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ISIL in Libya / Daash Libya Vilayet

Apart from foreign fighters, ISIL in Sirte consists of an alliance between former members of Ansar al-Sharia and former Qadhafi security personnel. This heterogeneous alliance allows the group to reach out to various sections of Libyan society, thereby increasing its mobilization and recruitment capacity. ISIL launched several attacks against oil facilities in the oil crescent since January 2015, including in Sidrah and Ra’s Lanuf in January 2016.

The absence of State authority in territory considered to have been loyal to the former regime has generated a political and security vacuum, facilitating the establishment of extremist groups. Successive Governments have systematically marginalized and neglected large segments of the population whom they considered to have supported the former regime.

The rise of ISIL in Sirte was a significant develoment in 2015. The group has achieved decisive military victories against forces from Misratah, the Awlad Sulayman and Furjan tribes, and wiped out Ansar al-Sharia in Sirte. ISIL is currently the most significant political and military actor in the region.

A senior member of the Qadhadhfa tribe explained that tribes were cautious to preserve their remaining military arsenals and were favoring diplomacy towards ISIL, while ISIL was skilfully using its image of terror and power. The killing of more than 50 members of the Furjan tribe in August 2015, and the subsequent killings and kidnappings of members of other tribes, dissuaded local tribes from revolting. ISIL recruited young men, in particular from the Qadhadhfa and Magharba tribes, and offered them protection and material benefits. It also recruited military officers from the former regime.

ISIL consolidated its position. Buildings and individual houses with basements have been commandeered for storage, new tunnels constructed and pharmacy stocks appropriated. Significant numbers of foreign fighters arrived in Sirte in late 2015.

A core group of Libyans returning from Syria created the Al-Battar Brigade in 2012 to support ISIL in Syria and Iraq. In 2014, many of its members returned to Libya and formed the Islamic Youth Shura Council in Derna which in October 2014 pledged allegiance to ISIL. These groups declared eastern Libya as the Wilayat Barqa (Cyrenaica Province) of ISIL. Derna, Benghazi and Sirte have been the particular focus of the military operations of these groups, with more recent movements into Ajdabiya, Sabratha and the south of Libya. Resistance to the groups pledging allegiance to ISIL has been met with brutal force and repression.

While IS has had a presence in the chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya since late 2014, it soon solidified its control of the coastal city of Sirte. Sirte is between the main cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, and across the Mediterranean from Italy.

By early 2016 IS had about 5,000-6,500 fighters in Libya - and growing. Included in that number, officials say, are numerous key military commanders and officials, including Abu Ali al-Anbari, a top deputy who previously reported directly to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Syria. Such direct linkage to IS’s core leadership is unique among the group’s many self-declared provinces. That’s what fundamentally different about Libya. Libya is a true branch.

Libya could open up a new market of consumers — young Africans who may be interested in the idea of the caliphate and the very action-oriented methodology of ISIS and its social media outreach. A permanent base in Libya would make the extremist group more flexible and versatile. From Libya, they can work harder to expand in Mali and recruit more in countries such as Chad and Nigeria.

The problem for the Islamic State in Libya is that they cannot exploit religious sectarian divisions as they have in Iraq and in Syria. The level of support that they enjoy with the overall population in Libya is quite limited.

Sirte was the first town IS took and declared an Islamic province outside of the movement's homeland in Syria and Iraq. The most prominent Daesh affiliate in Libya is the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). In October 2014, the IYSC declared that Derna, a small town on the north-eastern coast and some 720 km (450 miles) from Tripoli, had become the first Libyan town to join the caliphate that IS had created. However, it was later pushed out of the town by the al-Qaeda-linked Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna.

Libya witnessed the emergence of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh, an outcome and ally to Ansar al-Sharia, which asserts control over the towns of Derna and Sirte, with the view of taking these two towns as starting points to assert full control throughout Libya, in addition to the exploitation of Libya's resources to finance the establishment of an extremist entity that refuses to recognize the National State and fights democracy. This entity aims at stretching from Mauritania to Bangladesh and making the whole region subject to the law of the jungle claiming it as the "Rule of Islam".

Daesh infiltrated Libya around the same time that the group’s militants swept across Iraq and Syria and proclaimed their caliphate. In February 2015 hundreds of fighters pledged loyalty to the so-called caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The porous border in the southern desert fuelled the arrival in the city of dozens of foreign fighters from Mali, Somalia and Sudan, and the group quickly grew, as religious leaders called emirs came to Sirte by boat and via Derna - IS's previous stronghold in Libya - from Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan Saudi Arabia and Yemen, according to a military intelligence source in Misrata. The rapid growth of the terrorist group in Sirte pushed Misrata forces to Abu Ghrein, 140 kilometers (90 miles) west of the city.

By the end of 2015 Daesh ruled the coastal city of Sirte and had staged attacks in other parts of the country. Daesh had an estimated 2,000 to 6,000 fighters in Libya, including many foreigners and also Libyans returning from the battlefield in Syria. In Sirte, which was Gaddafi’s birthplace, Daesh replicated some of the brutality that was its hallmark in Iraq and Syria.

It is estimated that as many as 6,000 ISIL fighters are in the city, mostly foreigners from countries including Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Chad and Nigeria. By early 2016 the first ISIL-manned checkpoint was 50 kilometres to the west of Sirte, and its fighters moved relatively freely as far as Ras Lanuf oil terminals 200km to the east.

ISIL in Libya was created by a core of Libyan returnees from the Syrian Arab Republic, who, when in the Levant, created Al-Battar Brigade in 2012 to support ISIL in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq. Many of its members returned to Libya in the spring of 2014, where they reorganized in Derna, under the banner of the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). In October 2014, IYSC pledged allegiance to ISIL and declared eastern Libya to be a province of the so-called “Islamic state”, calling it “Wilayat Barqa” (the Cyrenaica Province).

The ISIL Wilayat Barqa is the outcome of a fusion between Al-Battar Brigade and IYSC, under the leadership of Iraqi national Wissam Abedzaid Al Zubaidi (alias Abu Nabil Al Anbari), appointed as emir, assisted by Yemeni national Turqui Said Ali Al Ghamidi (alias Abu Al Barae Al Azdi), who holds the position of religious judge. Anbari was reported to be a former Iraqi army officer who played a major role in the fall to ISIL of the Iraqi cities of Beiji and Tikrit. Before he was sent as an emissary to Libya, Anbari was reportedly appointed by Baghdadi as governor of the Salahuddin province of Iraq. He also reportedly spent time in prison with ISIL leader Baghdadi. Anbari and Azdi structured ISIL in Derna into several departments, such as the Al Hisba (accountability) committee, religious police, and the judicial and operations committees.

ISIL increased its presence and influence in Libya, particularly in Darnah, where it has begun establishing Islamic institutions. Without a unified government and capable military, there is limited possibility of stability in the near-term. Libya’s campaign against the Islamic State group had been largely unsuccessful and the militant group steadily gained ground in 2014.

The US Africa Command first spoke of Islamic State's presence in Libya in late 2014, saying there were a couple hundred Islamic fighters training at camps in the eastern part of the country. Since then, the number of propaganda videos available on the Internet showing the group's growing foothold in Libya increased. In February 2015 a new Daesh video released by their propaganda arm that highlights activity in Libya. It showed militants in Libya with Daesh flags and banners.

On 15 February 2015, the Islamic State released another video, this time showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya. Despite Islamic State grabbing headlines with executions, bombings and even an attack on the residence of the Iranian ambassador, U.S. officials caution the group's foothold in Libya remains tenuous. “ISIL doesn’t yet have a unified network in Libya,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group. “It [the Islamic State group] has supporters in several towns who are operationally capable, and its influence in extremist circles may be growing.”

Cautioning that the situation could change, the official added that "many of these affiliations are relatively new and flimsy.... A tie that makes sense for a militant in Libya today may look a lot different if the main group is significantly weakened and forced into a defensive crouch”.

In August 2015 an insurrection of the powerful local Farjan tribe was brutally ended with the public beheading of 12 members. IS began imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law on the people of Sirte, banning music, forcing women to wear veils and crucifying people. Suspected infidels, such as shopkeepers who violatef the prayer-time curfew or cigarette-smokers, erre brought to the Islamic court at Rabat Mosque to pledge istitaba [in which they must seek repentance]. They take a picture of ythe individual and then release them. It is a warning.

In Martyrs Square, the car market, two ambulances rushed in. Seven men blindfolded and wearing orange overalls were on display in the middle of the square. Then five of them, dark-skinned foreigners accused of apostasy for smoking, were given lashings on their backs. "Now you are clean and our brothers in the faith again," one of the fighters pronounced, taking them away, the ISIL man said.

Egypt carried out a second round of airstrikes in eastern Libya 16 February 2015, in swift retaliation for the massacre of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by Islamic State militants in Libya. The bombings killed dozens of militants and several civilians in the Islamic State stronghold of Darna, according to Libyan military officials, 1,300 kilometers east of where the executions were reportedly carried out. Libyan warplanes joined the strikes, which targeted weapons caches and training camps.

Libya's internationally recognized government condemned the beheadings, while the Tripoli-based Libyan parliament condemned the Egyptian airstrikes as an aggression on Libyan sovereignty.

Islamic State claimed April 19, 2015 to have massacred 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya, in a video similar to previous publicized killings by the extremist militants. The graphic footage showed one group of men beheaded on a beach as they knelt in front of their executioners, and another shot in the back of the head at a different location. The grisly deaths were documented at the end of a nearly 30-minute video that describes the Islamic State view on Christianity and its efforts to convert non-Muslims.

Jihadists from the Islamic State defeated more moderate Islamist militias from the Fajr Libya movement to take over the port of Sirte, according to the US-based SITE Intelligence Group. The group said in June 2015 it had identified photographic and video evidence showing "IS fighters engaged in clashes, sitting atop heavy guns, exploring the power plant and town, as well as bodies of dead Fajr Libya fighters." The Islamic State group earlier captured the airport and main power plant in the city, which was the birthplace of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, and the most strategic location captured by the group in the country.

Libyan militiamen battling the Islamic State’s affiliate in their country say most of the jihadi fighters are not Libyans — the bulk of them, they say, come from neighboring North African nations. But they warnrf the jihadis were rapidly growing in strength and were directed by highly experienced commanders. The Daesh fighters mainly came from Mali, Mauritania, Syria, Algeria, Egypt and a lot from Tunisia.

Libya was strategically important for ISIL, in view of its geographical location at the crossroads between the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Owing to the current political and security challenges the country faces, resulting in a weakened national security apparatus, the country is also viewed as a potential retreat and operational zone for ISIL fighters unable to reach the Middle East. The ISIL central command in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic views Libya as the “best” opportunity to expand its so-called caliphate.

Abu al-Mughirah Al Qahtani, the delegate leader of the ISIL Libyan Wilayat, stated in an interview that “Libya has a great importance because it is in Africa and south of Europe. It also contains a well of resources that cannot dry. […] It is also a gate to the African desert stretching to a number of African countries”. Libya’s importance for ISIL has also been reflected in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s appointment of close aides to lead ISIL in Libya, including Wissam Al Zubaidi (alias Abu Nabil Al Anbari), Turki Mubarak Al Binali (alias Abu Sufian) and Abu Habib al-Jazrawi.

ISIL in Libya has thus far been the only known ISIL affiliate that has benefited from support and guidance by ISIL in the Middle East. The pledge of allegiance by the local affiliate of ISIL in Libya in September 2014 was organized in the presence of emissaries sent by Al-Bahgdadi. Abu al-Bara al-Azdi, a Yemini national, and Al-Jazrawi, a Saudi national, travelled to Derna for that purpose. Al-Baghdadi also dispatched the Bahraini preacher, Turki Al-Binali, a member of the ISIL religious council, to Libya in 2013 and 2015. Soon after Binali’s first visit, a wave of foreign terrorist fighters arrived in Libya from the Maghreb, Egypt, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and Mali.

A significant number of Libyan nationals (around 800) fighting with ISIL in Libya had previously fought with ISIL in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic. Those fighters have only relatively recently returned to Libya and still maintain close relationships with their contacts in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic. Second, ISIL in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic continues to send emissaries with instructions, albeit infrequently, to ISIL in Libya. The travel of these emissaries distinguishes the ISIL affiliate in Libya from other ISIL affiliates where travel of emissaries had not been reported.

While IS is only one player among many warring factions, and it faces strong resistance from the population, the committee cautioned that IS has "clearly demonstrated its intention to control additional territory in Libya." As of the end of 2015, the group had its base in the coastal city of Sirte, which it took control of in February 2015 after clashes with militias there.

Libya was strategically important for a group like IS, because it would give it a stronghold far from Iraq and Syria where it faces daily bombardment by US-led coalition airstrikes. It is also an oil-rich nation that could provide vital funding for the group's terror activities.

The country also had a supply of foot soldiers for the IS machine, with some 3,500 Libyan nationals having left to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq. The UN said about 800 had returned home where they could become recruiting targets.

Libya's UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi told the Security Council that terrorism in his country no longer stems just from extremist ideology. “It's a job; a lucrative one, which attracts criminals, in particular those from neighboring countries," he said. He claimed there are thousands of unemployed Tunisians and Egyptians seeking to enter Libya to join IS in exchange for food, housing and the hope of big salaries if the terrorists succeed in seizing control of the country's oil fields.

ISIL remains the most significant perpetrator of mass killings in Libya. On 20 February 2015, it killed more than 40 people in an improvised explosive device attack in Qubbah. Also in February, it released a video of its summary execution of 21 Egyptians, as part of its media strategy to promote its Libyan branch to an international audience. In April, it released similar footage of two separate mass executions of Ethiopians. One of the most brutal incidents was the massacre of local tribes by ISIL in Sirte in mid-August 2015. According to local sources, at least 50 people were killed, most from the Furjan tribe. In 2016, an ISIL improvised explosive device attack killed more than 80 people at a coastguard training centre in Zlitan. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the 07 January 2016 suicide attack on a Libyan police training base in the northern town of Zliten. Dozens of people were killed and up to 200 injured when a truck rigged with explosives crashed into the training center. A group calling itself IS Barqa Province said the suicide attack had been carried out by Abu al-Abbas al-Muhajir. The alleged attacker's last name implies that he was not Libyan. The IS-affiliated Aamaq News Agency also claimed that the deadly bombing was carried out by IS Barqa Province.

On February 19, 2016 US warplanes attacked an Islamic State training camp in western Libya, near the border with Tunisia, hitting their main target and killing dozens of terrorist recruits. Defense officials in Washington said the airstrike most likely killed a senior figure in the Islamic State group, Noureddine Chouchane. “We feel confident this was a very successful strike,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters. Chouchane was linked to two major terrorist incidents in Tunisia last year: attacks on a museum in Tunis and a beach resort outside the capital, which together killed at least 60 people.

Olivier Guitta, managing director at GlobalStrat, a security and Geopolitical risk consultancy, said in April 2016 that “Since November IS’s numbers in Libya have probably tripled. And there is evidence that IS is getting involved in the people-smuggling trade and forcing groups of asylum-seekers or migrant families to pay for their trips across the Mediterranean by agreeing to enroll a relative or a member of the group in IS. Potentially you could have 10,000 or 15,000 IS members very quickly that way.”

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Page last modified: 20-04-2016 13:50:36 ZULU