By Catherine Doolan
Following territorial losses in cities such as Mosul and Raqqa over the last few years, ISIS is relying on its underground cells in lawless states such as Libya to establish new bases for its commanders and fighters.
Libya has been in a state of political and institutional disarray after the 2011 uprising, which overtook Dictator Muammar Gadhafi, and was supported by the Obama administration. Three governments in the nation are fighting for supremacy and legitimacy, which has resulted in conflict between factions and their militias. These governments are United Nations and United States-backed; Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, House of Representatives based in Tobruk, and National Salvation Government, which is also based in Tripoli.
ISIS now seeks to capitalize on the lawlessness and weak political situation, as they previously did in Iraq.
According to NBC News, the U.S. military launched six precision airstrikes in Libya in September 2017, which targeted an encampment 150 miles southeast of Sirte and resulted in the deaths of 17 ISIS militants. Following ISIS’ loss of Sirte in December 2016, terrorist fighters moved to the desert to smuggle arms and fighters in and out of the country, as well as plan future attacks. These strikes were the first attacks launched by the U.S. military under the Trump administration, after the Obama administration’s strikes near Sirte in January 2017.
Terrorism analyst Robert Young Pelton told Fox News that, “ISIS in Libya can regenerate quickly” because of militants’ ability to increase their fighting forces by smuggling fighters across the Libyan border from Tunisia. Colonel Ahmed Almesmari, spokesperson for the Libyan National Army, also told Fox News that, ISIS first moved into Libya at the end of 2013. These ISIS fighters originally came from Muslim Brotherhood associated militias and Al Qaeda dissidents in Libya’s eastern city of Derna, which is close to the Egyptian border.
Currently, ISIS has moved its cells from the eastern Egyptian border closer to the western border of Tunisia. Almesmari has also stated that current ISIS encampments are now located east of Bani Waleed and are south of Sirte.
According to The Independent, military forces of the UN backed Government of National Accord are reporting that ISIS fighters are plotting a new attack on the city of Misrata, which is Libya’s trading capital. Mohamed Ghasri, a senior commander of the Misrata-based al-Bunyan al-Masrous forces, stated that, “we have spotted movements by Daesh in the south of Sirte, where they are trying to regroup and break through our forces’ lines in the south.” Ghasri’s forces were crucial in driving ISIS out of Sirte in 2016.
ISIS’ transition from a caliphate, into an underground terrorist network in countries with serious power vacuums may already be proving to be successful. CNN reports that Libyan security forces in Tripoli have alleged that ISIS’ Libyan network was in contact with Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi and his brother Hashim.
Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihad in north Africa and member of the Washington Institute stated that, “if the Manchester attack is definitively tied to Islamic State cells in Libya, it would show that the group can still be a lethal actor even without holding territory there”. German officials also have reported that Anis Amri, the man who carried out the truck attack in Berlin in December 2016, was in contact with ISIS operatives in Libya through a secure messaging app. These troubling developments have led military commanders, such as General Thomas. D. Waldhauser, the head of the US Africa Command, to state to CNN that “the instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent.”
To combat the growing threat of an ISIS stronghold in Libya, UN forces, regional partners and other allies must seek to resolve the Libyan civil war and assist in strengthening institutional capacities in the country. The Trump administration and U.S. military, despite achieving major victories against ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2017, must recognize and adjust strategies to combat terrorist cells from forming in power vacuums in North Africa.
European leaders must also be wary that a Libyan stronghold can be used to orchestrate terrorist attacks and will only further contribute to the continent’s critical terrorist and security threats.