The Islamic State's Revitalization in Libya and its Post-2016 War of Attrition.

AuthorWilson, Lachlan

Over the course of the last two years, the Islamic State in Libya has gradually re-emerged as a formidable insurgent force. Following its territorial loss of Sirte in late 2016 to a U.S.-backed, anti-Islamic State coalition, the group has adopted new approaches to recruitment and financing. These reveal that the group has become more reliant on sub-Saharan African personnel in its post-territorial phase and has simultaneously deepened its connections with Libya's desert smuggling networks, which connect North Africa to the Sahel. Moreover, as will be outlined in this article, its organizational structure appears to have shifted from 'state-like' to 'guerrilla insurgency-like.'

All of these changes represent the Islamic State in Libya's inherent opportunism and adaptability, characteristics that challenge the capacity and flexibility of Libya's current security institutions. As will be outlined below, the Islamic State in Libya's post-Sirte resilience was illustrated by it being able to mount three high-profile attacks on symbolic state institutions in 2018 and to progressively intensify its campaign in the desert that takes advantage of overstretched security actors. Taken together, these developments indicate that the group has again stepped up its efforts to derail state formation in Libya through a strategy of attrition (nikayah). As such, a resurgent Islamic State in Libya threatens the consolidation of any modicum of progress toward peace and prosperity in the country.

The underlying information for this article is derived from the data produced and cataloged by Eye on ISIS in Libya (EOIL), a data repository of Islamic State actions, attacks, and social media statements run by the authors and available publicly at (a)

Part one of the article presents an overview of the Islamic State's emergence in Libya in 2014 and how the group's form and spatial localization have evolved due to the country's post-Qadhafi political dynamics. In the wake of its territorial losses in 2016, the Islamic State in Libya has been pragmatic, with its proximal goal to prevent the consolidation of sovereign Libyan state structures.

In part two of the article, the authors identify two discrete, yet simultaneous, military campaigns that the group has undertaken in the wake of its eviction from Sirte in December 2016. On the one hand, the group has been launching high-profile attacks on symbolic state institutions along Libya's coast. On the other hand, it has been carrying out a campaign in the desert across a larger area of the country than ever before.

These campaigns require money, manpower, and a suitable organizational structure, which is the focus of part three of the article. Previously, the group expended most of its resources in governing, terrorizing, and then losing Sirte. (1) Therefore, to understand the enigma of the Islamic State's resurrection in Libya, its new sources of funding and recruitment must be understood. The authors' look at the Islamic State in Libya's recruitment efforts and composition shows how the group has become progressively disassociated from its parent organization in the Levant and how its organizational chart apparently shifted from "state-like" structures to "guerrilla-like" ones as it wages a low-cost, high-impact war of attrition.

Part four of the article examines the future outlook for the Islamic State in Libya. Despite recent gains made by LNA forces in southern Libya which are threatening the Islamic State's ability to operate in the Fezzan region, the Islamic State in Libya may actually pose a greater threat to Libyan state-building processes in 2019 than it did in 2016. During its peak of power in 2016, the group seems to have exerted a greater degree of governance over five percent of Libya's territory than the country's nominally sovereign Government of National Accord did over the remainder of the Libyan land mass. (2) However, during that governance phase, the group was unable to undertake the sort of attacks that it has in 2018--namely three high-visibility-attacks on symbolic targets in Tripoli--combined with a series of delicate pinprick attacks that attempt to foil the nascent consolidation of security apparatuses in the south. As such, the Islamic State in Libya profoundly threatens Libya's path to peace and prosperity. The international community would be remiss to continue pushing political reconciliation while not providing sufficient attention to the intertwined 'elephants in the room' of Libya's illicit economy and the threat from a resurgent Islamic State satellite.

Part 1: The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State's Territorial Control in Libya

Following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya's transitional authorities were weaker than the non-state armed actors who monopolized local communities' primary allegiances. (3) After election results were disputed in 2014, Libya's political and economic institutions were split along east-west lines. (4) In response to these sudden fissures, the international community began a mediation process, which culminated in the December 17, 2015, Skhirat Agreement (also known as the Libyan Political Agreement). Since then, the Skhirat Agreement, which was meant to supersede the east-west division and reunify the country's institutions, has paradoxically hardened Libya's bifurcation into two zones. The Libyan National Army's (LNA) coalition of anti-Islamist militias increasingly controls the east of the country, while the internationally recognized, U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) loosely holds sway in the northwest and acts as Libya's nominally sovereign government on the international scene. Parallel to these political divisions, Libya's important semi-sovereign institutions in the spheres of oil, banking, and sovereign wealth are also divided. (5)

Despite slow moves toward reconciliation, political and military alliances in Libya continue to prove fickle and are prone to abrupt change. Support and interference from external actors, in particular certain European, Arab, and African countries, have in many cases accentuated these divisions. (6) As such, the ongoing political reunification process and the struggle among Libyan actors to ensure that their rivals do not come out on top has meant that the status quo (i.e., a state of perpetual disunity, a dysfunctional economy, and a fractured security sector) persists.

The Territorial Conquest and Subsequent Loss of Sirte

In the wake of Qaddafi's death and particularly after the bifurcation of the country into two political spheres, the sovereignty and security vacuum deepened, providing an opportunity for the nascent Islamic State group in the Levant to transplant itself into Libya. (7) The Islamic State in Libya's first official branch was announced via the rebranding of existing Libyan al-Qa 'ida-linked groups in the area of Derna in mid-2014. (b) This then attracted an influx of experienced foreign jihadis to assume leadership roles within the nascent organization. (8)

Islamic State Core leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formally recognized the group's presence in Libya in November 2014. Over the course of 2015, it established territorial control and governance mechanisms in parts of Derna, Benghazi, and Sabratha. It then launched a bold bid to conquer Sirte and threaten Libya's Oil Crescent. (9) By mid-2015, the Islamic State became the sole governing body in Sirte and at its peak may have had as many as 5,000 fighters occupying the city. (10)

Throughout 2015, the increasing threat of further Islamic State expansion gave urgency to Western efforts to create a unified sovereign Libyan government, which could then legally grant permission for U.S. airstrikes in Libyan airspace. (11) This process culminated in the aforementioned Skhirat Agreement in December 2015. After a very short grace period to consolidate his legitimacy, GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj authorized coalition airstrikes, which commenced on August 1, 2016. (12) These--combined with prior local anti-Islamic State uprisings against the group's brutality--virtually eliminated the group's presence in Sabratha and Derna. (13) Hence, by the end of August 2016, the group's territoriality was concentrated in an ever-narrowing swath of coastal territory surrounding Sirte. (See Figure 1.)

The group's territorial remit had been expanding from January to May 2016, but then after Islamic State forces encroached upon Abu Grein in May 2016 (i.e., precariously close to Misrata, the civic center of many of Libya's most powerful militias), forces from the GNA-aligned, Misratan Bunyan al-Marsus coalition of militias advanced on Sirte and soon took over its outer suburbs. Bunyan al-Marsus had been lying dormant until this provocation; afterward, it took territory hastily until it met with resistance in pitched urban warfare battles in downtown Sirte. In August 2016, the United States began to provide it with air support, launching strikes on soft targets throughout the city. (14) After more than 500 Bunyan al-Marsus combat deaths and much street-by-street fighting, especially around Sirte's Ouagadougou center, on December 6, 2016, the Islamic State was declared to be "fully" defeated and expelled from Sirte. (15)

In the months that followed, the United States undertook a series of airstrikes throughout Libya, (16) killing as many as 80 Islamic State fighters in one day in January 2017. (17) At that time, knowledgeable sources estimated that the number of experienced Islamic State fighters in Libya had dwindled to some 200 fighters. (18) Yet, follow-up to finish the group off was not decisive. Banyan al-Marsus forces were never able to coordinate with Zintani militia or Libyan National Army units tasked with fighting jihadis, and U.S. involvement in mopping up operations waned when the Trump administration came into office in January 2017

Preparing/or the Aftermath of Sirte

Prior to the...

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