ISIS in Sirte: From Caliphate to Insurgency

With the Libyan city of Sirte almost completely liberated from the Islamic State, the group appears to be adapting rather than collapsing. Despite a significant decline in interactions with outsiders, recent statements by ISIS leaders and the tactics used in its fight in Sirte point to how it might deal with the aftermath. In its fight for survival, the Islamic State is adopting a low profile and building a network of itinerant, covert cells.

In an audio statement released on November 2, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi conceded that joining the group in Syria is now tougher than in the past. Yet, by contrast, he reassured his supporters that the hijra (migration) routes leading to Libya are still easily accessible. Far from being trivial, this message should be taken as an indicator of renewed confidence in the group’s durability there.

The Islamic State is having a hard time in Libya, though. Unlike Syria and Iraq, where the group’s presence is mostly contiguous (albeit with important exceptions), in Libya the Islamic State is a segmented entity. Ideally, it divided the entire country into three administrative divisions (wilayah): Barqah in the East, Tarabulus in the North-West, and Fezzan in the South-West. But in reality, the territorial supremacy of Wilayah Barqah and Wilayah Tarabulus is currently limited to small areas of Benghazi and Sirte, respectively. As to Wilayah Fezzan, it never exercised territorial control. However, roving units and undercover clusters are still active in both Wilayah Fezzan and Tarabulus, and they’re shaping the future of the group.

Early this year, the Islamic State had a firm grip on a coastal strip on either side of Sirte, at a time when Libya represented a realistic fallback option for the Islamic State as a transnational organization. But serious territorial setbacks suffered in Libya in recent months make Baghdadi’s latest call unexpected. Al-Bunyan al-Marsous, forces affiliated with the Libyan Government of National Accord and backed by US air support, have degraded the largest group of Islamic State fighters present in the country and trapped them in a small area of Sirte’s Giza Bahriyya neighborhood. Still, the loss of Sirte is not the end of the Islamic State’s Libyan ambitions.

Six days before Baghdadi’s audio release, the group published the fifty-second issue of its weekly bulletin al-Naba, which included an interview with the governor of Wilayah Tarabulus, Abu Hudhaifah al-Muhajir. In the interview, he claimed the group continues to attract stable inflows of foreign fighters and repeatedly mentioned the presence of Islamic State battalions scattered in Libya’s desert. He also claimed these battalions are partly responsible for the slow course of the battle for Sirte (which began in May). Indeed, since August, al-Bunyan al-Marsous suffered several attacks on their rear lines carried out by militants coming from the South and West. The Islamic State also relied on external cells to plant IEDs on al-Bunyan al-Marsous’ supply line and sleeper operatives are threatening the highway between Sirte and Misrata on a regular basis.

Al-Muhajir maintained that these desert battalions (Saraya al-Sahra) are newly established, mainly composed of foreigners and ready to gain ground. However, the Islamic State is not new to this part of Libya, and the battalions may rely on a pre-existing network. For instance, a video published in April 2015 shows militants from Wilayah Fezzan executing a group of Ethiopian Christians. Fighters from the same Wilayah also claimed an attack in the area of Sawknah (in central Libya) in March 2015, naming the operation after their previous leader, Abu Uthman al-Ansari.

In addition to al-Muhajir’s assertions, in late August the Emir (or chief) of the Islamic State in Benghazi, Abu Mus‘ab al-Farouq delivered a short message concerning the ongoing reorganization of the group in an area not far from Sirte. There, he claimed, the leaders of Wilayah Tarabulus who fled Sirte were safe and injecting new life into the group’s cause. Such a project of recovery seems to be underway and possibly sponsored by the central Islamic State.

With several prominent figures of the organization killed in Sirte (including the former governor of Wilayah Barqah Abu Ibrahim al-Warfalli, preacher Hassan al-Karamy and shari’a official Waleed al-Farjani), fresh leaders have been appointed. Al-Muhajir for example says he took office after his predecessor blew himself up three months ago. More notably, according to security sources in Tripoli, in late September al-Baghdadi selected Jalal al-Din al-Tunsi, a commander who appeared in a well-known video celebrating the breached border between Iraq and Syria, as the new head of the Libyan branch. No official statements have been made in regard to this so far though.

Despite the desert battalions’ territorial aims, as professed by al-Muhajir, this new network of Islamic State units is likely to keep a low profile and avoid permanent ground control. A safe haven in mid-western, inland Libya could be instrumental to conducting intermittent attacks in Tripolitania’s coastal cities. Tripoli and Misrata might represent favorite targets due to their political and institutional meaning. In this context, Bani Walid (80 miles South-West of Misrata, 120 miles South-East of Tripoli) is particularly significant as a logistical base, since a number of militants who fled Sirte took shelter there. Also, the confessions of a captured militant reveal that the former leader of Wilayah Tarabulus, Ahmad Salah al-Hammali, was based in the town. Most likely, Bani Walid is the place the Emir of Benghazi referred to in his message.

Alternatively, the Islamic State could opt for an insurgency in the Fezzan region, as southern oil infrastructures would be the ideal target to damage Libya’s finances. The group could exploit Fezzan’s institutional vacuum to establish checkpoints and secure its facilities. Indeed, on November 16, Islamic State’s A‘maq agency released a video showing militants operating a checkpoint believed to be somewhere South of Sirte.

Along with Sirte, Benghazi is the only area where a standing concentration of Islamic State militants continues a ruinous, territorial resistance. The local cell is significant as it might pave the way for different islamist groups to operate alongside each other with limited conflict. In the district of Ganfouda, for example, the Islamic State coexists with an islamist coalition with ties to al-Qaeda known as the Shura Council of Benghazi’s Revolutionaries. The two sides are currently cooperating in the fight against Operation Dignity forces.

What is now just a local, tactical relationship based on mutual non-aggression might conveniently become a broader practice. Indeed, if Libya is to achieve better stability, different Islamist groups might find it beneficial to cooperate and share their assets. After all, Libya’s controversial Mufti Sadiq al-Gharyani, who is also recognized as a spiritual guide by the local al-Qaeda milieu, has long called on Libyan islamist factions to close ranks and battle the governments’ forces. The continued existence of the new, covert Islamic State would therefore profit from its harmony with the regional militant-salafi landscape.

Similarly, the group cannot afford a decline in recruits, as revealed by Baghdadi’s and al-Muhajir’s statements. In this regard, the Libyan Islamic State has lately been relying on a number of informal outlets (mostly in the form of Telegram channels) for its propaganda needs. Despite being run by supporters, some of those outlets—namely Libya wa Izza al-Khilafa, Tashlita, Thaloub Benghazi—have sound technical capabilities and show an intimacy with the group’s affairs. Over the last year, they have been responsible for massive recruitment campaigns, the most prolific of them (al-Nafir ila Libia, “mobilization to Libya”) being focused on the Sahel. As the official propaganda output of the group almost declined to zero since September, the performance of auxiliary outlets will play an important part in fueling recruitment.

Although Sirte’s liberation is a major achievement in improving Libya’s security, the local Islamic State is still far from eradication. The group is undergoing a process of adaptation aimed at retaining a viable base in the country. In the few months ahead, the Libyan Islamic State is most likely to resemble an insurgent network, possibly reaching compromises so as to coexist with local organizations and media capabilities. All in all, resilience to traumatic events is among the main assets of the group. Therefore, Libyan institutions should pay close attention.

Marco Arnaboldi is a freelance analyst on militant salafism and political Islam. He is a recent graduate of Milan’s Catholic University with an MA in International Relations. His work has been published or quoted by, amongst others, the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, Oasis International Foundation, Reuters, il Corriere Della Sera. 

Image: he barrel of a military vehicle belonging to Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government is seen near the front line of fighting with Islamic State militants in Ghiza Bahriya district, in Sirte, Libya October 28, 2016. (Hani Amara/Reuters)