Islamic State Reorganizes in Libya

In August 2017, months after the group was pushed out of its former Libyan stronghold of Sirte, the Islamic State (IS) made a comeback in Libya. Reorganizing in a number of areas in southern Libya and around Sirte, IS has shown that its presence in Libya is far from over. Before these new developments, Libya was witnessing a number of positive changes — for instance, boosting its oil production significantly (Libya Herald, June 16). Oil production began regaining momentum in May 2017, with output reaching one million barrels per day (bpd) in July, the highest level of production in almost four years (Libya Express, July 1). In addition, external powers became more engaged in Libya. France, for instance, helped to broker an agreement between Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Government of the National Accord (GNA), and his main rival Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) (Le Monde, July 25). However, as has often been the case in Libya’s recent history, these developments did not last. In August, oil output started to decline again as rogue militias moved to block production (Maghreb Emergent, August 18), and political instability remains overwhelming.

The most concerning part of this backslide, however, has been the resurgence of IS in Libya. After the group’s defeat in Sirte at the end of 2016, IS fighters moved southward, reorganizing into small groups. On August 23, IS fighters launched a fierce attack against a LNA-controlled checkpoint not far from Sabha, in southern Libya, killing nine soldiers and taking control of the checkpoint (al-Sharq, August 23). A few days later, IS carried out another car bomb attack at a checkpoint in the area of Nawfaliyah. Four soldiers were killed and others were wounded (AfricaNewsGate, August 31). Local witnesses report that IS has set up random checkpoints in a number of areas around Sirte, which they use to kidnap people and extort money. IS’ presence around the area of Nawfaliyah is important, as rumors suggest that Ahmad al-Hasnawi, a local militant leader associated with al-Qaeda, is based in that area. Rumors also exist about a potential convergence between local Qaedist fighters and IS members (Libya Herald, June 11).

The mending of ties between al-Qaeda and IS is one of the key trends in the jihadist world at the moment, and the rumors that Ben Salem al-Ayouni could potentially replace al-Baghadi as IS leader also suggests that a reconcilation between the two groups is a top priority for many fighters from both sides. Al-Ayouni is known to have fairly good relations with Qaedist groups (see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 2). Against this backdrop, for the first time since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, the United States carried out six precision air strikes on September 22 against an IS camp in Libya situated about 240 kilometers southeast of the city of Sirte. The strikes, which reportedly killed about 17 people and destroyed three vehicles, were carried out in coordination with the GNA. According to U.S. Africa Command, IS used the camp to “transfer fighters in and out of the country, stock armaments and equipment; and organize and conduct attacks” (Libya Akhbar, Sept 25). Whether or not these strikes were in response to the recent push by IS leadership to rebuild its Libya operation, it is clear that IS in Libya is far from totally defeated. The organization is certainly planning to carry out more attacks, particularly against LNA forces in the east. Their aim is to exploit the rivalry between the LNA and forces in the West, which prevents them from coordinating successfully, and to foster instability in Libya, which IS sees as a major strategic platform to plot and carry out attacks in other areas of the Mediterranean.