Fighters loyal to the Islamic State continue to gain ground in the Libyan city of Sirte and its surrounding areas. Earlier today, one of the Islamic State’s official Libyan branches announced that its fighters have captured a power plant outside of the coastal city. The announcement, seen above, was posted online and disseminated via Twitter.
The Islamic State began targeting Sirte earlier this year, when the jihadists stormed a radio station, government buildings, a university, and a hospital. In May, the group’s fighters went on the offensive in the city again, seizing infrastructure points in the process. The jihadists took control of a military airbase and a civilian airport, as well as part of a massive Qaddafi-era water irrigation project.
Then, earlier this month, the Islamic State announced that its fighters had taken “complete control” of the village of Harawa, which is not far from Sirte. A photo set posted online (seen below) shows the Islamic State’s fighters congratulating one another after securing the village.
Sirte is not the only area of Libya under assault by the Islamic State’s fighters, who are located in several parts of the country. In February, the jihadists set up shop in the town of Nawfaliyah. The group continues to battle General Khalifa al Haftar’s forces in Benghazi, maintains a presence in Derna, and regularly attacks various targets in Misrata, Tripoli, and elsewhere.
The Islamic State has repeatedly targeted foreign embassies in Tripoli, but many of the diplomatic facilities have already been evacuated. However, in January, the group assaulted a hotel frequented by diplomats and Westerners. A former US Marine who was working as a security contractor was among the victims. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Former US Marine killed by Islamic State’s Tripoli ‘province’.]
These military assaults have been accompanied by the Islamic State’s usual barbarity, including mass killings of Christians and others.
The Long War Journal assesses that there are at least a few thousand jihadists in the Islamic State’s ranks inside Libya.
Since the height of the Iraq War, North Africa has housed a significant recruiting and facilitation pipeline. Many of the recruits sent to Iraq and Syria fought for the Islamic State and its predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq, providing Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization with a resource pool to draw from. The group has grown quickly in North Africa since last year by redeploying fighters from the heart of the Middle East, poaching members of other groups, and continuing with its own recruitment drives.
As with the mother organization in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is taking on multiple enemies inside Libya, including other jihadist and Islamist organizations.
In particular, the Islamic State has targeted Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), a coalition of militias. The two sides have fought one another in Sirte and elsewhere for months. After a Tunisian suicide bomber blew himself up at a Fajr Libya checkpoint last week, the group issued a threatening statement. “The apostates of Fajr Libya…must know that a war is coming to cleanse the land of their filth unless they repent and go back to their true religion,” Agence France Presse (AFP) quoted the Islamic State as saying.
The Islamic State’s Libyan Twitter feeds regularly advertise attacks on Fajr Libya forces. And the 8th edition of the Islamic State’s English-language Dabiq magazine includes an article that is harshly critical of the Islamist coalition. The Islamic State blasted Abdelhakim Belhadj and other former members of the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) for participating in one of Libya’s two rival governments.
“As the battle in Libya continues to intensify, the Islamic State enjoys greater consolidation,” the authors of Dabiq warned.
While the Islamic State has undoubtedly grown rapidly in Libya, its presence has been exaggerated in some ways. Last year, multiple press outlets erroneously reported that Baghdadi’s loyalists run the city of Derna. That isn’t true. The Islamic State has a significant contingent in Derna, and controls part of the city, but other jihadists remain entrenched.
In particular, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB), which was founded by LIFG veterans, continues to operate in Derna. The Islamic State and the ASMB have clashed on multiple occasions, with the ASMB issuing a lengthy warning to its jihadist rivals in May. The ASMB has even appealed to Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, a major pro-al Qaeda ideologue, for advice on how to confront the Islamic State.
Ansar al Sharia, which is part of al Qaeda’s international network, continues to fight on as well. The Islamic State has cooperated with Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi on occasion, and individual member have defected. But so far Ansar al Sharia has resisted calls to join Baghdadi’s legion of followers.
The Islamic State’s fighters in Harawa: