The Islamic State terrorist group is resurging in Libya
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar returned to Libya in the spring of 2011 to take part in the revolution against Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. In November 2011, a month or so after Qaddafi was killed, Haftar was named to lead the armed forces of the interim government. Order deteriorated over the next two years as the NATO powers that had helped the Libyans free themselves disengaged from the country. During this period, Haftar build himself a base of support in eastern Libya, around Benghazi.
In May 2014, Haftar, by then calling the militias under his command the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), launched Operation DIGNITY to purge Benghazi of Islamists. Meanwhile, in August 2014, in Tripoli, the capital, in western Libya, the elected government, the House of Representatives (HoR), was put to flight by the Libya Dawn (Fajr Libya) coalition of Islamist militias. The HoR joined with Haftar in the east.
A Government of National Accord (GNA) was created in December 2015 from elements of Dawn and HoR, and in March 2016 the GNA was formed in practice when the HoR cabinet, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, arrived back in Tripoli. The Dawn militias ostensibly dissolved their putschist assembly in April 2016, though the militias obviously maintained de facto control in many areas of Tripoli, and critics would say Al-Sarraj simply became a front for, or prisoner of, these militias.
The HoR, under direction from Haftar, formally rejected the GNA deal in August 2016, disowned Al-Sarraj, and adopted Speaker Aguila Saleh Issa as their leader. Nonetheless, from this point four years ago, Al-Sarraj and the GNA have been the recognised government of Libya.
Though the HoR has been powerless since it decamped to Tobruk in the summer of 2014, it has been kept around as a useful political prop for Haftar: his narrative is that as chief of the armed forces of the HoR he leads the armed forces of the legitimate government of Libya because HoR holds the extant democratic mandate—there having not been another election since the one in June 2014 that decided the current composition of HoR and triggered the Islamist coup. HoR also provides a useful political smokescreen for Haftar’s foreign backers like Russia.
An example of how Haftar uses the HoR was given after he launched his attack on Tripoli—with the physical support of the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France, and the effective endorsement of the Trump White House—on 4 April 2019.
A deal had been reached in May 2018 to hold new nationwide elections to end the Tripolitania-Cyrenaica impasse in December 2018, but Haftar and his backers sabotaged that plan and Haftar initiated his offensive against Tripoli while the U.N. Secretary General was actually in the city trying to organise the next phase of the negotiations for a political settlement.
By the end of 2019, the Haftar coalition seemed to be succeeding militarily. Facing extinction and with no other choice, the GNA called in Turkey to help it. Saleh was then wheeled out to denounce the “flagrant violation of international law”—referring to Turkey supporting the internationally recognised Libyan government, not the conspiracy by an army of mercenaries and foreign powers to overthrow that government.
Turkey had turned the tide by mid-May, when the GNA was able to recapture Al-Watiya Airbase, and last week the Haftar offensive was broken. The GNA has taken Tarhuna, where at least eight mass graves filled by the LAAF have been found, and pressed on towards Sirte.
Beginning on 6 June, Egypt has tried to create a political process that can help Haftar maintain his footing—and help the Egyptians (and Emiratis) maintain theirs, as the threat of a bilateral Turkey-Russia deal that cuts them out of Libya looms.
In their book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explain the way IS came in from the outside to construct their local branch. In the autumn of 2014, IS dispatched a senior official, Wissam al-Zubaydi (Abu Nabil al-Anbari or Abu al-Mughira al-Qahtani), to oversee this process. Al-Zubaydi, a former security officer in Saddam Husayn’s regime, was among the directors of the genocidal anti-Shi’i massacre at Camp Speicher in June 2014. Al-Zubaydi’s appointment to lead IS-Libya (ISL) was in itself unusual: whatever role the Centre’s cadres played in IS’s foreign branches, the wilayats (provinces), the visible leadership tended to be local.
Organised criminal groups were sub-contracted to bring in revenue; pre-existing jihadi groups were infiltrated and turned; the human terrain was mapped and impediments eliminated. By the time the IS branch in Libya was publicly adopted as a wilayat (province) in November 2014, it had already done the hard work in gaining control of a pocket of territory around Derna.
It quickly became clear that IS-Libya was a case apart from the other wilayats recognised in late 2014; it was a more direct clone of the Centre. In July 2015, IS was driven from Derna, but ISL already had a new base in Sirte. ISL’s position was so secure in late 2015 that the caliph’s deputy, Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), visited to check on the Libya “province”.
When Al-Zubaydi was killed in November 2015, he was seamlessly replaced by Abu Muadh al-Tikriti (Abd al-Qadr al-Najdi), another Iraqi, allegedly an experienced IS media official who inter alia supervised the production of the February 2015 video showing ISL mass-beheading nearly two-dozen Coptic Christians on the coastline in Sirte. At the end of 2015, IS held 200 miles of Libya’s coastline—100 miles either side of Sirte.
Sirte was mostly taken from IS in June 2016 and mopped up by that December, but it was obvious at the time that the southern deserts would provide the group shelter to rebuild. And so it did. Just as happened at the Centre, IS-Libya reverted from state to insurgency, with an emphasis on nikaya (attritional warfare). As Aaron Zelin has adumbrated, IS quietly repaired itself through 2017, claiming just four attacks that year.
That rate more than tripled in 2018 and included the sophisticated May 2018 assault that involved a suicide bomber on the electoral commission in Tripoli, plus equally brazen strikes in the capital against the National Oil Corporation and the Foreign Ministry later in the year. By August 2018, IS was confident enough to be setting up checkpoints within 100 miles of Benghazi, and claimed to have seized small towns two months after that. The LAAF appeared to check IS’s momentum in December 2018, Zelin notes, assisted by the U.S.’s intermittent airstrikes, which have had their effect, too.
The decline of external resources—the foreign fighters and quite possibly money from IS Centre, not least due to the disarray as the caliphate went down in Baghuz—might well have played a role in IS-Libya’s setbacks in late 2018 and early 2019. The U.S. Treasury sanctions against Halima Adan Ali in early 2019 hint at such a disruption.
Halima, a defector from Al-Qaeda’s Somali branch, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, had been working for Waleed Ahmed Zain, an important IS financial facilitator in Africa. Halima had, “between 2017 and early 2018”, moved over $150,000 “from around the world, mostly through hawala systems, … to ISIS fighters in Syria, Libya, and central Africa[, before she] was arrested in Kenya in July 2018”.
But, as Zelin points out, “UN reports indicate that ISL has attempted to diversify its funding through local sources, such as investing in small- and medium-size enterprises in coastal cities, extorting Libyan citizens, taxing human trafficking networks, and kidnapping individuals for ransom.” ISL itself, in a video by commander Mahmud al-Barassi (Abu Musab al-Libi), highlighted these revenue streams.
Especially once it needed less money because it did not have territory to govern, it is possible ISL had self-sustaining domestic revenue streams, and ISL’s personnel included Libyan nationals from core IS formations like Katibat al-Battar, so it is unclear how necessary to ISL’s sustainability the foreign fighters ever were.
There were warnings from within and without Libya that Haftar’s Tripoli offensive could create space for IS. This seemed to be playing out with IS claiming an attack in Sabha on 4 May 2019 that killed eight LAAF militiamen, and two weeks later, on 18 May, claiming responsibility for killing several guards and kidnapping four people at the Zella oilfield. As it transpired, these predictions were not wrong; IS just had a different timeline in mind. These were the last claims of offensive operations from the group—until three weeks ago.
While IS in Libya is an external player in origin, it has proven adept at local politics. The IS surge in 2014 took advantage of the reignition of civil war, and, after the 2018-9 setbacks, IS ducked for cover, allowed the situation to unravel as Haftar attacked Tripoli, surveyed the opportunities provided by the new landscape, and made its reappearance once the deck had been reshuffled and it was clear what hand it was playing with.
IS-Libya was not totally silent in the intervening period: it issued a video, “We Are Still One In The Covenant”, in July 2019, only the fourth video it has released since Sirte fell, and the same month an infographic on IS’s global operations said that IS had conducted twelve attacks in Libya in the first six months of the year. This was much more “proof of life” than anything else, though, during the rebuilding phase.
There have been various reports of attack on IS-Libya over the last year. In mid-July 2019, the LAAF claimed it had killed a senior IS media official, Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Falata (Abu Assem al-Muhajir), and the U.S. conducted three anti-IS airstrikes in quick succession in Libya in September 2019, the first such operations since November 2018.
A U.S. drone launched from Niger struck a “compound in Murzuq” in the far-southwest of Libya on 19 September, killing eight IS jihadists. Subsequent strikes on 24 and 26 September in the same area killed a combined twenty-eight IS jihadists, according to the Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM). It seems AFRICOM was inter alia going after Malik al-Khazmi, an important facilitator and recruiter when IS held territory in Libya, who disappeared into the southern deserts years ago.
There was another U.S. airstrike on an IS camp in southern Libya in early October. The Pentagon claimed that the four strikes had killed a total of forty-three IS jihadists, and had a “devastating effect” on IS-Libya, not least because the group had only had 150 members when the strikes began two weeks earlier.
There is simply no reason to believe this. Even if the estimates of 5,000 IS-Libya operatives at its height in 2016 were considerably wrong and the group had half or less of that, it exercised strict force preservation as it lost the urban centres; whatever attrition for defectors and deaths in the years since would not result in a number as low as the Pentagon is claiming.
It has echoes of the Defence Department’s years-long claim that Al-Qaeda had 100 or less operatives in Afghanistan—a statement spectacularly falsified by Pentagon’s own report that it had killed 160 Al-Qaeda jihadists while dismantling a terrorist camp in the Shorabak district of Kandahar in October 2015.
“They are starting to come back,” an LAAF commander said of ISL in late November 2019. In Sirte, so the LAAF maintained, IS agents had included a female engineer who transferred messages and money for the group. Other IS spies and sleeper cells had started to wake up. Some scepticism was in order since the LAAF frames its aggressive political designs in Libya as “counter-terrorism” measures, but the description of penetrations into the city as the surrounding deserts fell under ever-more jihadist sway rang true. The next month, the United Nations reported that ISL was reconstituting itself.
IS’s strategic messaging, to its own forces as well as the outside world, is reflected in its weekly newsletter, Al-Naba. Up to June 2019, Al-Naba was reporting a steady stream of guerrilla activities, and thereafter went completely silent on IS’s operations in Libya to the end of 2019. In January 2020, the news roundup “Events of the Week” (hadath fi usboo) section on the last pages of Al-Naba took note of the Turkish intervention in Libya and the “peace” conference in Berlin a week later. After total silence on Libya for two-and-a-half months, Libya started cropping up again in this “Events” section in early April. But it was only in late May 2020, after an absence of eleven months, that Al-Naba again featured operational claims for IS in Libya.
In the 235th edition of Al-Naba on 21 May, IS reports—allegedly relayed from a “special source” (masdar khass)—that as part of the third Battle of Attrition (Ghazwat al-Istinzaf), announced on 15 May and taking place across the wilayats, its forces in Libya had shelled three of Haftar’s bases.
IS claims it struck the Tamanhant Airbase north-east of Sabha with a Katyusha rocket on 17 May, the base of the 628th Battalion in Traghan the next day, and the day after (19 May) IS says it fired a missile at “the so-called Khaled bin al-Waleed Brigade of the Haftar militia in the town of Umm al-Aranab”, south-east of Sabha.
IS labelled the Naba 135 reports—and the subsequent ones described below—as coming from “Wilayat Libya – Fezzan”. When IS originally announced the Libyan “province”, it was Wilayat Derna, and then one for each of the old divisions in the country: Barqa (for Cyrenaica in the east), Fezzan (for the south), and Tarablus (for Tripolitania in the west). In late 2018, a transition was made to a consolidated “Wilayat Libya”, though the inclusion of the “Fezzan” marker—and “Barqa” in some of the late 2019 items—suggests an effort to split the difference, possibly to preserve a sense of continuity and longevity.
On 25 May, through Amaq, IS claimed the 23 May bombing in Traghan, which targeted a checkpoint at the entrance to the city. No casualties were reported. It appears the explosives were hidden in a vehicle belonging to the LAAF, suggesting a degree of infiltration by the jihadists.
There was a somewhat longer item in Al-Naba 236 on 28 May, describing the operations in Libya over the previous week and saying that they took place “within the context/framework (itar) of the continuous attrition/depletion (istinzaf) of the apostates”, indeed as part of the ongoing Battle of Attrition. IS claims that on 23 May it detonated a bomb at the 628th Battalion base in Traghan, presumably the same attack Amaq had advertised three days earlier.
IS says that: on 25 May it bombed the headquarters of the military police in Traghan, “causing material damage”; on 26 May, it burned wheat crops in Ghadwa, south of Sabha city, on a farm belonging to a Municipal Guardsman; and, on 27 May, it blew up two shops belonging to the Haftar militias in Umm al-Aranab. Al-Naba 236 also included a recap paragraph at the end summarising the prior week’s reporting on Libya; this feature has recurred every week since.
IS reported on 4 June, in Al-Naba 237, via a “special source”, that the “caliphate soldiers” had burned tons of barley crop in Ghadwa on 30 May. The agricultural land set ablaze belonged to Saleh al-Qaddafi, a member of the “apostate police” (al-shurta al-murtada). And the same source reported that on 2 June IS blew up a storage facility belong to one of Haftar’s militias in Umm al-Aranab.
In Al-Naba 238 on 11 June, there was a piece claiming that, on 3 June, the “caliphate soldiers” again fired a Katyusha rocket at the Tamanhant Airbase, targeting the “apostate Haftar militia” elements that are stationed there.