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.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the European Union (EU) and North African countries to do deals modelled on a controversial agreement that was signed with Turkey earlier this year to stem migrant flows to Europe.
Under the EU-Turkey agreement, Ankara agreed to take back one Syrian who made it to Greece in return for being allowed to send one from its massive refuge camps to the bloc in a more orderly redistribution programme. The agreement also pledges billions of euros in EU aid to Turkey, along with visa-free European travel for Turkish citizens and accelerated EU membership talks.
Last week, the German Chancellor told regional daily Neue Passauer Zeitung, “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean Sea refuge routes.” She further stated, “such agreements are also in the interest of the refugees themselves,” pointing to the huge risks that migrants take in crossing the Mediterranean in rickety vessels, as well as the large sums that they have to pay smugglers for the perilous sea passage. She added, “it is safer for them and there are good reasons for them to remain in Turkey, close to their homeland, where the cultural and language barriers are lower,” defending the agreement with Turkey as “correct, as before,” and stating, “we should work to ensure that it lasts.” Merkel has also urged EU partners to stop up to their responsibilities in taking in refuges who had arrived in Greece. Prior to the EU-Turkey agreement taking effect, some 45,000 refugees had arrived in Greece as Macedonia closed its borders to the migrants.
There are increasing concerns across the EU that the pact with Turkey to curb migrant flows could collapse as a rift deepens over Ankara’s crackdown following a failed coup. Turkey angrily rejects EU criticism that its post-putsch purges might violate rights norms that Ankara must meet under the agreement in return for visa-free travel for Turks and accelerated negotiations for bloc membership. Hungary has already announced that it will build a second fence along its southern border with Serbia that would effectively enable it to keep out any major new wave of migrants should the EU-Turkey agreement collapse.
France warned in early September that so-called Islamic State (IS) group fighters could flee towards Egypt and Tunisia after being flushed from their former Libyan stronghold of Sirte.
Speaking on 5 September during a defense conference in Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that “we should begin to look seriously at the question of the spread of the terrorists once Sirte…(is) emptied of the terrorists.” He further disclosed that “they don’t disappear. There’s a new risk that appears,” adding, “indirectly this will pose new risks for Tunisia and Egypt.” He also indicated that it was a “shame, perhaps political reasons prevent it, that all the neighbouring states of Libya don’t meet” over the issue.
Le Drian’s Tunisian counterpart, Farhat Horchani, has also called for effective regional coordination. Horchani, who attended the same defense conference in Paris, stated, “we have a large number of foreign fighters who arrived from Sirte, or from Syria. I can see no strategy, no cooperation between the states,” to deal with the problem.”
Forces loyal to Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been backed by weeks of US air strikes, have recaptured nearly all of what had been the jihadists’ main stronghold in the North African country. On 3 September, pro-GNA forces launched a new attack against IS in Sirte, reporting the following day that it could take several days to gain full control of the city.
IS took advantage of the chaos in oil-rich Libya in the wake of the 2011 uprising. They went on to seize Sirte in June 2015, which sparked fears that the jihadists would use it as a springboard for attacks on Europe. While the loss of Sirte would be a reversal for IS, French and US figures indicate that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 jihadists that remain in Libya, with one French security source disclosing that many “have evaporated in th south of he country.”
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.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced on 26 August that the country is planning to build a second fence on its southern border with Serbia that would effectively enable it to keep out any major new wave of migrants.
Orban told public radio that the new barrier, which is to be built alongside the existing one, would strengthen defences to respond if Turkey’s policy on migration changed, adding that if that occurred, hundreds of thousands could appear at Hungary’s border. He noted that “technical planning is under way to erect a more massive defence system next to the existing line of defence, which was built quickly (last year).” Orban also disclosed that Hungary had to prepare for the eventuality of a deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) to clamp down on migration into Europe via the Balkans unravelling, adding, “then if it does not work with nice words, we will have to stop them with force, and we will do so.” He also indicated that Hungary would increase its police presence to 47,000 from 44,000, of which 3,000 will be constantly deployed on the southern border.
A razor-wire fence built along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia has sharply reduced the flow of migrants. Last year, hundreds of thousands of migrants moved up from the Balkans towards northern Europe. That flow however has since been reduced to no more than a steady trickle.
Under the existing agreement between Turkey and the EU, Turkey has agreed to help stem the tide of illegal migrants into the bloc in exchange for aid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan however has repeatedly stated that European leader are not living up to their side of the pact.
On Friday, Orban and other prime ministers of Central European EU member states, the Visegrad countries, met in Warsaw along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Orban stated that the task for politicians was to change a decision by the EU to let in migrants and distribute them based on quotas among member states. Oran stated that “the question is whether Angela Merkel will be willing to change this flawed Brussels decision together with us. Whether she is willing to fight with us for this, or not.” Hunger is due to hold a referendum on 2 October on whether to accept any future EU quota system for resettling migrants.