only aspect of the political crisis.

To implement the LPA and form the GNA, the HOR has to vote on it, and the Tobruk-based HOR has so far refused at the instructions of Hiftar, who demands the removal of an article in the LPA giving the PC supreme control over the armed forces—which is to say the ability to dismiss Hiftar, if they so choose. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Aguila Saleh, technically Hiftar’s superior, for this stalling. The sanctions did not break the deadlock, yet the trends toward making the GNA a military reality are reasonably positive. There has been no challenge from the various militias in the capital to the PC/GNA and on 4 June two important factions, an elite counter-terrorism force and a military-intelligence unit, defected from Hiftar and joined the GNA.

Still, Hiftar remains in control of considerable military and political assets and has said he and the HOR will not recognize al-Sarraj’s administration—with which they have “no links”—until the militias have been dismantled. Hiftar directly called on the international community to circumvent al-Sarraj and to lift the arms embargo imposed in February 2011 against the Qaddafi government. The U.S. has said it is open to making an exception to the arms embargo for the GNA, and a resolution is pending to this effect, which will also strengthen the enforcement of the embargo on all other parties via a European Union naval blockade. The main problem is that the U.S. does not have an especially clear picture of what is happening on the ground and would be largely reliant on the GNA to determine which militias were firm loyalists and which could be enticed into alignment with the government by the provision of resources.

The U.S. visibility in Libya has been improved by the deployment of small numbers of Special Operations Forces in Benghazi and Misrata. There was an incident in December 2015, when a detachment of U.S. SOF who landed in Libya had to leave because they had not coordinated with the right militia to allow them access on the ground; by this time U.S. commandos had been “in and out of Libya” for “some time,” including to arrest Ahmed Abu Khattala in June 2014. France has had Special Forces in Libya since at least February 2016—allegedly helping Hiftar’s forces—and in May it was reported that Britain had had Special Operators in Libya for “more than a year“.

IS’s Foreign Branches

The loss of Sirte would be a real blow to IS, whose affiliates or wilayats model has always had mixed success. In Algeria, the killing of the group’s leader, Abdelmalek Gouri (Khaled Abu Sulayman), in December 2014, two months after it announced its allegiance to IS, was more-or-less the end of the group, for example. In Russia and Afghanistan the “provinces” are weak and their connections to IS’s core in Syria and Iraq appear likewise. IS’s branches in Yemen and Egypt have serious and clear links to IS core, and conditions that can be used by IS to their advantage. There is controversy over IS core’s connection to its Nigerian branch, the West African Province (formerly Boko Haram), but that group remains a serious menace with territorial holdings no matter the case. Libya was always slightly different, however, as Brett McGurk noted in an important recent statement detailing how the U.S. was judging the progress of its war against IS.

Unlike in other areas, where IS extends its brand to pre-existing groups, then takes over their media output and institutes its version of shari’a governance, in Libya IS deliberately engineered its branch. In the summer of 2014, IS dispatched Wissam al-Zubaydi (Abu Nabil al-Anbari, Abu Mughirah al-Qahtani) to Libya, a very senior and competent IS operative, a former policeman in the Saddam Hussein regime who was credited with the group’s takeover of Bayji and Tikrit. Serving at that time as IS’s governor of Saladin, al-Zubaydi went to Derna to create a group that would in October 2014 swear allegiance to the caliph. At the end of last year—ostensibly as IS was coming under pressure at its core—it sent hundreds of its Libyan members and a number of elite operatives to Libya to buttress the local branch. There is no indication IS has lost all these members as they have lost ground in Sirte.

IS’s Comeback in Iraq and Rise in Syria

In examining what has happened to IS’s membership in Sirte, it is instructive to look at what Alex Mello and Michael Knights wrote of IS in April 2015, as IS’s final pockets were being swept from Tikrit:

[T]he Islamic State frequently relinquishes terrain to suit its own operational needs and often signals an awareness that they will be forced from attacked areas in short order. Though the Islamic State frequently holds out until the last possible moment before withdrawing, they have a track record of draining their main forces from areas that are about to be attacked.

This is what is behind the three suicide bombings yesterday morning: IS has used very few such attacks as it has lost control of Sirte, but it protracts its resistance at a low price with these strikes. In numerous battles—such as Fallujah in 2004 to Tikrit in 2015—IS left behind a skeleton crew of snipers and suicide bombers, behind a defensive perimeter of mines and booby-trapped buildings, inflicting maximum casualties on its foes and in both those cases using the fact that its opponents were bogged down as a diversion to launch assaults that captured other areas (Mosul and Ramadi, respectively).

Mello and Knights note:

Though towns and cities are of both symbolic and strategic value, the Islamic State seems more focused on actively defending the rural zones in which urban areas are located. In many cases, the urban center may be the part of the defended zone allocated the smallest proportion of available Islamic State forces. … The rural belts surrounding the city are often more actively contested by the Islamic State and for longer. This strategy first appeared in the battle for Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, when the phrases “Baghdad belts” and “commuter insurgency” summed up the pivotal role of the rural periphery in the urban battle. This strategy is still in play … [and the] problem of nearby ungoverned sanctuaries afflicts all the areas the Islamic State group is still effectively defending.

One of the advantages of moving in these “swarm-permissive desert theater[s]” is that the support of the local population matters less. But even here IS has adapted its operating methods toward securing a minimum of acquiescence.

As Craig Whiteside explains:

[M]ilitary resources can generally be used by a combatant to establish control over areas regardless of the population’s political predisposition, which in turn generates a threshold of collaboration over time. … Abu Musab al-Zarqawi … respon[ded] to al-Qaeda criticism of his methods in Iraq from 2003-06, justifying his attacks on the Shia and even fellow Sunnis as necessary to establish control first—after which allegiance would naturally follow. …

Because control requires enormous resources, “effective violence requires discrimination.” While the group is infamous for its indiscriminate attacks using suicide car bombs on Iraqi Shia civilians, it maintained a different, more careful strategy for achieving control and limited collateral damage in key areas.

ISIL took the cities and towns back with an efficient campaign that focused on removing key nodes of a pro-government network and replacing it with its own control apparatus. By wresting control of the key terrain and population centers it desired, it was able to enforce and elicit a basic level of collaboration from the population. Undoubtedly, at this point opportunistic tribes and members assisted the group, but that is exactly what control facilitates and encourages.

From their desert sanctuaries, IS had, in carefully discriminate operations between 2009 and 2014, struck down more than 1,300 of their Sahwa (Awakening) enemies, their prior collaborators whose close knowledge of IS had allowed them—with financial support from Baghdad and the Americans—to push IS from its urban operating zones. The U.S. first withdrew financial support then its military support, leaving the Sahwa to the believable threat of IS on one side and an increasingly sectarian, authoritarian, and Iranian-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on the other. Al-Maliki ceased payments to the Sahwa and began arresting and even killing its leadership, while purging other Sunnis from the government. The demise of the Sahwa under the dual assault from IS and Baghdad opened not just political space but a security vacuum for IS, which was able to establish itself in its old havens and grow strong enough to be able to dispatch agents into Syria, providing further strategic depth that eventually fed back upon Iraqi dynamics.


So what does this tell us about Libya? That a retreat of IS’s forces into the deserts of southern Libya would be in-keeping with the strategy used in Iraq after its defeat in 2008. (It is perhaps also a hint that the final IS branch, in Saudi Arabia, is more threatening than it appears: it is noteworthy that in two previous high-profile cases of men wanted by Riyadh—Juhayman al-Utaybi and Nimr al-Nimr—they were able to evade the authorities in rural areas. There is reason to think IS’s agents will be at least as capable of exploiting this environment.) This strategy is already showing signs of being adopted again, in both Iraq and Syria. Additionally, in both countries, fractious anti-IS coalitions have made fighting more protracted and bloody than it might have been had political differences been settled before the battle against IS was undertaken. The misconceived “liberation” of IS-held cities by forces that locals perceive as sectarian occupiers has also given the organization space to rebound. These factors might yet tell in Sirte.

As with IS at its core in Syria and Iraq, foreign fighters drawn by adventure and ideology, faced with the grim reality of death and defeat, might well abandon IS during its time of trouble. Some will defect to al-Qaeda’s entrenched North African networks, notably al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, seeing in the caliphate’s fall vindication of al-Qaeda’s methodology. Some of these defectors will stay in Libya and others will surely move to other states in the region. Others will return home and remain dormant until the next time. Still others will be immunized against jihadism’s pull by their experience. But, while IS will shrink, it will maintain its true believers.

IS does not have the same sectarian and tribal cleavages to work on in Libya, and the presence of population centres like Derna that are sympathetic to Jihadi-Salafism and of al-Qaeda’s networks have proven overall to be more of a bulwark than an entry-ramp for IS. What IS has in Libya is the main weapon it has in the Fertile Crescent: desperate political dysfunction.

The absence of a clear civil-military division, with control in the hands of the former, is at the heart of the current crisis between the GNA and Hiftar. This is part of the hangover of Qaddafi’s “Jamahiriya” regime—a construct set out in The Green Book that Anwar al-Sadat once dismissed as being as substantive as a “toaster manual”. Like other ideologies that promise radical democratic politics, the reality is deeply authoritarian: a society without effective institutional checks on the ruler. Hiftar is resistant to being subordinate to civilians; the GNA cannot force his hand and is in any case torn. On the one hand, Hiftar is clearly a strongman in the making, and on the other hand his armed units are potentially useful to destroy the Islamist terrorists and establish some semblance of order. Hiftar is playing on this latter fact to secure international support for an end-run around the LPA.

By making gains on the ground, Hiftar hopes to make himself an inescapable interlocutor for an international community obsessed with the IS threat in the most short-termist of senses. This mistake of prioritizing a narrow counter-terrorism mission and ignoring the wider politics has already been seen in Syria, with the result of damaging the anti-IS effort itself, as well as the longer-term prospects for the stability that is the only true means of defeating IS.

Using IS as a unifying objective for a new Libyan government might prove useful, but making it the central focus misses the point: IS is a symptom of Libya’s crisis, not a cause. As a practical example, there might be, as Lydia Sizer has argued, a way to finesse the Hiftar issue by allowing him greater operational space and access to international weapons shipments in exchange for strict and enforceable limits on his geographic boundaries and his political power within that area. If this is done because Hiftar is too large a factor to ignore, with enough power to be a spoiler in a political settlement though not enough to conquer the whole country, then so much the better. Various incentives and potential penalties used to coax Hiftar and other factions into a cohesive, legitimate administration that can enforce its writ over Libya’s territory because it has the support of a population that views it as the best guardian of its interests, is clearly in the West’s interests. If Hiftar is granted concessions simply based on the international community’s perceptions of his utility against IS, then both counter-terrorism and political efforts will fail. Prioritizing the anti-IS mission to the point of accepting short-term solutions that empower individual actors and militias that damage the long-term prospects for a representative and responsive civilian government will only lead to a repetition. Ditto a foreign intervention that targets IS and does nothing to solve the conditions that gave rise to it.

IS “fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea,” Nibras Kazimi has written. “They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply.” Urban areas valuable to IS but its lifeblood is in the countryside. If locally-accepted forces are not enabled to become the governing authorities in the population centres IS is cleared from, it will continue to be able to find its way back in by holding itself out from its rural sanctuaries as either a means to defeat this illegitimate local order, as an alternative model, or both—and its “defeat” in its urban strongholds will only be resetting the cycle.







UPDATE (14 AUG 2016): The Wall Street Journal had a report that bore remarkable similarities to the above, specifically on the manner in which IS’s fighters had chosen to largely withdraw from Sirte rather than fight, worrying security services that IS was “taking refuge in [Libya’s] southern towns, where locals oppose the government … rais[ing] the possibility that the militants will regroup to launch counteroffensives.”

Post has been updated

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