Libya: How Much Local Support Did the Islamic State Have in Sirte?

The Intercept is out with an article that compiles and cross-references various estimates of how many armed drone strikes the United States has conducted in Libya. The authors assess that the number is somewhere around 550 strikes since 2011, although the authors also note that the U.S. government frequently contradicts itself on drone strike numbers, and the various think tanks and non-profits that keep count also produce varying (although not that disparate) figures.

The Intercept’s count of 550 U.S. drone strikes in Libya over the last seven years is based primarily on five U.S. military sources. The first is a retired Air Force squadron commander who said his unit executed 241 drone strikes out of a U.S. base in Sicily in 2011, when the air campaign in Libya began. The second is an Air Force wing commander based in Nevada who told the audience of the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium that drones conducted approximately 300 strikes in the second half of 2016, when the U.S. was attacking the Libyan city of Sirte to oust Islamic State militants. The third is a 2017 Air Force news story that provided roughly the same figures. The fourth and fifth sources are AFRICOM and Pentagon officials, who confirmed that 11 strikes carried out in Libya during the Trump administration involved remotely piloted aircraft.

The Intercept article also builds on a new report from the New America Foundation and Airwars that counts 2,158 airstrikes (manned and unmanned) by “at least four foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions” between September 2012 and June 10, 2018. The New America/Airwars report focuses heavily on civilian casualties, an area where the U.S. government figures and the independent estimates are quite different.

In any case, what stood out to me from the Intercept’s article is that figure about drone strikes in Sirte, where the Islamic State exercised substantial control beginning in early 2015. U.S. airstrikes in 2016 were supporting Operation Bunyan Marsus under the auspices of Libya’s Government of National Accord, which succeeded in largely expelling the Islamic State from Sirte by December 2016.

It’s become a stock phrase of mine in presentations and a few current paper drafts to say that when jihadists control territory, particularly urban territory, it is only a matter of time before more powerful actors line up to expel them from that territory – see Mosul, Gao/Timbuktu/Kidal, Damboa, Mogadishu, etc. I still think that’s true, but the Sirte campaign shows just how many resources those other actors sometimes need to mobilize. Operation Bunyan Marsus lasted from May 2016 to December 2016. AFRICOM’s “Operation Odyssey Lightning,” targeting the Islamic State in Sirte, ran from 1 August 2016 to 19 August 2016 and entailed “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers and fighting positions.”

The Intercept adds

Of those 495 strikes, more than 60 percent — approximately 300 — were carried out by MQ-9 Reapers, with the balance conducted by manned Marine Corps aircraft flown from Navy ships off Libya’s coast, according to Col. Case Cunningham, the commander of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the headquarters of the Air Force’s RPA operations.

That’s a lot of strikes. And to me, the immediate inference is that the Islamic State must have enjoyed some significant popular support in Sirte. Other sources suggest a similar conclusion. The reasons are too complicated to fully examine here, but a crude version would posit that in Sirte, Muammar Qadhafi’s hometown (of sorts), the Islamic State assembled a coalition that was unhappy with the 2011 revolution’s aftermath, including tribes (Qadhadhfa), local jihadists (Ansar al-Sharia defectors), former regime loyalists, people aggrieved by the conduct of Misratan militias who wrested Sirte from regime control, etc. Here is one journalist’s account (Arabic) from February 2015:

[In 2011] I saw Qadhafi’s green flags in Sirte, and in Neighborhood Number 2, the biggest of the city’s neighborhoods that became famous for its legendary endurance against the forces of Misrata. Whoever goes now to that neighborhood will find the black flags of ‘the Islamic State’ having replaced Qadhafi’s green flags.

The Islamic State in Libya had a significant foreign contingent, including hundreds of Tunisian fighters and a handful of prominent leaders from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the mashriq. But to control Sirte and to hold parts of it for as long as they did against major firepower, they must have had some significant local support.

Now, I want to be careful with arguments like this – I am not saying that ordinary Muslims, in Libya or elsewhere, are crypto-jihadists, eager to raise the black flags whenever they get half a chance. That would be morally offensive and analytically wrong.

I am saying that the way analysts and policymakers talk about jihadism often discounts local agency. There were very particular circumstances in Sirte that facilitated whatever popular support the Islamic State found or built there, but I think analysts (including me!) have more work to do in figuring out why ordinary people in those very particular circumstances might support jihadist projects. A lot of the existing analytical paradigms – “they’re rational actors,” “they’re radicalized,” “jihadists exploit local chaos” – don’t really cut it for me anymore.

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Libya: What Next for Derna?

With a near-complete victory in Benghazi, Libya’s eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar is “eyeing” Tripoli. But he and his Libyan National Army (LNA) are also eyeing other sites closer to Benghazi, among them Sirte (to Benghazi’s west) and Derna (to Benghazi’s east).

Sirte is where the Islamic State was defeated in a long campaign waged in 2016, waged primarily by forces from the western city of Misrata rather than by the LNA.

Derna was partly controlled by the Islamic State in 2014-2015 (which was finally forced out in 2016), but since then the most prominent force there has been a jihadist, anti-Islamic State coalition called the Consultative Council of the Mujahideen of Derna (Majlis Shura Mujahidi Darna, often abbreviated DMSC in English sources).

The state presence there is weak and may consist effectively of freelancers: One security official recently described Derna, as paraphrased by a reporter (Arabic), as “outside of the legal authority of the state,” and added that “a number of officers in Derna conduct their affairs without a tasking from the Ministry of the Interior or any legitimate section of the state.”

With regard to Derna, here are a few developments worth noting from May-July:

  • Airstrikes in May: The most recent airstrikes I’ve heard about on Derna were by Egypt (the Egyptian government is an ally of Haftar’s) in late May, in response to an attack inside Egypt. “Libyan National Army spokesman Colonel Ahmad Messmari told reporters in Benghazi…that Haftar’s forces were coordinating with Egypt’s military in air strikes and the weekend raids targeted ammunition stores and operations camps.” The DMSC, at the time, denied (Arabic) that the airstrikes were targeting them specifically, and also denied any involvement in the attack in Egypt.
  • Haftar’s/LNA’s advance (reported July 17): “Units of the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hafter claim to have moved to within 20 kilometres of Derna, removing earth barriers mounds and cement blocks at Kirissah, west of the Mujahideen-controlled town…The commander of the Omar Mukhtar Operations Room, Brigadier Salim Al-Rafadi, announced that talks were taking place with elders from the town over surrendering it without bloodshed. As a result operations were temporarily being delayed. However, he insisted that one way or another, the army would enter the town.”
  • The possibility (Arabic) that the DMSC will join the LNA (reported July 20): According to one of Derna’s members of the House of Representatives, the eastern-based Libyan parliament, the DMSC “wants to dissolve itself and join the army.” Alongside possible discussions between the DMSC and the LNA, discussions are also reportedly occurring (Arabic) between the DMSC and various notables within Derna, who are keen to avoid a full-scale war with the LNA for control of the city. The city is also suffering from various shortages of electricity, food, and other essentials. For now, however, the DMSC and the LNA remain enemies, and the DMSC continues to accuse the LNA of having abetted (Arabic) the Islamic State’s flight from the city.

It will be interesting to see whether this standoff over Derna is resolved politically or military. A political resolution allowing the LNA to take control might be a bigger sign of Haftar’s power than a pitched battle for the city – if various eastern factions are putting their fingers to the wind and deferring to Haftar’s growing strength, he would gain more momentum than if he has to fight for every inch of territory.

Libyan National Army Slowly Conquering Benghazi

Back in January, I wrote about the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s slow territorial conquest of Benghazi. The LNA is the military force commanded by Khalifa Haftar, an ex-Qadhafi general turned eastern Libyan warlord (and recently profiled by Mattia Toaldo here). As of January, two main neighborhoods in Benghazi remained outside the LNA’s control: Suq al-Hout and Sabiri/Sabri.

Over the weekend, the LNA took much of Suq al-Hout. The slow speed of the advance is partly due to the numerous land mines (Arabic) and improvised explosive devices in the remaining neighborhoods. The LNA has launched numerous airstrikes targeting both Suq al-Hout and al-Sabiri (Arabic).

Haftar’s military enemies in eastern Libya appear to be weakening. Inside Benghazi, jihadist groups like the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council are losing territory and fighters. Meanwhile, as Reuters notes, the anti-Haftar Companies for Defending Benghazi/Benghazi Defense Brigades, a force based outside Benghazi, are now stating their willingness to “disband and be integrated into national security forces.” Al Jazeera (Arabic) adds that the Companies are accusing France and the United Arab Emirates of pressuring the United States government to declare the Companies a foreign terrorist organization, i.e. to blacklist them. (I’ve explained, here, why I think it’s simplistic to consider the Companies a part of al-Qaida.)

With the Companies unable to mount a successful offensive against the LNA in Benghazi and with the LNA slowly expanding its control of the city, Haftar’s position there – and in eastern Libya generally – is looking stronger and stronger.

Libya: On al-Qaida and the Benghazi Defense Brigades

I have a post at Lawfare examining the Benghazi Defense Brigades*, a Libyan militia with very loose ties to al-Qaida. I make a broader point about how analytically sloppy, and politically misguided, it is to interpret these kinds of loose ties as evidence for the claim that al-Qaida core is somehow brilliantly controlling all kinds of essentially local armed groups around the world. I welcome your feedback on the piece in the comments section below.

*Probably better translated as “the Companies for Defending Benghazi,” but the name above has stuck in English.

Khalifa Haftar Launches “Operation Moving Sands” in Southern Libya

Al Jazeera (Arabic) reports that Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) and rival of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), has launched a new military campaign in southern Libya. The campaign is called “Operation Moving Sands.” It will target militias around Sabha (map). Leading the campaign is the LNA’s 12 Brigade under Colonel Muhammad bin Na’il. Their immediate goal is to capture the air base at Tamanhint (map), slightly northeast of Sabha.

“Operation Moving Sands” represents a continuation, and probably an escalation, of a series of conflicts between the LNA – including the 12 Brigade – and the GNA-aligned Third Force, a southern-based militia originally from Misrata, the economic hub on the coast. The conflicts between the Third Force and bin Na’il’s men date to early 2015, according to one account. Most recently, Al Jazeera says, the Third Force repelled an LNA attack on the air base on March 23. Each side depicts itself as a force for stability in the south and accuses the other of causing chaos in the region.

Something like 90% of Libyans live in northern coastal cities, but what happens in the south matters a great deal: southern towns are key nodes in commerce, smuggling, and migration, and the south has significant security infrastructure. Observers are also warning that the so-called Islamic State is attempting to regroup in southern Libya after its recent defeat and expulsion from Sirte. Finally, it’s worth adding that some southern politicians are frustrated with the GNA: Musa al-Koni, representative of the Tuareg (a major ethnic group in southwestern Libya) on the GNA’s Presidency Council, resigned in disgust in January. It’s not surprising that Haftar sees an opportunity, politically and militarily, in the south.