Fezzan Governorate in southern Libya has seen escalating Islamic State attacks on military sites belonging to the Libyan National Army (LNA). The organization has claimed responsibility for assaults against military sites during May and June 2020, and the LNA has announced that it has thwarted an attempted attack on the region’s oilfields.

The growing threat of Islamic State in southern Libya

  • Islamic State in Libya has formed a “desert army” comprising members who fled to the region – estimated to be in their hundreds – following the organization's defeat in Sirte. This army, led by Al-Mahdi Salem Dangou (also known as Abu Barakat),[1] has at least three brigades[2] and has chosen Fezzan as its operations base. Information suggests that some cells are active in farms in southern Libya, and that there are Islamic State members in Sabratha.[3]
  • Islamic State has intensified its assault on LNA military locations,[4] repeatedly attacking sites in southern Libya in May and June 2020, in particular the Tamanhent military base located around 30 km northeast of Sabha,[5] the barracks of the 628 Battalion in southern Sabha, and the barracks of the Khalid bin Walid Battalion in Um al-Aranib.[6]
  • In Fezzan, Islamic State has employed guerrilla tactics, with mobile groups of 15–20 militants launching rapid sudden strikes. This points to the organization’s reliance on planting strategic cells in local groups. Islamic State seems to have learned from its initial difficulties in penetrating Fezzan, when it had extremely limited or no connections in the region.[7]
  • Islamic State has shown itself to be highly flexible and able to adapt to the new circumstances in order to gradually rebuild its strength and to restructure. It has successfully recruited African migrants as new members, since the groups that have carried out attacks in Fezzan have mostly comprised African fighters.[8]

Drivers of Islamic State expansion into southern Libya

  • Establishment of “Fezzan Province”: Islamic State wants to offset its defeat in Sirte, reorganize, and search for a new operations base.[9]
  • Recruitment: Islamic State relies more on foreign fighters than on Libyan fighters, especially fighters from Tunisia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Eritrea, and Mali.[10] The organization is attempting to increase recruitment of sub-Saharan migrants, who it sees as a source of survival and power.[11]
  • Funding: Islamic State needs money, especially as it had hundreds of millions of dollars seized following its defeat in Sirte. The illicit economy prevalent in southern Libya has allowed Islamic State to engage in extortion, take civilians hostage at illegal checkpoints, kidnap for ransom, raid local security checkpoints, and participate in the trafficking and extortion of migrants.[12]
  • Weapons: Islamic State can obtain weapons through contacts in southern Libya’s arms trafficking network.

Opportunities and challenges for Islamic State expansion into southern Libya

1) Opportunities

  • Insecurity in Libya, particularly in the south: Turkey is intervening militarily, and the LNA is occupied with fighting elsewhere in the country, especially near Tripoli, with large-scale deployment of Libyan forces on the front lines. This is emboldening Islamic State to exploit these situations to its benefit.[13]
  • Turkey’s role in Libya: Many reports have indicated that Turkey has sent more than 17,000 fighters into Libya.[14] About 10,000 jihadists have entered the country, including 2,500 Tunisian citizens.[15] Information suggests that the Turkish security consultancy firm SADAT is involved in recruiting Islamic State fighters and sending them to Libya.[16]
  • Ongoing tribal conflicts: The fragility of ceasefire agreements concluded between tribes has left the region plagued by tribal conflicts, in particular between the Tabu and the Tuareg.[17] In addition, some Tabu tribes continue to oppose the presence of the LNA in the south, and there are Government of National Accord militias in the region, known as the “Southern Protection Forces”, which primarily consist of Libyan Tabu fighters.[18]
  • Fragile security and the vastness of the Sahara: Islamic State can leverage the expansiveness of the Sahara – which covers an area of 550 km² – to set up training camps and reorganize itself, especially given that the LNA is struggling to gain full control over the region.[19]
  • Southern Libya’s illicit trade and trafficking network: Fezzan remains a hub for all kinds of illegal activity and trafficking, in particular the trafficking of people, oil, gold, weapons, and drugs.[20]

2) Challenges

  • US air strikes: Repeated US air strikes have weakened Islamic State’s ability to control southern Libya.[21] In September 2019, the USA carried out four air raids on Islamic State locations in Fezzan.[22]
  • LNA military operations: The LNA has conducted operations against Islamic State in the region and controls the cities of Sabha, Murzuq, and Ghat.[23] Moreover, it is negotiating with influential local tribal leaders in the city of Fezzan to boost security and control over the region.[24]
  • Al-Qaida: Al-Qaida, in particular Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and cells of Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, are present in the region.[25] Given the escalating confrontations between Al-Qaida and Islamic State in West Africa, further expansion of Islamic State into southern Libya will increase the likelihood of confrontation with organizations loyal to Al‑Qaida.

Possible risks of Islamic State expansion into southern Libya

  • Geographical risks: The spread of Islamic State across the border into southern Tunisia is a key risk, given the large number of Tunisian fighters in Islamic State in Libya.[26] Turkey has also sent many Islamic State members to the region, including 2,500 Tunisians. Furthermore, there is the possibility of cooperation with organizations pledging allegiance to Islamic State in North Africa in order to establish strategic depth for operations in Chad, Niger, and Mali.
  • Attraction and recruitment of mercenaries: Islamic State has increased its activities to attract and recruit mercenaries from neighboring countries. As a result, a group of Sudanese fighters, followers of the preacher Masa’ad al-Sidayrah, have joined Islamic State, entering Libya through Jabal ‘Uwaynat via human trafficking routes at the Sudanese and Egyptian borders.[27] The organization is continuing to use its relationships with trafficking networks to recruit migrants attempting to reach Europe.[28]
  • Increasing pressure on the LNA: Islamic State may step up pressure on the LNA in the south and open a new battle front, which will affect the LNA’s capacity to continue fighting in the north.
  • Oilfield attacks: Islamic State may target oilfields, especially Al-Fil and Al-Sharara, which are located in the heart of the Sahara. The same applies to the long gas pipeline running to Italy.

Conclusion

The LNA is contending with the danger of Islamic State expansion into southern Libya even as it grapples with a rising influx of Syrian mercenaries and Islamic State members sent by Turkey to support Turkish military intervention in Libya. This regional threat to neighboring States is growing as the LNA faces challenges in securing and controlling the south, which is beset by tribal conflicts and the spread of numerous terrorist organizations and gangs involved in trafficking and organized crime. In view of this situation, it is crucial that the international community and friendly States cooperate with Libya to fight terrorism and promote stability in southern Libya and the country as a whole.

References

[1] A. Vasilyev, N. Zherlitsyna, “Трансформация Стратегии Игил В Ливии”, in Мировая Экономика И Международные Отношения (2019), p. 106.

[2] Andrew McGregor, “Europe's True Southern Frontier: The General, the Jihadis, and the High-Stakes Contest for Libya's Fezzan Region”, in CTC SENTINEL, vol. 10, issue 10 (November 2017). Available at: https://ctc.usma.edu/europes-true-southern-frontier-the-general-the-jihadis-and-the-high-stakes-contest-for-libyas-fezzan-region/.

[3] “مناطق نفطية مهددة.. لماذا ظهر "داعش" في ليبيا في هذا التوقيت”, Sputnik Arabic, August 16, 2020. Available at: https://cutt.ly/Yffx8U0

[4] A. Vasilyev, N. Zherlitsyna, op. cit.

[5] “Spotlight on Global Jihad (June 4-10, 2020)”, Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, June 11, 2020. Available at: https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/spotlight-global-jihad-june-4-10-2020/.

[6] “The Islamic State attacks three military camps in southern Libya”, The Libya Times, May 25, 2020. Available at: http://www.libyatimes.net/news/176-the-islamic-state-attacks-three-military-camps-in-southern-libya.

[7] A. Vasilyev, N. Zherlitsyna, op. cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Inga Kristina Trauthig, Islamic State in Libya: From Force to Farce? (King’s College London, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 2020), p. 21.

[12] A. Vasilyev, N. Zherlitsyna, op. cit.

[13] Inga Kristina Trauthig, op. cit.

[14] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “على الرغم من التوافق الليبي.. الحكومة التركية تواصل تجنيد المرتزقة لصالحها”, August 22, 2020. Available at: https://cutt.ly/tffx7mV

[15] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “الحكومة التركية تنقل دفعة جديدة تضم 300 مرتزق من الفصائل الموالية لها نحو الأراضي الليبية”, August 6, 2020. Available at: https://cutt.ly/Fffx6K3

[16] Dicle Esiyok, “Turkish military contractor SADAT has always been in Libya”, Ahval News, 8 January, 2020. Available at: https://ahvalnews.com/sadat/turkish-military-contractor-sadat-has-always-been-libya.

[17] A. Vasilyev, N. Zherlitsyna, op. cit.

[18] Khaled Okasha, “لماذا تظهر داعش مجدداً في الجنوب الليبي?”, Elwatan, December 9, 2019. Available at: https://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/4470715.

[19] A. Vasilyev, N. Zherlitsyna, op. cit.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Inga Kristina Trauthig, op. cit.

[22] Jonathan Tossell, “Libya’s Haftar and the Fezzan One year on”, CRU Policy Brief (Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit, January 2020), p.7.

[23] A. Vasilyev, N. Zherlitsyna, op. cit.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Djallil Lounnas, “The Tunisian Jihad: Between al‐Qaeda and ISIS”, Middle East Policy, March 25, 2019. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mepo.12403.

[27] Andrew McGregor, op. cit.

[28] Ibid.

 

Latest Briefs