The Islamic State in Libya: Operational Revival, Geographic Dispersal, and Changing Paradigms

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 23


Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of Mission of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Ghassan Salamé, addressed the UN Security Council in September concerning the outbreak of clashes in Tripoli in August (see MLM, October). During the address, he linked the persisting instability engulfing Libya to the potential broad-scale return of terrorist organizations. He stated that, “ISIL (Islamic State—IS) presence and operations in Libya are only spreading.” Salamé further stated that Libya may turn into “a shelter for terrorist groups of all persuasions” (UNISMIL, September 5). These concerns echoed the words that other external and internal actors have voiced over the past months (TASS, December 27, 2017; al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 3).

The Operational Revival

During this period, IS has managed to strike targets across Libya, in line with its operational crescendo already recorded in 2017 (see MLM, September 2017). In November, the group carried out an attack against a police station in Tazirbu (Kufra district)—killing at least eight civilians—with several more wounded and kidnapped (Middle East Eye, November 24). One month earlier, IS claimed responsibility for an attack in al-Fuqaha (Jufra district), burning security offices and governmental buildings, leaving four dead and several injured (Libya Observer, October 29). While these attacks show the IS capacity of operating in the south and in the desert, the group has also managed to strike targets in major urban centers across the country. On September 10, IS gunmen attacked the National Oil Corporation (NOC) headquarters, located in the area of Dahra (Libya Observer, Sept 10; al-Awsat Libya, Sept 10). The attack was carried out by four gunmen, who targeted the High National Election Commission (HNEC) building in the Ghul al-Shul area of the Libyan capital. The group claimed responsibility for the attack on May 2 (Libya Observer, May 2). IS also claimed responsibility for two attacks this past May in Ajdabiya—the same region where IS killed two police officers. The group destroyed a military armored vehicle and an ambulance, and seized equipment at a checkpoint in Aqilah (Libyan Express, May 22; ANSA Med, May 26; Al-Sharq Awsat, July 25).

The Geography of IS Dispersal

These operational trends indicate that—after fleeing Sirte at the end of 2016—IS reorganized itself into small groups and dispersed throughout Libya. This dispersal allows the group to strike in different areas of the country. This development was facilitated by the weakness of the forces that worked to defeat IS in Sirte. In the words of Colonel Ali Faida—commander of the Misratan forces that secured Sirte—his troops “were too poorly equipped to undertake desert operations” (Middle East Eye, August 2). IS cells are now present in the areas around Sabha, Ubari, Kufra, and al-Awaynat. They are especially in those territories located in mountainous regions and characterized by the presence of remote valleys. From this point of view, IS replicated what AQIM groups did following the French attack in Northern Mali. The group used southern Libya to reorganize its ranks and move towards the Sahel—the actual operational focus of the organization (see TM, May 5, 2017).

At the time of its rise, IS failed to gain control of some of the major checkpoints and trading routes required to enter Libya from the Sahara. The group, however, now enjoys some freedom of operation in the area, being supported by local Arab tribes. This area also provides IS with a significant market for recruitment. Foreign fighters have always played a significant role in the group, as the Libyan component was numerically limited. Over time, the importance of foreign fighters within IS ranks has even increased. Of the about 700 members of IS in Libya, almost 80 percent are of foreign origin according to AFRICOM sources, with fighters joining not only from Maghrebi and Sahelian countries, but also from countries like Eritrea and Ghana (Jeune Afrique, October 19; The Citizen, November 21).  The southern Libya is also increasingly important for IS in terms of recruitment. The organization can offer money and support to migrants that arrive in Libya on their journey to Europe (Middle East Eye, August 2).  From this point of view, IS also participates in the market of foreign mercenaries that has increasingly characterized Libya over the past few years (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017; Libya Express, March 1; Libya Observer, March 13,; TM, April 6).

The group’s presence, however, is not limited to the deepest parts of southern Libya. The organization also still exists in the southern desert of Sirte—particularly in Bani Walid and Wadi Zamzam. These were the areas where IS forces retreated following its defeat in Sirte (al-Wasat, Jan 8, 2017). Bani Walid was one of the historical strongholds of Qadhafi’s regime; one of the biggest losses of the 2011 revolution; and home to the most prominent Libyan tribe, the Warfalla. In this area, U.S. forces carried out a number of air strikes—killing several leaders of the organization. In June, AFRICOM announced the death of four IS members, among them Abdel-Ati El-Kiwi, known as Abu Muslim al-Libi (Alayam Libya, June 6;  Al Marsad, June 6). This was followed by another airstrike two months later that killed IS leader Walid al-Warfalli (El Khabar, August 28; Al-Chourouk, August 28).

Lastly, IS maintains a presence east of Sirte and in the areas around Sabratha, where the organization had a training camp operated by Tunisian fighters that were hit by a U.S. airstrike in 2016. IS presence has been reported around the areas of Wadi al-Hunaywah and Nawfaliyah and there were rumors concerning a potential convergence between local al-Qaeda fighters present in the area and IS (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017; AfricaNewsGate, August 31, 2017; al-Wasat, November 20). These allegations are not new, as the IS leadership in Libya is reportedly more prone to collaborate with al-Qaeda, and there were reports of logistical cooperation in the south as well.


The operational revival and geographic dispersal of IS suggests that the group remains up and running in the country—although driven by different strategic and tactical paradigms compared to those during its first rise to prominence (2014-2016). When IS appeared in the Libyan theater, it aimed to replicate its Syrian-Iraqi model, despite the significant differences existing between the Syrian-Iraqi and Libyan contexts. In the Qadhafist’s former stronghold of Sirte, the group tried to replicate what it achieved in Raqaa.

The conditions in which the group emerged, however, were very different compared to Syria. In order to sustain the creation of a proto-state in Libya and using Sirte as a center for the irradiation of its state model in Libya, IS needed resources that it could not access in Libya. For instance, oil wealth and smuggling networks. In addition—unlike in Syria and Iraq—IS did not have the sectarian card to exploit. Libyan cleavages run across different faultlines (economic, local, ethnic, personal) and there were no groups that were clearly under threat from sectarian or structural marginalization—like Sunni groups around Raqaa—that could be used to garner local support. While there were rumors and accusations concerning the eventual role of former regime loyalists in supporting the rise of IS, the group struggled to find any significant support within the country.

It became clear that IS wanted more than to strike deals with Libyan militias or trying to control oil resources. The group wanted to promote a strategy of destruction of these resources to foster chaos perceived as advantageous to its project in Libya. Once dislodged from Sirte by Misratans supported by U.S. airpower, however, the group dispersed across Libya and adopted “hit-and-run” tactics. These tactics are not new in Libya, as Qadhafi’s forces resorted to them in the late days of the civil war in 2011.

IS failed substantially in creating a proto-state entity in Libya to be used as a symbolic tool and logistic hub for the consolidation of its presence. However, it now enjoys a renewed tactical mobility that makes its threat even more dangerous in the short-term, as it adds a significant degree of unpredictability to its actions and makes it harder for Libyan groups and external powers to chase and counter its militants.