Security officials are reporting that Islamic State (IS) militants have shifted to desert valleys and inland hills southeast of the capital Tripoli in their bid to exploit the North African country’s political divisions in the wake of their defeat in their former stronghold of Sirte.
Officials have disclosed that the militants, who are believed to number several hundred, are now attempting to foment chaos by cutting power supplies and identifying receptive local communities. While they are being monitored by aerial surveillance and on-the-ground intelligence, Libyan officials have noted that they cannot be easily targeted without advanced air power.
While for more than a year, IS exercised total control over Sirte, building its primary North African base in the coastal city, it struggled to keep a footing elsewhere in the country. By December 2016, it was forced out of Sirte after a six-month campaign, which was led by brigades from the western city of Misrata and backed by US air strikes. During that battle, IS lost many of its fighters and it currently holds no territory in Libya. However militants who managed to escape last year’s fighting and sleeper cells are now seen to pose a threat in the country, which had been deeply fractured and which remains largely lawless in the wake of the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
Ismail Shukri, head of military intelligence in Misrata, has reported that the threat is now focussed south of the coastal strip between Misrata and Tripoli, arcing to the southeast around the town of Bani Walid and into the desert south of Sirte. According to Shukri, one group, comprised of 60 – 80 militants, is operating around Girza, which is located 170 km (105 miles) west of Sirte; while another group of about 100 militants is based around Zalla and Mabrouk oil field, which is located about 300 km southeast of Sirte. He added that there are also reports of a third group present in Al-Uwaynat, which is located close to the border with Algeria. Mohamed Gnaidy, an intelligence officer with forces that conducted the campaign in Sirte, has disclosed that “they work and move around in small groups. They only use two or three vehicles at a time and they move at night to avoid detection.
During a seven-month campaign to seize control of Sirte, the only Islamic State (IS) stronghold in Libya, IS has lost senior figures in what is now an unsuccessful battle to defend its coastal stronghold. However there have been growing signs that the militant group has already moved on to try to fight back through sleeper cells and desert brigades.
For months now, Libyan officials have been warning that hundreds of IS militants may have escaped before the battle for Sirte was launched in May or during its early stages. This has prompted concerns of a counter-attack or insurgency campaign that could allow the militants to show that they are still in business despite losing control of Sirte, which comes as the group is also under intense military pressure in its core territory of Iraq and Syria.
According to some experts, some cells have already been active and it is now thought that the militant group is behind at least two dozen attacks or attempted attacks that have occurred to the south and west of Sirte since August.
Before the launch in May of the operation to gain back Sirte, IS was thought to have several thousand fighters stationed in Sirte. It should be noted that estimates of the exact number have varied widely. According to residents of Sirte and security officials in Misrata, the city that led the campaign to retake the militant group’s stronghold, both leadership and rank and file had a heavy presence of foreigners, adding that the group drew on recruits from northern and sub-Saharan Africa. It is believed that much of that force has been killed in the past seven months as IS was also targeted by nearly 500 US air strikes since 1 August. Local officials have reported that amongst those killed were a number of high-level Libyan figures, including preacher and commander Hassan al-Karami and senior official Abu Walid al-Ferjani. According to messages of mourning that were posted on social media accounts close the militant group, a number of foreign commanders were also killed, however it currently remains unclear how far up the hierarchy they were or how important to the group’s future operations. While Misrata officials have refused to disclose on reports of IS militants being killed after capture, fighters and commanders have indicated that they took few, if any, prisoners. Ibrahim Baitulmal, head of Misrata’s military council, has disclosed that an estimated 1,700 jihadist’s bodies had been recovered during the campaign, noting however that the number killed is much higher as militants retrieved some of their own dead. He noted that those killed in the final days of the battle for Sirte included Abu Habib Jazrawi, a Saudi who is thought to have taken the name Abdul Qadr al-Najdi before being named as IS’ leader in Libya in March. While IS has not announced his death, regional media reported that Najdi was replaced in September by a Tunisian, Jalaludin Al-Tunsi, who was possibly appointed to carry on the fight outside Sirte.
What is clear is that IS has made no secret of its plans to continue the fight. In August, the new leader of IS’ Libyan branch, Abu Musab al-Farouq, disclosed that high-level figures who had escaped from Sirte were helping it regroup not far away. Months later in late October, the head of the west Libyan branch, Abu Hudhayfah al-Muhajir, acknowledged that the group had been suffering, stating however that it would continue its campaign for “conquest and empowerment” and that it was still attracting a steady flow of foreign fighters.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group moved into Libya in 2014, amidst the chaos that followed the ouster of Moamer Kadhafi in 2011. On 1 August 2016, at the request of Libya’s unity government, United States warplanes carried out their first air strikes on positions in the IS bastion of Sirte.
Below are key dates of IS’ presence in Libya:
First Jihadist Attacks
- 19 November 2014 – The US says that it is “concerned” by reports that radical extremists with avowed ties to IS are destabilizing eastern Libya, having already seized vast areas of territory in Iraq and Syria.
- 27 December 2014 – IS claims responsibility for a car bombing outside the diplomatic security building in Tripoli. The attack causes no casualties.
- 27 January 2015 – IS claims responsibility for an attack on Tripoli’s luxury Corinthia Hotel, in which nine people, including five foreigners, are killed.
Since January 2015, IS has carried out a number of suicide attacks, including the February 2015 attack in Al-Qoba, near the eastern town of Derna, which killed 44 people; and the January 2016 attack that targeted a police school in Zliten, east of Tripoli, which killed more than 50 people.
IS Videos of Killings
- 15 February 2015 – IS releases a video depicting the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, in which all but one was Egyptian. The militant group states that the act was filmed in January. Egypt carried out air strikes on IS in its then stronghold of Derna.
- 19 April 2015 – A new video shows the execution-style killing of 28 Christians originally from Ethiopia.
IS Seizes Sirte
- 9 June 2015 – IS announces that it has captured Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. The city is the hometown of Kadhafi.
- 12 July 2015 – After weeks of fierce fighting with Derna’s Mujahedeen Council, IS finally acknowledges that it has been pushed out of the town.
First US Strikes
- 13 November 2015 – The US bombs IS leaders in Libya for the first time, stating that it killed Abu Nabil, an Iraqi also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi. Libyan officials identify him as the IS chief in Derna.
- 19 February 2016 – A US air strike on a jihadist training camp near Sabratha, which is located west of Tripoli, kills about fifty people.
- 24 February 2016 – Some 200 jihadists briefly occupy central Sabratha before being ousted by militias.
Offensive on Sirte
- 30 March 2016 – Despite the hostility of rival authorities, the head of Libya’s UN-backed unity government, Fayez al-Sarraj, arrives in Tripoli.
- 12 May 2016 – A vast offensive to recapture Sirte is launched by forces loyal to the unity government.
- 4 June 2016 – Unity government forces say that they have retaken a jihadist air base located south of Sirte.
- 9 June 2016 – Government forces enter the centre of Sirte and besiege the jihadists.
- 23 July 2016 – Loyalist forces say that they have seized a building used by IS to manufacture explosives.
- 1 August 2016 – Sarraj confirms that the US has carried out airstrikes on IS positions in Sirte for the first time. He indicates that the move was at the request of the unity government. A US senior administration official disclosed that American troops will not take part in any ground operations in support of the government.
On 30 March 2016, Libya’s prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj sailed into the capital Tripoli under naval escort and set up the headquarters of his country’s unity government. Now after three months in office, many are asking how has the newly formed Government of National Accord (GNA) fared in tackling the North African country’s ongoing crisis and what more needs to be done to stabilize Libya.
The GNA, which is the result of a UN-brokered power-sharing deal that was reached in December 2015, continues to face a fearsome set of economic, political and military challenges. While its allied militias have made major advances against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in its stronghold of Sirte, success there would just be the start. The country’s economy, which was hard-hit in the wake of the 2011 uprising, continues to struggle amidst power cuts and a cash crisis at the country’s banks. Furthermore, a rival government based in the eastern city of Tobruk has refused to cede power until the country’s elected parliament passes a repeatedly delayed vote of confidence. Meanwhile neither administration can rein in militias that have fought for control of the country since the 2011 fall of former dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
So what has the GNA achieved?
Within days of its arrival in Tripoli, Sarraj’s government had won the loyalty of the main economic institutions, cities and armed groups based in western Libya. Without waiting for a vote of confidence from Tobruk, the GNA took control of key government ministries in Tripoli, with Sarraj managing to secure a rapprochement between rival central banks and national oil companies. According to analysts, the prime minister-designate has also met with figures from both sides of the country and has continued to stress the need for unity. However the GNA’s biggest achievement to date has been its success in commanding an assault on IS in Sirte, which is located 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli. Since 12 May, pro-government forces have cleared IS from 280 kilometres (175 miles) of coastline and surrounded the jihadists inside the city.
In political terms, the GNA’s main challenge continues to be securing a rapprochement with the east. Sources however have disclosed that Easterners are wary of the GNA’s reliance on militias. Furthermore, kidnappings for ransom are on the rise, as are the prices of basic goods. Power cuts are common, long and unpredictable and they sometimes affect the water supplies. Furthermore, foreign airlines are avoiding the country and Libyans have few options to fly out. Also, despite a string of foreign delegations, no foreign embassy is currently present in the capital.
What after IS?
In order to govern effectively, Sarraj will need a vote of confidence from the House of Representatives in Tobruk. The continued fight against IS delays any rapprochement between the East and the West, and is inevitable unless a political solution is reached.
An important, but often under-discussed aspect of Europe’s migrant crisis is the specific roles played by criminal organizations. In a rare development, the Italian Government announcd that an Eritrean national named Mered Medhanie was now in their custody. He had previously been detained in Sudan back in May, before being formally extradited to Italy. In contrast to the political divisions that existed for much of the crisis, the UK’s National Crime Agency and Italian prosecutors worked together closely. The BBC reported that the NCA obtained specific information about Medhanie’s presence in Sudan that made the arrest possible. Italian prosecutors have alleged that Medhanie, along with an Ethiopian accomplice, ran one of the largest human-traffic organizations transporting migrants across the Mediterranean Sea. As with many of the human traffickers, he was suspected of having a blatant disregard for safety, including packing hundreds of migrants on to unseaworthy boats. The Italian investigation, based out of the Sicilian city of Palermo, has argued that Medhanie was directly connected with the sinking of a boat off the island of Lampedusa in October 2013. At least 359 migrants died after the boat, travelling from Libya to Italy, capsized suddenly.
Though Mered Medhanie’s arrest is an important development, it does not change the larger, tragic trend in human trafficking. The Red Crescent reported on June 2 that at least 100 migrants died after their boat capsized off the Libyan coast (exact numbers differ, with 100 being the conservative estimate). Libya’s Coast Guard is largely viewed as lacking the proper resources, personnel and equipment to handle the current crisis. As bodies wash ashore on Libya’s coastline, the large number of maritime emergencies recently make it difficult to know which human remains were connected with an individual sinking. Though the Libyan Coast Guard has limited successes, such as intercepting 100 migrants on June 7, these are only a small percentage of the total. Considerable international aid has been pledged to help Libya, but assistance has been hindered by internal conflict, corruption and governance problems. Until Libya’s political fragmentation is meaningfully addressed, it is difficult to see a comprehensive strategy being successful.