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In the midst of the retreat. How is the Islamic State trying to change its strategy in Libya?
Libya has been and may be, one of the main areas of future operations of transnational jihadist organizations. The geopolitical event that allowed the expansion of jihadist terrorism was the civil war of 2011, which bequeathed the country a colourful series of militias and Salafi-jihadist groups, whose operations have become worrying since the attack of 11 September 2012 in Benghazi, in which the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, lost his life. It should not be forgotten that the Libyans were for years one of the largest groups, fighting on the Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan fronts, alongside transnational jihadist organizations. Over the last year, a renewed propaganda activity on the official channels of the Islamic State (IS), on various sites, social and messaging apps, in particular Telegram, Element, Hoop, Rocket Chat and Tam Tam in which IS re-proposed the publication of propaganda material from Libya, with operations located in the Fezzan.
The Reorganization of IS-Libya
With the siege of Sirte by the anti-IS coalition starting in August 2016, the Islamic State began to change its strategy due to the loss of cities, planning to disperse into the desert and conduct guerrilla operations.
Several IS cells, which remained dormant from a purely operational point of view, dealt with reorganization and propaganda, as well as creating and linking with certain components of the local population. The IS leadership in Libya concentrated its efforts on recruiting and training new militants, creating cells in the Fezzan, and keeping veteran militants operational by having them trained or operating in other areas, including in forces operating in the Sahel region or the Central African province. Training included the use of explosives, ordnance construction, building and using IEDs and SVBIEDs, and guerrilla tactics.
The operations from 2018 to 2021, indicated how IS no longer aimed to conquer or hold territory, but to operate with insurgent and guerrilla activity. In a video message by former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on 29 April 2019, referring to Libya, they stated that IS would come back strong despite the defeat suffered by militants in the Libyan Wilayah conducting a war of attrition. The group pledged allegiance to the former leader of their transnational parent organization, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, on 15 November 2019 and renewed the pledge of allegiance to the new leader Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi on 13 March 2022.
IS Libya’s strategies are centred on IS Central’s guidelines of “war of attrition” and “economic warfare” strategies, which aim to weaken the enemy through a strategy that includes:
• High-profile attacks against state or symbolic men or institutions, involving sleeper cells conducting infrequent attacks, but targeting institutions that symbolize and administer Libya, ambush and guerrilla campaigns, temporary checkpoints, kidnappings for ransom, raids on local security outposts, IEDs and SVBIEDs against Libyan security forces, their associated brigades and militias, and Haftar's military forces.
• Desert operations, with small but frequent attacks along the Oil Crescent and in the Fezzan, based on attacks on oil fields and oil pipelines.
This new strategy highlights the organization’s ability to survive despite the limited number of militants and especially current funding compared to 2015/2016. IS in Libya has widened its geographical dispersion across the country, indicating that the group has significantly increased its ability to geographically spread its attacks across the Libyan deserts. IS Libya also shows a new structure functional to the new strategy indicated, from the three distinct Wilayat, it has moved to a single Wilayah encompassing the entire country, with a hierarchical, guerrilla-style chain of command based on the presence of a network of small cells.
Since June 2021, Wilayah Libya has been back in the limelight with attacks and extensive propaganda material, videos, and photographs, disseminated directly from IS Central by the Amaq News Agency, showing both the attacks and several Fezzan militants in their base camps praying, eating, and conducting training. A new publication of official propaganda material took place in October 2021, with photo reports showing the training of a group of militants and daily operations such as sewing uniforms, praying, and eating.
In March 2022, the photographic material for the oath of allegiance to the new leader of IS was released and then a video of about 4 minutes with a non-Libyan interlocutor, Abu Thabet al-Muhajir, shows at least three different militant cells (with 16/20 militants each), discreetly armed with AKM Type 56 and AK-103 rifles, bulletproof vests, camouflage jackets with ammunition carriers, at least a dozen Toyota vehicles. On 24 April, the Islamic State's official media released images of militants in the Libyan province during the period of Ramadan.
The Islamic State in Libya conducted 4 attacks in 2021, including 1 “economic warfare” attack. Between January and April 2022, three new attacks with claims appeared on IS official media. Up to 25 April 2022, these were the 3 attacks conducted by Islamic State on Libyan territory.
Libya certainly lacks the sectarian division between Sunni and Shia Muslims that the Islamic State (IS) took advantage of in Iraq or the marginalization and discrimination of the Muslim component that al-Qa’ida (AQ) and IS exploited for recruitment and operations, in areas such as the Sahel, the Indian Subcontinent and South-East Asia. Libya is almost entirely Sunni and the divisions in the country are much more tribal than religious. As a result, jihadist organizations in Libya do not present themselves as defending Sunni Islam or oppressed Muslims. Nevertheless, if the religious vector is marginal, in the Libyan context the recruitment phenomena driven by socio-economic and political motivations are interesting.
The last six months of 2021 saw an operational and propaganda return of the Islamic State in Libya, which is recovering and able to reorganize itself again, taking advantage of the context of fragmentation, the economic difficulties, and the security vacuum. Although IS capabilities in the country have diminished, the group is still capable of conducting attacks against various targets. IS has reorganized itself by recalibrating its forces and resources to wage a long war of attrition, which must therefore lead to reasoning in terms of medium and long-term analysis.
In the short-medium term, the Libyan theatre could be affected by an expansion of the Jihadist operations, no longer only in the southern border areas, but also in other areas of the Country. This expansion could be determined by operative welding between Jihadist organizations, Salafi groups and non-ideological militias, an effective synthesis of the respective needs. The Islamic State in Libya will continue its gradual reconstruction of operational, training and recruitment capabilities, demonstrating its ability to operate amid instability, indicative of the group's capacity for permanence, resilience, and adaptability.
In the long term, however, the situation could only change if the Libyan civil war, instability and power and security vacuum continue and stability in the country is not guaranteed. The longer the instability persists, the greater the chances that IS, could achieve a large-scale resurgence.
Analysis published in Akhbar al-Aan Tv Media on 13/06/2022 - وسط انحسار وتراجع.. كيف يحاول داعش تغيير استراتيجيته في ليبيا؟ (akhbaralaan.net)
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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