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.