After months of fighting, militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) are on the verge of being completely ousted from their stronghold in Libya’s central coastal city of Sirte.
In May of this year, milita groups aligned to the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) launched an operation aimed at forcing IS from Sirte and regaining control of the city. More recently, after weeks of stagnating, the battle to expel the jihadist group has achieved more success with the held of US air strikes, which were launched at the beginning of this month at the request of the GNA. As of 29 August, the US has carried out 77 air strikes on the city, and while it has damaged the jihadists’ position in Sirte, it does not mean the end for their presence in the North African country.
Why is Losing Sirte Important?
IS took complete control of Sirte in June 2015 after being pushed out of its initial stronghold of Derna, which is located in Libya’s far east, by rival militias aligned with al-Qaeda. The loss of Sirte, which is IS’ stronghold in Libya, would effectively be a blow to the group’s image. In IS propaganda, the jihadist group has repeatedly portrayed the city, which is close to Western Europe, as a key position outside its main areas of operation in Iraq and Syria. As it has held control of the city, IS has transformed buildings in Sirte into its own institutions and prisons and has used the local radio station to air its propaganda. Control of the city also brought IS close to the country’s oil-rich area.
Does IS Have Any Other Strongholds in Libya?
No it does not, however IS remains present elsewhere in the country. In the second city of Benghazi, IS militants have long been fighting other forces and have recently launched a number of attacks on its western outskirts.
How Many IS militants are in Libya?
While there are no reliable figures about the number of IS militants currently in Libya, it has been estimated that the group has about 5,000 fighters in th country, man y of whom are thought to have been deployed in Sirte.
What Does IS Do Next?
IS has been caught on the back foot and the militant group may initially move into desert areas, revert to earlier tactics. Prior to losing its stronghold in Derna, the group made its presence felt elsewhere in Libya by carrying out repeated bombings in the key cities of Tripoli and Benghazi as well as targeting oil installations partly run by Western companies. As it puts up resistance, IS has again been employing suicide bombings as a means of attack.
Where Might IS Go Next?
Some analysts believe that IS fighters may flee to remote areas in the southern region of the country. If they choose this route, they could head for the Sahel-Sahara area, where other jihadists are present and operate relatively freely. However Libya’s importance to IS effectively means that the militant group may eventually regroup and emerge in another part of the country, seeking again to take control of land, which they can then showcase as a major gain. Analysts believe that the town of Bani Walid is one option for IS fighters, with local media recently reporting that air strikes hit a road in th city’s southeast, which reports disclosed was “often used” by is fighters.
The militants make seek to boost their forces in and around Benghazi, or they may head west towards Sabratha. While IS used to run a large training camp in that region, the site may no longer appeal the jihadist group as it was the target of a US air strike in February 2016. Yet another option is the town of Ajdabiya, which is located between Sirte and Benghazi. IS previously had a presence in the town, however it is believed that if they were to establish themselves there, the would have to confront al-Qaeda-linked rivals and the Libyan National Army of the Tobruk-based parliament.
What is evident is that IS is facing mounting pressure and US airstrikes in Libya, which may result in them struggling to create a new stronghold in the country.