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Signs of Escalation from the Islamic State in Libya
Libya’s political crisis deepened last month, albeit entirely predictably, with the postponement of the elections. Compounding these problems—quite possibly wilfully timed to exacerbate them—the Islamic State (IS) has launched a series of attacks.
Yesterday, 24 January, the Islamic State (IS) staged an ambush on the road between Umm al-Aranib and Qatrun, attacking two vehicles belonging to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), led by strongman Khalifa Haftar, and killed two LAAF soldiers. This was the second IS operation in Libya in 2022.
IS’s first operation was an attack on the headquarters of the LAAF in Umm al-Aranib, south of Sabha, on 17 January. According to the brief notice of the attack in Al-Naba 322, this was a bomb attack using an improvised explosive device (IED), which killed one person and wounded two.
To have had two IS attacks in Libya in the first month of 2022 is notable since there were only four attacks in the whole of 2021.
BACKGROUND OF ISLAMIC STATE IN LIBYA
IS first recognised a “province” (wilayat) in Libya in November 2014, and throughout 2015 built up territorial control in towns like Derna under the direction of a jihadist who had been a member of Saddam Husayn’s security forces, Wissam al-Zubaydi (Abu Nabil al-Anbari or Abu al-Mughirah al-Qahtani).
IS’s statelet in Libya was one of its most direct transplants from the centre, and Al-Zubaydi’s profile was raised in IS messaging—until he was killed in January 2016.
In May 2016, Libyan forces began an assault on Sirte, the city by then acting as IS’s Libyan “capital”. Though there were initial gains, there was, as I explained at the time, no reason to believe this was the end for the jihadists:
IS had been in occupation of Sirte for almost exactly a year, meaning it has been able to accrue considerable resources, and had between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters in the city—composed of defectors from Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda), local tribes, elements of the fallen regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and operatives from IS core. IS has made a show of resistance, but the number of reported IS casualties is low, and the speed with which IS has fallen back makes such early reports plausible. …
In numerous battles … IS left behind a skeleton crew of snipers and suicide bombers, behind a defensive perimeter of mines and booby-trapped buildings, inflicting maximum casualties on its foes … From their desert sanctuaries, IS had, in carefully discriminate operations [in Iraq] between 2009 and 2014, struck down more than 1,300 of their Sahwa (Awakening) enemies, their prior collaborators whose close knowledge of IS had allowed them—with financial support from Baghdad and the Americans—to push IS from its urban operating zones. …
So what does this tell us about Libya? That a retreat of IS’s forces into the deserts of southern Libya would be in-keeping with the strategy used in Iraq after its defeat in 2008. … As with IS at its core in Syria and Iraq, foreign fighters drawn by adventure and ideology, faced with the grim reality of death and defeat, might well abandon IS during its time of trouble. … But, while IS will shrink, it will maintain its true believers. IS does not have the same sectarian and tribal cleavages to work on in Libya … What IS has in Libya is the main weapon it has in the Fertile Crescent: desperate political dysfunction.
IS lasted out in Sirte for six months, then did indeed withdraw in December 2016 into the deserts of the south, after inflicting a terrible toll on the Libyan forces—and the European Special Forces—that had been ranged against it.
IS quietly rebuilt throughout 2017, documenting only four attacks. IS more than trebled its attack rate in 2018 and was once again showing signs of territorial control. This increased activity pace somewhat continued, with twelve attacks reported in the first half of 2019—before Al-Naba went completely silent on Libya for eleven months. IS in Libya’s period of dormancy ended with a reported resurgence of activity in mid-2020.
IS in North and West Africa was in general showing signs of strength around this time, partly as its competition with Al-Qaeda was assisted by the death of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir, Abd al-Malek Drukdel (Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud). Since then, IS has been able to install elements of governance in some African zones and has made a particular point of late about its war on African Christianity.
IS suffered some setbacks in late 2020, and, as mentioned above, 2021 was a quiet year, with the attacks at proof-of-life levels.
With the political disarray in Libya itself, the trends in the African states around Libya (including the French withdrawal and the Russians moving in), and the enormous morale boost of the “Breaking the Walls” Sinaa prison attack in Syria that continues even now, IS might well have more opportunity, money, and recruits to work with over the coming year. If so, 2022 could be a more active year for IS in Libya.
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