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Research Report

The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya

Jason Pack
Rhiannon Smith
Karim Mezran
Copyright Date: Jun. 1, 2017
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 64
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 7-8)

    Libya has traditionally occupied a unique position on the global jihadist circuit, in part due to the Qaddafi-era repression that inspired homegrown jihadism. Since the Afghani mujahadeen in the 1980s, Libyans have been overrepresented per capita amongst foreign fighters in the world’s jihadist hotspots, but their motivations for fighting have often differed from those of their peers. They have not generally ascribed to the same extreme interpretation of Islam as, for example, their Saudi counterparts.14 Instead, their motivation to fight has tended to stem from local political grievances, with the skills and connections developed through jihad overseas being brought to...

  2. (pp. 9-11)

    Although the 2011 uprisings against Qaddafi were initiated by non-Islamist27civil society activists, lawyers, returned diaspora intellectuals, and disaffected young people, jihadist groups flocked helter-skelter to the uprisings within a matter of days, despite their recent reconciliation with the regime. A fatwa issued by the soon-to-be Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariani, in which he articulated an Islamic legitimacy for the anti-Qaddafi uprisings, was instrumental in early recruitment. In the words of a Tripolitanian revolutionary fighter we interviewed:

    This critical moment changed Libya’s uprisings from a nationalist/civil society dominated affair to an ideological one. Ghariani invoked a clear divine directive to Libyan youth...

  3. (pp. 12-14)

    After the uprisings, the NTC attempted to bring various militia actors under government control, including militias associated with jihadist groups, but opted for a quicker deputization of militias through the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) and the Libya Shield Forces (LSF) rather than a more drawn out demobilization, demilitarization, and reintegration (DDR) process. As a result, militias were brought into the NTC’s command and control structures and were able to continue to operate independently from the post-uprisings state, while still drawing salaries.36 On one key occasion, while the uprisings were still underway, jihadist elements allegedly turned on the NTC leadership. On...

  4. (pp. 15-18)

    After the 2011 uprisings that overthrew Qaddafi, Libyans often expressed sympathy and support for Syrians who were still battling to depose their own repressive and violent dictator. As early as 2011, Libyan fighters were traveling to join existing jihadist factions, or even creating their own groups there.54 Benghazi and Derna again proved to be hotbeds for recruitment, with high levels of youth unemployment and historic community pressure to join the global jihad driving many young men to fight on new fronts.55 Some of these fighters joined the ISIS precursor groups, and some did not. In 2012, fighters from Derna created...

  5. (pp. 19-24)

    The structure of the wilayat, as recognized by al-Baghdadi in November 2014, reflected the three traditional Ottoman era provinces of Libya—Cyrenaica (or Barqa) in the east; Tripolitania in the west; and Fezzan in the southwest. After the early 2015 attacks, the Cyrenaica wilaya began releasing nearly weekly recruitment videos, calling on fighters to resist advances by General Haftar’s anti-Islamist Operation Dignity campaign in Benghazi.73 At the same time, the Tripolitanian wilaya focused on seizing more ground in Sirte, taking advantage of the surging numbers of foreign fighters entering Libya, as well as local support from former Ansar al-Sharia members...

  6. (pp. 25-29)

    Once evicted from central Derna in mid-2015, ISIS supporters occupied the peripheral sections of Derna until mid-2016. Rather than losing key commanders in these battles, ISIS was able to evacuate its critical personnel and reconstitute its command structure in a new, arguably stronger, headquarters in Sirte. Unlike Derna, Sirte, as the hometown of the dictator, held a place of privilege among Libyan cities during the Qaddafi regime. But after the 2011 uprisings, it joined Derna as one of a number of cities and towns that failed to be adequately incorporated into new governance structures. Sirte was one of the final...

  7. (pp. 30-34)

    Since the 2011 uprisings against Qaddafi, Western governments and the UN have focused on developing relationships primarily with national-level interlocutors, reflecting Western governments’ relative comfort working with state—as opposed to non-state—actors. Foreign capitals urged Libya’s successive transitional governments to focus on elections, reconstruction, economic development, and the strengthening of national security institutions, including a national army and police force. While seemingly sensible areas of focus,127 Libyan governments and foreign missions assumed that these matters should be handled at a national level. Yet, meaningful authority in Libya had largely devolved to the local level. While the series of national...

  8. (pp. 35-39)

    On May 5 and 6, 2016, ISIS fighters carried out two suicide bombings against Misratan Military Council forces at Abu Grein, a village situated roughly halfway between Misrata and Sirte, killing several Misratans. This was the first time ISIS had threatened to extend their influence westward into Misratan-held territory.146 It appears this attack, and the direct threat posed by ISIS’s proximity to Misrata, finally provoked Misratan militias to launch a concerted counter-offensive against ISIS. As a result, Misratan militias joined the Misrata-Sirte Operations Room (which became al-Bunyan al-Marsus, BM) which was established by the PC following the Abu Grein attack...

  9. (pp. 40-45)

    ISIS’s options for future territorial expansion in Libya are limited in geographical terms, and there do not appear to be comparable replacement headquarters to Sirte easily available. ISIS has clearly moved south into the neglected Fezzan region and is trying to bolster its existing, but largely quiescent, wilaya there. This step has brought it into competition with rival jihadist groups that have occupied areas of Libya’s southwestern borderlands (sometimes referred to as the Salvador Triangle) for decades. It would also face robust and growing French (and potentially US) counter-terrorism assets located across the border at a base in Niger.174 Nonetheless,...

  10. (pp. 46-50)

    ISIS is a symptom of Libya’s underlying disease: lack of governance. The country does not require nation-building assistance writ large, nor does it need injections of development aid. Treating the cause of Libya’s instability, and not just its symptoms, requires targeted capacity-building programs that empower Libyan actors to fill the vacuums that have allowed for jihadist expansion. In its assistance efforts, Western actors, including the United States, should be wary and mitigate the risks of becoming embroiled in the complex environment.

    If the United States continues to prioritize countering ISIS globally and containing the migrant crisis, it will need to...