April 29, 2016
ISIS's Courses of Action - Out of Sirte
Key Takeaway: ISIS is laying the groundwork to abandon Sirte and will then pursue an alternate course of action to continue its campaign in North Africa without its Libyan stronghold. ISIS will most likely seek to build a safe haven in southwestern Libya, but it also has the dangerous option to escalate its campaign in neighboring Tunisia.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS) affiliate in Libya is facing a multi-pronged offensive in Sirte, its stronghold on the central Libyan coast. It may be preparing to withdraw from the city. Libyan and international actors will trumpet this loss as a major victory. Losing its North African hub will be a major setback for ISIS in Libya; however, it is also an opportunity for the group to open new fronts in North Africa. The coming offensive on Sirte has been apparent for some time, and ISIS’s seasoned military planners will have prepared for it. ISIS will pursue a course of action designed to mitigate the loss of Sirte and allow it to continue to operate in Libya, and maybe even extend its campaign to neighboring states.
ISIS’s Strategic Objectives in Libya:
ISIS seeks to maintain and expand its caliphate in Libya, especially in urban centers; prevent the reconstitution of a strong Libyan state; expand its area of influence in the region; and set conditions to expand its caliphate to Tunisia and Algeria. ISIS must maintain the ability to operate in Libya in order to pursue these objectives.
ISIS took control of Sirte in early 2015. It has since become ISIS’s North African hub—home to senior leadership from Iraq and Syria, a base for conventional military power, and a safeguard for ISIS’s legitimacy, which rests on governing a territorial caliphate. ISIS has struggled to take full control of Sirte’s population and continues to falter in its efforts to govern the city, however.
Libya’s armed factions are converging on Sirte. General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is moving toward Sirte from the east, and its allies are advancing on the city from the southwest. Misratan militias are also advancing toward Sirte from the west. An offensive to retake Sirte, though it may be interrupted by political conflicts within Libya, is only a matter of time. The force numbers that will mobilize to Sirte, the level of coordination between Libya’s armed forces, and the character and extent of international support for anti-ISIS operations remain in question. Support from the West will likely include training, equipment, intelligence, and possibly air power.
ISIS is reacting to the LNA and Misratan mobilizations by deploying fighters to the eastern and western limits of its coastal territory, booby-trapping the outskirts of Sirte with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and fortifying sniper positions in and around the city. ISIS has also sent convoys—reportedly carrying leadership—out of Sirte and toward the Fezzan region in the southwestern Libyan desert, which is already a Salafi-jihadi safe haven.
ISIS is approaching a decision point in Sirte. It would choose, ideally, to hold the city, both as a failsafe for territorial losses in Iraq and Syria and as a support zone for its larger North Africa campaign. Should Sirte come under significant pressure, however, ISIS will likely prioritize retaining a sustainable regional base of operations in Libya over making a final stand for the coastal city.
ISIS draws its strength from the ability to claim governance over population centers. Sirte is ISIS’s first capital outside of Iraq and Syria and a safeguard for the group’s ideological legitimacy. ISIS is not currently at risk of losing its capitals in Iraq and Syria, Raqqa and Mosul, however, making Sirte less critical for its survival in the near term. ISIS is thus more likely to treat Sirte more like Palmyra, Ramadi, or Tikrit, where it fought hard but ultimately executed tactical retreats when holding the cities became untenable. ISIS also fought for its first Libyan stronghold, Derna, before relinquishing it in June 2015. It attempted to reclaim territory from a base on the outskirts of Derna until April 2016, when anti-ISIS operations mounted in Derna and the group withdrew its fighting force to Sirte to preserve it.
There are indicators that ISIS is preparing to abandon Sirte. The deployment of fighters to the limits of ISIS’s control is likely meant to fix enemy forces along frontlines. This positioning, along with the fortification of sniper positions and heavy IED emplacement, would allow ISIS to fight a preliminary battle to impose costs on LNA and Misratan forces and then safeguard the rapid withdrawal of its fighting force from Sirte. ISIS has used IED emplacement to slow its pursuers in Iraq, Syria, and most recently, in Derna, Libya. It will likely launch a campaign of asymmetric and mass-casualty attacks in order to fix its enemies in place and facilitate withdrawal, as it has done in other theaters; and an ISIS leader in Sirte has already announced the group’s plans to conduct such a campaign on Libyan oil infrastructure and population centers. ISIS has also laid the groundwork for leaving Sirte by opening ground lines of communication (GLOCs) from Sirte into the Fezzan region. These indicators mirror ISIS’s prior use of controlled withdrawal when faced with enemy offensives in Iraq and Syria.
The timeline for this withdrawal is not clear, and it remains dependent on ISIS’s own assessment of its ability to hold Sirte. Indicators that ISIS will not withdraw from Sirte include ISIS’s successful fixing of enemy forces at the edges of its control zone, explosive attacks behind enemy lines, continued ISIS leadership presence in Sirte, continued governance activities inside Sirte, and the deployment of ISIS reinforcements to Sirte. It is also possible that ISIS will withdraw temporarily or intermittently from Sirte, as it did in Baiji, and then return if the holding force is insufficient. Indicators for this course of action include the movement of ISIS’s fighting forces to neighborhoods south of Sirte, an uptick in ISIS attacks on holding forces during troop rotations, and attacks on key infrastructure in the vicinity of Sirte.
ISIS’s Possible Courses of Action (COAs)
The following COAs are derived from the assessed possibility that ISIS will ultimately conduct a controlled withdrawal from Sirte. The first is ISIS’s most likely course of action (MLCOA), and the second is ISIS’s most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) according to U.S. national security interests.
MLCOA - ISIS Develops Safe Haven in Fezzan
ISIS is most likely to move the bulk of its fighters into Fezzan in southwestern Libya after withdrawing from Sirte. It could develop a safe haven there with little resistance, from which it would pursue lines of effort to derail the formation of a strong Libyan state, setting the conditions for its return to the Libyan coast.
ISIS’s primary line of effort would be expanding its area of operations in Fezzan. This would require ISIS to make deals with some local tribes and marginalize others, as well as secure checkpoints on key GLOCs throughout the region. ISIS will likely pursue a secondary campaign of asymmetric attacks aimed at undermining the incipient unity government, using attack cells in northwestern and northeastern Libya. This line of effort would include explosive attacks and raids on oil infrastructure meant to cripple state finances. ISIS could also conduct mass casualty attacks on soft targets in population centers, especially in Tripoli and Misrata, to discourage public confidence in the new government.
This COA gives ISIS the opportunity to extend its influence in Libya’s neighbors. ISIS would use a safe zone in the Fezzan to support attack cells operating in Tunisia and Algeria. There are more dangerous variations of this COA in which ISIS seizes a population center in the southwest, possibly Ubari, which would provide it with an alternate source of revenue and safeguard its ideological legitimacy. ISIS could also use a safe haven in Fezzan to support a campaign in the Sahel region, including cross-border attacks on French and U.S. basing in northern Niger.
MDCOA - ISIS Doubles Down on Tunisia
ISIS seeks to expand its caliphate to Tunisia. ISIS will most likely withdraw from Sirte to the south and west, giving its primary fighting force in Libya access to the Tunisian border and pre-existing support zones in the region. It may therefore use the loss of Sirte as an opportunity to double down on Tunisia, where it seeks to declare a wilayat.
ISIS’s primary effort would be a cross-border offensive aimed at seizing territory in Tunisia, similar to its March 2016 attack on Ben Guerdane but with a larger force. The group could augment its attack cell in northwestern Libya to target an eastern Tunisian population center, or attack softer targets in Tunisia’s remote south. ISIS could also, more dangerously, utilize its Libya-based combat power, expertise, and resources to spark a Salafi-jihadi insurgency inside Tunisia, using networks it already has. These networks include a Tunisia-focused cell in northwestern Libya, support zones inside of Tunisia, and an extensive network of Tunisian ISIS militants currently based in Libya. A sustained ISIS-led campaign in Tunisia would pose a grave threat to the Tunisian regime and set conditions for ISIS to seize territory in the country’s underdeveloped central provinces.
ISIS would likely pursue a secondary line of effort of asymmetric attacks against state or economic institutions and population centers in northern Tunisia to further destabilize the state. It would also pursue a line of effort within Libya to derail the unification of the Libyan government, thus preserving its support zone in Libya. ISIS would also seek to deter Western intervention in both Tunisia and Libya, possibly by attacking U.S. or allied military targets in those countries and basing in neighboring countries, like Niger.
Sirte is an important asset for ISIS in Libya, but it is not required for the group to achieve its objectives. It is dangerous to cast the loss of Sirte as the sole key to defeating ISIS in Libya. ISIS has planned and will prosecute a strategy to mitigate the loss of Sirte and open up new fronts, as it did with the loss of Derna. Treating ISIS’s withdrawal from Sirte as an unqualified victory risks obscuring its ability to pursue new, and possibly more dangerous, courses of action in North Africa.
Charles Cohn contributed to this piece.