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.