Update and Assessment: August 31, 2016

August 31, 2016

Key Takeaways:

  1. A U.S.-backed campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in Libya may culminate prematurely. Libyan militias allied with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) may declare victory over ISIS in Sirte within the coming days, and U.S. air support for GNA-allied militias could end as early as this week. The loss of Sirte has not reduced ISIS’s ability to conduct high-casualty explosive attacks, and the group may be increasingly active in southwestern Libya, according to local security sources. CTP assessed in April 2016 that ISIS would likely withdraw from Sirte and attempt to establish a safe haven in southern Libya. The conditions are set for ISIS to survive and likely resurge in Libya after the U.S. air campaign ends. [See Frederick W. Kagan and Emily Estelle’s “ISIS Loses Headquarters in Sirte, Libya.” Keep up with CTP’s Libya work here.]
  2. A political resolution to the civil war in Yemen remains unlikely. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a revised peace plan on August 25 based on the formation of a national unity government—an al Houthi-Saleh demand excluded from the preliminary stages of prior UN-led negotiations. Secretary Kerry also emphasized the need for al Houthi-Saleh forces to withdraw from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2216. The al Houthi-Saleh alliance is unlikely to withdraw from Sana’a, where its recently formed Supreme Political Council has popular support. Al Houthi-Saleh leadership is seeking to legitimize the new governing body as a challenge to the internationally recognized government led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which operates from Aden. [Keep up to date on Yemen with CTP’s Situation Reports. See also Jon Diamond and Katherine Zimmerman’s “Challenging the Yemeni State: ISIS in Aden and al Mukalla.”]
  3. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri called on the Sunni community to unite against American and Iranian intervention. He accused the U.S. and Iran of forming an alliance that aims to exterminate Sunni populations and appealed to Iraqi Sunni, in particular, to fight “occupation” in their country. Zawahiri also called on members of ISIS to renounce their current allegiance and follow in the footsteps of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late leader of the former al Qaeda in Iraq. Zawahiri’s statements were likely timed to capitalize on ISIS’s recent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. Zawahiri called for the formation of a “shari’a judiciary” in Syria, possibly indicating that al Qaeda will take additional measures to unify Salafi-jihadi groups there.