Home / Who’s Who? Libya’s Main Players / Who’s Who?: Libya’s Main Players – The Rise of ISIS

Who’s Who?: Libya’s Main Players – The Rise of ISIS


(Author: Libyan Gazette Editorial Staff)


Since the ousting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya’s various political and armed factions have been fighting for control and power over the country’s post-revolution future, allowing extremist groups to take advantage of the ongoing chaos and security vacuum and rise up in place of a united government. The Islamic State of the Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) expansion in Libya in 2014 proved to be the most violent and worrisome, as the extremist group sought to establish a new Wilayah (governorate) in Libya, seeing the country as a model for its expansion outside of the Levant, attracting as many as 6000 fighters to the country.

How ISIS formed in Libya

Following the 2011 Libyan Revolution, which saw longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi killed in his hometown of Sirte, an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 Libyan revolutionary fighters made the journey to Syria to help rebel groups fight against forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. In 2012, a large number of Libyan fighters joined the al-Battar Brigades in northern Syria and pledged their loyalty to the radical extremist group.

In the spring of 2014, around 300 fighters, accompanied by senior ISIS leaders, returned to Libya and formed the Libyan branch of ISIS in the eastern city of Derna. The newly formed branch of ISIS managed to attract several extremist armed groups in the city, including the Islamic Youth Shura Council and Ansar al-Sharia. Taking advantage of the lawlessness in Libya following the Civil War in 2014, ISIS’s affiliates in Derna  were able to take over most of the port city, declaring war on anyone who opposed them. The terrorist group rose to power in Derna following assassinations of members belonging to Derna’s security forces, judges, activists and politicians.

ISIS-.jpgIn November 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted Libya’s pledge of allegiance and announced that creation of three new governorates, Barqah in the east, Fezzan in the south, and Tripolitania in the west, to its growing caliphate. In addition, by December 2014, ISIS’s Libyan branch was ordered to stop sending fighters to Syria and instead focus on domestic attacks in Libya itself.

However, the extremist group’s hold on its new capital in Derna did not last long, and it faced immediate resistance from local Islamist militias, namely the Derna Mujahedeen Shura Council, who along with local allies were able to drive out the mainly foreign ISIS fighters out of the city in June 2015.

While forces in Derna were fighting to expel ISIS militants from their last remaining hideouts in the city in April, they also faced a number of attacks by General Khalifa Haftar’s army, who had besieged the coastal city as part of its Operation Dignity, which aimed to eradicate “terrorists” from eastern Libya. Surprisingly, instead of helping the Derna revolutionaries eradicate ISIS, Haftar’s militia did the opposite, likely aiding the extremists as they instead chose to target the very forces that were battling against them. In addition, despite Haftar’s tight siege on Derna, the last remaining ISIS militants were easily able to flee the city towards Sirte, facing no resistance as they passed through several cities controlled by Haftar’s forces. On their way west towards Sirte, the extremist group managed to attack the Oil Facilities Guards (PFG), an eastern militia who control and protect Libya’s eastern oil fields. The PFG has accused Haftar of making deals with ISIS to gain control of the oil fields and ports.

Nevertheless, ISIS militants were able to take advantage of the power struggle between Libya’s two rival governments, the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), to establish a presence in different cities across Libya, including Benghazi, Tripoli, Sabratha, and Sirte.

Amid the escalating battles between General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity and the Tripoli based Libya Dawn fighters during the Civil War of 2014, ISIS managed to secure influence in several parts of Libya, mainly because their growing presence across the country did not seem like an immediate priority to Libya’s major warring factions.

Furthermore, Libya’s porous borders and strategic location at the crossroads between Europe, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, combined with the complete collapse of security, created the perfect conditions for both human and weapons traffickers to establish a lucrative black market in the country in which ISIS, among other groups in Libya, has profited from.

The Establishment of ISIS’s Stronghold in Sirte

In 2015, ISIS militants were able to establish a presence in the port city of Sirte, which is halfway along the coast between Tripoli and Benghazi, the two cities where most of the fighting between Libya’s armed groups has taken place. Sirte proved to be an ideal location for the extremist group to establish its Libyan capital due to its strategic position near Libya’s major oil fields, its port, and airbase.

What made Libya so attractive to ISIS is the country’s close proximity to Europe, which many western countries feared it could use a launching pad to threaten southern Europe, and its vast oil reserves.  However, the extremist group has only carried out minor attacks on oil facilities.

In Sirte, ISIS immediately began to fill the void of the government’s inability to provide security and control over the region, first launching an extensive propaganda campaign, imposing its particular brand of strict laws, and providing services to the residents in Sirte. In addition, foreign fighters from across North Africa have reportedly flocked to Sirte, rather than go all the way to Syria, to join the extremist group.

According to Human Rights Watch, ISIS inflicted severe hardship on the people of Sirte, including the withholding of food, medicine and cash from residents, and unlawfully executing up to 50 people by means of decapitation and shooting.

ISIS militants also committed a number of atrocities across Libya, including the brutal kidnappings and mass executions of Egyptian Copts, Ethiopians, and Eritreans. Countries such as Egypt and the United States responded to the extremist group’s growing brutality across Libya by carrying out a number of airstrikes targeting ISIS militants. Abu Nabil al-Anbari, the Iraqi born leader of ISIS’s branch in Libya, was killed by a US airstrike in November 2015 outside of Derna.

The Battle Against ISIS’s Stronghold in Sirte

A surprise suicide attack by ISIS militants, which killed five local security forces and wounded 12, at the Abu Grein and Al-Baghla checkpoints located between Misrata and Sirte on May 5 prompted the fledgling UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to form a joint military operations room in Misrata to oversee the campaign against ISIS.

Despite Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s numerous calls for all of Libya’s armed groups to unify in the fight against ISIS, the rogue General Khalifa Haftar refused to join a unified front under the command of the Presidential Council, deciding instead to declare his own military operation against the extremist group in May, leaving many to fear that separate offensives against ISIS in Sirte could lead to a confrontation between various military forces and plunge the country into another, more violent, civil war.

However, to the surprise of many, Haftar has yet to launch an attack against ISIS in Sirte, instead choosing to strengthen his influence in the east by going to war against his enemies in Derna and Benghazi and positioning his so-called “Libyan National Army” around several oilfields.

The unity government’s military forces are comprised of an alliance of Libyan armed groups that were formed during the Libyan Revolution and who have agreed to unite under its command to fight for their country. The Misrata brigades make up the bulk of the GNA’s forces, and have suffered the most casualties in the war against ISIS. The powerful western militia feels that they are bearing the brunt of a war effort that should be shared by all Libyans, and they remain cautious of the GNA’s ability to lead a national army, expressing their concern about its inability to control Haftar and his armed forces.

Only a month after launching the campaign against ISIS, the GNA has made significant advances against the terrorist group, recapturing Sirte’s power plant, air base, and port, while encircling ISIS militants in the center of the city. Albinyan Almarsous forces announced that a total victory against ISIS could take place in a matter of days.

The unity government’s second operations room in the area between Ajdabiya and Sirte saw the Petroleum Facilities Guard’s (PFG), who pledged their loyalty to the GNA, capture the towns of Ben Jawad, Nufilaya, and Hawara from ISIS militants in the east.

Up to that point, ISIS had not put up much resistance, however, the besieged terrorists are now retaliating with an increase in suicide bombings, mines, booby-trapped vehicles and snipers positioned on rooftops, in an attempt to retake the port and other areas.

A successful offensive against ISIS is significant as it may rally more Libyans to the GNA’s side, finally leading to political unity and national resolve. However, the victory against ISIS would be short lived as long as the HoR, which is backed by Haftar, continues to delay giving its vote of confidence to the unity government.

Many ISIS fighters have reportedly fled to the south to regroup, and if Libyans fail to unite after the the extremist group’s defeat in Sirte, they may be able to again take advantage of a fractured country to carry out more terrorist attacks in other places.

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