The coming Battle for Sirte to defeat the Islamic State in Libya is principally seen from the perspective of the struggle between the U.N.-backed new government supported by some militias including Misrata, and those who refuse that government’s legitimacy, such as nationalist Haftar (e.g. “The scramble for Sirte”, The Economist, 14 May 2016. In the meanwhile, the Islamic State becomes an insignificant threat. Similarly, the situation on the ground, notably the tribes and related politics, are quasi ignored.

Yet, it is crucial to have an understanding of what is happening, which goes beyond a top-down approach, and to consider also the perspective of the enemy, through red team analysis for example, as we are doing here. The consequences for not doing so may be deleterious, notably for companies which do not have the easy choice to “avoid risk” as advised in risk management, i.e. for all those companies bound to a territory located on Libyan ground, be it because of infrastructures, exploitation of resources or because they deliver security advice of a very tactical and local nature nonetheless influenced by larger and more strategic developments. Humanitarian organisations are no less concerned as they need to prepare and deploy on the ground, to say nothing, of course, of Libyan people, which have to live with war.

If proper courses of actions are to be chosen, then a red team approach must be used, the complexity of the terrain must be considered, analysis must be added to mere collection of information and alternative hypotheses must be examined.

tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
“On the Gates of Misratah” – Wilayat Tarabulus – 12 May

This is what we shall endeavour here, building upon the last article which, seeking to evaluate the Islamic State forces in Libya, started also underlining the importance of the Islamic State’s connection to tribes (see The Islamic State in Libya – Force, Fighters and Tribes). Linkages to the Qadhadhfa tribe outlined potentials in terms of the creation of a truly Libyan component to the Khilafah’s presence in Libya, through the integration of people who were previously members of Gaddafi state’s security apparatus. Meanwhile, they also added, for the Islamic State, potential strategic depth to the south notably towards the town of Sebha, which could then be declined through trade, logistics, and strategic expansion towards and linkages with the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.

We shall now continue our focus on the Islamic State and tribes. We shall first point out indications that confirm the importance of the tribal connection for the Islamic State in Libya. We shall then enlarge our enquiry to also consider two other tribes besides the Qadhadhfa, the Awlad Sulayman and the Warfalla Tribes, notably pointing out the relationships between the three. Finally, we shall examine threats that could emerge from potential connections between the Islamic State and these three tribes and relate them to events on the ground.

Fighting over Libyan tribes

Interestingly, new indications of the importance of the elements favouring connections between some tribes and the Islamic State have been recently given by the conjunction of a couple of articles and news. The latter stressed either the willingness of ex-Gaddafi supporters to fight against the Islamic State or an Islamic State willingness to kill them. With these assertions, those fighting the Islamic State try to counter and deter any potential support any tribal member could give to the Islamic State.

We thus find that, according to the Libya Herald, in Sirte, the Islamic State has executed an army captain, Ahnaish Qaddafi (“IS continues killings as LNA claims offensive against Sirte ready”, 1 May 2016), reportedly a “leading member of the Qaddadfa tribe”, which would imply that “ISIS is likely to target more Gaddafi loyalists and sympathisers as it fears a new uprising in the town especially if arms make their way to these dissidents in the city”. (Eye On ISIS in Libya, Jihadology, 4 May 2016). Then, according to the International Business Time (William Watkinson, 7 May 2016), “Colonel Gaddafi’s henchmen join the West to purge Isis from North Africa“.  Finally, we learn that “Gaddafi’s widow [is] allowed back to Libya as part of ‘reconciliation’ drive” prompted by a “new program of national reconciliation” (Colin Freeman, The Telegraph, 9 May 2016).

tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman

The Islamic State answer was to publish a psyops product (see above and below) showing elders and leaders of the Qadhadhfa, the Awlad Sulayman (or Awlad Sulaiman) and the Warfalla tribes pledging allegiance (bay’ah) to al-Baghdadi (Photo report, Wilayat Tarabulus media, 8 May 2016; @wellesbien, 8 May tweet; @Libyen_Insider, 9 May tweet).

tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman

Considering what we saw previously, notably the findings of the U.N. “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011)” (S/2016/209 9 March 2016) indicating notably the cooptation of members of the Qadhadhfa tribe within the Islamic State, these are indications of a psyops battle being fought around and for the loyalty of and support by members of Gaddafi security apparatus from the U.N.-backed government’s and its supporters’ point of view, for allegiance (bay’ah) by these three tribes from the Islamic State’s perspective. Considering the tribal characteristics of Libya, both perspectives are congruent.

This struggle for influence also shows the crucial importance of securing tribal support in the battle against the Islamic State in Libya, and more generally for any operation in Libya, including by private and corporate actors, all the more so in the complex context of the war.

Towards a revisited al-Suff al-Fugi [al-Fuqhi] (Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman and Warfalla Tribes)?

Against the backdrop of the struggle for this tribal “support” (pledging bay’ah is more than support), considering the Islamic State new psyops product, we do not only have to consider members or families of the Qadhadhfa tribe but also two other tribes, the Awlad Sulayman (or Awlad Sulaiman) and the Warfalla.

The Islamic State’s statement regarding bay’ah pledged by the Awlad Sulayman’s elders may appear as strange at first glance, as Sirte was meant to be captured partly from them (U.N. report, ibid., par. 57).

Yet, if we look back to the recent history of Libya, we find that “Qaddafi drew his strongest supporters from his own tribe, the Qadadfa, and many of its traditional tribal allies which once composed the Saff Awlad Sulayman confederation” (Bell and Witter, “Roots of Rebellion: Part I,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2011). According to Ali Abdullatif Ahmidain, during the 19th century, “this tribal confederation [the tribal suff of the interior, al-Fugi] included the four clans of the Awlad Sulayman and the Gadaddfa, the Warfalla, and the population of the Hunn-Waddan oases of Waddan and Hunn” (The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance,  1994, 2009, pp. 53-54). It was mainly led up to 1927 by the Awlad Sulayman tribe (ibid.).

Thus the cooptation by the Islamic State of some members of the Qadhadhfa, as seen, may have eased association with some members of the Awlad Sulayman – and of the Warfalla – considering past alliances.

What we may be witnessing is an attempt by the Islamic State to recreate the kind of ancestral tribal alliances that allowed Gaddafi to remain in power and to develop a polity, itself grounded into much older Libyan political dynamics.

We should not forget, however the challenges related to such an endeavour. For example, the Awlad Sulayman, ruling notably over Sebha, was the leading tribe until the advent of Gaddafi (John Oakes, “Libya – Tribes and Tribulations“, Berenice Stories, March 2014). Gaddafi, while also integrating it, nonetheless favoured his own tribe, the Qadhadhfa (Ibid.). As a result, attempts to reassert past power by the Awald Sulayman may still exist, which could mean that only lukewarm or facade support may be given.

As far as the Warfalla is concerned, this very large tribe counts more than 1 million people and is composed of more than 50 sub-tribes (Bell and Witter, “Roots of Rebellion”, ibid., 18). It is thus most unlikely to act as a unique body. For example, Bell and Witter emphasise that the Warfalla “often aligned with the Qadadfa, and thus Qaddafi, due to blood ties, but the relationship is more than kinship. The Warfalla and the Qadadfa are long-established military allies” (Ibid.). Yet, in 2011 during the civil war against Gaddafi, some Warfalla defected (Arturo Varvelli, “The role of tribal dynamics in the Libyan future“, ISPI Analysis No. 172, May 2013, p.7). This is an instance of the variety of alignments and behaviour one may find within one tribe.

Nonetheless, Varvelli also underlines that “In post-Gaddafi Libya, some tribes – such as the Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Warshafana, Tarhouna, Asabia and Mashashiya – are threatened by the revolutionary militias or suffer exclusion in the new political order” (ibid.), which implies that not most Warfalla did not defect. Indeed, many of the Warfalla, chiefly among them those in Bani Walid, remained faithful to Gaddafi, and suffered afterwards at the hand of the winning factions and tribes, first among them their arch-enemy the Misratans  (Peter Cole, “Bani Walid: Loyalism in a Time of Revolution”, 2015). Then, facing both state collapse, isolation and reprisal, they fell back on the old tribal identities and notably revived the old idea of “al-Suff al-Fuqhi” (al-Fugi) (Ibid., 286).

What we see here outlined is that some Warfalla, as we detailed previously for the Qadhadhfa (see Force, Fighters and Tribes), may find interest in links with the Islamic State, which would then capitalise on both the destruction of Gaddafi Libya with the support of NATO and feelings of injustice and alienation afterwards. Thus some of the Warfalla may be neutral or sympathetic to the aims of the Islamic State, while others may not.

Meanwhile, even the Qadhadhfa tribe is composed of 6 sub-tribes and thus sub-tribes – or families within them – may choose different paths.

We thus have older and deeper tribal identities and alliances which were revived before the Islamic State’s declaration of the Khilafah, mixed with at least a modicum of feeling of “Libyan-ness”, which remains and is expressed mainly as rejection of foreign intervention (note that the insistence on Tunisian, Chadian or any non-Libyan identity of Islamic State’s fighters is an effort at leveraging this feeling, further research and development on what it means to be foreign, from a Libyan point of view is needed here). The two can now meet and coalesce with the Khilafah’s objective in Libya, whilst inner feuds as well as sub-tribes’ and families’ independence may, on the contrary, play against such a revival in support of the Islamic State.

We should thus consider the Islamic State’s probable aim to embed itself within and link with a renewed al-suff al-Fugi as a dangerous emerging potentiality to monitor and not as an already fully actualized situation. Even if the links forged were already strong, considering the fluid character of tribal politics, we would need to monitor this tribal aspect closely.

Potential Threats in al-suff al-Fugi linkages with the Islamic State

What are thus the new threats outlined by the latest psyops product of wilayat Tarabulus, i.e. potentialities stemming not only from the linkages with and bay’ah by the Qadhadhfa, but also by some sub-tribes of the Awald Sulayman and of the Warfalla, and can we link them to events on the ground?

Keeping the road to the west and southwest opened while protecting Sirte western flank … and expanding?

If we look at the map depicting the implantation of tribes we see that the area south of Misrata and west from Sirte is home to the Warfalla.

tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
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.

We thus find a convergence, in the absence of direct evidence besides the Islamic State photos, between the early May 2016 Islamic State’s breakthrough to the west of Sirte, against Misrata, and the area under Warfalla rule.

On 5 and 6 May, the Islamic State moved west against Misrata and took the crossroad of Abu Grein (Abu Grain) as well as six other town and villages around the area (Abu Nujaym, Wadi Zamzam, Al Balgha, Al Washka, Wadi Bey and Al Buwirat (Fezzan.com, 7 May 2016; Libya’s Channel, 7 May;  “Weekly Eye on ISIS in Libya Update”, Jihadology.net, 10 May 2016), as shown on the detailed map (by @ArtRosinski updated 13 May) below:

map, ISIS west expansion libya, tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
Islamic State Western expansion 5 to 13 May 2016. Click on image to access large original file in HD. By @ArtRosinski

At the time of writing, fighting continues between Misrata and the Islamic State. On 12 May 2016, we had “clashes between #Misrata forces and #ISIS near the Sadada checkpoint” (@alwasatengnews, 12 May tweet), with vehicles and weapons being reportedly seized from the Islamic State by the 604th infantry (@Chief_MarshallR, 12 May tweet), forcing them to retreat towards Boukran (@libyaalaan, 12 May tweet). On 13 May, Misrata forces would have captured fifteen fighters of the Islamic State (Libya Akhbar). Meanwhile, Libya Dawn claims it has “performed more than 40 airstrikes in the vicinity of #Abugrein area” since 8 May (@Arn_Del, 12 May tweet) and air strikes would be ongoing (@Oded121351 12 May tweet).   

On 15 May, some forces ofLibya Dawn were still reportedly moving towards Abu Grein ((@Chief_MarshallR, 15 May tweet), and on 16 May 2016 the areas previously seized by the Islamic State were apparently still under its control.

We are not here in a “hit and run” context but in one where the Islamic State seeks to assert control, while being on the offensive. The map (by @Libyen_Insider) depicting the various forces in Libya thus now looks as below for 5 May, to which should be added the Islamic State move further west as depicted on the area map above:

map, libya 5 may war,
Map of the War in Libya by @Libyen_Insider – Click to access original map

Or, alternatively, as below, as for 13 May ( @ArtRosinski): The Islamic State corridor to the south depicted here seems to be much more in line with the pledge given by the three tribes as well as with the known move of fighters and weapons from the south through Sebha (see Force, Fighters and Tribes).

map IS all corridor south, map Islamic State Libya 13 May
Map of the war in Libya, situation by 13 May 2016, enlarged from the small map of the “Islamic State Western expansion 5 to 13 May 2016”. by @ArtRosinski

These Islamic State western attacks take place as the uncoordinated offensive against the Islamic State in Sirte is imminent, the new UN-backed government being about to attack from the west, with and through Misrata (e.g. TRTWorld, Reuters, “Libya prepares military operation on DAESH stronghold“, 11 May 2016), while the army of nationalist Haftar (not recognising the legitimacy of the U.N. backed government) is marching on Sirte from the east along the coast and from the southeast through Zalla (Libya’s Channel, “Haftar orders army to move on IS-held Sirte, clashes in Zalla“, 4 May 2016).

sirte deserted at night, night in Sirte, Sirte, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, offensive sirte
Sirte deserted at night – 12 May 2016 – by @mohamed7elmahde

In this framework, and considering the Islamic State is certainly preparing itself to sustain a siege in Sirte, witness the refugees leaving the city and report of increased defences (Jamahiriya News Agency, 9 May 2016; TRTWorld, Reuters, Ibid; “Weekly Eye on ISIS”, Ibid.), the surprise attack to the west is probably a way to protect the western flank of the city, as well as to keep opened the road to the southwest, should a retreat be necessary. However planning for all options, including a retreat, is not the same as choosing to leave Sirte for the south as best strategic option, nor as a deliberate choice to abandon Libya, as argued by Emily Estelle, who states: “ISIS is laying the groundwork to abandon Sirte and will then pursue an alternate course of action to continue its campaign in North Africa without its Libyan stronghold.” (“ISIS’s Courses of Action – Out of Sirte“, Critical Threats, April 29, 2016).

Indeed the new territory captured by the Islamic State, added to the fact it is in Warfalla territory may also outline other possibilities. We should note here that the Islamic State wilayat Tarabulus psyops video stressing the support of the Warfalla was published on 8 May 2016, thus after the operation around Abu Grein took place. Although we do not know how much coercion and how much influence and cooptation could have been exerted, it is nonetheless likely that some results in terms of tribal politics were achieved with some Warfalla sub-tribes – or families, as shows the pledge of bay’ah and without which hold on an area would be quite impossible.

Two factors may be operative here. First, the deep-seated enmity between Misrata and the Warfalla may strongly be playing (Cole, Ibid.; Jon Mitchell, Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3) (Toubou and Arab Tribes), 11 May 2015, RTAS; Oakes, Ibid). Second, The UN-backed character of the new GNA, added to covert support already given by the U.S., U.K. and France, are likely to enhance the perception of the U.N.-backed government as linked to foreign invaders (note that a few U.S. forces would be stationed in Misrata Missy Ryan, “U.S. establishes Libyan outposts with eye toward offensive against Islamic State“, Washington Post, 12 May 2016; see also Chris Stephen, “Secret US mission in Libya revealed after air force posted pictures“, The Guardian, 17 December 2015; Reuters, “French special forces waging ‘secret war’ in Libya: report“, 24 February 2016). This refusal of foreign intervention is most probably a very important aspect for the Warfalla,  as the tribe was vocal in 2012  to counter a GNC seen as the puppet of NATO (e.g. Alexandra Valient, “The Warfalla Tribe Are Leading The Revolt Against NATO’s Occupation ForcesLibya 360, 18 Oct 2012). Indeed the President of the Social Council of the tribes Warfalla in independently minded Bani Walid, in a recent interview, stresses he “has no communication with these [the three] governments”. However, he was also there describing the dire situation of the people displaced because of “Daesh”, which is far from full support (Jamahiriya News Agency, Ibid. 9 May 2016).

As a result, the current ability to remain in Warfalla territory probably signals not only the intention to fight as much as possible to “remain and expand” – to use the Islamic State motto, but also an enhanced ability of the Islamic State to do so, even if the latter depends also upon a host of other factors.

Short of unknown elements and black swans events (for an explanation of what are Black Swans events and of Taleb’s related book see H. Lavoix, “Taleb’s Black Swans: The End Of Foresight?“, RTAS, 21 Jan 2013), always possible especially at war, and without forgetting the damage airpower may cause, the Warfalla will most probably not help Misratans, and may see their interest in “allowing” the Islamic State to at least try stopping Misratans and the U.N.-backed government to obtain a too easy victory. The Islamic State may lose again Abu Grein and surrounding villages, but it will be because of a successful Misratan counter-offensive. It will change nothing to the fact that they have been able, however briefly, to start settling in the area.

At worst, the Warfalla may also, with time, see in an assertive Khilafah an opportunity to participate in and promote a revived al-Suff al-Fugi. The involvement and position of the Qadhadhfa and of the Awald Sulayman would most probably be also crucial here. We could even wonder if the al-Suff al Fugi could not become the representative of the Khilafah in Libya, ruling over its wilayat. In that case, we would be seeing not the premises of a final relatively rapid defeat of the Islamic State, notably qua state in Libya, but the some new steps of an expansion to the west and southwest.

map al naba Libya, Islamic State western expansion Libya
The Islamic State shows its new expansion to the west with an article in al-Naba (weekly newsletter) #30 – 10 May 2016 – p.5 Click to access the newsletter (in Arabic) on Jihadology.

As a result, the already existing sleeper cells in the west, the training camps in Sabratha and the road to and from Tunisia (see U.N. report, ibid.) – and potentially Algeria – would all take renewed tactical, operational and strategic values. Tripoli, as well as the U.N.-backed government would be in a more precarious position – despite alleged success in eradicating Islamic State’s sleeper cell in Tripoli, as on 14 May (“Tripoli IS terror cell planning operations, captured by Rada“, Libya Herald).  Potentially intervening powers would hence be placed into a conundrum that would need to be handled with high tribal political savvy.

The risks entailed are too high, even if the Islamic State is defeated in Abu Grein, and too fraught with strategic and operational consequences in terms of decisions for all actors, not to consider the possible range of alternatives and not to monitor also in depth this tribal perspective.

Connection to the Hunn-Waddan oases, a key to Libya?

Another very interesting aspect of the al-suff al-Fugi is that it includes or is related, as we saw above, to the population of the Hunn-Waddan (Houn-Waddan) oases (see map below), part of al-Jufra region.

Hunn-Waddan oases, tribes allegiance, gates of misratah, Misrata, islamic State, war, Libya, war in Libya, Tribes, pledge, bay'ah, Warfalla, Qadhadhfa, Awlad Sulayman
Click to access Google maps

Needless to say, obtaining connections to oases is absolutely crucial in a desert country. Furthermore, one may observe that the Hunn-Waddan oases are critically located almost in the center of Libya. It is a strategic place holding the south and Sebha, the west through Abu Grein and Ash Shawrif, the east though Zalla (Zillah), and the center north with Sirte.

It may indeed not be by complete chance that, historically, the tribes of the al-suff al-Fugi have consistently played such a crucial military role (Ahmida, Ibid; Cole, ibid.).

We shall not come back here to the importance of Sebha (see Force, Fighters and Tribes), but nonetheless shall underline that linkages between the Islamic State and the Awlad Sulayman, traditionally “ruling” over Sebha may only fortify the capabilities of the Khilafah to benefit from Sebha.

We saw above the importance of Abu Grein and the road to the West. The connection to the west is also reinforced by the fact that on 6 May, the Islamic State “seized governmental buildings in Abu Nujaym” (@Chief_MarshallR, 7 May tweet). Abu Nujaym is not so much located south of Sirte as on the road between Abu Grein and Waddan.

Now, regarding the defence of Sirte, the advantages of tribal connections to the oases, notably Waddan, are strategic. Indeed, Haftar’s armies are also advancing through the southern road. On 3 May 2016 they were reportedly in Zalla. That said, the Islamic State may also be protected by the fractious character of the Libyan war, as Haftar’s forces were attacked by “Forces loyal to Ziyad Belaam, a senior commander” allied with “Benghazi’s Revolutionaries Shura Council” itself “allied with Libya Dawn”, while Misratan air force also attacked them, the two sides then sending reinforcements to fight each other (Libya Channel, 4 May 2016). Nonetheless, rumours of a 6 May Islamic State’s attack “on a checkpoint in Jufra, which was also the sight of clashes between Dawn affiliated groups and the Libyan army, under the orders of Colonel Khalifa Haftar, the day before” were reported (Libya Channel, 7 May 2016). An attack West of Waddan was also denied (Abdulkarim Alduwayni, Fezzan Libya, 7 May), which may accredit the fact it was only a rumour, assuming the two are the same attack. Fear is not only creeping in, but also these rumors may prefigure the possibility to see an enhanced capability by the Islamic State to cut off retreat or arrival of reinforcement from the east, and ultimately a capacity to move towards the east, should, of course, the connection to the al-suff al-Fugi develop and be strengthened.

The fate of the Islamic State in Libya may very well be also in the hands of the Qadhadhfa, the Awlad Sulayman and the Warfalla Tribes. Should it be defeated and its capabilities degraded towards “hit and run” and “terrorist attacks” operations, the potential key role of these three tribes should be noted and remembered, as vital for a still hypothetic return to peace in Libya.

Featured image: from the photo report the pledge of allegiance of Tribes– Wilayat Tarabulus, 8 May 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.


Ali Abdullatif Ahmida. The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization and Resistance, 1830–1932. By  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994 [2009].

Peter Cole, “Bani Walid: Loyalism in a Time of Revolution”, in The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, e.d Peter Cole, Brian McQuinn, Oxford University Press, 2015.