By Alex Falconer Senior Analyst, Middle East & North Africa region at PGI Intelligence
Over the past two weeks, the Daesh has come under increasing military pressure in its Libyan bases. From 20 April, its fighters were forced to withdraw from the eastern town of Derna after coming under fire from both rival jihadists and the secular Libyan National Army (LNA). The following week, reports then began to emerge of LNA and Misrata militia forces moving in the direction of Sirte, Daesh’s main Libyan stronghold for the past year. Though Daesh has recently been viewed as expanding in Libya, the country may not be offering as conducive an environment for the group’s growth as media often portray.
On 20 April, the Derna-based jihadist faction The Mujahidin Shura Council (MSC) released a statement claiming the liberation of the Libyan town’s suburbs from Daesh fighters. Daesh had been attempting to conquer and hold Derna since late 2014 but was ousted from the city centre by the MSC in June 2015. Hanging on to a few positions in the suburbs of Al Fata’ih and elsewhere, Daesh members continued to release weekly propaganda portraying themselves as standing strong against their Islamist rivals. On 21 April, however, the Daesh -linked ‘Amaaq News Agency finally admitted that the group had withdrawn from Derna, making Daesh prospects in the town look effectively finished.
As Daesh moved out from its positions, LNA-allied jets launched air strikes against its retreating fighters. Pictures began to spread on social media of Derna residents celebrating in the streets, underscoring Daesh’s unpopularity and failure to engage with local populations. As Daesh has often done in retreat, fleeing fighters launched car bomb attacks and planted IEDs in an attempt to leave as much chaos behind them as possible.
Shortly after these events, reports began to surface that both the LNA and the Misrata Marsa militia were preparing their forces for a ground advance on the city of Sirte. Sirte has been Daesh’s main base in Libya since early 2015 and is believed to contain the bulk of the group’s several thousand Libya-based fighters. An LNA source told The Libya Herald that the army had prepared more than 1,000 troops, which were leaving their eastern base and heading towards Sirte’s central coastal region. Several days previously, a large shipment of armoured vehicles had arrived in the eastern city of Tobruk from the UAE, with the likely purpose of aiding an LNA ground campaign.
Libya’s militia landscape is complex, and it remains far from clear whether a concerted effort could be made to clear Sirte of Daesh. The key LNA-linked General Khalifa Hafter, in particular, is a controversial figure, with numerous Libyan actors expressing unwillingness to cooperate with him until now. On 28 April, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) even released a statement urging all Libyan factions to desist from attacking Daesh in Sirte, as without GNA coordination this could lead to more conflict breaking out. Without GNA backing, any anti- Daesh campaign is also not likely to receive substantial assistance from Western states who are otherwise eager to rid Libya of the terrorist group.
Daesh, in general, is weaker in Libya than often perceived
Over much of the past year, IS has been described by media as expanding its presence in Libya. This is in part due to the intensified campaign of airstrikes against the group’s strongholds in the Syria-
Iraq region, which has led to claims that Daesh may be shifting its focus and personnel to Libya’s conflict zone. A recent annual report by the UN described the organisation as growing dramatically in numbers and consolidating its hold over Sirte. Some US intelligence analysts have also been recently reported as estimating Daesh forces in Libya to have doubled over the past year.
It is true that Daesh has tried hard to take advantage of Libya’s chaotic state breakdown, which is exactly the condition the group’s strategy requires to thrive. But Daesh, in fact, faces deeper disadvantages in the country than are usually recognised. As the events referred to above indicate, Daesh is loathed across the board by Libya’s major armed factions, secular and Islamist alike. Some observers have also correctly identified a range of further factors suggesting that Daesh’s Libyan project is likely to struggle.
One sign of Daesh weakness in Libya is the composition of its fighters, which are overwhelmingly foreign. Regular witness accounts have described Daesh members in Libya as being predominantly Tunisian, Egyptian, Sudanese, and Moroccan. One Libyan intelligence official claimed that foreigners make up 70 per cent of the organisation. Though foreign fighters have a reputation for being more zealous IS followers, a dearth of local membership makes it difficult for Daesh to integrate with Libya’s social and tribal landscape.
A second factor is that, compared to the Syria-Iraq region, Daesh’s Libyan branch has limited access to funding. While in Syria and Iraq Daesh is able to tax large populations under its control; sell crude and refined oil via existing trafficking networks; and has looted large institutions for cash windfalls, these options are available to a much lesser extent in Libya. The ability to use revenues to pay fighters higher salaries than other militant groups has been one important factor attracting recruits to IS in Syria and Iraq.
A further key weakness is that, while Daesh has crucially been able to exploit sectarian divisions in Syria and Iraq, it does not have the same advantage in Libya. Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq, though not necessarily favouring Daesh, have been more willing to tolerate it because of the cruelties meted out by Shi’a militias, the Iraqi regime, and Assad-allied forces. This ability to come across to locals as the lesser of two evils has been central to Daesh’s progress in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, Daesh is having to resort to more ‘nationalistic’-sounding arguments to try to appeal to local Libyan populations, competing with any number of other militants and local groups.
One reason why Daesh has consolidated its bases in Syria is that the Assad regime has, for much of the past few years, preferred not to engage it. Jihadist extremists like Daesh have been a convenient opponent for Assad, as they have allowed his regime to present itself to the international community as a preferable option. The targets of Assad’s military campaigns have rather mostly been nationalist rebels, as he has tried to weaken this more ‘palatable’ side of the Syrian revolt. Similarly in Libya, there has been limited engagement with Daesh by the country’s main military forces until now. But, if the LNA and other militias decide to wage a ground campaign Daesh will no longer have the advantage of being left relatively alone in its main base Sirte.