March 03, 2016
Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya
Libya is a safe-haven for the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda, and other Salafi-jihadi groups. These groups use territory in Libya to train and prepare for terrorist attacks in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt and to support the establishment of like-minded groups elsewhere in North Africa. ISIS and al Qaeda are both growing stronger in Libya, albeit in different ways, and both will use their North Africa safe-haven to export disorder throughout the region and the world.
Libya is key terrain for Salafi-jihadi organizations and for the West. It sits along critical trafficking and smuggling routes that ISIS and al Qaeda use to move people and goods from the African Atlantic coastline through the Sinai and into the heart of the Arab world. The groups use routes that run across the Mediterranean to move trained fighters into Europe for future attacks. Far from being a random patch of desert, Libya is a geographical nexus that can greatly facilitate the expansion of al Qaeda, ISIS, and similar groups.
The collapse of governance and security that followed the 2011 overthrow of the Qaddafi regime created ideal conditions for al Qaeda-linked groups to re-emerge in Libya. Imprisoned al Qaeda-linked individuals and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) played a fundamental role in the reconstitution of an al Qaeda-linked presence and networks inside the country after they were released from Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison in 2011.[i] They reunited with other former LIFG leaders, some of whom Qaddafi had released from Abu Salim prison in 2010, who rose to prominence leading anti-Qaddafi militias during the revolution.[ii] These individuals constituted an organizing force that led to the establishment of the primary al Qaeda-linked group in Libya, Ansar al Sharia, and they leveraged relationships with other members of the al Qaeda network to establish and expand paramilitary and training camps in the country’s ungoverned space.
Libya’s ongoing multi-sided civil war perpetuates the environment of insecurity and lack of governance that enabled the resurrection of al Qaeda-linked groups there and that has since permitted ISIS to establish control over territory.[iii] Elation after Libya’s first free and fair election of a transitional government in July 2012 quickly gave way to the realization that newly empowered Islamist, tribal, and political blocs were vying to control the state and its petro resources and undermining each other in order to gain dominance. The fracture lines hardened as political blocs relied on allied ground forces for power, moving the conflict from the political to the military sphere.
The current civil war broke out in 2014 between an Islamist militia bloc backing the General National Congress (GNC), a legislative authority based in Tripoli, and a tribal-secularist militia bloc backing the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). The coalitions have each cooperated alternately with secular and religious groups when necessary to achieve their own interests.[iv] Additional warring tribal factions secured their own interests in southwestern Libya during the conflict. Both Ansar al Sharia and ISIS benefit from the civil war because it preserves Libya as a fractured state and prevents any real opposition from coalescing against either group.
Ansar al Sharia used its momentum and battlefield reputation from the 2011 revolution to establish itself on the ground after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. It expanded from a stronghold in Benghazi and Derna to Sirte in June 2013, and developed strong relations with other Salafi-jihadi groups in cities like Ajdabiya, Sabratha, and Janzur.[v] Ansar al Sharia currently maintains popular support within strongholds in Benghazi, Derna, and possibly Ajdabiya along the northeastern coastline and continues to work with Libyan Salafi-jihadi groups. It also actively coordinates with other groups in al Qaeda’s network in North Africa, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Murabitoun, Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia, and others.
ISIS is emerging as a dominant governing force along the central Libyan coastline and threatens to seize control of Libyan oil infrastructure there. ISIS leadership deployed fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya beginning in 2014, demonstrating the existence of a direct line of communications and the ability to move people and resources between the two regions. ISIS is attempting both to contest territory held by Ansar al Sharia and to co-opt the group’s Libyan networks. Ansar al Sharia previously held ISIS’s current stronghold in Sirte, for example. Both ISIS and al Qaeda-linked groups support training camps inside Libya, reportedly located in the northeastern desert near the Egyptian border and in northwestern and southwestern Libya.[vi]
Five major factions currently control or dominate territory in Libya’s most populated areas along the coastline: ISIS, Ansar al Sharia, the Libyan National Army (LNA), Libya Dawn forces, and the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). (Click hyperlinks to navigate to the appropriate section within the text.)
Tribal factions such as the Tebu and the Tuareg dominate the southwest.[vii] Members of the LNA-aligned House of Representatives and the Libya Dawn-aligned General National Congress signed an agreement creating the Government of National Accord (GNA) on December 17, 2015, but they may not actually represent their Tobruk- and Tripoli-based constituencies or have the support of key militia commanders.[viii] The international community, however, recognizes the GNA, which is not sovereign over most of Libya, as the government.[ix] Access to international support may incentivize factions to support the GNA, though regional countries such as Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, are all providing direct support to individual warring factions.[x]
ISIS seeks to expand its caliphate in Libya. Its immediate objectives are to 1) prevent the reconstitution of a unitary Libyan state; 2) control and ultimately govern terrain by coopting or coercing local groups to join ISIS; and 3) secure critical resources, such as Libya’s oil infrastructure, to build a state under ISIS. The tactics ISIS uses in Libya are similar to those it deploys in Iraq and Syria, including asymmetrical attacks and conventional military forces, major local and international media campaigns, the coopting of local religious figures, the removal of opposition leadership, and the coercion of the population through brutality. ISIS is also using safe-havens in Libya to prepare for attacks in neighboring Tunisia. Both attackers in the ISIS-claimed bombings of the Bardo Museum and Sousse hotel in Tunisia trained at the same camp in Libya.[xi]
ISIS probably entered Libya through historical Salafi-jihadi networks and contacts that had previously provided support to the group in Iraq.[xii] These networks would have provided fertile ground for ISIS to sow its members inside Libya to grow additional support. The first indications of support for ISIS appeared in spring 2014 in Derna, Libya, even before the ISIS seizure of the city of Mosul in Iraq.[xiii] ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi recognized the establishment of ISIS in Libya on November 13, 2014, three days after he received pledges from the group’s three Libyan provinces (wilayats): Barqa (Cyrenaica), headquartered in Derna; Tarablus (Tripoli), headquartered in Sirte; and Fezzan, headquartered in southwestern Libya.[xiv] The current ISIS emir in Libya is not known, though top leaders include Abu al Bara al Azdi, a Yemeni cleric who had been the emir of Derna, and Abu Habib al Jazwari, a Saudi who may lead ISIS in Sirte.[xv]
ISIS is deploying experienced operatives from Iraq and Syria in order to constitute a veteran leadership cell in Libya. The steady flow of high-ranking personnel demonstrates ISIS’s investment in consolidating its positions in Libya. The late emir of ISIS in Libya, Abu Nabil al Anbari (AKA Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi AKA Abdul Mughira al Qahtani), was reportedly part of a September 2014 delegation dispatched from Iraq and Syria that then aided in the takeover of Derna.[xvi] He was killed by a U.S. airstrike on November 13, 2015 in Derna.[xvii] Hasan al Salahayn Salih al Sha’ari, released from an Iraqi prison in mid-2012, returned to Libya and helped facilitate the establishment of ISIS in Derna in late 2014.[xviii] Derna served as the primary ISIS stronghold in Libya until June 2015, when an anti-ISIS al Qaeda-linked faction pushed the group out.[xix]
ISIS began to establish its presence in Sirte in early 2015. Prominent ISIS cleric Turki al Binali, for example, spoke in Sirte to build support for the group after an ISIS military parade in the city in late February 2015.[xx] The defection of a senior Ansar al Sharia Libya jurist, Sheikh Abu Abdullah al Libi, to ISIS in March 2015 both buoyed support for ISIS in Sirte and brought a faction of al Libi’s supporters to the group.[xxi] ISIS has since consolidated control over the city.[xxii] It suppressed an uprising in Sirte in late summer 2015 and has institutionalized new governance systems, including courts, educational systems, and a police force. Early August 2015 reports claimed that a cell of 17 fighters arrived in Sirte from Iraq and Syria, and it appears that most senior leadership is now basing in Sirte.[xxiii] The publication of an interview in Sirte with ISIS in Libya’s late emir in the September 2015 issue of ISIS’s flagship magazine, Dabiq, underscores the importance of Sirte to ISIS’s presence in Libya.[xxiv]
The experienced ISIS operatives who deployed from Iraq and Syria probably lead and design the group’s campaigns in Libya. ISIS is expanding from its sanctuary in Sirte: the group’s Wilayat Barqa (Derna) and Wilayat Tarablus (Tripoli) are collaborating to hold a contiguous zone of control that stretches from Harawa and Ben Jawad east of the city to al Buerat in the west.[xxv] ISIS Wilayat Barqa forces are engaged in a campaign targeting the Libyan oil infrastructure in Ras Lanuf and al Sidra; meanwhile, Wilayat Tarablus has used asymmetrical attacks to fix powerful militias in Misrata in support of the oil campaign.[xxvi] ISIS is likely behind the string of assassinations in Ajdabiya targeting religious, military, and government officials that began in fall 2015, which indicated that ISIS was seeking to expand into the city, though current Libyan National Army (LNA) operations may have forestalled this objective. ISIS Wilayat Barqa forces are fighting in Benghazi, where the LNA is conducting a major clearing operation, and in Derna, where an anti-ISIS Islamist coalition is preventing the group from re-establishing its presence in the city.[xxvii] ISIS militants recently engaged in a fight to retain freedom of movement in northwestern Libya near the Tunisian border. Local militias and tribal forces in Sabratha began a push to expel ISIS from the area after a February 2015 U.S. airstrike on a nearby ISIS training camp.[xxviii]
Ansar al Sharia in Libya
Ansar al Sharia is a Salafi-jihadi group established during Libya’s 2011 revolution that has received support from the al Qaeda network.[xxix] It is implementing a strategy to build popular support and strength that follows al Qaeda leadership’s strategic guidance. Ansar al Sharia seeks to establish a polity governed by shari’a law in Libya.[xxx] The group’s short-term objectives are: 1) to maintain and expand its areas of control in Benghazi and Derna; 2) to contest the rise of ISIS in Libya; and 3) to support the global al Qaeda network, especially Jabhat al Nusra in Syria. Ansar al Sharia initially adopted a strategy centered on da’wa (religious call) and social services rather than on violence to drive recruitment and build popular support in Libya. The group also operated abroad, conducting humanitarian missions in Syria, Sudan, and Gaza in 2012-2013.[xxxi]
Ansar al Sharia’s focus on local support and governance may have helped obfuscate its longer-term intentions and its anti-U.S. and anti-Western stance. Individuals affiliated with Ansar al Sharia, as well as AQIM, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the Mohammed Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities and personnel in Benghazi.[xxxii] Ansar al Sharia members fought during the 2011 civil war, and the group has maintained its military capabilities even as it pursues da’wa and governance activities.[xxxiii]
Al Qaeda global leader Ayman al Zawahiri reportedly tasked senior al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al Libi and other veteran militants with building an al Qaeda affiliate in Libya in 2011.[xxxiv] Veteran Salafi-jihadists founded Ansar al Sharia, re-establishing ties between al Qaeda and Libyan Islamist groups. Former LIFG members and al Qaeda veterans helped establish Ansar al Sharia’s primary branches in Benghazi and Derna, probably with assistance from regional al Qaeda affiliates like AQIM and AQAP.[xxxv] Ansar al Sharia in Libya’s present leadership retains close ties to the al Qaeda network. Its current leader in Derna, Sufian Ben Qhumu, is an al Qaeda veteran and a former detainee of both Guantanamo Bay and Libya’s Abu Salim prison.[xxxvi] Similarly, Mohammed al Zahawi, the late leader of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, stayed with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in the 1990s before being imprisoned in Abu Salim for his role in the LIFG.[xxxvii] Senior al Qaeda members, including Zawahiri and AQAP leadership, eulogized Zahawi after his death in January 2015.[xxxviii] The background of al Zahawi’s successor, Abu Khaled al Madani, is unknown, but his position suggests that he, too, retains ties to the al Qaeda network.[xxxix]
Ansar al Sharia in Libya hosted several meetings to coordinate Salafi-jihadi groups’ activities in North Africa, showing the continuing role it is playing within the al Qaeda network. It held its first annual conference for Libyan groups in June 2012, attended by representatives from across Libya.[xl] Salafi-jihadi leaders from AQIM, AQIM-associated groups such as Ansar al Din in Mali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al Murabitoun, Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia, and other groups attended a September 2013 meeting in Benghazi to coordinate their support for jihad in Mali and specifically Syria.[xli] The groups decided to continue to send fighters to Syria to train in the Syrian jihad and, ultimately, return to fight in Libya.[xlii] A second known meeting to discuss possible cooperation between the groups during the early stages of ISIS’s growth in Sirte occurred in June 2015 in Ajdabiya.[xliii] Ansar al Sharia actively supports training camps in Libya that supply fighters to both its own forces and Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.[xliv]
Ansar al Sharia is generating a resilient, networked threat in Libya by merging with other Salafi-jihadi and Islamist armed groups. These groups do not operate under al Qaeda’s name, but they receive support from the al Qaeda network. Ansar al Sharia merged with Benghazi’s Islamist militias in 2014 to form the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC).[xlv] Ansar al Sharia leads the BRSC, but the organization effectively masks the group’s al Qaeda affiliation and claims to act on behalf of the people of Benghazi.[xlvi] Ansar al Sharia also merged with local Islamist militias in Derna, forming the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD). Sufian Ben Qhumu, the Ansar al Sharia leader in Derna, is the MSCD’s military commander.[xlvii] Ansar al Sharia’s appropriation of resistance groups follows the vision of al Qaeda groups to unite the jihad and to work through local Islamist militias. The integration of Ansar al Sharia with local groups will make it difficult to delineate the al Qaeda-linked elements that are entrenching themselves in eastern Libya.
Ansar al Sharia’s militia forces are currently fighting to defend their positions in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, and Derna along the eastern Libyan coastline.[xlviii] Ansar al Sharia members are part of the Ajdabiya Revolutionary Shura Council, which lost control of the city to the Libyan National Army (LNA) on February 22.[xlix] The LNA clearing operation in Benghazi has put Ansar al Sharia on the defensive in its core stronghold.[l] Ansar al Sharia will probably be able to maintain its presence in Benghazi, where it will conduct both conventional and unconventional attacks against LNA troops. The Ansar al Sharia-affiliated MSCD remains the most potent fighting force in Derna, where it is blocking ISIS’s attempts to recapture territory and attacking LNA forces operating in the area.[li] Ansar al Sharia has probably not abandoned its intent to attack Western interests in Libya, but it is unlikely to attack regional U.S. and Western targets as it focuses on securing its Libyan strongholds.[lii]
ISIS and al Qaeda’s Competition in Libya
ISIS and Ansar al Sharia are now competing for leadership of the jihad in Libya. Reports of Ansar al Sharia’s demise are misleading and premature, though the defection of Ansar al Sharia’s Sirte group was significant and set the stage for ISIS’s rise.[liii] Militants and affiliated groups in Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabiya have also reportedly defected to ISIS.[liv] Ansar al Sharia’s core leaders and primary groups in those cities remain loyal to al Qaeda, however. Reports that Ansar al Sharia’s numbers have dwindled significantly may overlook the group’s proxy control of the BRSC and its prominent role in the MSCD, which routed ISIS in Derna in June 2015 and continues to prevent ISIS from retaking the city.[lv] The group is also countering ISIS propaganda with its own: Ansar al Sharia releases photos of training camp graduates, publicizes attacks on LNA soldiers, and promotes comparable social media content.[lvi]
The Libyan National Army (LNA) is a tribal-secularist coalition assembled by General Khalifa Haftar after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. It operates primarily in eastern Libya.[lvii] General Haftar is a former Qaddafi loyalist who defected in the 1980s and returned to Libya during the 2011 revolution.[lviii] The LNA is aligned with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives against the Tripoli-based and Islamist-leaning General National Congress (GNC). The LNA’s immediate stated objective is the elimination of Islamist groups in eastern Libya, especially Benghazi, though it is also a key power player in the ongoing civil war.[lix] The LNA coalition includes regional and tribal militia forces and former army units, such as the al Saiqa special forces.[lx] It also has anti-Islamist tribal allies in western Libya, as well as very limited air and naval forces.[lxi]
The LNA’s primary opponents are the Islamist groups and allied parties that took control of Libya’s government following Qaddafi’s fall.[lxii] General Haftar launched Operation Dignity in Benghazi in May 2014 with the stated aim of eliminating all “terrorists” in Libya; LNA-aligned forces simultaneously stormed the Islamist-leaning General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli.[lxiii] Haftar did not distinguish between moderate political Islamists and Salafi-jihadi groups, inspiring an Islamist backlash that fueled the civil war and the consolidation of Benghazi’s Islamist groups under Ansar al Sharia.[lxiv] The Islamist Libya Dawn coalition ultimately retook the capital from Haftar’s allies in western Libya, and Operation Dignity stalled in Benghazi.[lxv] The LNA’s primary fronts are in Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabiya, and it maintains strongholds in the eastern Libyan desert, near Jalu and Kufra.[lxvi]
The LNA’s focus remains Benghazi, where it launched a major push in mid-February 2015 and recaptured several districts, possibly with support from French military advisers.[lxvii] The LNA simultaneously claimed to take control of Ajdabiya from the al Qaeda- and ISIS-linked factions of the Ajdabiya Revolutionary Shura Council.[lxviii] LNA brigades are also present in Derna, where they have clashed with the Ansar al Sharia-linked MSCD in the past, but now appear to be cooperating with some factions of the group to block ISIS Wilayat Barqa’s attempts to retake the city.[lxix] The LNA conducts occasional airstrikes on ISIS and other Islamist positions in eastern Libya, but it is not currently contesting ISIS’s expansion in central Libya.[lxx]
Libya Dawn is a loose Islamist military coalition that formed in response to General Haftar’s Operation Dignity.[lxxi] It supports the Islamist-leaning General National Congress (GNC), which is based in Tripoli.[lxxii] Libya Dawn is based in western Libya, where it comprises Tripoli militias, tribal fighters, and anti-Qaddafi revolutionary militias from the city of Misrata; it also includes Muslim Brotherhood-backed militias in eastern Libya.[lxxiii] Libya Dawn’s stated objective is to prevent the reversal of the 2011 revolution, which empowered Libya’s political Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood.[lxxiv] Libya Dawn and its associated militias have allies among western Libyan tribes and very limited air capabilities based in Misrata.[lxxv] Libya Dawn also includes fighters and leadership who cooperate with Ansar al Sharia and other BRSC militias against the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Benghazi.[lxxvi] Libya Dawn members have attempted to publicly distance themselves from Salafi-jihadi groups, citing their adherence to political Islamism.[lxxvii] They oppose ISIS’s territorial expansion; Misratan militias contested ISIS’s initial takeover of Sirte, and Tripoli-based security forces have deported Tunisians with suspected ISIS ties and captured suspected ISIS leaders traveling in western Libya.[lxxviii]
The Libya Dawn coalition is growing increasingly fractious. The relationship between Misratan militias and eastern Libyan Islamist forces is deteriorating, a phenomenon exacerbated by Misratan support for the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA).[lxxix] The General National Congress (GNC) and Libya’s political Islamists oppose the GNA, which would require sharing legitimacy and power with the rival House of Representatives (HoR).[lxxx] Libya Dawn will likely prevent the GNA from establishing itself in the capital, Tripoli. Misratan forces are pursuing a containment strategy to prevent ISIS’s westward expansion from Sirte; three militias recently mobilized from Misrata to Abugrein to preserve their control over key ground lines of communication in the region.[lxxxi] However, the Misratan forces lack the capability to attack ISIS in its stronghold.[lxxxii]
The Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) is a federalist militia that controls the bulk of the oil and gas infrastructure in eastern Libya.[lxxxiii] It splintered from Libya’s national security forces due to regional and tribal efforts to preserve historical control over eastern Libya’s oil from the Tripoli-based national government. Ibrahim al Jathran, a tribal leader and anti-Qaddafi revolutionary, leads the PFG.[lxxxiv] He defected from the General National Congress’s (GNC) national Petroleum Protection Force in the summer of 2013 and seized the main oil export terminals at Ras Lanuf and al Sidra.[lxxxv] Jathran later attempted to sell oil without the government’s permission.[lxxxvi] He is politically pragmatic and has alternately aligned his forces with both the GNC and the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR).[lxxxvii]
The PFG initially cooperated with General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against Tripoli-based Islamist forces seeking to retake the oil terminals.[lxxxviii] Jathran has since alleged that Haftar’s forces attempted to assassinate him and has publicly split from the general.[lxxxix] Jathran’s brother is rumored to be an ISIS commander, but there are no other indicators that Jathran is assisting ISIS.[xc] ISIS, which launched a campaign on Libya’s oil infrastructure in January 2016, has attacked PFG positions at Ras Lanuf, al Sidra, and Zueitina.[xci] The PFG has blocked ISIS’s efforts to take permanent control of oil infrastructure, but has taken significant casualties.[xcii] The PFG will attempt to hold its current positions against future ISIS offensives, but it will likely fail without the support of other Libyan forces on the ground.
Jonathan Fredrickson, the West Africa research team at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, and the ISIS research team at the Institute for the Study of War contributed research to this piece.
AEI’s Critical Threats Project partners with the Institute for the Study of War. For the latest joint research product on Libya, see: “ISIS’s Campaign in Libya: January 4-February 19, 2016