The Islamic State (IS) lost control of the strategic Libyan city of Sirte in 2016 [source] and has maintained a relatively weak presence throughout Libya during 2022. However, IS still represents a major potential risk for the region’s stability and development.
1. Why this matters
Libya’s unstable political landscape, which has created a security vacuum that challenges its ability to combat extremists, could favour the rise of terrorists and armed groups like IS in the future. Libyan general Khalifa Haftar made a recent statement in which he threatened a new civil war against the Tripoli-based government if a political stalemate persists. This could further increase the risk of hostile non-state actors finding a home in the country.
2. Libya’s geostrategic importance for IS and its presence in the country
IS militants have targeted Libya and declared it “one of the main axes of its future operations”. The group sees it as an opportunity to compensate for its lost ground in Syria.
Thus, and even after the expulsion from Sirte, IS has kept its interest in maintaining its presence in the country. Libya’s major geostrategic importance can explain potential reasons why.
Libyan IS members, such as Abu Irhim al-Libi highlighted this latter aspect. Indeed, in his work “The Strategic Gateway for the Islamic State”, al-Libi describes Libya as a country that “looks upon the sea, the desert, the mountains and six states: Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia. It is the anchor from which Africa and the Islamic Maghreb can be reached.”
Libya’s advantageous geographical location also facilitates the recruitment of fighters from sub-Saharan Africa [source].
Regarding the group’s presence in Libya, the US Intelligence estimated in August 2016 around 2000 IS members. It also stated that the number was decreasing. However, and in stark contrast with what happened in Syria and Iraq, IS has never vanished in Libya [source].
3. IS composition and activities in Libya
IS divided Libya into three states or wilayat:
- Wilayat Tripolitania, Western Province
- Wilayat Fezzan, Southern Province
- Wilayat Barca, Eastern Province
Regarding its members, non-Libyan dominate IS in Libya. The highest number of recruits are from neighbouring countries such as Tunisia. However, sub-Saharan fighters also play an important role within the group’s ranks [source].
Sudanese, Tunisians, Egyptians and even Yemenis have joined IS in Libya. In addition, European fighters have also increasingly joined IS ranks in order to avoid government detection [source].
3.2. Activities and Strategy
Even after the expulsion from Sirte, IS has had an interest in maintaining its presence in Libya because of the latter’s strategic geographical location. To do so, IS has been erecting checkpoints, committing abductions and disseminating propaganda referencing IS activity in Libya via its al-Naba´ newsletter. The latter informative activity may often be even more important than military jihad [source].
For IS, enhancing its footprint via media output to publicise its strength after its territorial losses is of major importance for its survival and appeal. As a result, conducting small-scale attacks and keeping a major presence are two of the cornerstones of IS strategy [source].
IS has also created a network in the country, following the AQ presence. This allows the terrorist group to move its base to another district within Libya. As happened in Iraq, IS has established an alliance with the remnants of the previous Libyan regime’s security apparatus. This may give the group an opportunity to infiltrate the weak state structures. This would make IS elimination an arduous task [source].
4. Libya’s domestic and regional environment
The already addressed government split has allowed Islamist groups to operate with near impunity. This has made Libya a hub for the smuggling and sale of arms, migrants and drugs to finance terror activities [source].
Libya’s widespread availability of weaponry has also exacerbated in recent years because of the several breaches of the UN arms embargo. Because of the porous borders from the lack of a national state authority; local actors can negotiate the terms of border management. Linked to Libya’s divided political environment, the country still contains extensive areas of no-man’s territory. This situation could also benefit the activity of armed terrorist groups [source].
The refugee crisis represents another source of funding for groups such as IS. Through it, they can extract money from migrants and refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution. The mentioned influx of people also opens another route to send militants to Europe, which IS could also exploit [source].
IS members have also aligned themselves with local smugglers in the south of Libya. Additionally, they have also been taking advantage of the difficulties of Tripoli’s military security arrangement [source].
Libya suffers from the existence of widespread grievances amongst different parts of Libya’s population because of frustration from the lack of opportunities, fear of potentially hostile armed groups, and feelings of exclusion. This offers a highly fertile ground for extremist recruitment [source].
The LNA’s military campaigns, characterised by human rights violations, could also provide an opportunity to take advantage of the existing social divisions [source].
Unlike in other Middle Eastern and African territories, most of the Libyan population opposses Islamic extremism and terrorism. Most country’s inhabitants also support a Libyan centralized government. Therefore, IS in Libya cannot benefit from Sunni-Shite rivalries like in Iraq and Syria [source] [source].
In terms of recruitment, IS also faces some challenges within Libyan territory, since it needs to “compete” with other armed factions operating there. As a result, while most jihadi groups differ in terms of objectives and social composition, IS competes with them for similar recruits [source].
Despite the fractured nature of the current Libyan states and its weak structure, Libyan authorities have continued with its counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, in June 2022, a senior member of IS surrendered to the 444 Brigade. This IS high-ranking affiliate, Mustafa Abdel Hamid bin Dallah, had been included on the Public Prosecutions wanted list since the 2016 operation to liberate the former IS-controlled coastal city of Sirte.
Bin Dallah, who AFRICOM was targeting, handled the safety of IS top officials apart from the security supplies for the organization. Last but not least, he also was accused of bringing the “Emir” of IS in Libya known as “Abu Muadh Al-Iraqi” and other leaders including Malik Al-Khazmi, Mahmoud Al-Barasi and her sister in-law, who were also targeted by AFRICOM [source] [source].
5. Commander Haftar’s dangerous ties with Salafi groups
Commander of the Tobruk-based LNA Haftar, opposed to the Tripoli-based government, has a delicate relationship with certain Salafi groups, which possess a similar ideology to that of the IS. Haftar has thousands of Madkhali-Salafi militiamen under his control. Additionally, the commander’s manpower shortages have allowed the mentioned groups to gain increasing relevance in areas of Libya under the LNA and away from the battlefield and in the LNA administration as well [source].
Because of this ideological overlap, radicalised fighters would find it easier to move between groups, making a potential cease of activities more difficult. In fact, not only Haftar but also all sides in the Libyan conflict have been repeatedly using IS detainees for their respective political activities and objectives. Finally, and bearing in mind that militias have often shown an inability to hold detainees securely, “the comfortable” situation that Salafi groups enjoy could favour IS activities and growth [source].
Although IS suffered a major defeat in 2016 and being less present since then, the still ongoing domestic instabilities and political fracture within Libya could favour and lead to an increase in IS presence and activities within the country’s territory. Indeed, IS’s established network, its opportunity to operate in uncontrolled areas of Libya and its relative facility to gain weapons and to recruit radicalised individuals, added to Haftar’s latest threat of resorting back to violence, makes the above mentioned scenario likely.
On the other hand, any improvement of Libya’s domestic political situation and any step towards the normalisation of political life and the establishment of one unique Libyan legitimate government, added to the lack of presence of Sunni-Shite rivalries and Libya’s population opposition to radicalisation, would highly likely make IS presence and grow extremely difficult.