Even as it is battling rival jihadist movements in eastern Libya, the extremist group known as the Islamic State is trying to expand its influence in the west of the country. Here, it confronts a different social and political landscape. The western and central region has historically been a less fertile ground for the growth of jihadism than the eastern cities of Derna, Benghazi, and the Green Mountains—but in return, it is held by more powerful and deeply entrenched militias, particularly those from the coastal city of Misrata.
The spread of the extremist group in Libya in 2015 has played out against the backdrop of civil war, with the Islamic State taking on all sides at once. In the west, it faces Operation Dawn, a loose alliance of Misratan, ethnic Amazigh (Berber), Islamist, and other western militias that have set up a self-declared National Salvation Government in Tripoli and revived the remnants of the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s parliament. In the east, it faces a similarly fragmented coalition of militia, tribal, and military forces led by the Benghazi-based Lieutenant General Khalifa Hifter under the banner of Operation Dignity. Hifter’s forces, which include some former regime elements, are aligned with a rival parliamentary body, the internationally recognized House of Representatives, which is based in Tobruk in northeastern Libya.
Both sides in the civil war are supported by rival foreign governments, with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt having supported Operation Dignity with weapons, funds, advisers, and air strikes, while Qatar and Turkey have backed Operation Dawn. There are recent indications that the proxy dimension of the Dignity-Dawn conflict may be fading, although it remains unclear whether any lessening of external support is enough to force the warring factions on the ground to compromise.
It is into this complex and fratricidal war that the Islamic State has now stepped, seeking to establish itself as a third force that can peel away disenchanted elements of both sides, while betting on the weakness and disunity of its rivals.
The Rise of the Islamic State in Libya
The first Libyan faction of the Islamic State was started by veterans returning home from the Syrian war, who organized within what was known as the Islamic Youth Shura Council in the northeastern town of Derna. In autumn and winter 2014, this group transformed itself into an official wing of the Islamic State. But the group has run into resistance in Derna, where it recently suffered severe losses against rival jihadi groups.
In 2015, however, the Islamic State has expanded to control areas in central Libya, including Sirte and Harawa. From these areas it is seeking to push both west and east. Islamic State fighters are now present in Noufaliya, Bin Jawad, and other parts of the so-called Oil Crescent, a region clustered with oil fields, pipelines, refineries, and coastal export terminals that stretches east from Sirte in central Libya to Benghazi in the northeast. This offers the jihadist group opportunities for economic disruption through attacks on oil facilities. It also allows the Islamic State to recruit from local tribes, many of whom have been marginalized by Misratan militias that moved into the Sirte area during the 2011 war to overthrow former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Simultaneously, the Islamic State is attacking Misrata and Islamist factions in Tripoli, further west of Sirte. These attacks serve several purposes: the group apparently hopes to provoke splits between Misrata and the Operation Dawn camp, while also kindling internal quarrels among Misratans over the prioritization of resources, and enticing some of the more radical Islamists in the Operation Dawn camp into Islamic State ranks. It is a divide-and-conquer strategy that the Islamic State has applied to great effect against Islamist militias in Syria and that it now seems to be repeating in Libya.
Exploiting Grievances in the Sirte Basin
As the ancestral home region of Muammar Qaddafi, Sirte, which controls the main road between eastern and western Libya, was the last major city to fall to anti-Qaddafi forces from Misrata in 2011. Since then, the city has been seething with tribal resentment and lawlessness. Local tribes like the Furjan, Gaddadfa, and Magharba, many of them formerly supportive of Qaddafi, reportedly chafed under Misratan tutelage. This made Sirte fertile ground for extremists.
Having co-opted local forces and smaller militias, the Islamic State formally announced its presence in Sirte through a military parade in February 2015. Militia leaders in Misrata were slow to recognize the problems posed by the Islamic State’s burgeoning presence in Sirte, preferring to deal with the radical jihadi groups through mediation.
When these efforts failed, the Misratans deployed Brigade 166, a privately funded Misratan militia, along with elements of the Third Force and other militias that had previously been fighting Operation Dignity for control over the oil terminals at Ras Lanuf and Sidr. The Misratans encircled Sirte but were unabled to dislodge the Islamic State. Brigade 166 had wagered that the GNC would support it financially and send reinforcements, but according to Uqayla al-Kaabi, a field commander of Brigade 166, this GNC aid never materialized and his unit had to withdraw.
Instead, the Islamic State expanded its presence to key strategic sites in the city and its environs. Islamic State fighters have taken over the al-Ghardabiya airport and the group also claims to have occupied the local stretch of the Great Man Made River, a gigantic system of water pipelines built throughout Libya in the Qaddafi era. Most recently, the group announced that it has taken over the Sirte power plant from Brigade 166. This reportedly gives the Islamic State control over the whole of Sirte.
While battling the Misratans for control of Sirte, the Islamic State also set its sights on Harawa, a neighboring town to the east. The Islamic State was able to enter the town, but not without fierce fighting against the Awlad Suleiman tribe. The Islamic State reportedly lost one of its most prominent local commanders, Ali Qaim al-Qarqai (better known as Abu Humam al-Libi) in March, but eventually subdued tribal resistance and seized control of the town. It then reportedly executed some residents of Harawa after they refused to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
With the Sirte-Harawa region slipping out of their control, the forces of Awlad Suleiman and Brigade 166 were forced to withdraw to Jufra. Having by then emerged as the locally dominant force, the Islamic State fighters began absorbing local fighters. They have reportedly been joined by Osama Jadhran, who is the brother of Ibrahim Jadhran, commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard that fights alongside Operation Dignity.
Prodding the Misratans
While consolidating its hold on Sirte and pushing east into the Oil Crescent, the Islamic State has also kept up attacks on the city of Misrata itself, west of Sirte. Between April and May, the Islamic State sent several suicide bombers—many of them foreigners, especially Tunisians—to attack checkpoints in and around the city.
Misratan operations against the Islamic State are complicated by a number of political and material factors. Misratan commanders maintain that their retreat from Sirte was due to a lack of support from their Operation Dawn allies in Tripoli. They have repeatedly sought military assistance from the United States and its allies, whcih they hope will give them a technical edge over the Islamic State, like satellite intelligence, mine detectors, armored vehicles, and night- vision goggles. Land mines in and around Sirte appear to be a particularly potent threat.
Manpower is another issue. Although Misratan militias field many thousands of fighters, they say they are overstretched on three fronts: to the west and southwest of Tripoli, in the central Sirte basin, and to the south in Jufra and Sabha.
Misratan militias seem to be growing more concerned with the threat from the Islamic State to their east. A new faction, the Operation Room of Misrata’s Revolutionary Fighters, was recently formed to defend the city from attacks by the Islamic State. It has instituted a curfew, controls on foreigners, and several other measures to control the city. In addition, Operation Dawn fighter aircraft based in Misrata are reported to have attacked Islamic State positions in Sirte, although air strikes alone cannot block the Islamic State’s forces.
Peeling Away Misrata from Operation Dawn
In focusing its attacks on Misrata factions and Islamist actors, the Islamic State seeks to provoke fissures and debates over resource distribution and priorities within the Misrata bloc, as well as between Misrata groups and their Operation Dawn allies in Tripoli.
The idea may be that if the weight of Misrata’s militias can be forced to seek aid from Operation Dignity, accelerating the spread of local Dignity-Dawn ceasefires that are currently taking place in parts of western Libya, the remaining hard-liners and Islamists in Operation Dawn will feel they have no choice but to join with the Islamic State. The same strategy has previously been applied to great effect in Syria.
The seeds of such a split are already present. Some factions in Misrata now argue that the greater threat are the Operation Dignity–aligned tribal forces (some led by ex-Qaddafi loyalists, like General Omar Tantoush in Warshafana) that are massing to the west of Tripoli, and they believe that the Islamic State forces in Sirte can be contained. But others see a sinister synchronization between Operation Dignity attacks on their western flank and Islamic State bombings in and around Misrata.
For their part, Misrata’s critics in Operation Dignity say the city has been slow to react and has displayed a dangerous naïveté and ambivalence, if not complicity, in allowing the Islamic State to grow. Other critics allege that Misrata’s withdrawal from the Sirte region is designed to exert leverage over the Tripoli-based Operation Dawn factions or even to compel outside patrons like the United States to lend assistance.
Splitting the Islamists in Western Libya
Aside from its attacks on Misrata, the Islamic State has escalated its rhetorical attacks on prominent Islamists in the Operation Dawn coalition, such as Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariyani or former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a now defunct jihadi group that fought Qaddafi with support from al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
By weakening other Islamists and jihadist factions, the Islamic State seemingly aims to present Libyans with two options. They can either allow the remnants of the Qaddafi regime that are represented in Operation Dignity to return to power, or they can rally to the Islamic State as the strongest surviving Islamist faction.
Counter-Reactions Reveal Fissures
After the Islamic State’s victories in Sirte and on the western front against Operation Dignity, internal fissures among Operation Dawn Islamists have begun to surface. On May 31, the media office of Operation Dawn urged Islamist fighters from the Muslim Brotherhood, the LIFG, and the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council to denounce the “terrorist” Islamic State and join the fight against it. The office also called for the creation of a joint force under the leadership of the Misratan commander Salah Badi, to support Brigade 166’s struggle against the Islamic State in Sirte.
On June 15, Badi led a military parade in Tripoli and declared the creation of a new force called the Steadfastness Front, or Jabhat al-Sumoud in Arabic. Praising the people of Derna in eastern Libya for confronting the Islamic State, he promised to regroup his forces in Tripoli and western Libya to “ensure the security of the capital.” He also vowed to safeguard a government based on sharia, saying that the loyalty of his forces would be “first to God and then to Libya” and that he would not accept foreign dictates. A longtime hard-liner in Misrata, Badi portrayed the Steadfastness Front as a loyal supporter of the GNC and denounced the local truces with Operation Dignity that have been concluded by more moderate Misratan militias. To some, Badi’s Steadfastness Front is in effect “Operation Dawn Two,” with the original coalition having begun to disintegrate due to the differing views of its members on ceasefires and other matters.
Such divisions within the Operation Dawn camp and the relentless attacks of the Islamic State are among the chief explanations for the jihadi advances in Sirte. These advances may yet provoke a stronger Operation Dawn or Misratan response, but they could also contribute to further splintering. It will be important to watch the Islamic State as it seeks to occupy more territory in the Oil Crescent region and in central Libya. While the group has so far moved forward in an ad hoc fashion, attempts to organize and connect neighboring cities in the Oil Crescent may well represent an evolution in the Islamic State’s strategy for dominance in Libya.