Please read on for the Introduction.
Terrorist activity linked to Islamic State (IS) in Libya returned to the spotlight in 2019, directing international attention to the restless country. Having been driven out of its stronghold in the coastal area of Sirte in late 2016, IS has become a point of reference for groups within the country to discredit those they are fighting, a way of identifying the “enemy”. The critical questions now are: What is Islamic State doing in Libya? Is it an organisation in the process of regrouping and regaining strength, potentially even in control of territory? Or is it an uncoordinated bundle of individuals facing asymmetrical threats that will always inhibit its local success? As this paper will argue, IS in Libya is trying to portray itself in a hyperbolic way. While the group’s activity in 2018 has been relatively weak – even more so in 2019 – the volatility and geography of the country as well as prevailing grievances remain pull factors for IS in Libya, which makes the group potentially threatening, even if the organisation is currently negligible.
Eight years have passed since the start of the February Revolution that culminated in the bloody overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in October 2011. Muammar al‑Qaddafi had ruled Libya, supported by various alliances, for 42 years. Since his overthrow, initiated by local forces and supported by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the country has experienced almost a decade of turmoil.
In Libya today, political, military and economic structures are fractured and divided. Politically, the country is split into various institutions claiming legitimacy and exercising control in different regions. This division is significant: the country has a territorial size eleven times that of neighbouring Tunisia, large parts of which are desert terrain, but a population of about six million people, little more than half that of Tunisia.
The Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli in western Libya and headed by Fayez al‑Serraj is the only internationally recognised governing body. Despite low levels of legitimacy in the country, limited geographical reach, the lack of a loyal military and competing institutions, such as the parliament in the east of Libya (which is situated in Tobruk), the GNA has, up to the current period, been able to act as a de facto Libyan government, particularly on the international stage. This set‑up, however, has become increasingly fractured as the main competing power‑player, Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) or, in the more precise Arabic translation, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, has seemingly received foreign support from Egypt, the UAE and France, as well as mixed signals coming out of Washington.
Over the course of early 2019 and culminating in advances towards Tripoli in April that year, Haftar and the LNA began to “take control” of Libya’s southern region, setting out from the group’s eastern nucleus (this had been formed after violent fighting in the cities of Benghazi and Derna). On 4 April 2019, the LNA forces took the town of Gharyan, 100 km south of Tripoli, before advancing to the city’s outskirts. Shortly after this, the LNA declared Operation Flood of Dignity, which deployed thousands of men and heavy artillery to the west with the stated aim of capturing the capital and “eradicating terrorism”. The GNA proclaimed the counteroffensive Operation Volcano of Anger, spearheaded by a group of loosely aligned militias.
While to some extent caught by surprise, the military groups in Tripoli were relatively swift to arrange defences, and even fraternised following the counter‑mobilisation of western Libyan forces. In December 2019, after eight months of fighting (leading to 284 civilian deaths, 363 injuries and over 300,000 people displaced), the battle for Tripoli was increasingly undertaken by foreign mercenaries from Sudan, Russian and Chad. Such mercenaries might tip the conflict in Haftar’s favour.
With the strongest military forces in Libya occupied fighting each other in the outskirts of Libya’s capital, power vacuums exist in other parts of the country that might allow for radical groups such as IS first to establish themselves militarily and second to impose a form of radical order that offers security and a form of justice for the battered population. This report, however, argues that IS in Libya is trying to portray itself hyperbolically; reports mentioning the threat of IS in Libya are fuelled by an awareness of the group’s potential to attract external actors to the country. Therefore, the picture is divided: on the one hand, alarmist messages make the rounds, which claim that IS in Libya is advancing. On the other hand, further reports emphasise that IS in Libya is currently “the weakest it has ever been”. Notwithstanding the recognition of potential threats that IS in Libya could pose nationally and internationally again in the future, this report will concentrate on assessing the group’s strength on the ground in Libya in 2018 and 2019, attempting to provide a middle ground between the two diverging narratives by examining IS activities between March 2018 and November 2019. The paper considers existing grievances in Libya, the security vacuum(s) and Libya’s geographical appeal, coming to the conclusion that while the group’s activity in 2018 and particularly 2019 has been relatively weak, the volatility of the country, the prevailing grievances that let IS flourish in 2015 and 2016, and Libya’s proximity to Europe will continue to serve as pull factors for IS in Libya which deem it as potentially threatening, even if the organisation is currently negligible.
The report starts by briefly outlining the history of Islamic State in Libya. It then examines the aspects that draw IS to Libya specifically, as well as its overall agenda. Then, it analyses data collected on IS in Libya in 2018 and 2019 in order to assess the group’s strength in the country. The data has been collected via open source methods from social media platforms by the researcher and is analysed in a descriptive manner and contextualised for this report. In the final part of the report, current conflict dynamics are related to the assessment of IS in order to provide an outlook for the terrorist group in the North African country of Libya.