As ISIS loses key personnel and territory in its battles with local fighters in Benghazi and Sabratha, the group is being forced to expedite its plans of establishing an emirate in Southern Tunisia. Developments over the course of the last two weeks indicate that ISIS has yet to find a hospitable environment in Libya, especially where Libyans have the means and arms to combat the group.
After the 19 February US airstrike on an ISIS camp near Sabratha, the group engaged in two weeks of intermittent clashes with locals from Sabratha and the surrounding areas. At this time, ISIS militants seem to have dispersed, with some fleeing across the border to Tunisia. At least six people were killed, and two injured, in deadly clashes near Ben Guerdane (a Tunisian town on the Tunisian/Libyan border) on 5 March, before ISIS launched a full-scale attack on 7 March against a military compound and police station in the town.
According to Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid, 55 people died in the battle (35 ISIS members and 20 security officers and civilians), while another 17 were injured. The prime minister said that the terrorist attacks in Ben Guerdane aimed to establish an ISIS emirate in southern Tunisia. Tunisian authorities closed the Ben Guerdane and Djerba entry points, as well as the Libya border crossing at Ras Ejdir on 7 March. Investigations are on going, but the Tunisian Ministry of Defence has already published photographs of weapons and identification cards found with the attackers. Apparently, one Tunisian member of ISIS killed in the attack, Hassen Bousbiaa, was a Shariah judge for the group in Sirte.
Local witnesses in the Ben Guerdane said that the ISIS members who attacked the town were known residents and very familiar with the area. The attackers apparently even targeted policemen in street clothes. Witnesses who spoke with Tunisian media outlets said that most of ISIS attackers from Ben Guerdane had been gone for a long time, including one fighter who was reportedly missing for 6 months and thought to be killed in Syria. These stories point to the possibility that many of the Tunisian ISIS fighters, which are thought to be the majority nationality of foreign ISIS members in Syria and Iraq, have been redirected back to Libya.
In Libya’s Oil Crescent, an ISIS convoy at the ‘60km checkpoint’ was intercepted on 6 March by the Libyan NA 152 infantry brigade. Seven ISIS fighters were reportedly killed coming from Nawfaliyah, presumably heading towards Amal oilfield south of Ajdabiya. An ISIS video released on 5 March, titled ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate in Sidra’, featuring the positions of Petroleum Facilities Guardsmen near the oil silos. On 2 March, clashes occurred between ISIS and PFG fighters in Wadi Al Kahila, on the outskirts of Bin Jawwad, 40 km east of Sidra.
ISIS-linked al-Amaq published photographs showing damage caused from what it says were ‘Libya Dawn airstrikes’ in Sirte. Residents reported that ISIS was clearing Ibn Sina Hospital of emergency medical supplies and transporting them to an unknown location, possibly to Bin Jawwad and Nawfaliyah, as rumours of ISIS embarking on a new assault against Oil Crescent ports have intensified.