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Policy Thoughts

05 September, 2015


ISIS in Libya: Critical Reflections


by Hussein Solomon


Following the fall of the Gaddafi regime, ISIS has made use of the political vacuum and chaos which has engulfed this North African country to grow its franchise here. Libya, then, is in desperate need for a functioning central authority. It should be noted however that the divide is not merely between the two rival administrations in Tripoli and Tobruk but also the various clan militias operating throughout the country – each with its own little fiefdom. At last count (in August 2015) there were a staggering 1,700 militias in this strife-torn country[1]. Thus, once the primary fault-line between the two rival administrations in Tripoli and Tobruk is overcome, it is imperative that these rival militias are coerced or cajoled to disband and become part of a new national armed force. This, of course, cannot occur without the support of the international community. Unfortunately unity talks brokered by the UN have ended in failure whilst local militias continue to hold sway over vast swathes of Libyan territory. These conditions of anarchy will continue to benefit ISIS as it entrenches its position on Libyan soil.




Sirte in ruins (Photo by European Commission DG ECHO)

At the same time whilst the situation is desperate, it is not altogether hopeless. In July 2015 – ISIS was expelled from Derna despite them receiving additional fighters as reinforcements from Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab states[2]. The lessons from Derna are quite important if ISIS is to be defeated. ISIS has made use of the sectarian Sunni-Shiite divide very successfully in Iraq and Syria. In Libya, a wholly Sunni country it had considerably less room to maneuver given the absence of such sectarian tensions ISIS has done so well to exploit. ISIS’ decision to send in more foreign jihadis served to exacerbate their alienation from local residents – Libya is notoriously a closed society, even xenophobic. This resulted in the citizens of Derna taking to the streets protesting against the presence of foreigners. When ISIS opened fire on these protestors, killing seven, the local Al Qaeda-aligned militia – the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade – made common cause with government forces in retaking Derna from ISIS control[3]. In August 2015, ISIS began a fresh offensive on Derna with a series of suicide car bombings. These, however, were indiscriminate in nature and resulted in large civilian casualties[4]  – turning the residents even more firmly against ISIS. Derna, then, was clearly a strategic blunder for ISIS.


However, being forced out of Derna, ISIS has entrenched itself in Sirte – Gaddafi’s hometown where many disaffected Gaddafi loyalists have congregated[5]. This compelled what is left of the Libyan Air Force to engage in aerial strikes against ISIS targets from their Tripoli base[6], attempting to take out much of ISIS command and control facilities in Sirte. However, given the fact that ISIS has consolidated its control over Sirte, it would suggest that the aerial campaign was an abject failure. Since June 2015, ISIS has taken control over the city’s power plant, television and radio stations, the hospital and the university. Sirte’s former Internal Security building, meanwhile, has become the militant group’s command centre[7]. Other Islamist militias in Sirte, such as Ansar al-Sharia and Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, have been compelled to pledge allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi[8]  - effectively becoming absorbed into ISIS.

Whilst Libyans focus on Derna and Sirte and the Europeans grow apprehensive with the black flag of the militants being raised on Europe’s doorstep, the jihadis have again demonstrated an ability to play the ball wide – keeping their enemies guessing as to their next move. ISIS has now focused on the impoverished south where neither rival Libyan government has any authority in the area. Here they have taken advantage of the lethal clashes between rival tribes – Tuaregs and Tebu and have sided with Tuaregs and have succeeded in recruiting them as fighters[9]. In the process, ISIS has demonstrated once again its ability to exploit local tensions for its own purposes.

What is clear in this unfolding tragedy is that the Libyans by themselves cannot take on ISIS. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which played such a decisive role in the ouster of Gaddafi[10] has a moral duty and a vested interest to support the Libyans and regional players to put an end to the brutality of ISIS. What is morally reprehensible and strategically flawed is that the only response emanating from NATO capitals is a joint statement from the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain stating, “We are deeply concerned about reports that these [ISIS] fighters have shelled densely populated parts of the city [Sirte] and committed indiscriminate acts of violence to terrorize the Libyan population”[11]. Statements of condemnations and words are not going to defeat ISIS however. It is time for action on the part of NATO given Libya’s strategic location. Sirte, in particular has become a regional headquarters of ISIS in North Africa, whilst being a stone throw-away from Europe



[1] “Libya appeals for help against IS group as Sirte falls,” France 24. 17 August 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 18 August 2015.

[2] Ulf Laessing and Ayman al-Warfalli, “Expulsion from Derna bastion may show limits for Islamic State in Libya,” Reuters. 24 July 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 28 July 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Libya: ISIS begins new offensive on Derna,” The North Africa Post. 11 August 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 12 August 2015.

[5] Ulf Laessing and Ayman al-Warfalli, “Expulsion from Derna bastion may show limits for Islamic State in Libya,” op. cit.

[6] “Libya: Tripoli bombs IS in Sirte,” The North Africa Post. 23 June 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 1 July 2015.

[7] “Black flags on Europe’s doorstep: Inside ISIS’ new capital Sirte on Libya’s coast,” Express. 16 August 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 17 August 2015

[8] Ibid.

[9] Laessing and al-Warfalli, op. cit.

[10] “Libya Profile – Timeline,” op. cit.

[11] “Libya appeals for help against IS group as Sirte falls,” France 24, op. cit.

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