By Kamran Bokhari

Libya has once again made it to the top of the headlines, given the fears that it is becoming the biggest Islamic State sanctuary outside the group’s core turf in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Undoubtedly, IS has demonstrated considerable capability to exploit conditions in the energy-rich failed state, from where it has staged attacks in neighboring Tunisia. However, the group has to overcome several hurdles before it can truly render Libya a viable province of its so-called caliphate. The extent to which IS in Libya will expand depends on the internecine tribal-militia war in the country and the level of stability in neighboring countries Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt.

Attempts are being made to find a solution in Libya. On March 13, Libya’s U.N.-backed Presidential Council called for a transfer of authority to a unity government to bring an end to the infighting between two rival governments and scores of militias. Yet, other indicators show the crisis is far from over. On March 9, United Nations sanctions monitors said in a report to the Security Council that IS had greatly expanded its control over territory in Libya. A day earlier, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had presented the White House with a detailed plan to cripple the Libyan branch of IS. In addition, IS militants staged a cross-border attack on Tunisian security forces that left 50 people dead on March 7.

While conditions in Libya and the wider North African region serve as enablers, they also act as arrestors in the path of the transnational jihadist movement. Consequently, the IS organization in Libya is unlikely to rival that of the group’s core turf in Syria and Iraq – much less become a robust fallback option. However, Libya could serve as a key base of operations for IS’ division responsible for transcontinental terrorist attacks.

The Extent of IS’ Libyan Operations

Since last summer when IS completed its takeover of the central Libyan town of Sirte, there has been a growing international clamor over the rise of IS in Libya. News outlets have published some very detailed reports on the genesis of the Libyan branch of the transnational jihadist movement. As usual, the collection of intelligence has been meticulous, however, the analysis of the obtained information is quite lacking. There is almost a consensus among observers that Sirte is Raqqa in the making and that Libya will become IS’ core territory if it is uprooted from Syria and Iraq.

A lot of these views are the result of over-relying on IS propaganda. Our assessment is that IS will not be uprooted from its core turf anytime soon and we have explained our position in detail. As is the case with the IS parent entity, no one seems to have a good sense of the numerical strength of its Libyan affiliate. The estimates vary from 2,000 to 5,000 fighters, although these numbers are inconsistent with IS’ geographical reach, which is estimated to be 150 miles running both east and west of Sirte along the Mediterranean coast.

This 150-mile figure does not include the areas under IS control or influence south of the city or in other parts of the country. It is highly unlikely that only 5,000 IS fighters are able to control the areas in three directions beyond Sirte. Even in Sirte – with a population of 80,000 – controlling and, more important, governing the city would require far more people. It is astonishing that the reports on Sirte detail how IS is engaged in various governance activities, without explaining how this is possible with such limited numbers. For IS to be able to rule 150 miles of territory and project power towards the areas under the control of Libya’s rival governments – one based in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk – its personnel is likely near the 10,000 mark.

The Difference Between Libya and Syria/Iraq

Being off on the number of IS fighters, however, pales in comparison to the assumption that the group will expand in Libya just as it did in Syria and Iraq. The logic in this argument is simplistic and follows from the fact that the North African country has seen regime collapse and the presence of two rival authorities and many local and regional militias not beholden to the competing governments. All things being equal, these conditions provide IS with the opportunity to grow in Libya. However, the anarchy in Libya is qualitatively different from the ground conditions in Syria and Iraq that allowed IS to emerge as a major military force.

Libya, being a Sunni-majority country, is free of the sectarianism that has been the most important factor that turned IS into the massive entity that it currently is in Syria and Iraq. The disenfranchisement of Iraq’s Sunni minority after the fall of Saddam Hussein was something that IS’ predecessor group massively exploited. In addition, the regional Sunni-Shiite polarization stemming from the Saudi-Iranian conflict exponentially enhanced the sectarian conflict within Iraq. By the time the civil war broke out in Syria in late 2011, IS was already well positioned in Iraq to take advantage of the Alawite regime’s efforts to crush the rising led by the country’s Sunni majority. The Saudi desire to roll back Iranian influence by backing Salafist-jihadist militias to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime worked to the advantage of IS.

The conditions in the two neighboring countries along with the fact that IS had a decade’s worth of experience allowed it to seize a large chunk of territory. While IS quickly eclipsed other rebel groups in Syria, in Libya, it remains a small force and only emerged three years after the civil war broke out. Sectarianism allowed IS to supplant local customs and religious views in Syria and Iraq and foreign fighters found a very hospitable environment. In Libya, however, IS’ austere ideology is very alien even to Libyan Salafists and jihadists. Many Libyans practice a less rigid form of Islam, which is inspired by the mystical Sufi tradition and the Maliki school of thought.

The fact that the Saddam regime was ousted through a U.S. military intervention, whereas Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown through a popular uprising, is also an important difference that limits IS’ spread in Libya. The forces that overthrew Gaddafi – though divided into two rival governments and numerous city-states run by militias – remain stronger than IS.

It is therefore not surprising that a 24-page United Nations report leaked to the media in December concluded that the group’s ability to control more territory beyond the areas around Sirte is circumscribed in no small part due to the fact that foreigners are in charge of the IS organization in Libya. The IS elite consists of non-Libyans dispatched by the operations in Iraq and Syria. Some of them are Iraqis and others are from the Persian Gulf region, whereas the foot soldiers are from other Arab and African countries. This foreign element becomes a bigger problem because of resentment from the locals who do not share IS’ extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

The Significance of Sirte

Before it established itself in Sirte, IS was focused on the eastern town of Derna, but was ousted by a popular uprising in June 2015, which supported a rival Salafist-jihadist militia alliance. Even in Sirte, IS faced dissent from a particular quarter of the city and had to call in reinforcements from Nawfiliyah. It killed a prominent Salafist cleric who openly denounced IS and many of his supporters from the Ferjani tribe. IS’ ability to take control of Sirte is informed by other unique factors – most significant of which is that the town was a stronghold of Gaddafi and the site of his capture in 2011.

During the nearly four years between the death of Gaddafi and the rise of IS, an al-Qaida-linked jihadist force called Ansar al-Sharia, which was responsible for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in 2012, was a major player in Sirte. IS came about in large part because the majority of that group, unlike in other parts of Libya, embraced the IS banner. These conditions allowed IS to expand from the small town of Nawfiliyah (approximately 90 miles east of Sirte with a population of 26,000), which the group had taken in February 2015. Harawa was another village, with a population of 3,000 people halfway between Sirte and Nawfiliyah, that fell to IS as part of the offensive on Sirte.

IS has also taken over towns west of Sirte, including al-Wushka and Abu Grein, about 60 miles west of Sirte, and Wadi Zamzam, 105 miles west of Sirte. Each of these are small villages compared to Sirte. While these areas are not far from oil infrastructure, IS does not currently control any energy installations. Even if it were to take control of some fields, it is unlikely to be able to sell oil on the scale that it has in Syria, which has the benefit of Turkey as a commercial conduit. In the case of Libya, IS will be struggling for control over these assets with the Tripoli and Tobruk governments as well as the other local militias. Sirte is also far from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria and too isolated by hostile territory for IS to be able to sell oil outside the country. Its growth is further constrained by its dependence on cash from Syria and Iraq.

Considering that the two rival government authorities have made recent progress towards a settlement and that Western powers led by the U.S. have started airstrikes, IS’ ability to expand in Libya is limited. Despite this, IS will continue to be a player in the country. The leadership in Syria and Iraq realize this situation and thus likely hope to use the area as a launch pad for attacks in Europe and North America. In the future, IS in Libya could also team up with IS in Nigeria (formerly known as Boko Haram), or join jihadists in the Sahel region and Somalia to expand the movement’s presence in Africa.


In essence, there is a need to distinguish between IS being able to control territory in Libya and the group’s ability to make use of the war-torn country to conduct terrorist attacks in the region and across the Mediterranean. The former is unlikely given the domestic and international hurdles in its path. The latter, however, will be determined by three factors: whether the lone democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring, Tunisia, is able to forge a viable political economy; the extent to which the political and security situation deteriorates in Egypt; and whether Algeria is able to peacefully transition out of the current presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.