Fighters belonging to the Islamic State’s arm in Libya have reportedly withdrawn from their positions on the outskirts of the city of Derna. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists were opposed by rival jihadists inside the city. Airstrikes by the Libyan Army, the US and Egypt have also repeatedly hit the so-called “caliphate’s” fighting positions in the area over the past year and a half.
The Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in Derna, a jihadist alliance that stymied the Islamic State’s expansion plans, issued a statement earlier today (seen on the right) saying that Baghdadi’s men had fled their bases. The MSC announced the complete “liberation” of Derna.
Libyans on social media have posted videos and pictures of locals celebrating their departure. In addition, a spokesman for Libya’s military told Reuters that the jihadists are attempting to make their way to Sirte, which has become the Islamic State’s main operational hub in the North African nation.
Last year, the Islamic State’s Libyan branch openly clashed with its rivals in the MSC, which was established in late 2014 by the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB) and other groups in Derna. Fighters from the Islamic State assassinated key figures in the MSC in June 2015. But Baghdadi’s followers picked a fight they couldn’t win.
The MSC quickly ejected the Islamic State from its strongholds inside the heart of Derna, forcing the “caliphate’s” fighters to operate in Al Fatayih, on the eastern outskirts of the city, and in other outlying areas. The two sides continued to battle in the months that followed.
Both the MSC and the Islamic State have regularly produced propaganda trumpeting their fight against one another. In March, for instance, the Islamic State’s Al Naba newsletter included an infographic tallying the operations carried out against both the MSC and the Libyan military. For its part, the MSC has captured and killed key Islamic State figures in Derna. The MSC has also released videos of adolescents and other young men who were detained after allegedly being recruited by the “caliphate” to carry out suicide attacks in Derna.
Last year, the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, chastised the MSC for daring to resist his organization’s advances and called on MSC fighters to “repent.” The Islamic State’s supporters also created “Wanted Dead” banners for dozens of jihadists in the MSC and allied groups. The banners identified Hisham Ali Ashmawi, a former Egyptian special forces officer turned al Qaeda loyalist, as a key leader in the MSC’s battles against the “caliphate” in Derna. [See LWJ report, The Islamic State’s ‘wanted dead’ list in Libya.]
Abul Mughirah al Qahtani, who led the Islamic State’s efforts in Libya until he was killed in a US airstrike, also blasted the MSC in an issue of Dabiq magazine last year. Qahtani claimed that the ASMB had deviated from the true jihadist path by, among other things, providing security for Mustafa Abdul Jalil, then the chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council, “when he visited [Derna] and called to democracy.” Indeed, the ASMB referred the controversy over Jalil’s visit to Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, a jihadist ideologue closely allied with al Qaeda who is also a staunch critic of the Islamic State. Maqdisi ruled that it was permissible for the ASMB to ensure Jalil’s safety given the circumstances.
The MSC has multiple other links to al Qaeda’s global network. A declassified analysis written by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2012 claimed that the ASMB took orders from Ayman al Zawahiri’s liaison to Libya, Abdulbasit Azzouz, who was subsequently captured in Turkey. The ASMB is the strongest contingent within the MSC alliance. The MSC’s leaders assassinated by the Islamic State in June 2015 had their own ties to al Qaeda-affiliated groups and personalities. [See LWJ report, Veteran jihadists killed by Islamic State’s ‘province’ in Derna, Libya.]
Therefore, even though the Islamic State has been ejected from Derna, other pro-al Qaeda groups continue to operate in the extremist safe haven. In addition to the MSC, the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al Sharia also continues to operate training camps in Derna and target the Libyan military near there.