Remain, Expand, Attract: The Paradigmatic Experience of the Islamic State in Libya

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 16



On April 4, the Libyan National Army (LNA), which supports the House of Representative government in Tobruk, started its western Libya military offensive to “cleanse” the area and eliminate “terrorists and mercenaries,” entering the city of Gharyan (Jeune Afrique, April 4). Field Marshal General Khalifa Haftar was betting on a rapid victory, but his plans were quickly frustrated. The conflict in west Libya is now entering its fifth month and pushed groups that have been fighting each other for years to join forces to repel Haftar’s initiative (Terrorism Monitor, April 5). The war in western Libya represented an opportunity for Islamic State (IS) in Libya to regain further operational momentum, in line with the crescendo that had characterized its activities since late 2017 (MLM, September 2017; Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2018).

IS not only attacked LNA positions in southern Libya, but also returned to strike coastal areas in the east, notably in Derna. On May 4, IS attacked an LNA training camp in Sebha, killing nine people (Al-Jazeera, May 4). A few days later, the group carried out another attack in Ghudwah, killing three people (The Libyan Address, May 9). In the following weeks, IS cells continued their hit-and-run operations—a typical feature of their post-Sirte evolution in Libya— by attacking an LNA checkpoint not far from Zillah killing two LNA fighters and kidnapping four others (The Libya Observer, May 18). These attacks are very much consistent with the strategic trends that had characterized Libya over the previous two years. IS was operating mostly in the desert and the south, with sporadic but deadly attacks in Tripoli. The new and very remarkable development, however, is the return of IS to eastern Libya, from which it was operationally absent since 2016 when its Derna branch was defeated. On June 2, two IED attacks targeting LNA forces left 18 people injured. The LNA first accused the Derna Protection Force (DPF) of being behind the attacks, but IS claimed responsibility for the operation the following day (The National [Abu Dhabi], June 4).

Who’s Who in IS Libya Now?

According to a recent UN report, the current leadership of IS in Libya is comprised mostly of Libyan nationals, with the only exception being the Iraqi national Abdel Qader al Najdi (a.k.a. Abu Moaz al-Tikriti), who has been one of the leaders of the organization since its inception in Libya (UN S/2019/570, July 15).

If true, this evolution would be remarkable as, at the time of its emergence in Libya, foreign fighters dominated the group. For instance, Abu Amir al-Jazrawi, the Saudi fighter who led the killing operation of Egyptian Copts in Libya in 2015. Another prominent foreign fighter was the Iraqi, Wisam al-Zubaidi (a.k.a. Abu Nabil al-Anbari), who was the emir of IS Libya province before his death in 2015, being replaced by al-Najdi (Egypt Today, October 7, 2017; Al-Quds, February 19, 2015). Libyan fighters, such as Fawzi al-Ayat, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Sirte, who fought in Syria and Iraq, and others played a more marginal role at that time.

However, the reality is likely a bit more nuanced. The information on IS’ Libyan leadership remains very fragmented. The rise to internal prominence of Libyan fighters was indeed a trend observable over the past years, but it is unlikely that the command is solely Libyan. Following the defeat in Sirte, IS re-grouped in the desert creating the so-called “desert army” (Saraya al-Sahraa), small units responsible for the hit-and-run attacks in Libya over the past years. The leader handling this re-organization was al-Mahdi Salem Dangou (a.k.a. Abu Barakat) (Asharq al-Awsat, September 29, 2017).

In the July video in which IS fighters pledged their loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the speaker was Mahmoud al-Baraasi, (a.k.a. Abu Musab al-Libi, and previously Abu Musab al-Farouq). Al-Baraasi was the founder of the IS affiliate in the eastern city of Benghazi (Libya Observer, July 7; Asharq al-Awsat, July 8; Akhbar Libya 24, July 9). However, it is unlikely that its Libyan component totally dominates IS in Libya. Changes have occurred in the modalities of recruitment of foreign elements, and IS’ foreign recruits in Libya are probably declining compared to the past, changing the proportions between local and international fighters. Yet, this influx is not over, and militants continue to join the ranks of the organization from Syria and Iraq (Al-Marsad, July 30).

It is interesting to note that the UN report made no mention of the Franco-Tunisian Mohamed Ben Salem al-Ayouni (a.k.a. Jalaluddin al-Tunisi), who was considered the leader of IS in Libya in 2017. When speculation was widespread on the fate of al-Baghdadi, al-Ayouni was considered a potential successor as “caliph” (MLM, July 2017). Al-Ayouni’s public appearances have shrunk over the past two years. There are several explanations for this absence. He might have died, or he might have fallen out of favor and been sidelined. However, in the first case, for someone of that importance within the organization, IS likely would have released some form of communique. In the second case, al-Ayouni would have probably created a splinter group or tried to flee, reappearing somewhere else. Instead, it is more likely that there are two sides of IS in Libya—one that is more visible and public, and one that instead operates covertly. This would be consistent with the features of global IS, in which prominent figures who move away from the spotlight hold significant power and influence. Al-Ayouni has been in the spotlight for a while—he was one of the fighters appearing in the video launching the IS operation “Breaking the Walls” campaign in 2012/2013 (Il Foglio [Rome], July 7, 2017). However, he might belong now to the second group and be one of the behind-the-scenes minds defining IS strategy in Libya. On top of this, there is also the still significant presence of groups of sub-Saharan fighters within IS in Libya. In July, the LNA killed the Sudanese fighter Mohammed bin Ahmed al-Fallata (a.k.a. Abu Asim al-Muhajir/Abu Asim al-Sudani), who was allegedly in charge of its information office (The Libyan Address, July 12). Notably, IS released a very long eulogy for al-Fallata in issue No. 190 of al-Naba, even though he could hardly be considered a top-name in the organization’s hierarchy.

Remaining and Expanding in Libya (and Elsewhere): a Paradigmatic IS History.

The consistent operational revival that has characterized the group, the broadening of its area of action following the beginning of the western Libyan conflict, and its shifting strategic and organizational features suggest a very significant capacity for adaptation and robust resilience. The evolution of the organization in Libya is an essential reminder of IS’ strategic priorities, modus operandi, and management of its human resources.

First, its Libyan experience is a classic application of the Baqiya wa Tatamadad (remaining and expanding) principle. Following the collapse of the post-Qadhafi transition and the beginning of the polarization between the eastern forces of Haftar and a group of very diversified actors in west Libya in 2014, IS fighters from Syria and Iraq moved to Libya. The goal was to take advantage of an evolving strategic and political cleavage by establishing an operational foothold. In Libya, there were no sectarian tensions to exploit, unlike in Syria and Iraq. Yet, there were other types of divisions—regional and political. Several groups and territorial realities were thus looking for allies to pursue their interests—jihadist fighters in Derna, but also small groups of former Qadhafists in Sirte. After the rise and consolidation of its territorial power in Sirte, the group was later defeated militarily amid the cooperation between local actors, Misratans in particular, and foreign powers, such as the United States, providing air support.

However, although under attack, the group managed not only to remain active in Libya but also to reinvent itself to a certain extent. Currently, IS is made of fighters coming from very different experiences: Libyans linked to the history of jihad within the country and in its historic stronghold, Derna; some of the Arab foreign fighters linked to the first 2014-2016 wave of IS expansion in Libya; regional jihadists of different national and ethnic background—Tebu, Sudanese, Sahelian groups.

This last element is particularly important and points to IS trying to survive in Libya not only to remain and expand there but to expand into the rest of Africa. The eulogy for al-Fallata, from this point of view, can suggest several trends. In the early days of IS’ expansion in Libya, the group was very active in recruiting fighters from Tebu and other tribes in southern Libya, showing that it was open and not limited to Arabs. This is also very consistent with the current phase of continental development of the organization in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as well as in Mozambique (Terrorism Monitor, May 17; Terrorism Monitor, May 31). While jihadist organizations usually focus on the unity of its members at a rhetorical level, on the ground they have had several problems between ethnic and national sub-groups. The al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) experience is a case in point. In the past, ethno-racial tensions and the lack of what could be defined as the ‘ethno-national’ pluralization of the chain of command in AQIM led to a split within the organization. The birth of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) was a result and initiated a process of fragmentation within AQIM that was only restored years later (Terrorism Monitor, April 6, 2012). Aware of how national and ethnic rivalries have undermined jihadist groups in the past, IS expansion across Africa shows that the organization is meticulous in handling these ethnic cleavages, and it wants to exploit them rather than be its victim. Besides, this eulogy is also a signal that, for the group, Libya is also perceived as a regional platform to expand into Sudan. In his first video appearance in years, released in April, al-Baghdadi urged the people of Sudan to launch jihad (Jeune Afrique, April 30). Celebrating the life, and martyrdom, of a Sudanese fighter who died in battle in Libya is thus a PR stunt meant to strengthen its outreach to Sudanese groups. From this point of view, the dynamics of the conflict in Sudan resemble the instability in which IS has flourished in the past. The reinforcement of its presence in Libya will thus be functional to its next phase of development in Sudan.


The conflict in western Libya represented a clear opportunity for IS to further strengthen and broaden its operational presence. This development is coherent with a trend observable since late 2017. The Libyan component of IS, in its leadership, is now more significant than it was in the early phase of its emergence, and these leaders have reorganized the group through these small armies in the desert, which carry out hit-and-run attacks. However, the group is still a multi-national jihadist enterprise with fighters coming from several parts of the world. Its Sahelian and Sub-Saharan component is also increasingly relevant, as shown by the eulogy released for al-Fallata. From this perspective, IS perceives its survival in Libya as not only functional to its strategy of remaining and expanding in the country, but also in the broader continent. Developments in the DRC, as well as in Mozambique, suggest that this is its new strategic goal. Against this backdrop, Libya is seen as the platform from which IS can expand in other parts of Africa as well. Sudan, given its role in the history of jihadist movements and its current, troubled phase, is very much the next target for the organization. The group’s expansion and stabilization in Libya will thus be functional for a rising operational profile in Sudan, and likely in other parts of Africa as well.