REPORT: The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya

June 20, 2017

For the past three decades, Libya has been a rich recruiting ground for the global jihad. Investigating the precursors and then subsequent evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist actors throughout this period presents actionable insights into how jihadist actors coalesce; how they interfere in post-conflict state building; the threats they pose to civilians, nascent economies, and external states; and finally, what complexities remain when their hold on territory has been eradicated, but their adherents have not been killed nor their ideology debunked. In “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya,” Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran examine ISIS’s pre-history, birth, expansion, consolidation, and dispersal in Libya, as well as the broader political context of the country –offering advice and recommendations for how Western governments and militaries should approach jihadist actors globally.

Over the last three years, ISIS has become the enemy of the vast majority of the Libyan people. By ignoring Libyan tribal norms — killing too many people and brutally crushing resistance — ISIS first lost the city of Derna in early 2015, and then later, its stronghold in the city of Sirte in late 2016. This fits into a larger regional dynamic, whereby ISIS’s brutality has tended to backfire, while its administrative capacity has won it support. As such, ISIS initially thrived in vulnerable localities in Libya because it exploited local cleavages and because previous central governments were reluctant to devolve power to local authorities. Surveying this history, the authors conclude that Western policy must seek to get militias and local councils to take ownership of governance and justice issues, rather than merely directing them to fight ISIS or other jihadists. True national reconciliation and inclusiveness in Libya, especially between formerly pro-Qaddafi actors and rebels, and between anti-Islamist and pro-Islamist actors, is required to end the cycle of statelessness and radicalization in Libya.

Significantly, this report sheds light on Libya’s constantly evolving position within the global jihadist networks connecting Afghanistan, Iraq, Europe, and North Africa. It is out of this milieu that Salman Abedi, the British-Libyan suicide bomber involved in the May 22, 2017, Manchester Arena attack, sprung. His father supported the al-Qaeda aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1990s, and it was a natural progression for Salman to transition from that milieu to ISIS. As western governments address this constantly evolving threat, they must understand that there is no such thing as a purely military strategy to defeat ISIS in Libya. The group is a symptom — rather than a cause — of broader Libyan problems, especially weak governance. The dysfunctional tyranny exercised by Libyan militias is at the heart of the country’s instability over the past five years and contributed to attracting ISIS. Therefore, the authors explain, any anti-ISIS strategy for Libya cannot be based on counterterror efforts alone; international and Libyan policy must treat the root causes that made Libya’s governance vacuum an effective incubator for jihadist operations.

Click here to read the full report. Click here to read the main findings and recommendations from the report.