Libya: ISIS makes comeback by claiming attack south of Sirte

In early December last year, the so-called Islamic State’s (ISIS) Libyan branch dislodged from its stronghold in the Mediterranean coastal town of Sirte — Following a more than seven months long battle against an alliance of militias refered to as Operation Bonyan al-Marsous (BAM), mainly from the city of Misrata. Only weeks after being fully dislocated from Sirte, the group’s fighters in Benghazi attempted a confused breakout from the district of Ganfouda knowing the battle in the city against the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA) was lost, thus better at least try to make it out alive to fight another day and join forces with the other remnants scattered in the Western Region and in the desert of the south.

Notwithstanding the loss of its Libyan capital, the organization has focused on reorganizing and regrouping its clandestine network across the territory, setting up camps and roaming the valleys south of Sirte and Bani Walid, and further down south towards the desert town of Sebha in the Fezzan. The group has maintained a significant media presence, mainly on the messaging application telegram, although no claims of responsibility have been attributed to ISIS in Libya since late December last year, with operations being limited to a few sporadic attacks, the setting up of fake checkpoints, and the group also being suspected of having sabotaged the Man-Made River. [See MENASTREAM report for more on ISIS remote attacks, Libya: ISIS attacks beyond the frontlines of central Sirte (interactive map)]

Two major camps in the valleys southwest of Sirte were on January 19 this year targeted by US B-2 Stealth Bombers, an air raid believed to have killed as many as 80 ISIS fighters. The airstrikes were followed up by combing operations and battle damage assessment by BAM forces who found destroyed technicals, several shelters, bunkers, explosive ordnances (likely to be used for VBIEDs and IEDs) and an explosive vest at one of the sites of the air raid.

Late on Saturday May 6, it was reported that fighters of Misrata’s Third Force had been attacked in Wadi Allod, a valley about 130km southwest of Sirte, between Abu Nujaym and Waddan. An ambush carried out by ISIS fighters which left 2 dead and 1 wounded in the ranks of the Third Force. Telegram channels associated with ISIS’ affiliates in both Libya and Egypt quickly began to celebrate the attack, calling it a “successful quality operation”, it was also evident in the communications that the group aimed to make a comeback after more than four months of silence, awaiting an official claim of responsibility emanating from the organization’s Syrian capital Raqqa.

The following day reports citing Third Force field commander Ashraf Tantoun emerged, stating that an “American aircraft” had bombed an ISIS training camp in Wadi Debdeb, about 70km north of the southern town of Sebha, indicators pointing to that this alleged airstrike should have taken place are weak, and US authorities have not issued any communication confirming this claim.

The attack itself is not of great significance but question remains if ISIS in Libya will try to build on this little momentum, Libya’s dynamics is still favorable for the group to re-emerge, a country divided between east and west, three competing governments and an intensifying conflict that has been spreading to the country’s center and south.





Libya: ISIS attacks beyond the frontlines of central Sirte (interactive map)

On August 1, US initiated ‘Operation Odyssey Lightning’ on request by Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) which is supported by a coalition of militias mainly from the city of Misrata that fights the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) in Sirte, hometown of late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The GNA-backed coalition of militias fighting ISIS go by the name Operation Bonyan al-Marsous, translated as Operation Solid Structure. The battle of Sirte was in fact initiated by ISIS who on May 5 launched a blitz that targeted Fajr Libya’s (what later became Operation Bonyan al-Marsous) staging area for the upcoming Sirte offensive in the area of Abu Grein between Sirte and Misrata. ISIS spearheaded the surprise attack on Abu Grein with SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) attacks that paved the way for ISIS technicals and fighters who swiftly overran the Misrata militias and took control of Abu Grein and surrounding villages. Although ISIS was able to take control of the area between Sirte and Misrata and briefly expand their territory westwards they did not manage to defend it successfully and keep it under their control. The forces of Bonyan al-Marsous (BAM) managed to recover, mobilize and push back ISIS to Sirte and its outskirts.

The US intervention supporting the BAM-coalition with significant airpower has become a real gamechanger in the Sirte offensive against ISIS, an offensive that has been ongoing for more than five months, in periods stalling or progressing very slow with high casualties as the cost for small advances, especially as the battle moved to the more dense built districts of Sirte. The most deadly threat and ISIS cost-effective “shock and awe” and strategic asset is the SVBIED attacks, a threat that with US air support has been significantly minimized, as of October 15, around thirty of ISIS’s vehicle-bourne explosive devices neutralized by US airstrikes, “loads” with the potential to inflict huge damages and casualties within the ranks of Bonyan al-Marsous forces.

On August 10, ISIS lost its last asset of symbolic value, the Ouagadougou Conference Centre, the capture marking a milestone of the Sirte offensive, less than a week later Operation Bonyan al-Marsous Media Center claimed that ISIS had been pushed further back, now confined to the central districts of downtown Sirte. Despite the fact that territory under ISIS control notably decreased in this period, surrounded by forces of numerical superiority with an own air force and also supported by foreign airpower, the group has shown remarkable resiliance with operational capabilities reaching far beyond its last pockets in Sirte as shown on the interactive map.

Bonyan al-Marsous forces claimed via their media center on October 22 that they had seized the whole of ‘Amarat al-Korniche, also known as the ‘600 Buildings’ neighbourhood, thus leaving ISIS holed up in a single neighbourhood covering a surface of approximately 0.18 sq km. Despite being surrounded and in “control” of such a limited space, ISIS has made use of its external cells and operatives who have planted IEDs on the Coastal Road west of Sirte with detonations on an almost daily basis. Beyond Sirte and its surroundings, ISIS still very active and present in Benghazi clashing with and targeting LNA in Gawarsha and Ganfouda, and a slight resurgence of activity in the Sabri district and Souq al-Hout noted. An ISIS cell was also detected on October 11 in Sebha, forced to leave their rental house after a shootout with local youth from the Qadhadhfa/(Gaddafi) tribe.

The monitoring of ISIS’s “remote” attacks take its departure with the attack on the en-Naga Oil Field on August 9 with incidents following as displayed. ISIS’s days with Sirte as its stronghold have come to an end and the final and total loss is inevitable, but ISIS presence and activities in Libya will remain, in Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and the south with a fallback somewhat already established, from the valleys soutwest of Sirte down to Sebha, the fight is entering a new phase with ISIS adapting to a changing environment.