The Islamic State in Libya: Slipping through the cracks of the political crisis

Published in Libya

By Kamal Al-Kusayyar

Libya is the Islamic State (IS) group’s third largest bastion after Syria and Iraq. The group’s actual head count in the country notwithstanding, its presence there is a major contributor to the ‘caliphate’ doctrine, the very legitimacy of which cannot be dependent only on its acceptance in the Levant. In Libya, IS found an ideal haven in which to expand and operate, especially considering the environment of rampant instability and an absence of a state.

While Libya’s sectarian homogeneity is an obstacle for the expansion of IS, which effectively leveraged sectarian rifts and societal discord to establish itself in Iraq and Syria, its quest in Libya is made easier by continued failures of the state, the ongoing political and security void, and the inability of warring factions to reach a political solution. IS set up operations in October 2014 in the Mediterranean coastal town of Derna, a stronghold for jihadi and takfiri thought, and expanded to Sirte. It has its sights set on other strategic cities as it continues to fight its way across Libya’s coast.

From emergence to omnipresence

A milestone of IS’s presence in Libya was the declaration of allegiance by the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC), a militant group that had controlled Derna, to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and to Ansar al-Sharia in October 2014.

The protracted crisis in Syria drew fighters from all over the Maghreb – who had fought in Syria – to Libya, which became their gateway into neighbouring Arab countries and the rest of Africa. They reformulated their strategy, and – around 2013 to 2014, as an increasing number of Maghrebi fighters began to return from Syria, a debate began on whether those fighters should be redirect against their own homelands. The fighters had formed their own militias in Syria. One such group of fighters formed al-Battar Brigade, a vicious group that fought with IS against other Syrian rebels. In the first half of 2014, a number of Battar’s fighters returned to Libya and formed the Islamic Youth Shura Council. An IS delegation, including Yemeni Abu Al-Baraa el-Azdi and Saudi Habib Al-Jazrawi, visited the IYSC in Derna and convinced it to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi. Soon thereafter, the IYSC declared the eastern part of Libya an IS province and called it Wilayat Barqa (Cyrenaica province).

Strategically, the purpose of IYSC activity in Libya is not only to expand internally. It is, rather, to build a base for IS expansion in North Africa, and to reach out to other extremist groups in the Sahara and North Africa’s coastal regions that can be incorporated. The group’s decision to expand throughout the Libyan coastal highlands, from Derna to Sirte, and including Misrata, was deliberate. It formed part of the overall strategy to gain control of areas where human trafficking is active, to ensure a steady supply of foreign recruits.

Given the group’s propensity to capture oil production facilities, it is likely that it will continue sweeping across the coastline to gain control of as much of Libya’s oil as possible. As in Syria and Iraq, oil is its preferred source of funding in Libya, with Sirte being a major prize on the ‘Petroleum Crescent’.

Despite a few recent victories, it would be difficult for IS to approach Tripoli. Such a move will provoke direct intervention by Europe, especially Italy. Furthermore, it would require IS to be sufficiently powerful to defeat the Libya Dawn forces headquartered in Tripoli. IS is currently positioned between General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in the east, and Libya Dawn forces in the west and south. Even in Derna, it is having a tough time battling fighters of the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council; it will not want to open up another front as yet.

The importance of controlling the coastline has not been lost on either the Islamic State or the Europeans. The latter realise that IS control over Libya would be a serious threat to European interests, especially with regard to illegal immigration. ‘Libya has a long coastline facing southern Europe, making it easy for us to target the crusading countries, even with a makeshift dinghy,’ said IS leader Abu Arhim al-Libi.

Another milestone in IS’s short history in Libya was the capture of the coastal city of Sirte in late May, in a narrative very similar to Mosul in Iraq. The Tripoli-based General National Congress had tasked Battalion 166 to protect Sirte from IS. Instead, IS forced the battalion out of the city, and it subsequently also lost al-Ghardabiyabase, where the city’s international airport is located, twenty kilometres from downtown Sirte.

IS found a haven in Sirte, a former stronghold of murdered Libyan leader Muammar Qaddhafi. Islamist militants in the city – some of whom had been Qaddhafiloyalists – changed brands and adopted IS. The group is highly pragmatic, capable of gaining recruits from diverse backgrounds and using them with remarkable efficiency.

Merely changing brands to that of IS is also what Ansar al-Shariah’s fighters did. Miftah Marzouq, the president of the Sirte elders and Shura council said: ‘The group that is keen on calling itself Islamic State in Sirte is the very one that used to be Ansar al-Shariah. Most of them are young men from the city, whose families we know by name.’

Sirte is located at the heart of Libya’s major oil facilities. Thus, if IS is able to hold the city and secure its presence there, it will have a new source of funding, enabling it to pay its fighters through oil trading. Many reasons have been advanced for why Battalion 166 pulled out of Sirte. The lack of funds to pay soldiers has been cited as a possible reason.

The group also took over the town of Harawa (seventy kilometres east of Sirte), but by mutual accord with tribes in the area. Meetings between IS leaders and tribal elders in the vicinity of Nawfaliah (127 kilometres east of Sirte) led to an agreement that IS fighters would enter Harawa unopposed. The two sides will meet at a later date to agree upon a ransom that Harawa residents would pay the group as blood money in exchange for the latter’s casualties during earlier hostilities in the town.

Beyond al-Qa'ida’s rationale: More attainable goals attract the young and gullible

IS differs from al-Qa'ida in that it has a more definite agenda and a clear-cut mode of operation: Fight locally, then build institutions – no matter how fragile – to establish control. This contrasts with al-Qa'ida’s more haphazard model in which attacks must be carried out abroad in order to sell the al-Qa'ida brand locally. IS took a different approach. Its media highlight daily victories and short-term, attainable objectives – no matter how small – that can immediately be felt by fighters in order to attract potential recruits. Al-Qa’ida approach is to wage a long-term war against the West, focusing on operations that target western interests everywhere. It’s a strategy that requires patience, longevity and stamina.

IS regards areas – outside of Syria and Iraq – in which it has a presence as ‘wilayat’ or ‘provinces’; the most recent are Barqa, Tripoli and Fezzan. These are not provinces in the true sense of the word, but are part of the group’s propaganda attempt to use geography and history to create a political and military status quo. Between late 2014 and early 2015, IS developed its vision for Libya’s division on the idea that the country, historically, consisted of three provinces: Cyrenaica (modern-day Barqa), which currently encompasses the entire eastern part of the country; Tripoli in the middle and west; and Fezzan in the south.

Wherever it expands to, IS is eager to reshape life according to its laws and ideology, and to disseminate certain practices. ‘Hisba’ – the enforcement of public morals – includes burning cigarette packs, tearing down statues and shrines, calling on Muslims in public places such as mosques to pledge allegiance, propagating Islam (da'wah), offering aid to the poor and sweets and presents to children. IS also carries out ‘hard’ activities. In Barqa, for example, Tunisian journalists were executed.

IS’s main strategic objectives for Libya

IS has two main objectives for its expansion in Libya. The first is to eradicate the borders between Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, as IS leader Abu Muadh al-Barqawi stated in his essay ‘Join the Realm of the Caliphate’. The second is to turn Libya into a strategic gateway for IS. According to Abu Arhim al-Libi: ‘There are some who do not realise the [strategic] importance of Libya, which encompasses sea, desert and mountains, and provides access to Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia.’

Misrata is a priority strategic target for the group’s expansion within Libya. Taking Misrata will give it control over the entire Libyan coast. In late May 2015, IS militants targeted the city with an attack on a nearby checkpoint, leaving six dead. According to IS supporters their militants attacked the Abu Grin gate in the city’s east on 7 June 2015, killing four locals. Misrata is vital to thwarting the expansion of, and defeating, the Islamic State. Even though well-trained, well-armed forces thwarted the group’s ambitions there, that didn’t stop it from mounting a two-pronged propaganda campaign: one ideological and the other political. Barqawi called on Misrata’s youth to sacrifice themselves for God, and not for the sake of democracy by supporting Libya Dawn. He also warned the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk in a message titled ‘Message to the people and youth of Misrata’. ‘To the parliament in Tripoli and Libya Dawn,’ he said, ‘I say be aware that just as the Islamic State took al-Bayda and Tobruk with God’s grace, it can take Misrata and Tripoli. You have seen some of our deeds in Tripoli.’

The bombing of the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli in late January 2015 indicates the presence of scattered sleeper cells and splinter groups that form the IS frontline all the way to Tripoli. Their task is to achieve one, clear tactical objective: to create chaos – the same mode of operation that IS uses in Iraq, such as bombings in Baghdad immediately preceding an impending attack. The Corinthia bombing was dubbed ‘the Abu Anas al-Libi Incursion’, in response to the latter’s death in a US prison – even though he was an al-Qa'ida leader. The group later claimed responsibility for the bombing and published pictures of the perpetrators. The Corinthia bombing had definite political and military objectives. Omar al-Hassi, then the National Salvation Government’s prime minister, had been at the hotel around the time of the attack. The group also claimed responsibility for a bombing that targeted the Iranian embassy in Tripoli in February 2015.

The group have already spread into the ‘Fezzan province’. Al-Furqan Foundation for Media Production, an IS media arm, broadcast a video showing the execution by shooting of so-called ‘subjects of the cross of the belligerent Ethiopian church’ in April 2015.

Infighting helps IS expand

In one way or another, every one of the warring parties in Libya attempted to use IS’s presence to its advantage. They all somehow forgot that IS could expand and use the infighting between the two largest political and military groups in the country to its advantage.

Initially, Libya Dawn and the National Congress believed that the existence of IS and its fight against Haftar’s forces were to their benefit, and they did not attempt to confront IS. However, developments on the ground – especially the defeat of Battalion 166 – and the group’s move to secure Sirte with a gigantic show of force – with fighters, vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons, followed by an announcement of its future goals, have forced Libya Dawn to rethink its military options.

On the other hand, Operation Dignity – the military campaign launched by Haftar in May 2014 – painted the group as a gang of terrorists in an attempt to attract international support. IS’s targeting of Misrata will weaken Libya Dawn, to the advantage of Operation Dignity. The latter is betting that the more convinced the international community is that IS’s presence in the country is a threat, the more likely is foreign intervention, even though previous attempts at international air intervention in Iraq and Syria have not been as effective on the ground as hoped. IS not only sprung back into action immediately air strikes stopped, but it also took new territory in the midst of the following each wave of air strikes.

The National Congress and Libya Dawn know full well that Operation Dignity is using terrorism and fighting IS as trump cards to its advantage. When IS claimed responsibility for the Corinthia Hotel bombing, then-prime minister Omar al-Hassi quickly denied that IS had anything to do with the attack. The National Salvation Government claimed the attack was an attempt on Hassi’s life, accusing Haftar’s loyalists and their foreign supporters, while the parliament in Tobruk as quickly demanded that Libya be included in the global war on terrorism, reiterating that IS was behind the bombing.

Recruiting local fighters

In addition to the moderate amount of funds the Libyan IS receives from Syria, it also draws military trainers from there, too, according to US Pentagon officials. Before reverting to its preferred method of building its forces’ numbers – bringing foreign fighters into Libya and involving them in military operations – it recruits fighters from other militias. Some reports say Baghdadi had sent representatives to Libya to explore possible alliances with local groups.

As time passed, IS succeeded in usurping Ansar al-Sharia. Abu Abdullah al-Libi, the religious leader and supreme judge of the ‘Islamic Court’ of Ansar al-Sharia, pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, and the news was spread through social media. A Libya television channel said Libi had announced the pledge in an audio recording published on jihadi websites.

The same trend can be seen in Barqawi’s infamous message to the people of Misrata, with which he attempted to lure the city’s young men to join IS. He called on them to ‘make sacrifices for Libya, let your sacrifice be in the name of God, not in the name of the National Congress that rules by democracy.’ He also ‘excommunicated’ Qaddhafi and his loyalists, members of the Tobruk parliament and the security forces working for it, Haftar, the National Congress in Tripoli and those associated with it, ‘and all those who fought in the name of ‘democracy, secularism and liberalism’. He also warned Libya Dawn that ‘just as the Islamic State took al-Bayda and Tobruk, they can take Misrata and Tripoli’.

In January 2015, Barqawi had written an article titled ‘No [other] organisation [can exist] under the Islamic State’. By ‘other organisation’ he probably meant al-Qa'ida; he asked in the article: ‘What is keeping you, the soldiers of Ansar al-Sharia, from meeting your duty of pledging allegiance to the caliph Ibrahim [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]?’

The essence of the danger of IS in Libya lies in how capable it is of recruiting fighters from other jihadi factions, especially given the fact that those fighters tend to be vulnerable to IS ideas, and especially if IS succeeds in securing larger sources of funding.


While the current environment in Libya plays into IS’s hands in the political and military aspects, the country is not yet ready to accept it into its political and social structures. IS’s expansion hinges on whether the warring sides in Libya can reach a political resolution, and integrate the warring factions into legitimate institutions. Apart from IS’s difficulty in finding societal acceptance, its other challenge is to meet the ever-growing demand for relief, aid and the social services in areas it takes control of. Should a political solution to the Libyan crisis fail to materialise, Libya might become a frontline for IS operations in North Africa. Despite uncertainty about the group’s actual power in Libya, when the huge number of militant groups in the country is considered, the threat posed by IS cannot be underestimated, much less ignored.

* Kamal Al-Kusayyar is a researcher on Maghreb affairs at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies

** This article was originally published in Arabic by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, and was translated into English by Afro-Middle East Centre

Edited with Online HTML Converter.

Last modified on Friday, 28 August 2015 13:06

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