Monthly ISIS Risk Assessment

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October ISIS in Libya Risk Update: As at 10 October 2016

In September, there was a significant shift in the balance of power towards Field Marshall Haftar, and away from the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA), after his forces seized the oil crescent ports. On 11 September, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) executed a well-planned military operation to seize control of the oil crescent ports from the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) units loyal to Ibrahim Jadhran, who had been guarding them. Jadhran loyalists either defected or fled, and although they attempted a counter-attack on Ras Lanuf and Sidra, this was easily rebuffed. Although the GNA and the international community initially condemned the takeover, they backtracked and welcomed the move after the LNA handed the ports’ operations over to the internationally-recognised National Oil Corporation (NOC) which then lifted force majeure and resumed oil exports.

By early October, the Misratan-led al-Bunyan al-Marsus (BM) militias, who are nominally aligned with the GNA, had come very close to driving Islamic State (ISIS) out of Sirte with the support of American air strikes. On 2 October, BM forces attempted a renewed push into the ISIS enclave but suffered heavy losses: 8 fighters died and 50 were injured in the assault, although BM forces said that as many as 55 ISIS militants were killed. A Dutch photojournalist, Jeroen Oerlemans, was also killed by an ISIS sniper in an area of Sirte supposedly controlled by BM forces. As and when Misratan forces claim victory against ISIS in Sirte, they may turn their attention towards LNA positions, currently located only 50km east of Sirte. Alternatively, the nexus of conflict may shift to Tripoli, where fears of Haftar being brought into the current UN peace process are stoking tensions among Islamist and anti-Haftar forces. This instability increases the likelihood of clashes and revenge attacks taking place between rival militias, including jihadi and non-jihadi groups, across the country. In addition, if Haftar is formally included within the UN peace process then the risk of revenge attacks by jihadi militias against international assets and personnel will be severe. In mid September, two Italians and a Canadian were kidnapped in south-western Libya, where they were working on a new airport project.

In Benghazi, the LNA continues to battle jihadist forces in the south-western neighbourhoods of Ganfuda and Guwarsha. The LNA is making use of air support and a heavy artillery barrage against militant positions, however, the jihadists’ ability to launch pinprick attacks does not yet appear to have been significantly reduced. In Tripoli, anti-LNA Islamist militias have attempted to rally their forces and in the second half of September, there was a spate of kidnappings and assassinations carried out by Islamist militias and local pro-GNA Tripoli militias against each other, as both jostle for the upper hand in Tripoli. At present, the risk of full-scale military conflict breaking out in Tripoli is low-moderate, but the risk of jihadi groups or other militias carrying out attacks against the GNA and their allies is high.

September ISIS in Libya Risk Update: As at 10 September 2016

By early September, the Misratan-led al-Bunyan al-Marsus (BM) militias, who are nominally aligned with the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) had retaken large swathes of Sirte from Islamic State (ISIS) fighters with the support of American airstrikes. This has led to deepening tensions between General Khalifa Haftar’s anti-GNA Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Tubruq-based House of Representatives (HoR) on one side, and the GNA and Misratan forces on the other. Although the LNA are also fighting against ISIS and other jihadist groups in Benghazi and other areas of eastern Libya, a victory by BM forces in Sirte is could shift the balance of political legitimacy and military power towards Misrata and the GNA. Against this backdrop, the HoR’s vote on 22 August to reject the GNA ministerial list submitted by the UN-brokered Presidential Council (PC), after delaying the decision for over eight months, should be understood as an attempt to undermine the GNA’s legitimacy  and reduce its ability use potential victory in Sirte to bolster its control over Libya.

The ability of ISIS to make frontal offensives has been significantly harmed over the last month; the Misratan forces and their US allies have cornered the remaining ISIS fighters in Sirte a small area of the city and it is likely that they will take complete control of the remaining enclave in the near future. Nevertheless, the ability of ISIS to launch pinprick attacks does not appear to have been significantly reduced despite their military defeats. Indeed ISIS launched a number of retaliatory suicide attacks throughout August against the GNA forces in Sirte, killing and wounding many fighters. At least 400 members of the Misratan force have been killed since May and more than 1,500 wounded, with dozens of fighters killed on single days by suicide bombs, snipers and mines. The threat of targeted attacks by ISIS and other jihadist groups against the Libyan and international forces massing against it is severe.

President Obama’s 30-day extension of American air strikes in Sirte at the end of August, and the continued presence of small numbers of elite Western intelligence forces on the ground (providing support to militias fighting against ISIS and other jihadists), means that anti-Western sentiment is likely to be high and the risk of revenge attacks against international assets and personnel is elevated.

A fresh LNA surge in south-western Benghazi areas made some gains against IS and other jihadist elements in late August, but the advance is prompting the jihadists to retaliate aggressively with targeted suicide attacks. In Derna, tensions between the Derna Shura Mujahedeen Council (DMSC) forces controlling the city, and the LNA are escalating. The DMSC published a statement on 2 September eulogizing three of its fighters who died in a botched suicide attack, after bombs in their possession exploded. The incident is likely to further stoke the threat of a new conflict in the city between supporters of the LNA and the DMSC. In Tripoli, hard-line Islamists continue to rally supporters to demonstrate against the GNA. Local sources indicate that a steady stream of hard-line fighters from the Benghazi Defence Brigades are assembling in Tripoli to chase away the GNA and free fellow jihadists held in Tripoli jails. The threat of the capital falling into conflict between rival militias is high.

 

August ISIS in Libya Risk Update: As at 9 August 2016

Libya’s UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) has so far failed to unite the country’s competing regional and tribal factions and throughout July tensions deepened between General Haftar’s anti-GNA Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east and the Misratan militias who nominally support the GNA in the west, despite both factions fighting against Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist forces on separate fronts. These tensions were exacerbated by French President Francoise Hollande’s admission on 20 July that French troops are providing support to Haftar’s LNA forces on the ground in Benghazi, followed by the launch of American airstrikes against ISIS targets in Sirte on 1 August.

These developments mean that anti-western sentiment is likely to be high and the risk of revenge attacks against international assets and personnel is elevated. Furthermore, the Americans and French are providing support to opposing militias, despite both the Misratans and Haftar’s LNA fighting against Islamist forces. Such uncoordinated intervention likely to worsen Libya’s situation by unwittingly push the country towards renewed division and factionalism without addressing the underlying causes of the conflict.

The ability of ISIS to make frontal offensives has been further harmed over the last month due to the American airstrikes which successfully targeted ISIS tanks, ammunition depots and rocket launchers in Sirte, and boosted morale among the GNA’s Misratan-led Bunyan Marsus operations room who are leading the offensive against ISIS in the city. However, airstrikes will only have limited impact in a populated, built-up urban environment and the ability of ISIS to launch pinprick attacks does not appear to have been significantly reduced despite their military defeats. Indeed ISIS launched a number of retaliatory suicide attacks throughout July against the GNA forces in Sirte, killing and wounding many fighters. The threat of targeted attacks by ISIS and other jihadist groups against the Libyan and international forces massing against it is severe.

In mid-July, a newly formed Islamist front calling itself the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), made up of a number of the militias fighting against Haftar’s LNA in the east, made advances towards Ajdabiya and Benghazi and claimed to be responsible for downing a French helicopter, killing three French soldiers. While support for the BDB in western Libya appears to have grown throughout July as frustrations with the GNA have increased, the 23 July announcement by Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) leader Mukhtar Bel Moktar in support of the BDB fight against the French is likely to put the Islamist factions in an untenable position of being formally recognised as a terrorist Al Qaeda affiliate. By early August the LNA had halted the momentum of the BDB forces in the east however the formation of the BDB marks yet another realignment of Libyan power structures which could lead to further violence and instability across the country.

 

July ISIS in Libya Risk Update: As at 8 July 2016

Libya’s UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) has so far failed to unite the country’s competing regional and tribal factions and has yet to receive ratification from the House of Representatives (HoR). The east-west power struggle in Libya intensified throughout June as General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) continued to gain ground against jihadist groups in Benghazi and Ajdabiya, while Misratan forces aligned to the GNA made significant gains against Islamic State (ISIS) in Sirte. However, the Misratan forces are becoming increasingly hostile to the GNA, in part due to the perceived failure of the GNA to fully support, reward or compensate them. This bitterness could increase the likelihood of a new Misratan-Islamist convergence against the GNA once the anti-ISIS campaign in Sirte has concluded, paradoxically meaning an uptick in violence and instability would be likely as power structures are realigned.

The ability of ISIS and other jihadist groups to make frontal offensives has been significantly harmed over the last month due to the GNA’s success in retaking key areas of Sirte, and the LNA’s success in retaking parts of Benghazi. The GNA’s Misratan-led Bunyan Marsus operations room launched a massive ground assault on 21 June in an attempt to capture the centre of Sirte and as of early July, the GNA forces had managed to retake the port from ISIS and were closing in on ISIS headquarters.

ISIS launched a number of suicide attacks throughout June against the mainly Misratan forces who are leading the offensive against ISIS in Sirte. One suicide attack on 16 June in the strategic village of Abu Grein 130 km west of Sirte killed at least 10 Misratan militiamen. The ability of ISIS to launch pinprick attacks does not appear to have been reduced despite their military defeats and indeed the group are more likely than ever to launch high impact terrorist attacks given they are currently on the back foot militarily and need to divert attention from territorial losses. The threat of retaliatory attacks by ISIS and other jihadist groups against the Libyan and international forces massing against them is severe.

The LNA made more strategic gains in Benghazi in late June, eradicating the final pockets of militants from the south western areas of the city, and launching a new full assault on the last remaining stronghold of ISIS and jihadist militants in Benghazi city centre areas on 3 July. Ibrahim Jadhran’s GNA-allied Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) forces also demobilised from Ajdabiya in early July leaving Haftar’s LNA forces to reassert control in the town and the surrounding oil fields. Jihadist forces carried out several retaliatory car bombings in late June and early July in Benghazi, killing both security personnel and civilians.

Given the speed of the GNA-aligned forces’ advances in Sirte it is very likely that western intelligence agencies are supporting the GNA’s offensive against ISIS forces. However, politically Libya is on a knife edge and any international intervention which allies itself with certain militias on the ground may unwittingly push the country towards renewed division and factionalism.

 

June ISIS  in Libya Risk Update: As at 2 June, 2016

Libya’s UN-brokered Government of National Unity (GNA) has so far failed to unite the country’s competing regional and tribal factions and by early June the body was facing heavy criticism from Libyans across the country due to the escalating currency crisis, the rapid collapse of public services, and the continuing tug-of war over who has legitimate control of Libya’s key institutions.

The House of Representatives (HoR) has still not ratified the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government and against the backdrop of a political stand-off over who should have supreme command of the Libyan army (the GNA or General Haftar, head of the so-called Libyan National Army),  the  relative success of GNA-allied forces’ in driving back Islamic State (ISIS) forces around Sirte in late May could paradoxically lead to increased tensions between rival blocs and militias, meaning an uptick in violence and instability as power structures are realigned. Most crucially, Libya is poised for a revenge attack by ISIS to divert attention from its territorial losses. This is the pattern that has been set in Iraq and there is no reason why it should not hold in Libya as well.

The GNA’s Misratan-led assault on ISIS in Sirte suffered serious setbacks at the start of the operation in May and a high number of casualties were sustained. However, various militias from Misrata and Western Libya continue to join the effort and as of early June the GNA had managed to regain significant ground lost in previous weeks to ISIS and had retaken the towns of Abu Grein, Zamzam and Al Washka. The city of Sirte remains under ISIS control but the area controlled by the group has been significantly reduced. The threat of retaliatory attacks by ISIS and other jihadist groups against the Libyan and international forces massing against it is severe, particularly in Misrata and Tripoli. The ability of the groups to make frontal offensives have been harmed but their ability to launch pinprick attacks is likely to be unaffected. Indeed, ISIS is more likely than ever to launch suicide bombings or other high impact terrorist attacks given they are currently on the back foot militarily.

The momentum of Haftar’s Libyan National Army’s (LNA), built up during the first quarter of 2016 as a result of victories against ISIS in Benghazi and Ajdabiya, has slightly waned during May in part due to the significant (counter) momentum of the GNA’s forces against ISIS west of Sirte and the gains made by the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) east of Sirte at the end of May. PFG units took control of a number of oil fields at the end of May, including Al Jabal and Waha Al Waha. Additionally, as of early June reports confirmed that PFG forces were securing Bin Jawwad town centre and were at the outskirts of Nawfaliyah. PFG leader Ibrahim Jadhran’s widely rumoured links with ISIS and his tribal relations in Bin Jawwad and Nawfaliyah mean that the PFG’s control of these towns may only be surface deep and is likely to be transient.  LNA supporters suggest that a deal was cut between Jadhran and ISIS to take Bin Jawwad and Nawfaliyah, provided he does not advance further west and continues to block the LNA’s advance to Sirte. As a result of these advances, there is growing tension between Haftar and the PFG which could easily escalate to

The international community continues to push ahead with plans to intervene decisively in Libya. On 23 May EU foreign ministers agreed that EU NAVFOR Med, the EU’s anti migrant-smuggling naval operation also known as Operation Sophia, would be extended by one year and given the explicit task of training the Libyan coastguard and navy, while on 27 May, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain plans to send a warship to help intercept arms smuggling to IS in Libya once it has a UN mandate to do so.

In short, we are likely to witness more de-facto international intervention as different countries step up direct support to allied Libyan power brokers on the ground and at sea to fight ISIS.  However, politically Libya is on a knife edge and any international intervention which allies itself with certain militias on the ground to the exclusion of others may unwittingly push the country towards renewed division and factionalism.

 

May 2016 ISIS in Libya Risk Assessment

The relative optimism that followed the arrival of the UN mediated Presidential Council (PC) in Tripoli at the end of March has waned as the UN political process has lost momentum throughout April and early May. The House of Representatives (HoR) has still not ratified the UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA), and against the backdrop of a new political stand-off over oil between the GNA in Tripoli and the HoR in Tobruq and the ongoing ‘race’ to liberate Sirte from Islamic State (ISIS) forces, increased tensions between rival blocs and militias could lead to an uptick in violence and instability as power structures are realigned. Furthermore throughout April the appetite for military intervention against ISIS in Libya has strengthened, meaning the risk of retaliatory attacks by ISIS against anti-ISIS Libyan forces and Western assets is severe.

Key Tripoli and Misratan militias have declared their support for the UN mediated Government of National Accord and are making preparations to move against ISIS’ stronghold in Sirte. Misratan forces, affiliated with the Presidency Council also began mobilising forces and aircraft from Misrata’s aviation base reportedly hit targets in Sirte port on 28 April. On 6 May ISIS forces seized the strategically significant Abu Grein crossroads 120 kilometres to the south of Misrata, reportedly killing eight people in the attack and wounding several more. In response, Misratan forces mobilised with the aim of countering this fresh ISIS offensive on their doorstep. Consequently the threat of ISIS attacks against both Misrata and Tripoli are currently extremely severe.

The city of Sirte is entirely under ISIS control and the group has a presence along 200 km of coast stretching from Abu Grein in the west to Nafiliya and Bin Jawad in the east. ISIS is reportedly entrenching and consolidating its forces in anticipation of a multi-pronged assault from various Libyan actors. Aerial reconnaissance by western aircraft is ongoing and the threat of airstrikes is extremely high. Currently positioned in Ajdabiya and Marada, General Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) began mobilising forces towards Sirte in late April. The risk of ISIS attacks and military operations is extremely severe in this area.

ISIS forces withdrew from Derna in April after a year of intense battles against the DMSC and Haftar’s LNA forces who had forged a tenuous alliance against the group. The local Derna Mujahedeen Shura Council (DMSC), who gained control of the city following the ISIS exit, reportedly agreed to transfer the port to official GNA-affiliated ‘state’ control. Given this defeat and the anti-ISIS forces focus on Sirte, the threat of ISIS attacks in the city is reduced from severe to high.

Large areas of Benghazi are currently controlled by LNA forces however battles between the LNA and a coalition of Jihadist militias are on-going in the south-western areas of the city. The threat of terrorist attacks and renewed military offensives in the city remains high.

The international community continues to push ahead with plans to intervene decisively in Libya. The UK Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood said on 3 May that there is planning for 1,000 British troops to engage in a Libya intervention, along with Italy, Germany, Spain and France who have all offered to contribute troops.

We are likely to witness more de-facto international intervention as different countries step up direct support to allied Libyan power brokers on the ground to fight ISIS. We are already seeing this with different international actors supporting different militias. Reports suggest that this support will not be exclusively vested in Haftar or the LNA but could also include Misratan forces among others. ISIS is very likely to respond to any Western intervention or training mission by targeting Western assets, personnel and infrastructure.

Despite the obvious urgency for such international assistance to counter ISIS in Libya, and the existence of a nearly legitimately constituted Government of National Accord (GNA) which could invite international powers to intervene, Libya is far from unified against ISIS as regional, tribal and political rivalries continue to divide the nation. The main theatre of military operation is currently centred on Sirte, with Misratan militias advancing from the west and Haftar’s LNA forcing advancing from the east, with other LNA-affiliated units expected to join from the south. However underlying regional and political divisions are shaping the battle as a competitive rather than a cooperative effort, between (an increasingly illegitimate) UN mediated Presidency Council and affiliated forces (mainly) Misratan on forces on the one hand and the Haftar-led LNA on the other.

Libya is on a knife edge and any international intervention which allies itself with certain militias on the ground may unwittingly push the country towards renewed division and factionalism.

April 2016 ISIS in Libya Risk Assessment

The relatively peaceful arrival on 30 March of the UN mediated Presidential Council (PC) in Tripoli and the council’s subsequent discussions with the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) and the National Oil Corporation (NOC) has led to renewed optimism that a functional unity government can be established. However, the PC’s arrival in Tripoli has also increased tensions between rival blocs and militias and could lead to an uptick in violence and instability as power structures are realigned.

The threat of ISIS and other non-state actor attacks on the PC in Tripoli are very high, although the naval base where prime minister designate Fayez al-Sarraj and his ministers have set up camp is highly secured by the Nawasi Brigade—part of the Ministry of the Interior’s security department under the UN mediated government.

The risk of retaliatory attacks by Islamic State (ISIS) against anti-ISIS Libyan forces and Western assets is severe following several defeats for Islamist forces in the east, the US bombing of an ISIS camp in Sabratha in late February and the presence of American, British and French special forces on the ground and aircraft in the skies over the ISIS stronghold in Sirte.

The city of Sirte is entirely under ISIS control. Unidentified aerial reconnaissance is being undertaken by the US, UK and France, with reports of an airstrike on Sirte port on 31 March. ISIS has a presence along 200 km of coast stretching from Abu Grein in the west to Nafiliya and Bin Jawad in the east. The risk of ISIS attacks and military operations is extremely severe in this area.

Battles between ISIS and the Derna Mujahedeen Shura Council allied with General Hafter’s Libyan National Army (LNA) continue in and around Derna. LNA airstrikes also continue to target ISIS positions on the eastern coast of the city. The LNA’s seizure of key areas of Benghazi and Ajdabiya in February, combined with an increased appetite for military intervention against ISIS in Libya among Western nations, could allow Haftar’s forces to expand their influence in the east and counter ISIS’ growing power. On the other hand, external intervention could result in a backlash against HoR-aligned forces and foreign interests and could turn Libya’s oil crescent into a key battleground, increasing the risk ISIS retaliation. ISIS is very likely to respond to any Western intervention or training mission by targeting Western assets, personnel and infrastructure.

The international community continues to push ahead with plans to intervene decisively in Libya, including statements to that effect by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In late March, French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called for the international community to be prepared to help the new unity government in Libya if they ask for support, including on the military front.

We may witness more de-facto international intervention as different countries step up direct support to allied Libyan power brokers on the ground to fight ISIS. We are already seeing this with different international actors supporting different militias. Reports suggest that this support will not be exclusively vested in Haftar or the LNA but could also include Misratan forces among others.

Despite the obvious urgency for such international assistance to counter ISIS in Libya, and the existence of a nearly legitimately constituted Government of National Accord (GNA) which could invite international powers to intervene, Libya is far from unified against ISIS as regional, tribal and political rivalries continue to divide the nation. Indeed, Libya is on a knife edge and any international intervention which allies itself with certain militias on the ground may unwittingly push the country towards renewed division and factionalism.

 

March 2016 ISIS Risk Assessment

In February, Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadists forces were weakened by the advances made by Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) forces in eastern Libya while in the west US airstrikes against a suspected ISIS camp in Sabrata led to -insurgency operations by Libyan and Tunisian forces in the area after ISIS forces temporarily took over the main town square and the coastal road, and beheaded 12 people.

It appears that the shock presence of IS fighters in Sabrata and Haftar’s unexpected victories in Benghazi and Ajdabiya have galvanised the first credible hints of an anti-ISIS coalition being formed between Libyan groups who are usually sworn enemies. Nevertheless ISIS’s hold over Sirte and surrounding areas remains strong and the opening of a new frontline against ISIS in the west indicates that ISIS’ influence in Libya is wide-reaching.

The US airstrikes against Tunisian jihadists in Sabrata on February 19th indicated that military developments on the ground have become dominate over the UN’s stalled Libya Peace Agreement process for which they can no longer wait to gain approval. Despite the obvious urgency for such international assistance to counter ISIS in Libya, the political disconnect between the UN and international missions with the Libyan context, present a highly risky outlook in the near-medium term for the country.

Shocked into action by the unexpected show of strength from IS in the Sabrata area, various local forces who are part of the anti-Libya Dawn coalition coordinated with Libya Dawn fighters in the area to capture or kill the IS fighters. The Field Operations Room under the direction of the Sabrata local council managed to hunt down and kill 20 ISIS fighters in early March. While evacuating the city some fighters fled towards the border and  clashed with the Tunisian military, whereas other IS fighters fled south into Jfara region. At least six people were killed and two injured in deadly clashes near the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane.

In late February Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces retook Ajdabiya in the Oil Crescent from ISIS forces following weeks of fierce fighting for the strategic oil town. ISIS continued to launch attacks against oil infrastructure in the area throughout February however their defeat at the hands of Haftar’s forces in Benghazi and Ajdabiya is likely to limit their ability to launch offensives in the east.

The offensive launched by Haftar on 20 February against the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), as well as extremists affiliated with Ansar Al Sharia and ISIS, saw LNA units advance considerably on all battlefronts in the city, retaking key areas although battles continue in other parts of the city.

Despite these defeats ISIS and Ansar Al Sharia media outlets continue to operate and disseminate propaganda suggesting that they are ‘winning’. The degradation of media credibility, previously a core tenant of IS and AAS appeal indicates the extent of the collapse they are suffering.

Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces have been fighting since May 2014 to retake Benghazi and their success could pave the way for the formation of an anti-ISIS coalition including the federalists and pro-GNA Misratans, particularly given growing international support for a military approach to ISIS in Libya. On the other hand, Haftar’s recent victories, the stalling of the UN political agreement, and Europe and America’s current strategy of forming bilateral relations with various groups on the ground in an effort to combat ISIS could as easily exacerbate tensions further as the political impasse, spectre of foreign intervention and deepening economic crisis breed mutual suspicion, instability and insecurity.

If you would like a more detailed analysis of the threats ISIS poses to specific sectors, Libyan infrastructure or Western interests, please contact us at EyeOnISISinLibya@gmail.com