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.
According to a US military official, at least 50,000 militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group have been killed since the US-led coalition was launched in Syria and Iraq two years ago.
The senior official has described the figure as a “conservative estimate,” adding that it showed that air power and a small number of US figures supporting local forces were having an impact. He further disclosed that the ongoing US campaign was beginning to damage IS. The US however has repeatedly warned that IS can replace fighters quite quickly.
While the US has often been reluctant to provide figures on enemy causalities, in August, Lt Gen Sean MacFarland was quoted by the AP news agency as stating that about 45,000 enemy combatants had been killed. Meanwhile in February, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest disclosed that IS had about 25,000 fighters operating in Syria and Iraq, citing a US intelligence estimate.
The senior US military official further disclosed that coalition airstrikes could be intensified in places such as Mosul, which Iraqi troops are now battling in order to recapture. He notes however that this would have to be offset against the risk of civilian casualties.
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 United Nations has reported that poverty, conflict and climate change will leave fifteen million people across Africa’s Sahel region in need of life-saving aid next year.
The UN has now launched a record UD $2.7 billion humanitarian appeal for the region in 2017. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 40 percent of the money will be used in order to help some seven million people in Nigeria, who have been affected by Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency. OCHA has increased its appeal for eight countries in the semi-arid band that stretches from Senegal to Chad more than tenfold in as many years, however each year the funding has fallen short. This year’s US $2 billion appeal had been less than half-funded to date. According to the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator, Toby Lanzer, “the lack of funding this year has worsened the humanitarian needs of 11 million people in the Lake Chad Basin, where the crisis is most acute.” Figures released by the OCHA have indicated that one in six people across the Sahel region are hungry, while in many communities throughout the region, a fifth of children under the age of five are malnourished. Aid workers say that in addition to violence involving militant groups, climate change is also becoming a major factor behind the growing number of vulnerable people across the region. This is due to increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, which disrupt local food production. Arame Tall, Africa regional coordinator for the UN-led Global Framework for Climate Services, states, “we are adapting by equipping farmers and policymakers with climate information and early warning forecasts, and being prepared not just weeks, but months and years ahead.”
The United Nations has also reported that the vast number of vulnerable people, and those who have been forced from their homes by violence across the Sahel region, some 4.5 million, is fuelling migration to Europe and driving more young men to join militant groups. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that this year, Nigeria has been the main country of origin for migrants arriving in Italy by sea. IOM data shows that at least 34,000 Nigerians have crossed from Libya so far in 2016, up from 22,200 last year. According to Anne Moltes, regional director of the peacebuilding group Interpeace, “families and communities are separated and split, education is disrupted and dreams of success dashed,” adding, “if there is no structure, young men leave to find figures of authority elsewhere.”
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.”