Islamic State’s Libyan ‘province’ launches new offensive

16-01-04 Islamic State assaults Bin Jawad

The Libyan “province” of the “caliphate” issued versions of this statement in Arabic and English earlier today.

The Islamic State’s so-called “province” in Libya has launched a new offensive and claims to have captured a town on the Mediterranean coast.

“The soldiers of the Khilafah [caliphate] managed to take complete control over the coastal city of Bin Jawad,” the Islamic State’s Wilayat Barqat (or province) said in a short statement released online earlier today. The “blessed operations come during the battle of Sheikh Abdul Mugirah al Qahtani (May Allah accept him), and all praise is due to Allah, master of the universe,” the statement continued.

In a concurrent operation, the “caliphate’s” fighters attacked the port town of Al Sidr, which is approximately 20 miles away from Bin Jawad and home to one of Libya’s largest oil ports. One or more suicide bombers may have initiated the assault after they struck guard positions with car bombs. Photos posted on social media appear to show the wreckage caused by their blasts, but the images have not yet been verified. The status of the fighting in Al Sidr is also not clear as of this writing.

Separately, the jihadists set fire to a storage tank at an oil facility in Ras Lanuf, another port that houses an oil refinery. Libya’s rival factions have long fought over access to Ras Lanuf.

Bin Jawad, Al Sidr and Ras Lanuf are all in the district of Sirte. The Islamic State’s Libyan arm took over much of the city of Sirte last year, turning it into an operational hub. Bin Jawad is also a short drive from the town of Nawfaliyah, which the “caliphate’s” men overran in March 2015. [See LWJ report, Islamic State ‘province’ in Libya claims capture of town.]

The Islamic State’s Libyan branch has repeatedly targeted the country’s oil infrastructure, some of which has been shut down for months or longer because of the violence. As in Iraq and Syria, the “caliphate” seeks to control key Libyan oil fields, refineries, ports and other facilities. It remains to be seen if today’s attacks, which are testing local security forces, lead to further advances.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s followers in Libya have named their new offensive after Sheikh Abdul Mugirah al Qahtani, who was identified in an issue of Dabiq magazine released last September as the head of the Islamic State’s province in the country. [See LWJ report, In Dabiq magazine, Islamic State complains about jihadist rivals in Libya.]

In his interview with Dabiq, Qahtani complained bitterly about the Islamic State’s jihadist rivals in Libya, including the leaders of Ansar al Sharia. Qahtani said Ansar al Sharia’s leaders are close to their counterparts in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which opposes the Islamic State’s expansion in North Africa. Qahtani promised that the “caliphate’s” opponents “will continue to be a target for our swords, which we will not hold back until they repent.”

Qahtani’s true identity has always been murky, as he was not clearly identified in the Islamic State’s propaganda.

CNN reported in November 2014 that an Islamic State leader known as Abu Nabil al Anbari, a jihadist “veteran” who was imprisoned with Baghdadi in Iraq, had been dispatched to Libya to oversee the group’s efforts. The Wall Street Journal offered a similar account, saying that Anbari was an ex-Iraqi policeman.

The Defense Department announced in November 2015 that Anbari was killed in a US airstrike in Libya. Anbari (also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi) “may have been the spokesman in” an Islamic State video showing the execution of Coptic Christians in February 2015, according to the Pentagon.

Anbari’s “death will degrade [the Islamic State’s] ability to meet the group’s objectives in Libya,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook claimed at the time. Cook said the organization’s objectives include “recruiting new…members, establishing bases in Libya, and planning external attacks on the United States.” In December 2015, the Pentagon claimed to confirm Anbari’s death, describing him as “a longtime al Qaeda operative and the senior [Islamic State] leader in Libya.” The airstrike that purportedly killed him was the first US “strike against an [Islamic State] leader in Libya.”

It is possible that Abdul Mugirah al Qahtani and Abu Nabil al Anbari were the same Islamic State official, but that has not been confirmed. Their aliases indicate different countries of origin (Anbari refers to Iraq, while Qahtani is generally used by jihadists from the Arabian Peninsula), but the jihadists often adopt new pseudonyms for various reasons. Regardless, the Islamic State, like al Qaeda, has proven to be adept at replacing fallen leaders. And Qahtani’s death did not stop the jihadists’ latest advances on Libya’s coast.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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1 Comment

  • Arjuna says:

    All this activity in Libya has me wondering if Islamic State’s Caliph Who’s Your Baghdaddy hasn’t made his way to North Africa to coordinate offensive operations against Europe. Two Americans gave an interview (available online) where they relayed a Libyan tribal leader’s account of Baghdadi in Sirte meeting in a concert hall w Ansar Al Sharia and Boko Haram leaders. Many separate press reports have placed him in Libya, all of them in Sirte. Certainly sounds like he’s got enough guys on the ground to settle in if he wants to.


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