Small Wars Journal

Now is the Time to Stop the Spread of the Islamic State in Libya

Tue, 07/05/2016 - 2:28am

Now is the Time to Stop the Spread of the Islamic State in Libya

Robert Hodges

Libya could present the West with obstacles at least as intractable as those in the Islamic State’s current home base in Syria, Raqqa, amid the bedlam of the civil war.

                                                      -- Kirkpatrick, Hubbard, and Schmitt

New York Times, Middle East Report


After a violent revolution that ousted the controlling government and ended in the death of the dictator Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Libya is in a state of despair with unrecognized governments fighting for control, armed conflict from within, and the threat of a growing arm of the Islamic State (IS).  The IS is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the Daesh.  Throughout this paper, the terms ISIS, ISIL, IS, ISL (Islamic State in Libya), and Daesh will be used interchangeably.  The UN-recognized unity government has been exiled to Tunisia because neither the elected parliament in Tobruk, nor the Islamic-led house in Tripoli have accepted their rule as the official government of Libya (Strategic Comments, 2016).  The constant fighting and shifting for support by the militias has resulted in widespread lawlessness and a nation in flux.  The United States (U.S.) and the United Kingdom (UK) have been criticized and blamed for the current situation in Libya.  Many analysts agree with these comments about the U.S. and the UK.  No matter what nations may be at fault, the result was that Libya became the target of radical extremists’ expansion.  The IS saw an opportunity in northern Africa and secured a base of operation on the Mediterranean shore and set sites on making Libya part of its Caliphate (Kotra, 2015, 3).

IS established a bridgehead and power base in the Libyan city of Derna.  The spread of IS in Libya and the formation of ISL is covered by the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium with detailed information on the growth of jihad organizations and specifically, ISIS.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, announced the formation of three wilayas (provinces) in Libya:  Cyrenaica – east, Fezzan – south, and Tripolitania – west.  It is reported by the International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center that IS jihadists in Libya have increased “five-fold since last year” bringing their numbers up to around 6,500 jihadists in the country.  Reports from analysts and statements from IS have many nations worried that IS is looking at Libya as a fallback point if they continue to lose ground in Syria and Iraq.  Current events reported on June 9, 2016, provide information that militia forces supporting the GNA have attacked the IS forces in the city of Sirte.  It appears that the UN-backed militias have had some initial successes, however, IS forces are fighting back.  ISL has used several suicide bombings in the fight for control of Sirte and it is far from over (Issa and George, 2016).

The question to be answered is:  Is it time for a United Nations (UN) or European-led coalition, including the United States (U.S.), to take action in Libya against IS and the surge of Islamic extremists in that nation?  The way to success will require a multi-point effort focused on bringing the tribes and militias together to develop an agreed-upon government.  This government will be the focus of international support and its army will fight the growth of ISL in Libya.  Without this international support from Western nations and friendly neighboring states, the future of Libya is sure to be at the will of al-Baghdadi and the members of ISL.  

Literature Review

This article will use peer-reviewed papers, professional assessments from the intelligence community, Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports to Congress, current news reports, and related open source information to assess the growth of IS in Libya (ISL).  This unclassified evaluation will concentrate on the need for action by a multi-national coalition to stop the growth of IS in Libya and bolster the transition of post-war Libya into a functioning nation.  U.S. Congressional Reports are a strong base to use during research efforts.

The CRS report Libya:  Transition and U.S. Policy written by Christopher Blanchard in October of 2012 is somewhat outdated, but it provides a solid background of the situation in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi and the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi.  Blanchard successfully highlights the need for follow-on actions by the U.S. in Libya.  He reports on a possible need for military operations and the concerns related to the cost of this endeavor.  Late in 2011, the House of Representatives “rejected all resolutions seeking to authorize or de-authorize continuing U.S. participation in Operation Unified Protector.” (Blanchard, 2012, p26).  There is no mention of actions related to IS or ISL in this report.  This report only touched on actions by Al Qaeda and how it may have been tied in with the attacks on American diplomats in Benghazi.     

The most recent CRS on the situation in Libya is also by Mr. Christopher Blanchard and it is in line with the many concerns discovered in unclassified open source channels.  Mr. Blanchard reports that the election for legislative bodies and for drafting a constitution had little participation and has achieved little to nothing since 2011 (Blanchard, 2016, p2).  Libyans have been immersed in a state of chaos and conflict since May 2014 with a Tripoli-based General Nation Congress and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR) fighting for rule of the country (Blanchard, 2016, p3).  Four key factors are listed in the CRS.  First, the inability of small faction to have legitimate force to overpower the others.  Second, rivals are not able to gain access to the government-controlled funds held by the Central Bank or overseas.  Third, the UN arms embargo and widening reach of UN sanctions.  Fourth, “the growing threat posed to Libyans by extremist groups, especially by supporters of the Islamic State.” (Blanchard, 2016, p5).  This report by Blanchard is the most current as related to information provided to the U.S. Congress.  It confirms several U.N. Security Council Resolutions to facilitate the Government of National Accord (GNA).  Also, the U.S. national security concerns are stated along with the recognition of the presence and growth of ISL.  U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is responsible for Libya and the North African countries adjoining the Sahel.  U.S. military actions may have to be taken.  This is a well-rounded resource, in line with the focus of this paper.  A similar resource reporting the concerns in Libya is from Strategic Comments online.

Downloaded through the American Public University System’s Library, Strategic Comments article “Confronting failed government and the Islamic State in Libya” covered many of the concerns tied with U.S. national security in Libya.  It supported information on the strength of IS in Libya and the recent rapid expansion of forces, estimated to have doubled from 3,000 to 6,000 in the last year (Strategic Comments, 2016).  It also identifies the headquarters in Libya as Derna in the east and Ajaylat in the west and recognizes the ability of ISL forces in Ajaylat to control the Melitta oil and gas complex that carries natural gas to Italy (Strategic Comments, 2016).  Looking at some counter-terrorism options, this article looks mostly at military options with U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) taking actions in Libya aimed “to prevent ISIS from encroaching on Libya as it did on Iraq and Syria.” (Strategic Comments, 2016).  Stratfor has additional resources on this topic.

A Stratfor analysis provided in January 2016 presents a look at the fighting between the militia leaders in Libya.  The article “In Libya, the Islamic State Drives a Deeper Wedge Between Militia Leaders” reports on Libya’s oil industry and the unity government.  It is stated that the IS will continue to target the oil infrastructure with the goal of taking this revenue from the Libyan government.  There will be challenges to this as the militias in Libya aligned with their government’s fight to maintain control.  The two key players are Hifter, the chosen commander of the military for the unity government fighting against IS and Al Qaeda, and Jadhran, leader of militias and has control over the petroleum facilities and oil export infrastructure for years (Stratfor, Jan 2016).  This article is an informative look at the inter-fighting in Libya, it doesn’t give much information on the need or expectations for outside support or coalition engagements to improve the state of despair in Libya.

Additional and very recent information also available from Stratfor Analysis, April 2016, provides information on actions by the rival militias and their efforts to retake cities held by IS.  Titled “In Libya, the Race to Defeat the Islamic State Begins”, the article explains the efforts by the unity government to call on the militias to liberate the IS-held city of Sirte.  There is still political unrest in Libya on which government should lead the rebounding nation.  The struggle is between the internationally recognized unity Government of National Accord (GNA) and the unrecognized Islamist government, the General National Congress (GNC).  The GNA continues to gain support in Libya, but the GNC persists to press for greater responsibilities in the divided Libyan government.  The Stratfor article details the many problems between the GNA and the GNC, and comes to the conclusion that the GNA must gain control and use the unity government’s military to fight with Western forces or Libya will remain divided (Stratfor, April 2016).  Additional information on the Western forces includes the arrival of U.S., British, French, and Italian Special Forces in Libya.  These SOF personnel are deployed to support the GNA.  These SOF personnel have been providing training to select local militias.  Additionally, U.S. air power has been used to strike a few high-value IS targets.  The fight against ISL has begun as reported in several news media outlets.

In a paper written by Mr. Andrew Engel and published in The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, titled “Libya’s Civil War, Rebuilding the Country from the Ground Up” gets right to the point in the opening comments.  “Libya’s post-revolutionary transition to democracy has been completely upended by civil war and the extension of the so-called Islamic State into Libyan lands” (Engel A., 2015).  Engel mentions a term used by many analysts in the special operations environment to describe terrorists, the Violent Extremist Organizations or VEOs.  In Libya this includes IS, ISL, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram.  Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS on March 7, 2015 (Engel A., 2015).  Engel stated in his paper that the United Nations Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) and their top down approach for a unity government will not deliver.  More recent papers support his thoughts that the local militias must want the unity government (GNA) or it will never unify Libya.  This paper also discussed the need for caution when delivering weapons to forces in Libya.  This influx of weapons could amplify the terrorism concerns in Libya and its neighboring nations (Engel A., 2015).  The conditions of tensions between the GNA and the GNC are covered as well as the concerns of VEOs such as ISL receiving outside support from foreign fighters.  This includes smuggled weapons and recruits to join the fight for the caliphate territory in Libya.  News reports and current analysis of Libya confirms that Engle was right on the mark in his analysis.  VEOs are not new for Libya and many of these jihadist groups present in Libya are now pledging allegiance to IS (Engel A., 2015).  This is a very detailed paper and provides a great amount of information on the current situation in Libya.  Engel states that success for UNSMIL is based on U.S. and Europe’s ability to get the tribes and municipal councils on “parallel tracks” (Engel A., 2015).  The many factions in Libya must be focused on fighting the VEOs such as ISL in their nation. 

In a published article by Daniel Lebowitz submitted to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Center Consortium (TRAC), he points out that IS has a very strong grip in Libya along the Mediterranean.  Published in December 2015, the article “Libya: The Mediterranean stronghold of IS” presents how IS has extended into Libya.  Lebowitz states the concerns of Libya being a fallback or drop zone for ISIS as it continues to suffer losses in Iraq and Syria.

There are several news articles in the international arena that address the current situation in Libya and the concern for the future of the nation, its government, and the best way to deal with the IS incursions.  In Foreign Policy online, a report on comments from Libya’s Ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, faulted post-Qaddafi leaders and said that “Libya’s post-revolutionary government has been so incompetent that even the simplest of tasks…were beyond their meager administrative abilities” (Foreign Policy, 2016).  Dabbashi supports the formation of the GNA and believes an army under the unity government is the only way to end struggles in Libya and focus on defeating ISL.  He is concerned that if this does not happen and if IS is defeated by militias, then these militias will replace IS as a threat to the nation.  This concern is identified on other news sources.

In a recent article in Business Insider, Military and Defense, titled “The US is gearing up for another military campaign in Libya” Pamela Engel provides some very recent updates on SOF forces in and near Libya.  She believes these forces are there to prepare for an offensive against ISIS.  She highlights that the Daesh have been building up forces in Libya and it is a “potential ‘back-up capital’ in case the terrorist group is driven out of its main base in Syria” (Engel P. 2016).  As reported in the news since June 3, 2016, Ms. Engel’s reports are on the mark.  Local forces supported by Western nations have assaulted ISIS in Sirte.

Also in international news, Declan Walsh provided a report in the New York Times with information on the attack on Surt (also Sirte).  It is important to the information from Walsh that the unity government (GNA) is said to be ordering or leading the assault on Surt.  The concern is there are two militias that are attacking ISL in Surt from two fronts, even though they do not seem to be working together.  It is also unclear if any foreign forces are supporting the offensive.  British and U.S. SOF personnel are in the area but their involvement so far has been intelligence and reconnaissance related.  There are concerns of deepening divisions between east and west Libya (Walsh, 2016).

In another article in Foreign Policy from May 2016, authors Michael Jenkins and Colin Clarke successfully detail the concerns of what may happen in Libya if IS fails in Syria and Iraq.  Titled “In the Event of the Islamic State’s Untimely Demise…Even a caliphate needs a Plan B.  Here is what Baghdadi’s might look like.”  Jenkins and Clarke look at the possibilities of IS falling back to Libya if they lose ground in Syria and Iraq.  While this would be risky, if successful, it would allow the IS to spread across Libya and form the Levant to North Africa (Jenkins and Clarke, 2016).  An interesting note is also the fact that the U.S. and its allies must stay alert and at the ready.  “The West should have no illusion that the Islamic State will simply slump into defeat” (Jenkins and Clarke, 2016). 

Methodology and Research Strategy

The ISIL have seen changes in two areas that will have great impact on the future of this violent extremist organization (VEO).  They have experienced combat defeats in Iraq and Syria resulting in lost grounds and a reduction in their fighting forces.  At the same time, they continue to spread their tentacles and gain supporters in other locations around the globe.  Libya is one of the locations where IS has gotten a strong foothold.  Libya’s GNA government and loyal militias have been supported by U.S., UN, and European forces, equipment, arms, and funds.  This current level of support may not be enough.  Western forces must ensure that the IS expansion in Libya is stopped. 

After evaluating the current state of turmoil and infighting in Libya, research conducted to support the hypothesis of this paper shows that the growth in the strength of IS in Libya (ISL) will continue if European and U.S. support efforts are not continued.  It is important to understand that after the fall of Gaddafi and the lack of needed rebuilding support from the U.S. and the UN, Libya descended into a state of constant conflict.  The militias supporting the Islamic-backed GNC and the UN-backed GNA governments basically divided Libya into Eastern and Western nations and did nothing to stop the growth of ISL (Walsh, 2016).  During this state of turmoil, IS established a base of operations in the oil crescent of Libya. 

The IS leader al-Baghdadi appears to have interest in Libya as a place to reconfigure if ISIS continues to experience setbacks in Syria and Iraq.  The possibility of IS moving its leadership to Libya is a key reason that efforts must be focused on bolstering the GNA and enforcing its governing capabilities.  Allowing ISL to control the oil resources and ports along the Libyan coast while they orchestrate an IS buildup in Northern Africa is a huge step backwards in the fight against transnational terrorists and VEOs (Jenkins and Clarke, 2016).

These facts emphasize the need for U.S. and UN forces to support the GNA.  This paper is an effort to address the lack of action designed to stop ISL’s growth.  In addressing the argument for increased Western support for Libya and the GNA, a qualitative instrumental approach was taken.  By presenting the resent history and current crisis in Libya, combined with the threat of ISL and its intended growth in Africa, it will be understood that the only way to ensure success for the GNA and Libya will be with military support from the U.S. and Europe. 

Efforts to present positions on both sides of the argument were made.  Research was completed looking for counter arguments.  It is not a surprise that no open sources were discovered that supported the thinking that Libya would be able to stop the spread of IS within its borders and bring all of the warring militias under one form of government without assistance from the UN and Western nations.  The most positive reports on the successes of Libyan forces were along the lines of key points around Sirte being taken back from ISL (Joscelyn, 2016).  This started in early June of 2016, but the fighting has continued.  Gaining control of one key city is a great start, but there will be a long hard battle before ISL may be defeated and one general government will rule Libya.   

Analysis and Findings

Libya’s political transition has been disrupted by armed non-state groups and threatened by the indecision and infighting of interim leaders…Criminals and violent Islamist extremists have exploited these conditions, and the latter have strengthened their military capabilities and advanced their agendas inside Libya and beyond its borders.

         -- Christopher Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

                                    Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy, May 13, 2016

After the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya was reeling from civil war and the militias were fighting all over the country.  Many nations had supported the efforts within Libya to overthrow the dictator government and remove Gaddafi, however, after he was killed and the civil war had stopped, the expected rebuilding and support from the UN, U.S. and Europe was not there.  The U.S. and the United Kingdom (UK) have been criticized and blamed for the power vacuum that exists in Libya.  This is because these nations supported the militias during Libya’s civil war and wanted Gaddafi killed.  Once Gaddafi was dead and the fighting had stopped, both nations lost interest in Libya.  Recovery and rebuilding a new government for Libya was not the main interests for President Obama or Prime Minister Cameron.  This lack of attention by the U.S and the UK left a nation without a ruling government, open to a growth of militias, and an opportunity for IS to set an anchor in northern Africa (Ensor, 2016).  As a result, Libya has two different governments, the GNA and the GNC, led by different leaders on opposite ends of the country and both fighting a strong ISL base that exists in Sirte. 

In the east is the internationally recognized and UN-supported GNA.  At the same time, most of western Libya is under the control of the Islamic-led GNC.  Both of these governments have militias that have pledged their support to their chosen political group.  Recent information reflects a growth in the acceptance and support for the GNA, but the GNC will not disband and the leaders are pressing for a stronger role in the future Libyan government (Stratfor, April 2016).  During this power vacuum and with a lack of a national strategic direction, Libya was seen as a target for an increase in transnational crime and the growth of VEOs and terrorists like IS. 

During this void, the Islamic State took advantage and they have established a strong base of support in the oil regions along the coast of Libya.  ISL has raised the ISIS flag over the city of Sirte, the coastal town that was the birthplace of Gaddafi and was also the place of his death.  The U.S. estimates that ISL has a strength of around 6,000 fighters.  They control Sirte and about 240 km (150 miles) of coastline to the east and west of the city.  This has provided ISL with control of the Sirte Basin, Libya’s largest group of oil fields (Strategic Comments, 2016).  In western Libya, the IS has established a headquarters in Ajaylat.  This is the site of a former military compound near the coast and west of Tripoli.  From this position, ISL threatens the Melitta oil and gas complex.  This is the hub for the Greenstream pipeline, which is a supply of natural gas that goes to Italy (Strategic Comments, 2016).  It is easy to understand how ISL can control the oil resources and ports along the Libyan coast while they orchestrate an IS buildup in Northern Africa.  This is a huge step backwards in the international fight against transnational terrorists and VEOs (Jenkins and Clarke, 2016).  ISL forces have focused on recruiting efforts in Libya, as well as moving forces and combat leaders from Syria and Iraq to Libya.  These forces have been engaged in guerrilla attacks around their headquarters near Tripoli and Misrata.

It is expected that the IS will make efforts to expand its control of the oil fields around Misrata and Tripoli.  If the Daesh are not stopped in their determinations, they will continue to target Libya’s oil industry.  This will provide the funds needed to establish the IS caliphate in northern Africa.  The establishment of IS in northern Africa is important to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for two main reasons.  One is that this could be seen by supporters as the promised continuing growth of the Islamic caliphate.  The second is a more realistic and strategic reason.  As the IS forces in Iraq and Syria have suffered setbacks and losses, the self-proclaimed caliph may need a place to retreat and setup a new headquarters to fight from (Jenkins and Clarke, 2016).  Libya, in its state of political ruin and with its oil infrastructure, may be the perfect place for ISIS to retreat.  With ISL having control of Sirte, the militias focused on fighting each other, and neighboring countries too unstable to assist Libya, the Islamic State seems to have chosen the perfect location in northern Africa (Kirkpatrick, et al, 2015).  One action that is critical for the survival of Libya is for the militias to stop infighting and look toward defeating the common enemy of Libya, the Daesh. 

The latest information on open sources about Libya, June 2016, shows that pro-government militias have started to fight against ISL in Sirte.  General Mohammed al-Ghasri is leading forces that support the UN-backed GNA and it leader Fayez Al-Sarraj in a surge to remove ISL from the city of Sirte and take control of the region (Voice of America, 2016).  Al-Ghasri’s forces will be essential if the GNA is to be successful governing and stabilizing Libya.  The fierce fighting for control of the coastal city of Sirte has lasted for weeks.  The Libyan army had a very strong surge in the beginning of the attack.  This rapid advance was stopped by a series of suicide bombs used by IS forces (Issa and George, 2016). 

Other reports provide information that militia leader Khalifa Hifter, based in eastern Libya, has deployed fighters to Sirte to assist in the fight against ISL.  Meanwhile, a third armed group that supports the UN-backed government, took the town of Hawara, east of Sirte, from ISL (Musa and Michael, 2016).  This combined offensive against ISL on several fronts is the best sign of support for the GNA and the possibility of a unified Libya in the future.

The U.S. and NATO forces have supported the GNA with special forces assets and air power.  The U.S. Air Force has conducted several strikes along the coast to support NATO and Libyan ground attacks.  Most recently, the U.S. has provided special operations forces to support the offensive against ISL in Sirte (Engel 2016).  These special operators have provided Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) support and coordinated foreign air attacks assisting the armies fighting the ISL forces in and around Sirte.  The amalgamation of combined Libyan fighting forces, U.S. special operators, and foreign air attacks seems to have had great success against ISL. 


Libya is in a state of chaos and infighting.  With the fall of Qaddafi and the rise of militias in Libya, there is no organized government.  The post-war recovery support promised by the Western nations was not as strong as had been expected.  The internationally recognized unity GNA government is countered by the Islamic-based GNC and they both face a new foe, the IS.  All of the discord in Libya has opened a route for IS to move in.  This VEO looks at Libya as a new frontier and as a route to spread its caliphate into North Africa.  ISIS and al-Baghdadi may be looking at Libya as the fallback headquarters for IS if they lose the fight in Syria and Iraq.  ISIS (ISL) has grown quickly in the last year, with an estimated 6,000 forces, and has taken control of several cities in the oil crescent of Libya.  In June of 2016, Libyan forces attacked ISL in the coastal city of Sirte.  The combined offensive actions by these tribes show a joint objective and growing support for the internationally recognized GNA.  Libya is still far from a stabilized nation led by a capable government.  While the initial attacks on ISL forces by the combined militias have been positive, it will be a long fight before ILS is driven out of Libya.  Even with a win in Sirte, it is not a given that Libyans can unseat ISL and break the Daesh’s stronghold in the area.  The U.S., UN, and European nations have some SOF support in Libya, but it too may not be enough.  Actions must be taken now to ensure that the ISL are driven out of Libya.  The pushback by ISL with the suicide bombings in Sirte demonstrate that the Islamic State will not fall apart if they experience a few losses.  ISIS’s unwillingness to surrender is one reason that Libya is seen as a possible new headquarters for ISIS if they fail in Iraq and Syria.  Actions within Libya, by Libyans on a united front, with the support of friendly nations are the essential elements needed to stop this transnational terrorist organization from building a new base of operations in Northern Africa.  Now is the time to support Libya.


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About the Author(s)

Mr. Robert Hodges serves as the Law Enforcement and Intelligence Community Liaison in the Office for Bombing Prevention within the Department of Homeland Security.  He is an Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Subject Matter Expert and consultant.  Mr. Hodges retired from active duty service with the U.S. Air Force as a Chief Master Sergeant after 30 years of service.  He served as an EOD operator, Staff Action Officer, and C-IED Operations Planner in the CONUS, Europe, and the Pacific.  He has combat deployments to Bosnia and several locations in South West Asia.  His latest deployments were in support of the C-IED Task Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Hodges has a MA in Intelligence Studies from American Military University (AMU), a BA in Homeland Security from AMU, and an AS degree in EOD from the Community College of the Air Force.