What is the current state of play for the Islamic State in Libya, and, most importantly, how can it evolve? The question is increasingly relevant considering the rising possibility of an international intervention in Libya against the Islamic State, a complex matter considering notably the questioned domestic legitimacy of the new U.N.-prompted Government of National Authority (GNA) (e.g. APA, “Libya unity gov’t approval postponed indefinitely“, 19 April 2016), despite strong pressure imposed on Libyans to recognise it, such as the U.S. President “Executive Order — Blocking Property And Suspending Entry Into The United States Of Persons Contributing To The Situation In Libya” (White House, 19 April 2016).

cyrenaica, al-Barqah, Islamic State, Liyan war, Islamic State forces in Libya
Advertising image for the Islamic state psyops video “The Raid of Shaykh Abū al-Mughīrah al-Qaḥṭānī – Wilāyat al-Barqah” – 14 Feb 2016

Is the Islamic State’s threat in Libya hyped and “not a realistic fallback” for a Khilafah, furthermore pummelled in Mesopotamia, as argued by Geoff Porter (“How Realistic Is Libya As An Islamic State “Fallback”?”, CTC Sentinel, 17 March 2016)? Or, on the contrary, as stated by the Council of the European Union “Council conclusions on Libya” (18 April 2016), are we faced with the “growing threat of terrorism including by Daesh and affiliates”, which echoes the concern expressed in the U.N. “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011)” (S/2016/209 9 March 2016), according to which “The political and security vacuum has been further exploited by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has significantly expanded its control over territory”? Should we believe, the deputy Prime Minister designate Musa al-Koni of the GNA when he warned that the Islamic State “could take over two-thirds of the country” (BBC News, 18 April 2016), or is this estimate not only motivated by genuine fear of a worst case scenario but also by a wish to ensure continuous support of the proponents of international intervention?

Depending on the answer to this question the range of impacts, as well as their durations, will vary, as, for example, some of the petroleum companies still operating in Libya had to further evacuate three fields for fear of attacks by the Islamic State, while the problems of migrants, not only to Europe but also within Libya does not relent (Reuters, 10 April 2016, Fezzan Libya, 10 April 2015; Ibrahim Hiba, “The danger coming from the West“, Fezzan Libya, 24 April 2015.

Sirte Drone
Sirte, image taken by a drone, from Islamic State psyops video “Of their Goods, take Alms”, Wilāyat Ṭarābulus”, 27 February 2016

We are dealing here, as so often lately, with the uncertainties of the future, furthermore shrouded by the fog of war. It would thus be unrealistic to expect a clear-cut, black and white, easy answer. Nonetheless, we may aim at improving our estimates, stressing notably dynamics and weak signals. We shall here focus on the Islamic State forces in Libya. After reviewing the existing quantitative assessments of Islamic State fighters in Libya, we shall dive deeper into what could be the overall human strength of the Islamic State in Libya. Considering the Islamic State’s state-building component, we shall thus look at the population under the Khilafah’s rule, at the way inhabitants are coerced and coopted and, as a result, at the tribal links the Islamic State is potentially forging. Finally, using the geographical distribution of tribes, we shall stress potential consequences in terms of use of foreign fighters and trade for the Islamic State in Libya.

A still relatively small yet rising force despite setbacks

In November 2014, when Derna fell, it was estimated that the Islamic State counted 800 fighters, operating “half a dozen camps on the outskirts of the town, as well as larger facilities in the nearby Green Mountains, where fighters from across North Africa  [were] are being trained”, including 300 fighters from the al-Battar Brigade (CNN, 18 Nov 2014). The latter had returned during Spring 2014 from fighting in Syria, called themselves the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC) and had pledged allegiance to the Khalifah in September (Wehrey and Ala’ Alrababa’h, “Rising Out of Chaos: The Islamic State in Libya”Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 5 March 2015).

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From photo report “Sheikh Abu Al-Qahtani training camp – accepted by God” Wilāyat al-Barqah, 13 April 2016

In 2016, the estimates of the Islamic State forces vary between 2000-3000 for “a U.N estimate” (Tribune de Genève, 14 Dec 2015), 3000 for the French Minister of Defence (Atlantico, 8 Feb 2016), 3000-6000 (Stars and Stripes, 19 Feb 2016) or 3250-6500 for U.S. military intelligence sources (CNN, 4 Feb 2016) to 10000 fighters, the latter figure, however, according to unnamed and unspecified French sources quoted by Issandr El Amrani (How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?“, Foreign Policy, 18 Feb 2016 – note that Porter, Ibid, misquote El-Amrani, referring to 12000 fighters).

If we compare briefly these figures with past estimates for other forces existing then on the Libyan ground, focusing on those forces supporting the nationalist or non-Islamist Tobruk based House or Council of Representatives, we have 18000-21000 men for the Petroleum Facilities Guard, out of which 2000 are militarily trained, 20000 fighters for the Cyrenaica Protection Force, 20000 soldiers for the Libyan army, 5000 commandos for Al-Saiqa (Special Forces), 2000 men for the Al-Sawaiq Brigade, up to 18000 well-armed fighters for the Zintani-composed al-Qaqa Brigade (see Mitchell, “Nationalist Forces -1“, RTAS, Oct 2014), and up to 6000 fighters for Haftar’s Libyan National Army, etc. (see Mitchell, “Nationalist Forces -2“, RTAS).

reading an naba2 scThe Islamic State forces are thus still a small faction even though obviously determined. Considering the fractious landscape of the war in Libya, this is, nevertheless, a force that can wreak considerable damage, and use not only hit and run types of operations but also conquering then defensive ones, aiming at state-building. Such conquering and defensive operations are exemplified first in Derna, where the Islamic state lost full control of the city in June  2015, then was most probably fully expelled by the al-Qaeda linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) on 21 April 2016 (BBC News, Islamic State ‘forced out’ of key Libyan city of Derna, 21 April 2016; Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State fighters retreat from bases outside Derna, Libya“, the Long War Journal, 20 April 2016). We then have the example of Sirte and its nearby surrounding territory, including Bin Jawad, which is the only territory currently fully held by the Islamic State (Ibid., Libya Prospects, “IS forces Sirte inhabitants to attend Sharia lessons“, 30 March 2016; U.N. Final report, ibid.; Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State releases photos from captured Libyan town of Bin Jawad“, the Long War Journal, 7 January 2016).

Despite the presence of the Islamic State forces on the Libyan territory, the latest spat of defeats for the Islamic State, in Derna, as seen, or in Ajdabiya then Benghazi, this time against the nationalist forces of the Tobruk government (Thomson Reuters, “Libyan National Army claims ISIS pushed out of Ajdabiya, parts of Benghazi“, 21 Feb 2016; Euronews, “Libya’s eastern army gains ground in Benghazi“, 20 April 2016), could signal the beginning of the end for the Islamic State. The Islamic State forces would thus have reached their apex and, defeats leading to loss of appeal, we would start to see a declining yet dangerous threat.

If this scenario is possible, we are under the fog of war and, however uncertain, the potential exists within the current situation for another less optimistic scenario, as we shall now see.

Beyond fighters’ numbers: population and quality of fighters

Because the Islamic State aims at state-building and not only at attacking and wounding a foe, to fully evaluate the Islamic State’s forces and threat we also need to consider the population that is subjected to its rule. Indeed, it is out of this population that the Islamic State will extract part of the resources needed for its sustenance agric14 sc– besides the current tropism, oil is not the only resource and wealth available to political actors* – potentially recruit new fighters, as well as meet challenges that could lead to defeat or reinforcement, as exemplified in both Derna and Sirte with defeat in the first case and “successful repression”  – i.e. not leading to demise and loss of territory – in the second (see below).

Wielding coercion and cooptation

It is currently considered that the present entrenchment of the Islamic State in Sirte stems from the latter’s capacity to ally with, coopt and coerce the Qadhadhfa tribe, including recruiting young fighters among them (U.N. Final report, ibid: par. 57 to 60).

Both cooptation and coercion are two crucial elements of state-building and governance, and one would be very naive and ignorant of history and political dynamics to ignore these components. However unpalatable, notably to some current strands of ideology in the West, what makes the difference between a successful use of these fundamental instruments of political authorities’ power is the way these tools are exerted i.e. following historically constructed norms and belief-systems or not (Moore, B., Injustice: Social bases of Obedience and Revolt, London: Macmillan, 1978), as well as the efficiency of repression, as explained by Andrew Turton in his work on Thailand and everyday politics (according to Turton, we often tend to underestimate the power of coercion and violence).

Derna presents us with an instance of a use of violence by the Islamic State perceived as illegitimate when the Islamic State did not have the strength to face the consequences of the consequent uprising: following the assassination of the local leader of the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, the “Mujahedeen Shura Council of Derna declared jihad” on the Islamic State, which led to the loss of control of the city by the Islamic State in June 2015 (e.g. “ISIS Loses Libyan Stronghold“, ISW, Jun 24, 2015), and ultimately to the current ousting from the city (see above).

On the contrary, in Sirte, in August 2015, the Islamic State managed to repress a rebellion that followed the killing of an Imam of the Furjan Tribe, killing more than 50 members of the tribe (“IS detains elders from Al-Furjan tribe“, Libyaprospect, 12 April 2016; U.N. Final report). No further uprising followed. As a result, the Islamic State’s control over Sirte was likely strengthened.

However, one may not rule by the sword alone, hence also the need for cooptation, besides other crucial dimensions of governance. We find such an instance with a recent Shari’ah course conducted by the Islamic State in Sirte, and concluded by a large “graduation ceremony” publicised through a photo report (Photo report Wilayat Tarabulus, “Graduation Ceremony in Sirte”, 18 April 2016; see sirte graduation105 scexplanation on the type of propaganda or psyops in An Updated Guide to the Islamic State Psyops, 18 April 2016). The course would have reached out to more than 4000 people and some cash rewards would reportedly have been used as award for the best students (Jason Pack, “Weekly Eye on ISIS in Libya Update – April 20, 2016“, Jihadology.net). This cash reward may be seen as an example of cooptation.

What appears also as most striking during this ceremony, although one should not discount a specific choice of timing and images by the photographer, is that people laugh.** Indeed, in photographs and videos of people subjected to the rule of the Islamic State, notably in Mesopotamia, the emotions shown by the faces and especially the eyes of the people (not the fighters but the “subjects”) photographed are often hidden fear or resignation. If a group, including children, is shown rejoicing, an attentive examination tends to always find a grown-up looking away, showing uncertainty or being plainly afraid. Here, on 2 pictures, people laugh, and most probably not out of convenience or embarrassment. Although one definitely needs to remain cautious here, all the more so that one instance of “negative emotion” at least can be found in a past Islamic State video (“And What Is To Come Will Be More Devastating and Bitter – Wilāyat Ṭarābulus”, 26 March 2016), this may be a weak signal indicating that the Islamic State’s rule in Sirte would be relatively less heavy to bear for citizens, despite the Furjan repression mentioned above and, of course, the usual use of executions (e.g. Islamic State psyops video, “To Establish the Religion – Wilāyat Ṭarābulus”, 30 March 2016, Jihadology.net; Pack, ibid.).

night in sirte, Sirte, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya
Islamic State Wilayat Tarabulus, Photo “Night Portrait of a street in the city of Sirte” – 13 April 2016

We may thus estimate that the Islamic State has possibly learned from its mis-governance in Derna and is possibly improving the way it handles coercion and cooptation. Should this hypothesis and evaluation be correct, then the potential to see the Islamic State benefitting from its state-building in Sirte is enhanced. As a result, it would also be more likely to use successfully the tribal connections thus created to move forward, as we shall now see. As a consequence, the potential threat the Islamic State represents in the short to medium or even long-term – should no proper action be taken – would also increase.

Tribal Connections

Although we should not over-simplify tribal connections (families and sub-tribes may feud within one tribe, for example), the importance of tribal relationships in Libya should also not be underestimated (see Jon Mitchell, War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War, 13 April 2015 and Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3) (Toubou and Arab Tribes), 11 May 2015, RTAS).

tribes, Libya, Islamic State
Distribution of major tribes in Libya by Giacomo Goldkorn, March, 18th, 2015, Geopolitical Atlas (click map to access geopoliticalatlas.org) – Sources: Libyan tribal system, Fergiani, – 09/22/2011.

The Qadhadhfa, an Arab tribe, was the tribe of Muammar Gaddafi and its estrangement from the new post-Gaddafi Libya is most probably instrumental in its attitude to the Islamic State (U.N. Final report, ibid; Mitchell, Ibid.). The Qadhadhfa would count around 100.000 people (Bell and Witter, “Roots of Rebellion: Part I,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2011), even if most probably not all members react similarly to the Islamic State. The Qadhadhfa is present not only in Sirte but also, as shown on the map above, in the region of Sehba, one of the two major southern nodes, with Ghat, for the various smuggling routes in and out of Libya (Norwegian Center for Global Analysis (NGCA) and Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, Libya: Criminal economies and terrorist financing in the trans-Sahara, May 2015).

Thus, short of major mis-governance (see above), the Islamic State may count on economic activity generated by the members of this tribe and related taxes first, and second on a level of support ranging from diplomacy and absence of hostility to more active support, such as facilitation of transactions including movement, logistics and trade, up to the recruitment of fighters and participation in administrative, police and security tasks. The involvement of the Qadhadhfa in the Gaddafi administration may also be an asset in terms of skills for the Islamic State.

Indeed, the U.N. final report underlines that “It [ISIL] has also recruited military officers from the former regime” (par 57). As we also know that fighters were recruited not only from the Qadhadhfa, but also from the Magharba tribe (Ibid.), and that the Magharba was another tribe previously supporting Gaddafi (Cherif Bassiouni, ed. Libya: From Repression to Revolution, 2013, p. xlv), while Qadhadhfa and some members of the Magharba held key positions in the security apparatus of the Gaddafi regime (ibid.), then what we see emerging is a genuinely Libyan component of the Islamic State’s administrative and security apparatus for wilayat Tarabulus, skilled and experienced as far as the Libyan idiosyncrasies are concerned.

Furthermore, we face a phenomenon that is not dissimilar to what happened in Iraq, with the inclusion of former Saddam Hussein security officers within the Islamic State’s security apparatus (e.g.Christoph Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State“, Der Spiegel, 18 April 2015). The ease with which a similar narrative can be created for the two experiences, Libyan and Iraqi, as well as most probably the existence of comparable feelings of injustice for both the Libyan and Iraqi officers, may only favour the inclusion of Libyans within the Islamic State system, as well as create feelings of shared fate and common enemies.

As a result, the likelihood to see a rapid and full decline of the Islamic State in Libya decreases.  On the contrary, the overall threat is likely enhanced, despite defeats.

We should also note that the Magharba’s territory lies from the south of Benghazi to Sirte (Bell and Witter, Ibid; see map above), and also has a share in the oasis town of Jalo (“Libya – The Zawiya Tribe“, Berenice Stories, 14 Feb 2013). Thus, mentions of recruitment of members of the Magharba could potentially prefigure further attempts towards expansion in Magharba territory through alliance and allegiance and needs to be monitored.

Tribal connections, foreign recruitment and trade

The geographical presence of the Qadhadhfa in the region of the smuggling node of Sebha may also be a crucial advantage for the Islamic State. It most likely eases the move of weapons and fighters towards Libya to reinforce the ranks of the Islamic State first, then allow for reverse flow towards the Sahel countries and Sub-Saharan Africa both towards the west and the east.

From photo report : “raiding the Dawn of Libya May 28th battalion in the south”

Indeed, it would seem that fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram have contributed, notably over the last months, to beef up the ranks of the Islamic State in Libya. According to Callum Paton, an activist in Sehba estimates, using sources in both Sebha and Sirte, that “the number of Boko Haram fighters in Sirte could be as high as 1,000” (“Isis in Libya: How Boko Haram jihadis are flocking to join Daesh’s holy war in North Africa“, IBTimesUK, 5 March 2016). Always according to this activist, the Islamic State would use its own specific network, and not the usual smugglers for migrants. The Islamic State route and people would nonetheless go through Sebha (Ibid.). Furthermore, according to al-Ghwell of the Rafik Hariri Centre, Islamic State fighters in Sirte also include people from Chad and Niger (Ibid.), most probably coming through the same route. We also find trace of fighters from Somalia (H Lavoix, “At War against a Global Islamic State – Facing a Strategic Trap in Somalia?“, RTAS, 14 December 2015) and from Senegal (e.g. Emma Farge, “From Senegal to Libya – an African student joins Islamic State“, Reuters, 30 March 2016).

As a result, the Qadhadhfa’s connection for the Islamic State also means most probably an eased mobilisation, recruitment and access to radicalised people initially located south beyond the Libyan border.

Similarly, trade between Libya and the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa is favoured, as already exists with Nigeria (Callum Paton, Ibid.), which, again, may enhance the Islamic State resources, in turn increasing its capacity to attract fighters as well as to wield cooptation.

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Sirte, car sales, Islamic State, Libya
From photo report “car market taking place in Sirte”, 14 April 2016

In this light, the emphasis found in the psyops of wilayat Tarabulus on a car market taking place in Sirte (photo report, 14 April 2016) or on sales of fodder (see photo above) may also be part of a wish to demonstrate the Islamic State’s wealth as well as its trading capabilities. Similarly the video “Of their Goods, Take Alms”, (wilayat Tarabulus, 27 February 2016) even though focused on zakah and thus succour given to the poor (see for a detailed explanation Money, Wealth and Taxes, Ibid), also displays wealth mainly as cattle, crucial in a land of desert, as well as money, and thus could also be seen as broadly favouring trade.

The second better known route and connection towards Tunisia, as well as the Islamic State’s activities in Bani Walid will be examined with a forthcoming post.

In conclusion, the consideration of the forces of the Islamic State in terms of numbers of fighters stresses an important but still relatively small threat. Once one moves beyond the solely quantitative and look at state-building and connections to tribes, the potential threat becomes severe, while the likelihood to see a full and rapid decline of the Islamic State in Libya decreases (which does not mean disappears). At this stage of our analysis, the situation displays dynamics specific to the Libyan terrain which may conjugate not only with the Mesopotamian battlefield but also with a regional African one. It is thus more than “just a fallback” for the Mesopotamian theatre of operation.

Featured image: 14th photograph of the photo report – Wilayat Tarabulus, “Graduation Ceremony in Sirte”, 18 April 2016.

About the author: Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.


*Indeed, oil and gas only represents for the Islamic State in Mesopotamia around 40% of its income, Jean-Charles Brisard and Damien Martinez, Islamic State: the Economy-Based Terrorist Funding, Thomson Reuters Accelus, Oct 2014; IHS “Islamic State Monthly Revenue Drops to $56 million” 18 April 2016 – note the difference in break-down between the two evaluations. See also H Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Money, Wealth and Taxes“, RTAS, 13 July 2015.

**Out of concern for the individuals mentioned in this paragraph, be it in Libya or Mesopotamia, and to avoid increasing the chance they could be victims of future reprisals by one faction or another, no image is given here.