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.