The Islamic State (IS, or ISIS or ISIL) in Libya controls the coastal strip around the central city, Sirte, from Bu’ayrat al Hasun to Bin Jawad and down south to the vicinity of the Jufra oasis. In Benghazi the battle-hardened jihadists are part of the backbone of the resistance against General Heftar’s Operation Dignity. The group is also present in training camps to the south of Sabratha. Several smaller cells exist in Tripoli, Khoms and other coastal cities of Tripolitania. Although IS was evicted from the eastern city of Derna last June by other radical Islamists the group is still present in the environs of the city.
An impressive success, but several analysts claim that IS has already reached its peak in Libya. So, how much of a threat are these terrorists really?
The manpower of IS is frequently exaggerated by the media and by Libyans fighting against the Islamists. All together there are between 2,700 and 3,500 IS fighters operating in Libya. About 1,500-2,000 of them are in and around Sirte. The jihadists in this city have received some significant reinforcements from sub-Saharan Africa, probably from Boko Haram.
The number of IS sympathizers is significantly larger, but difficult to assess. Their figure is increasing slowly but steadily. IS is building up its network in coastal Tripolitania, including in Tripoli, Khoms, and Misrata. They are also infiltrating other Islamist militias. Although it is not realistic for IS to “convert” many higher leaders from rival radical Islamist groups, there are good chances for them to get access to the lower ranks. This is particularly the case with their increasing recruitment of Libyan returnees from Syria.
Currently there are probably between 800 and 1,500 Libyan fighters in Syria and Iraq. Whereas the young and inexperienced are frequently used as suicide bombers, veteran Libyan fighters can be found at the core of ISIS fighting units. However, an experienced Libyan fighter has more value for IS at home than in Syria. Tough fighters for the jihad in the Middle East can come from everywhere, but experienced Libyans are a special asset for the expansion of IS in North Africa. Therefore it can be expected that Libyan ISIS veterans will return home in larger numbers soon.
At the beginning support and guidance from the parent organization was crucial to establishing a first foothold for IS in Libya. But as the Libyans are not really willing to accept foreigners as their headmen, the presence of foreign leaders is now more of a disadvantage. IS has slowly begun to realize this. Consequently it seems that more Libyans are climbing up the ranks.
Nevertheless, IS is struggling somewhat to win local support as it is branded by rival groups as an "outsider." This is not entirely so and an increasing number of Libyans are joining. It can be estimated that currently more than 50% of the IS fighters and almost all the sympathizers are already Libyans.
It is likely that with the next major territorial gains IS will become more attractive and this ratio will change to two-thirds from one-third.
The “sectarian homogeneity” of Libya as an “obstacle” for the expansion of IS is no real argument. In Syria 74% of the population are Sunni (including the Kurds), only 13% are Shia and less than 10% are Christians. So even if the conflict is frequently described as a Sunni-Shia war, this is not entirely true. In Egypt there is certainly no Sunni-Shia war at all.
The strategy of IS1 has the oil-rich eastern Sirte Basin as a next objective before expanding further on to Benghazi and towards the capital Tripoli. This sequence has several advantages for them. Eastern Sirte is by far an easier target than Misrata, the next major city in the west. It avoids direct confrontation with Misrata and its mighty militias and helps to divide Libya Dawn in its stance towards IS, as the group is fighting Operation Dignity, the common enemy. Furthermore it would make General Heftar´s offensive in Benghazi (almost) unsustainable, as his forces would be threatened in their rear. In the end the impact on the Libyan economy of losing all the oil facilities of the eastern Sirte Basin would be severe, while IS could get a new source of income.
Phase 1 of this offensive has started already. There have been several raids out of the desert on coastal cities. Dozens of assassinations took place, in particular in Ajdabiya. Street battles with dozens of killed and wounded have already commenced. All this serves to “soften up” the targeted areas.
Local militias loyal to Operation Dignity, Ibrahim Jadhran and his Petroleum Facility Guards are not a very dangerous threat. Keeping tribal conflicts and the Islamist groups in Ajdabiya in mind, their position is a difficult one. As the Islamists in Benghazi are keeping up pressure on General Heftar, Ajdabiya cannot expect more than a few airstrikes as additional support.
A main advantage of IS is their tactics to infiltrate targets, weaken them and either gradually take them over from within or with a short decisive offensive from outside. The outcome is certainly not “rapid territorial expansion” or a “Blitzkrieg”, but unfortunately an efficient way to expand step-by-step.
But who in Libya is able to fight and stop the expansion of the jihadists?
Operation Dignity forces are probably willing, but they do not have sufficient manpower or weapons available, as the fight in Benghazi needs almost all their resources on hand. This will remain unchanged in the foreseeable future.
For various reasons Libya Dawn has not shown any real willingness to fight IS to date, and there are no signs of a change. Furthermore not everyone among their ranks has real interest in an agreement with the HoR, bearing in mind their support of radical Islamist groups.
Obviously, without international military support none of the Libyan factions is able to successfully fight and stop IS in Libya.
Frequently Western politicians have linked any military support to Libya to a Government of National Accord (GNA). The recent signatures under the Skhirat agreement are a very positive step, but now the government needs to be established and empowered quickly. Endless discussions allow the Islamic State and other radical Islamists to strengthen their positions. The longer the debates continue without tangible results, the better it is for IS and other jihadists.
With a GNA in place there could be a chance to fight IS efficiently. The only other options would be unilateral intervention without the consent of a Libyan government or taking a side in the civil war.
In any case, without significant international military involvement it will take the terrorists about 6-12 months to seize their next objective. Thereafter IS will be much more attractive for the other Libyan Islamists. It will be almost impossible2 to reverse the trend. This expansion will make IS a deadly threat not only for the stabilization of Libya, but also for the wider North African region and eventually also for Europe.
See W. PUSZTAI, “What makes Libya a perfect place for terrorists?”, ISPI, March 17, 2015, https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/what-makes-libya-perfect-place-terrorists-12894 .