The End of the Beginning for the Islamic State in Libya

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on December 7, 2016

The “capital” of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya, Sirte, has fallen to pro-government militias. “Our forces have total control of Sirte,” claimed one spokesman on Monday. “Islamic State’s rule over Sirte is now over,” said another. That was slightly premature, though it does appear that the city fell entirely around mid-afternoon yesterday. Regardless, it is clear that IS’s hold on Sirte is soon to be at an end. Positive as this development is, it is what happens after IS’s grip on urban areas is broken that will determine the durability of this victory. IS will remain a disruptive force for some time no matter what happens next, and for that reason it is important to continue military operations in pursuit of IS in its rural sanctuaries. But IS is a symptom of Libya’s political problems, not their cause. Without a government that solves some of those original problems, and has the legitimacy and capacity to keep IS out, the group will rise again.


IS has set up sixteen wilayats (provinces) in eight countries outside Iraq and Syria, and has a presence of varying strengths in at least six more—not counting its networks in Europe.

IS first recognized overseas “provinces” on 13 November 2014, when were its leader, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), accepted pledges of allegiance (bayat) from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt (now Wilayat Sinai), Jund al-Khilafa in Algeria (rebranded Wilayat al-Jazair), two anonymous groups, in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and al-Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI, the Islamic Youth Shura Council) in Libya.

IS’s territorial expansion is a stereotyped procedure, drawing on the methods developed in waging revolutionary war in Iraq and expanding this proto-state into Syria. Aaron Zelin has identified it as a five-stage process, but noted that “IS’s methods and program have … not been fully exported outside its home base”. The exception is Libya.

Documents captured from IS record their state-building enterprise in Libya, down to “tax-collection offices, police, courts and even an immigration office to support foreign recruits, a highly organized venture otherwise seen only in Iraq and Syria”. IS introduced the full panoply of punishments for “anti-Islamic” behaviour, especially by women, and set up at least one media kiosk to spread its propaganda and win converts. In recruiting child-soldiers and engaging in anti-Sufi activities, IS has sown seeds that will surely outlast it. Weakening Sufism is perhaps set to be one of IS’s most enduring legacies in Syria and Iraq; what impact it has on Libya going forward, time will tell.

IS’s systematic efforts to re-shape the local landscape, socially and religiously, were brought to Libya direct, unlike in the other areas, creating what was in effect a colony. Over the summer of 2014, an IS team was dispatched to Libya led by Wissam al-Zubaydi, a senior IS commander who had been a former policeman in Saddam Husayn’s regime. Al-Zubaydi had been known as Abu Nabil al-Anbari and would now become Abu al-Mughirah al-Qahtani.

Al-Zubaydi set about the usual pattern of setting up a shadow authority: infiltration and subversion, annexing parts of al-Qaeda’s network in Libya, penetrating various militias, and bringing revenue-generating organized criminality under IS’s banner to increase their independence and the viability of forming a polity.

In late 2015, hundreds of Libyan IS jihadists returned to Libya from Syria. Many were from Katibat al-Battar, an elite unit of shock troops and trainers, who also prepared external operators like the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the on-the-ground leader of the Paris attacks. Around the same time, the caliph’s deputy, Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), personally visited Libya. This kind of investment of talent was not seen anywhere else.

Potentially underlining Libya’s uniqueness for IS, it has been reported that the troops moving on Sirte have captured Turki al-Binali. This has been denied by IS. Al-Binali, the Bahraini who is, now that al-Qaduli is dead, IS’s most senior religious official, has previously visited Libya.


After publicly announcing its presence in Libya, IS soon claimed to operate three provinces, drawn roughly along the ancient geographic cleavages: Wilayat Tarabulus or Tripolitania in the west, including the cities of Tripoli, Misrata, and Sirte; Wilayat Barqa or Cyrenaica in the east, covering cities like Benghazi, Ajdabiya, and Derna; and Wilayat Fezzan in the southern deserts. IS’s actual territorial holdings within these imagined provinces was minimal.

Having begun with MSSI in late 2014 in Derna, IS spread in early 2015 into Benghazi and Sirte, which it conquered in mid-2015. IS also sought to infiltrate the west.

IS was partly rolled back. IS lost Derna in June 2015 and its brief occupation of Sabratha in the west was extinguished in March 2016. IS had a presence in Tripoli and has shown an ability to attack targets near the capital as recently as June, but its current status in the city is unclear. After two years of sustained attack in Benghazi, IS now holds only Ganfouda and the downtown districts of al-Sabri and Souq al-Hout, and even those are not held alone but shared with other Islamist militias and al-Qaeda. But Sirte would prove a launch-pad for expansion.

By the end of 2015, IS had captured territory one-hundred miles west of Sirte, up to the town of Abuqrayn, and eighty miles east of Sirte to Nawafaliya.


The operation to evict IS from Sirte has been unexpectedly protracted and bloody. Beginning on 12 May, a consortium of militias, numbering about 6,000, dominated by those from Misrata, under the flag of the internationally-recognized interim government of national accord (GNA), began an advance on IS-held Sirte. The operation was dubbed al-Bunyan al-Marsus (The Solid Structure), often shortened to BAM.

IS’s buffer territory around Sirte was lost in short order and on 9 June the GNA militias reached the city centre of Sirte. Mopping up would take “days, not weeks,” a GNA spokesman said. Writing at the time, I suggested this might not be so given IS’s method of warfare as seen in Iraq and Syria, where it withdrew the bulk of its fighters from cities quickly when faced with an overwhelming foe, but left enough men behind enough layers of fortifications that it raised the death toll and man-hours taken to expel them. I added that, regardless of the length of the battle in the city, it was likely IS would live to fight another day, both because it has preserved its fighters, who would retreat into the deserts, likely in the south of the country, and because it was unclear that the pro-government militias had a viable alternative to offer the local population.

Just before the BAM offensive began, it was estimated that IS had between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters in Libya, a near-doubling compared with early 2015. This tallied with other reports that saw significant numbers of Libyan jihadists moving from “Syraq” to Libya in late 2015. In September, IS had ceased to govern and was confined to the 600 Residential Neighbourhood and al-Giza al-Bahriya. Despite resisting pro-government encroachments with booby traps, IEDs, and snipers, and launching attacks into GNA-held areas with suicide bombers, by October IS held only areas of al-Giza. IS was assessed as having only around 200 jihadists in Sirte in November. This suggested that IS was continuing the above-mentioned tactics.

Special Forces from the U.S., Britain, Italy, and France have been on the ground assisting the anti-IS mission since the spring. As the battle dragged on, the United States more forcefully asserted herself, beginning Operation ODYSSEY LIGHTNING on 1 August, providing air support to the GNA militias. Yet it took about 500 airstrikes and four more months—to date—to push IS to this point where it was still holding several buildings in Sirte on Monday and inflicting heavy casualties on its foes.

There are no accurate figures for casualties. The number of IS members killed remains unknown. In mid-September—about halfway through the seven-month operation—it was reported by the Italians that 400 pro-government militiamen had been killed and 2,500 injured. Tom Feneux, a Danish journalist who has been tracking the operation closely, says the minimum for pro-government casualties is nearly 4,000, with 700 fatalities.


IS in Libya has been following the blueprint used at the centre. In Libya, as in Iraq and Syria, IS has used tribes as a pillar of its statelet: tribes have “long histories and [are] socially embedded institutions [that] make them more durable than [Libya’s] shallow-rooted political parties”. IS’s ability to co-opt the tribes in Libya has been more limited than in the Fertile Crescent, but it is still significant. In Libya, too, IS has been able to use smuggling and other lucrative criminality to its own advantage. IS was able to draw on the custodians of the fallen dictatorship, who are deeply embedded in the fabric of society, to bolster its new, theocratic one in Iraq. IS’s first governor of Sirte was Usama Karama, the relative of a senior Qaddafi-era intelligence official.

Under pressure, IS stuck to the same script. Not unlike in Mosul, IS showed considerable ability to launch diversionary raids during the operation against it in Sirte. As in both Iraq and Syria, where IS has prepared a hinterland for after it loses its cities, IS in Libya has already begun re-basing itself in the southern deserts around villages and middling towns like Sabah—transitioning back from governing to insurgency, relinquishing overt control of urban areas while maintaining underground cells and networks.

IS in Libya will therefore remain a long-term threat, particularly in the form of terrorist attacks and assassinations. If the situation degrades sufficiently, IS might also be able to revive governance structures. Among the disadvantages of IS remaining a threat is that it potentially obscures, just as it does in Syria, the menace of al-Qaeda, which has continued, quietly, to grow in both countries and even to govern.

IS’s arrival often weakens al-Qaeda initially, but al-Qaeda has altered course to put down what are likely more durable foundations than IS has in either Syria or Libya. This is even more true in Libya, where IS had already found that many tribes and radicals were already spoken for. As Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan point out in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, “it seems that where al-Qaeda has an established presence…, ISIS does not do well.” A city like Derna would be a microcosm of this.

Al-Qaeda has largely, temporarily, put anti-Western terrorism on hold as it digs into these local theatres. But that period will end, and uprooting al-Qaeda from its sanctuaries will by then be much more difficult.


A year ago, the United Nations brought together the GNA as an interim unity government.

The GNA’s executive wing, the nine-member Presidential Council (PC), made some progress in establishing itself in Tripoli. The General National Congress (GNC), the putschist administration made up of Islamist “Libya Dawn” militias, was dissolved. Key institutions also came under the PC’s control. Despite some continued resistance from Libya Dawn, which flared into violence again in October, the PC did relatively well in bringing the militias in Tripoli—and even an important militia from the east—under its banner.

The main problem remains uniting the Tripoli-based administration with the governing authorities in the east. The legislative part of the GNA on paper is the House of Representatives (HoR), made up of the last legally-elected parliamentarians, who were forced out of Tripoli by Libya Dawn in August 2014, and now reside in the city of Tobruk. But HoR has refused—twice—to pass legislation that would formalize the U.N. deal.

HoR’s intransigence is largely driven by HoR having attached itself to the most powerful local militia, and formalized this by naming the militia the Libyan National Army (LNA) and appointing its leader, General Khalifa Hiftar, the head of the army. Neither Hiftar nor his backers in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have much desire to enter an international agreement that might bring the General under civilian rule for real.

Hiftar launched Operation DIGNITY in May 2014 to expunge even nationalist-Islamist forces, and indeed anybody else who gets in his way, from eastern Libya. This had some initial popularity. It arrested the Islamists’ score-settling campaign against those who had persecuted them under the old regime and was seen as the only realistic promise of order after years of chaos. But it soon became clear that Hiftar is simply unable to rule the whole country. Moreover, many of the non-jihadist Islamist groups, some supported by Turkey and Qatar, have local roots. Hiftar’s refusal to accept any Islamists as legitimate parts of the political landscape pushed the Islamists toward unity, with one another and with the jihadists, putting a political settlement further out of reach and protracting the war. Hiftar’s indiscriminate campaign against political Islam suits his external patrons, however, who have been waging political and kinetic warfare, both domestically and in the region, against Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and other favoured clients of Doha and Ankara.

Within the territory Hiftar rules, the presence of elements from the fallen regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi are noticeable, particularly the secret police. Governance has been increasingly militarized. The General’s critics have a habit of going missing. This conduct has provoked dissention even among the ex-military leaders who are Hiftar’s natural constituency, but Hiftar has retained a broad acceptance, if not popularity. This is a common phenomenon: enforcing some kind of “normality,” against a background of chaos, provides would-be rulers legitimacy.

Internationally, Hiftar has, following Egypt’s ruler and to some degree the U.A.E., engaged in outreach to Russia, which helped him print his own currency. This developing axis—Egypt, the U.A.E., Russia, increasingly-publicly Bashar al-Assad (therefore Iran), and in many instances de facto including Western countries—against not only Islamist-friendly governments like Qatar and Turkey but against the Saudis has, albeit with complexities, been developing for some time.

The result, roughly speaking, is a standoff, with the sinews of a proxy contest, between two very shaky coalitions—the militias in the west loyal to the GNA, and a fiefdom run by Gen. Hiftar. This is the defining power-struggle in Libya, and the anti-IS cause is seen as useful by both sides in securing their endgame. As analyst Mattia Toaldo put it, Misrata and Hiftar have “compete[d] over Sirte in order to establish who rules really in Libya”. The attempt by groups to use their “anti-IS” status to gain Western support for their pre-existing political objectives is now a well-established feature of the U.S.-led effort against IS, and empowering these groups for their short-term use against IS has terrible long-term consequences for the stability that is needed to sustainably defeat the jihadists.

It has long been obvious that using IS as a unifying mission after the formation of an inclusive Libyan government could help a new Libyan administration cohere, but that trying to galvanize unity using IS, let alone focusing on IS at the expense of Libyan politics, would further destabilize Libyan politics and ultimately defeat the counter-terrorism mission, too.

All of the West’s primary interests in Libya—preventing the country being a haven and launch-pad for terrorism against Europe, shutting off the flow of illegal migration that is destabilizing the Continent, and restoring Libya’s oil industry—require the imposition of a legitimate, effective government. The breakdown of Libya’s governing institutions, a consequence and legacy of the Qaddafi regime, is what led to these problems in the first place; these problems did not cause the government to collapse. Thus, the attempt to tackle these symptoms piecemeal in the hope it will resolve the underlying causes is destined to fail.



Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

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