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.
Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti disclosed last week the the Italian government is ready to “positively evaluate” any request for air base or air space use in the US airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) militants in Libya if that would yield “a more rapid and effective end” to the campaign.
The minister made the comments in response to questions in the Chamber of Deputies about the airstrikes, which were launched on the IS stronghold town of Sirte. Pinotti further disclosed that the US military action, which began last week “will be limited in time and area of operation, doesn’t foresee the use of ground forces and is limited to allowing the Libyan forces to successfully defeat the terrorist forces in the area of Sirte,” adding, “the government is ready to positively evaluate any request for use of bases and air space if that would be functional to a more rapid and effective conclusion to the operation underway.” She noted that so far, the US airstrikes have not involved flights over Italian territory however she added that Premier Matteo Renzi’s government “contends that the success of the fighting aimed at eliminating terroristic centres of ISIS (IS) in Libya is of fundamental importance for the security not just of that country, but also of Europe and Italy.”
On Tuesday 2 August, Italy’s foreign minister disclosed that stabilizing Libya would also help control the migrant crisis. Migrant smugglers have exploited conflict and chaos in Libya to launch boats from its long Mediterranean coast carrying hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers and other refugees from Africa and the Middle East to Italian shores.
Premier Renzi has in the passed repeatedly stressed that Italy would support anti-IS action in Libya only if the UN-brokered unity government requested such raids. Earlier this year, the Italian government disclosed that armed US drones could use the Sigonella base if needed to protect US military forces in anti-IS strikes in Libya however it stressed that it would not allow the Sicilian base to be used for offensive purposes. US President Barack Obama authorized the Pentagon to open a new, more persistent front against IS insurgents in Libya after the internationally backed government asked for help with precision targeting inside Sirte.
US officials indicated in early June that they see no evidence that Nigerian-based militant group Boko Haram has received significant operational support or financing from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, more than a year after Boko Haram pledged allegiance to it.
The assessment, which is detailed by multiple US officials, suggests that Bok Haram’s loyalty pledge has so far mostly been a branding exercise designed to boost its international jihadi credentials as well as to attract recruits and appeal to the IS leadership for assistance. The US view of Boko Haram as a locally-focused, homegrown insurgency, is likely to keep the group more to the margins of the US fight against IS in Africa. The US military’s attention is largely centred on Libya, which is home to IS’ strongest affiliate outside the Middle East and where the US has carried out air strikes. According to officials, no such direct US intervention is currently being contemplated against Boko Haram. One US official has disclosed that “if there is no meaningful connection between ISIL (IS) and Boko – and we haven’t found one so far – then there are no grounds for US military involvement in West Africa other than assistance and training,” adding, “this is an African fight, and we can assist them, but its their fight.”
In public comments, senior US officials have disclosed that they are closely watching for any increased threat to Americans from Boko Haram and any confirmation of media reports of deepening ties with IS.
According to the United States State Department, there was a marked fall in the number of terror attacks that occurred around the world in 2015.
In a newly released report this month, the State Department attributed the 13% decline from 2014 to fewer attacks in Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan, which are three of the five countries that have been the worst affected by terrorism. The other two are Afghanistan and India. Together, more than half of the 11,000 attacks that occurred last year happened within the borders of these five countries.
Data compiled by the University of Maryland indicates that more than 28,300 people died – a 14% decline – and about 35,300 others were wounded in 11,774 terrorist attacks that occurred worldwide last year. State Department Acting Co-ordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell notes that attacks and deaths increased in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, Syria and Turkey. The State Department also reported that figures indicate that the terror threat “continued to evolve rapidly in 2015, becoming increasingly decentralized and diffused,” adding that extremists were exploiting frustration in countries “where avenues for free and peaceful expression of opinion were blocked.” The State Department highlighted that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group is the biggest single threat, adding that the group has attracted affiliates and supporters in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It noted that while IS was losing territory in Iraq and Syria, it was gaining strength in Libya and Egypt. The United Nations has also warned that IS is increasingly focusing on international civilian targets. The UN has reported that over the past six months, IS had carried out attacks in eleven countries. This does not include the militant group’s ongoing activity in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
The State Department report also disclosed that Iran was the biggest state sponsor of terrorism, stating that it supported conflicts in Syria and Iraq and that it was also implicated in violent Shia opposition raids in Bahrain. Bahrain has accused Iran of supplying weapons to Shia militants behind bomb attacks on security forces however Iran has denied this.