Chapter 2 - Has Daesh already overreached in Libya?

Instead of achieving a political settlement for Libya, the Government of National Accord has become a third faction in the country’s civil war. Governance institutions are fragmented, preventing a coherent evaluation of Daesh’s local campaign. Daesh has attempted to establish itself in eastern Libya in Derna, Benghazi and Sirte. The Daesh fighters pushed out of Sirte are predominantly experienced North and West Africans who fled to the surrounding regions. Their plans to support a territory-less Daesh are unknown and cannot be usefully assessed by Libya’s intelligence services, whose attention is increasingly devoted to competing with each other.

Why Libya’s civil war helped Daesh

Libya is in a state of war, with three competing governments and a failed UN-brokered peace process. The main task of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) was to implement the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), an arrangement designed to bring about a settlement between the country’s main warring factions. Set up in December 2015 as an interim body, it has failed to extend a peaceful reach over eastern and western Libya and to generate the support necessary to reconnect the central authorities with the fractured network of political, economic and security institutions that govern across the country. Although great efforts were made to ensure that the GNA’s Presidential Council (PC) had significant political and tribal representation, this was to prove merely symbolic, as it enjoys only limited geographical reach, isolated in a corner of Tripoli’s coastline.

And so the country remains divided pretty much as it was during the 2014-2015 civil war between Operation Dignity (based in eastern Libya) and Libya Dawn (based in the west).

The PC’s failure to heal the rifts between competing military forces and stitch together a divided intelligence apparatus has left Libya dangerously vulnerable to DaeshFootnote 9 and helped create an environment in which salafist-jihadists can flourish. The country is not only plagued by thousands of kilometres of porous borders but also by rival security forces that not only fail to communicate with one another but actively defame each other and expend the bulk of their resources on tribal and political activities not addressing the salafist-jihadist threat. As a result, Libya’s political forces are effectively blind to the nature of the challenge that Daesh and related groups present, and their claims to be focused on fighting these groups are misleading.

Eastern Libya

Derna, Wilayat Barqa and Daesh

The growth of Daesh in Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern region, began six months into Operation Dignity in late 2014 with the establishment in Derna of the Majlis Shura Shabab Darnaby returning salafist-jihadists from Syria and Iraq.

The Majlis Shura is a peculiar example of this salafist-jihadist milieu, and the reason for its growth and subsequent decline. It was primarily born of local feuds between older generations of retired and reformed jihadists and young fighters back from combat in Syria. The Bitar Brigade was a Libyan formation that fought in Syria in 2012 and 2013 and returned to Derna, eager to take control of the city. However, it was prevented from doing so by the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB), a group of mainly retired, reformed or former Libyan jihadists joined by young Derna residents who picked up arms to fight against the former regime in 2011.

In late 2014 the situation in Derna deteriorated and civil war broke out in eastern Libya. The Bitar Brigade and local young jihadists, eager to buy into the caliphate project, set up the Islamic Youth Council of Derna (IYCD), Libya’s first Daesh affiliate and province in the country in late 2014. Abu Nabil al-Anbari, a high-level Daesh member and former governor in Iraq, was proclaimed the emir of Libya. IYCD created Islamic courts led by a Yemeni judge, as well as an Islamic police force and a Diwan al-HisbaFootnote 10, mirroring caliphal political structures in Syria and Iraq.

... Derna's jihadist milieu is much more committed to fighting elements of the former regime and the likes of General Khalifa Haftar than they are about expanding a caliphate.

However, the ICYD were rejected on the grounds that they were troubled, angry youth who were disrespectful of their elders or because local jihadists refused to be ruled by a foreign caliph and governor in the person of al-Anbari.

Their presence gave Operation Dignity forces the pretext to attack the city, beginning in February 2015. However, they almost exclusively targeted ASMB or the city’s infrastructure. In response, ASMB and its affiliates took up arms in December 2015 and expelled the ICYD with the help of local residents.

A stark reality in Derna’s jihadist milieu is that they are much more committed to fighting elements of the former regime and the likes of General Khalifa HaftarFootnote 11 than they are about expanding a caliphate.

Benghazi: Daesh makes a new enemy

In Benghazi, Daesh has struggled to retain cohesion in an incredibly polarised milieu, one dominated by the self-styled revolutionaries and the would-be Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar.

The Dawn-affiliated Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) has effectively been fighting Khalifa Haftar’s forces since July 2014. It consists of a military council composed of Islamist and jihadist militias, some of which are tribally oriented (eg, the February 17th Brigade and the predominantly Benghazi-based Libya Shield, of Misratan origin) and Ansar al-Sharia (AAS), an Al-Qaeda offshoot accused of the attack against the local US diplomatic mission in 2012.

Ansar al-Sharia’s affiliation to the BRSC can also be interpreted as an attempt to counter Daesh’s move to take over their organisation. AAS have repeatedly replaced individuals who were murdered (including their leader Muhammaed al-Zahawi in 2015) with prominent jihadists of Misratan origin such as Abu Khaled al-Maadani. This strategy is designed to ensure that AAS fit the local profile of the BRSC leadership. A blow was sustained when a prominent AAS leader, Abu Abdallah al-Libi, defected to Daesh in early 2015 but he too was quickly replaced. Individual AAS fighters have defected to Daesh and small Daesh cells have emerged in Benghazi, conducting operations in the city.

AAS fighters are susceptible to defection as both it and Daesh share the same religiously-inspired ideology. Yet fundamental differences hinder Daesh’s growth. AAS fighters do not share Daesh’s transnational goals and see themselves primarily as a revolutionary group; this is particularly true for their Benghazi-based members. They feel part of the Libyan story and its civil war, with local and personal feuds dictating the fighting with the LNA dating back to 2012.

Daesh branches are relatively new to the Benghazi scene, established after the civil war began. The group has found it difficult to penetrate Benghazi’s array of tribally-oriented groups and militias and to break down the complex narrative at the heart of the civil war. Its messaging has also failed to resonate with vulnerable groups and militias; its target audience and the BRSC has therefore remained largely indifferent to its presence.

In a February 2016 issue of its publication Dabiq, Daesh’s former ‘emir’ slammed the BRSC and AAS for their reluctance to join Daesh. The presence of newly emerging coalitions such as the Benghazi Defence Brigade in April 2016—that specifically aim to target Daesh and Haftar’s forces in Benghazi—demonstrates Daesh’s inability to keep the peace with those groups that had otherwise been ambivalent to its growth.

Western Libya

Sirte: Wilayat Tarablus

The central coastal city of Sirte is perhaps Daesh’s most successful project to date in Libya. Largely forgotten in post-revolution Libya, Sirte came under the control of a revolutionary jihadist battalion known as Katibat al-Faruq in 2012. It then became a franchise of AAS in 2013, but by late 2014, the group began to undergo a transformation. The death of its brigade’s leader at the beginning of the civil war led to a crisis in decision-making. Cut off from Ansar al-Sharia that was fighting in Benghazi, it began to respond to the advances of Daesh dignitaries who had earmarked Sirte and the group.

The group defected to Daesh in early 2015 and quickly set about creating the very same institutions present in Derna. With no rival power-brokers and brigades in their way in Sirte, they were able to establish full control over the city.

Baathism gone wrong

Sirte is really where the apocalyptic jihadist vision in Libya can be best observed. Daesh launched large-scale executions and beheadings of Coptic Christians, threatened to conquer Rome from the shores of Libya and invited jihadists from all over the world to join them.

Sirte is really where the apocalyptic jihadist vision in Libya can be best observed.

The Sirte project yielded mixed results. While they were able to recruit fighters from nearby Tunisia as well as East and West African countries, they failed to expand in Libya. Daesh was largely stunted by its inability to capture the narrative in post-revolution Libya.

Whereas Daesh was able to use the deep sectarian divides in Syria and Iraq for recruitment purposes, it has been unable to enmesh itself in the country’s tribal relations or manipulate tribal rivalries to its own advantage in spite of sending delegations throughout 2015 to gain adherents. Its failure is particularly telling when one considers that it was unable to expand into Jufra, a community neighbouring Sirte that shares a similar tribal make-up and degree of disillusionment with the failed revolution.

Daesh also failed to conclude a pact with elements of the former regime, as it had successfully done with Baathists in Iraq. From the moment of its arrival in Sirte, it informed the general population that it would not tolerate dissidence or opposition. They rounded up members of Gaddafi’s former security apparatus still present in the city and ordered them to repent and join the group’s ranks. Those who failed to do so were imprisoned or killed. They went so far as to violently repress a pro-Gaddafi demonstration in mid-2015.

Operation Buryan Al-Marsoos: The limits of military engagement and Daesh’s hidden strength

On the surface, military engagement seems to have been effective against Daesh in Sirte. Since April 2016, a largely Misratan force under the banner of the GNA’s operation Buryan Al-Marsoos (BAM) has been fighting Daesh. They controlled almost 95 per cent of Sirte as of mid-October 2016 and could be close to capturing the entire city. They have also successfully targeted the leader, the Libyan Hassan Karami, and followed a ‘deck of cards’ approach, seeking to eliminate the Syrians and Iraqis sent to lead Daesh’s efforts.

Operationally, however, it is Daesh’s discrete middle tier that is perhaps its most lethal component, and its most neglected feature. This middle tier is considerably different from the rest of the organisation in that it is not sent to govern, but to fight. It is dominated by battle-hardened fighters and military operatives mainly from Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Tunisia.

This middle tier bears little resemblance to Daesh as a group. While the Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Tunisian leadership communicate within the ranks in Arabic, and communicate through the group’s magazine Dabiq and videos in English and Arabic, the middle cohort of the affiliated group in Libya is French-speaking. They make up the military engine of the organisation. They are experienced in combat and insurgencies. They are defectors of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-linked groups, such as Al-Murabitun, and veterans of long-standing rebellions and conflict in the Sahel.

According to sources within BAM, a significant number fled in the weeks leading up to Operation Buryan Al-Marsoos. They can now be found in Ubari close to the Algerian border, south of Sirte in the village of Hneywa and have created a small cell close to Sabha.

Having lost Sirte, Daesh has been downgraded as a force in Libya and is now without territory. However, one should be concerned by the lack of effort by Libyan authorities and international forces to focus on this middle cadre as a fighting force. Given the chaotic situation in the country with the ongoing civil war, which the international community is no longer actively trying to resolve, this could provide Daesh with a springboard for further action.

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