Early media coverage of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya has centered on the group’s swift seizure of territory and the expansion of the caliphate’s authority into an increasingly lawless Libya. Yet IS’s efforts in the North African state have not lived up to these fears, as the organization—once thought to command control of cities such as Derna and Sirte—remains only one of many factions vying for power in these areas.
This does not mean the Islamic State is failing in Libya—indeed its trajectory inside Libya is mirroring its Iraq strategy, which sought to maximize its local competitive advantages. The group’s shift of gravity from Derna to Sirte is a highly deliberate strategic decision based on the assumption that Sirte provides greater opportunities for the group than Derna does.
But unlike Iraq and Syria, Libya is missing some of the key conditions that allowed for the group’s rapid gains in the Levant last summer. Namely, it lacks enduring ties to influential Libyan tribes and social groups, and Libya has no strong sectarian divide or a common enemy around which to rally a community. Thus, the Islamic State’s strategy in Libya seems to be directed instead at hastening state failure and fracturing the population’s sense of common nationhood. Meanwhile, it is also intensifying the conditions that will allow it to deepen its influence and form a national-religious identity in line with the caliphate’s own views.
For example, the group’s recent attack on oil infrastructure in the Sirte basin was likely not due to a desire to seize and sell oil for profit—at least not in the short term. As evidenced by Ibrahim Jathran’s oil blockade in 2014, it remains incredibly difficult to smuggle crude and sell it out from under the state, owing to international assistance to Libya. This is not lost on them. Rather, by obstructing Libyan governing authorities’ access to oil, IS aims to accelerate the country’s collapse by compounding the state’s fiscal problems and undermining the government’s ability to provide public goods and services.
Nonetheless, the Islamic State’s expansion in Sirte since mid-2014 certainly provides the group with numerous additional strategic advantages. First, the town has long been known to harbor Islamist and jihadi groups. Though the Ansar al-Sharia affiliate in Sirte was not officially formed until June 2013, the group embodies the city’s Islamist and jihadi movement, which has been active since shortly after the revolution. Throughout 2012 there were frequent shows of force by Islamist armed groups in Sirte, featuring parades of technicals flying black flags. Some groups also made efforts to institute more strict observance of sharia in the city. These groups came together in June 2013 and announced the official formation of Ansar al-Sharia in Sirte. They have maintained strong links to the Misratan community and revolutionary brigades that have a presence in Sirte. Ansar al-Sharia’s first leader in Sirte was Ahmad Ali al-Tayyar, a Misratan who commanded the Faruq Brigade in that city during the 2011 revolution. There have been additional reports of recruitment efforts to join jihad in Iraq and Syria, including from the Rabat Mosque in downtown Sirte. The mosque also hosted Sheikh Turki al-Binali, now one of the Islamic State’s most prominent ideologues, for a series of lectures in June, 2013.
Similarly, IS has sought to mobilize Sirte’s potentially sympathetic population. As in Iraq and Syria, the group in Libya prioritizes network-building and recruitment efforts on individuals and communities who are marginalized by current political power dynamics. In Sirte, Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown and the location of his final stand in October 2011, they have reached out to former loyalist tribes that have a long history of conflict with Misrata. In fact, IS has repeatedly attacked and provoked Misratan forces in Sirte and surrounding areas, and not the Haftar-aligned forces of Ibrahim Jathran to the east. This may be an attempt to mobilize the grievances of former loyalist tribes, such as the Qaddafa, Farjan, and Warfalla, which chafe under Misrata’s increased influence in the Sirte Basin since the revolution.
In eastern Libya, the Islamic State’s messaging targets Haftar and the House of Representatives, both of which find support among former loyalist tribes in the Sirte Basin. In Sirte, its focus is on the General National Congress, Libyan Dawn, and Misrata. While it is impossible to verify social media claims—many of which appear to be Libyan Dawn propaganda—that former regime members are fighting on the side of IS in and around Sirte, the group is clearly attempting to manipulate such grievances and perceptions of marginalization.
Sirte’s location near the frontline of the fighting between Libyan Dawn and Libyan Dignity, the country’s two competing alliances, has allowed it to take advantage of the conflict by playing these opposing coalitions against one another, as it has done in Syria. By placing itself between the two forces, IS makes it inconvenient for either alliance to confront it, as that would leave it open to attack by the other. These dynamics appear to have again worked in its favor: Misratan forces have been forced to stop fighting IS in Sirte in order to confront Libyan Dignity forces, which renewed their assault on Tripoli in late March.
Although thus far IS has failed to win the full support of any large tribal constituencies in the Sirte Basin, the group continues to denounce both the Tripoli and Tobruk-based post-revolutionary governments as illegitimate. This may begin to resonate with youth from Sirte and former loyalist tribes that feel locked out of today’s political order. More broadly, this message is likely intended to gain support from large and growing segments of the population who neither support the Libyan General National Council nor the House of Representatives.
Despite this, it is improbable that IS will seek a showdown in the Sirte Basin unless it perceives that conditions are in its favor. In Iraq, after the Surge and Awakening degraded its leadership and rank and file, the group showed strategic patience and went back underground, where it reorganized and expanded its networks on a grassroots level. IS then capitalized on the failure of neighboring Syria to reinvent itself. Its next steps in Libya will likely mirror this approach. Its ambitions extend far beyond Sirte—and even Libya—and Sirte may prove to be a convenient base for expansion in southern Libya, as well as the greater Sahara-Sahel region.
Sirte has long possessed tribal and economic connections with Fezzan and is located along major routes of travel to the region. In fact, one of the Islamic State’s first and most overt recruiting efforts inside of Libya is captured in a Tamasheq-language video that features two Tuareg men fighting alongside the group. The men call on the Tuareg people of Libya, the Sahara, and the Sahel to join the Islamic State. In a shrewd portrayal of how IS manipulates feelings of marginalization and exclusion in its outreach and expansion, the Tuareg men refer to the caliphate as a “real state.” With Tuareg dreams of realizing their own state in the Sahel having failed to materialize, young Tuareg fighters are beginning to filter back into Libya as the national ambitions of Azawad in northern Mali stagnate. Further afield, connections with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) networks in southern Libya, and the recent accession of Nigeria-based Boko Haram to the caliphate, indicate that IS has greater opportunities on the horizon in Libya and across the region than to make a final stand in the dusty town of Noufliya southeast of Sirte.
Many in Libya and abroad believe a decisive battle that will settle the fate of IS in western Libya is looming in and around Sirte, but past behavior suggests the group is too strategic to pursue such a confrontation right now. More likely, IS will continue to position itself between the country’s warring parties, advance its outreach among marginalized and aggrieved communities, and seek to degrade state capacities to further state collapse and advance its own national vision. In the short term, controlling physical territory will be secondary to these primary objectives.
Kevin Casey is a researcher who consults on politics, security, and culture in the Middle East and North Africa and spent much of 2014 based in Tripoli, Libya. Stacey Pollard is a field researcher and comparative political scientist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. Both authors previously conducted extensive field research in Syria and Iraq.