Links Roundup on the Battle Against the Islamic State in Sirte, Libya

In May of this year, the Islamic State’s Libya affiliate controlled a strip of coastal Libya that extended from Abu Ghrein in the west to Bin Jawwad in the east. Early 2016 had seen advances by the Islamic State that made Libyan and international authorities quite nervous. In the west, the Islamic State was harassing the outskirts of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, and in in the east it was attacking major oil infrastructure, including the country’s two largest oil terminals, Ra’s Lanuf and Al-Sidr. These and other factors contributed to the launch of a multi-pronged offensive against Sirte, the epicenter of the Islamic State’s Libyan territory. The main assault is being conducted by mostly Misratan forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), a United Nations-backed, would-be unity government. Those forces, coming from the west, reached Sirte in June. But since then, the GNA’s fighters have been engaged since then in a difficult battle against die-hard Islamic State fighters holed up in central Sirte, at sites such as the Ouagadougou Conference Hall (one of the Islamic State’s original bastions in the city). The battle for Sirte has importance not just for the campaign against the Islamic State, but also because the campaign itself is shaping Libyan politics and will help determine the fate and nature of the GNA.

For day-to-day coverage, I recommend following Daniele Ranieri, Mary Fitzgerald, Mattia Toaldo, Frederic Wehrey, Mohamed Eljarh, Francesca Mannochi and, for those who read Arabic, the official account of Operation Al-Bunyan al-Marsus (Operation Solid Structure), the GNA’s campaign.

Here are a few links that will take you deeper into both the campaign and the politics surrounding it.

On the Islamic State’s rise in Libya and in Sirte specifically:

On the campaign (in roughly chronological order):

  • Patrick Markey, “Libyan Forces Battle Islamic State Street-to-Street in Sirte”
  • Frederic Wehrey: “Libyans Are Winning the Battle Against the Islamic State”
  • Patrick Markey, “Sirte Battle Risks Widening Libya Political Splits”
  • Amanda Kadlec, “All Eyes on Sirte: Beating the Islamic State, But Losing Libya”
  • Libya’s Channel, “In Depth: Oil Guards Seize IS-Held Territory, Join Unity Government Coalition”
  • AFP, “ISIS Tries to Break Siege in Libya’s Sirte”
  • Missy Ryan, “In a Pivotal Battle, Libyan Forces Laying Siege to Islamic State in Sirte”
  • Aidan Lewis, “Libyan Forces Report Gains Against IS in Battle for Sirte”

On what might come next:

And finally, some sage notes of anti-alarmism from Geoff Porter, written before the current campaign began, about the barriers to expansion that the Islamic State faces in Libya.

Libya: Mahdi al-Barghathi Is the Man to Watch

The international media has, at most, the attention span for two stories about Libya: (a) the battle against the Islamic State there, and (b) the existence of different would-be governments and rival militias. Typically, the central characters in storyline B are:

  • Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)
  • Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), the official fighting force of the House of Representatives (HOR), the internationally-recognized parliament that has yet to fully endorse the GNA
  • Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and President Aguila Saleh of the HOR government
  • Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell and President Nouri Abusahmain of the General National Congress (GNC)/National Salvation Government, the Tripoli-based, Islamist-dominated and non-internationally-recognized government.

These six names are the main ones you might see in day-to-day coverage of Libya. Then there are other layers and names you would encounter – deputy prime ministers of the GNA, for example, such as Ahmed Maiteeg.

If you’re a relative newcomer to studying Libyan politics, as I am, it might be a while before you run across the name Mahdi al-Barghathi. But increasingly I think he is the man to watch in Libya today.

Al-Barghathi is the Minister of Defense in the GNA, and he is important for what he represents: the possibility of a GNA that would achieve truly national reach without submitting to Khalifa Haftar’s will. Briefly, the GNA’s central political problem is bringing enough people under its umbrella to become a functional, national government. One big obstacle to that goal is Haftar, who hopes to be the equivalent of Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: a military strongman who treats all Islamists, even the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorists. So Haftar either won’t come under the GNA’s umbrella unless he gets to hold the umbrella, or he would kick out a lot of people already under the umbrella (i.e., anyone who likes the Muslim Brotherhood), or he wouldn’t ever be willing to come under the umbrella at all. Haftar’s support comes from eastern Libya, al-Barghathi is from eastern Libya, and so if the GNA can rally enough easterners around al-Barghathi, it might be able to marginalize Haftar. For his own part, Haftar was displeased by al-Barghathi’s selection.

To some extent, this is about the personalities, but on another level this is about resolving deep-rooted, structural tensions in Libyan politics. If we look at those tensions in terms of political geography, we might say the following: Libya’s main cities in terms of population are Tripoli (the capital, in the west), Benghazi (in the east), and Misrata (a commercial hub in the west). To speak crudely, Benghazi and the east do not want to be dominated by a Tripoli-based government or by Misrata’s powerful politicians and militias: hence (and drawing on a long history, including the east’s marginalization under Muammar al-Qadhafi), we see repeated expressions of resistance to centralized rule by eastern politicians. The GNA’s career so far might even reinforce eastern fears of western domination: the battle to retake Sirte from the Islamic State, for example, could be described simplistically as a Misratan military effort overseen by politicians in Tripoli. But some people in the east are willing to participate in national projects such as the GNA, especially if they can be convinced that those projects will be truly inclusive. This brings us back to what al-Barghathi represents: an easterner, not Haftar, who has been given a major portfolio in the GNA; a symbol of a Libyan security sector where the east has a big say, and is not just under Misrata’s thumb.

A bit more on al-Barghathi himself – and why he was a brilliant pick for the position:

  • He is from Benghazi
  • He commanded the Benghazi-based 204 Tank Brigade, which ultimately became part of Haftar’s Operation Dignity (an anti-Islamist offensive launched in 2014). As the example of al-Barghathi himself illustrates, Operation Dignity is not an army of soldiers, all of them personally loyal to Haftar, so much as it is a coalition of units whose commanders have allied with Haftar for different reasons. Rather than engaging in a head-to-head conflict with Haftar, the GNA can attempt to peel away segments of that coalition and cut Haftar’s support out from under him. As the UK’s ambassador to Libya recently said, “[Al-Barghathi’s] relationship with General Haftar is not good, and General Haftar does not accept him as Minister of Defence, but he has good relations with many of the officers in the Libyan National Army. He is quietly trying to work with them to bring the very many groups into one structure” (.pdf, p. 3).
  • Despite being part of Dignity, he reportedly has good relations with a wide variety of important actors, including some who are opposed to Haftar. These actors include Ibrahim al-Jadran, who commands an important militia in the east, the GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard-Center. One Algerian source (Arabic) makes the highly interesting claim that al-Barghathi has respect among Islamists and even jihadists: “During the [2011] revolution he fought side by side with the revolutionaries of Benghazi and with the fighters of Ansar al-Shari’a [a jihadist outfit]…And when Haftar launched Operation Dignity, al-Barghathi did not join either of the two sides in the conflict, and chose neutrality…The appearance of the Islamic State in Benghazi and its attack on the camp of the 204 Tank Brigade was the reason that al-Barghathi joined Operation Dignity.” According to the source, al-Barghathi maintains goodwill with Libyan Islamists (minus, of course, the Islamic State). Hence al-Bargathi is a consensus figure of sorts in the security sector, except of course with Haftar.
  • As noted above, he has strong credentials as a revolutionary, which can help assuage Islamists’ and revolutionaries’ fears that the HOR and Operation Dignity have become de facto strongholds for members of the Qadhafi regime.
  • He has strong backing from one of the east’s most powerful tribes, the Awaqir (of which I believe his own tribe, the Baraghatha, is a sub-unit, though I’m still seeking confirmation). The tribes, including the Awaqir, have been major public supporters of Haftar and the HOR – but as one source (Arabic) puts it, “any clash between al-Barghathi and Haftar will make the Awaqir tribe stand with al-Barghathi.” Another source (Arabic) notes that the Awaqir have given “6,000 of its sons to Operation Dignity,” and that the Awaqir have maintained public support both for the HOR’s right to endorse or reject the GNA and for al-Barghathi’s appointment as Minister of Defense. All of this puts Haftar in a deeply awkward position: if he comes to be seen as not just anti-GNA but as specifically anti-al-Barghathi, he could find himself losing the tribal support that he cannot do without. Haftar himself is from the Firjan, a significant tribe but by no means the largest tribe in the east.

Put all of this together and it’s no surprise that al-Barghathi was reportedly the target of a car bombing in Benghazi on July 13. It is dangerous work attempting to be a unifying figure in post-Qadhafi Libya – as we learn from the example of Abdul Fattah Younes, another prominent easterner, who defected from Qadhafi’s government to the revolutionaries’ side in February 2011 only to be assassinated (most likely by hardline Islamists) in July 2011. Younes’ assassination left lasting bitterness and contributed to post-revolutionary fragmentation.

Again, the personalities involved are important, but even more important is what each one represents. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would say that al-Barghathi now represents the relationship between the GNA and the east, as well as the prospects for unification of the security sector. With the HOR’s leadership recently sounding even more reluctant to endorse the GNA, and with hints circulating about the possibility of a formally fragmented security sector, al-Barghathi’s position is becoming even more tense. Live or die, succeed or fail, I think he is the man to watch in Libya right now.

The Islamic State in Libya and Sahelian Recruitment

In late May, the Islamic State’s Wilayat Tarabulus (Tripolitania Province, i.e. northwestern Libya) released a video aimed at recruiting West African Muslims. Entitled “From Humiliation to Glory,” the video’s core argument is that Muslims will face damnation if they do not journey to what the Islamic State considers the land of true Islam.

The titular “humiliation” refers to the idea that West African Muslims live in societies marked by unbelief – societies where Islam has been stripped of “jihad, shari’a, and the Caliphate.” The opening sequence of the video shows pictures of Muslim heads of state like Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, and Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, and denounces these rulers as puppets of “Crusaders” (i.e., the West – Jammeh, for example, is shown standing next to U.S. President Barack Obama). Western African Muslims, the video argues, should leave the land of de facto unbelief for the Islamic State’s territory in Libya, depicted as a land of both military glory and material prosperity and security.

Scripturally, this argument rests on verses such as Qur’an 9:38-39 – verses that the Islamic State reads, without applying any historical context, as speaking directly to West African Muslim today. The video repeatedly invokes the idea of punishment in Hell for allegedly lax Muslims.

The bulk of the video features five West African speakers – a Malian, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, a Senegalese, and an English-speaking “immigrant” with no identified nationality. The video makes liberal use of West African languages: Hausa from the Nigerian and Wolof from the Senegalese, and two other languages I can’t identify (readers, feel free to comment if you can identify these languages). The Nigerian and the Ghanaian also speak in English. Interestingly, the video makes little use of French.

Will the video be effective at recruitment? Perhaps, in the hands of the right recruiter and the right combination of circumstances and social networks. The video is slickly produced, and the young speakers seem charming, calm, and dedicated. Perhaps some young men (and women) could be lured by the religious argument, the overall vibe, the appeal of participating in a revolutionary lifestyle, and/or the negative characterization of leaders like Issoufou and Jammeh. Certainly there is some discontent in West Africa with such leaders, especially with an autocrat such as Jammeh, and there is also some discontent with secularism itself.

At the same time, however, the video’s argument about damnation will not be new to many listeners. There are many Muslim clerics across West Africa working hard to rebut that argument, and to insist that conducting moral reform at home is better than fighting for a dubious cause abroad. Moreover, the levels of political discontent and identity crisis also seem to be far lower in much of West Africa than in, say, Tunisia, which has supplied a strikingly high number of fighters for the Islamic State.

In a way, it was most jarring to see the Senegalese speaker. I’ve grown a bit cynical about Senegalese exceptionalism – the idea that Senegal’s history, religious landscape, and/or national character make it immune to “extremism” – but I’m not immune to the pull of that notion. Seeing a Wolof speaker promoting the Islamic State seemed bizarre. (Even though I should have been prepared for it; there have already been reports of isolated Senegalese heading to Libya.)

Will facts on the ground undermine the video’s appeal? Quite possibly. Presumably any aspiring jihadist in West Africa, especially one with access to radio or television, would conclude that now is a bad time to head to the Libyan city of Sirte, which was until recently the Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya and is now under heavy attack by forces loyal to Libya’s unity government. The speakers in the video were keen to contradict “Western media” portrayals of Libya, but June’s events are making May’s propaganda seem far-fetched.

Implications for Boko Haram?

It is telling that the video made no reference to Boko Haram. The Nigerian speaker urges West African Muslims to come to Sirte – and not to Nigeria, or to other countries around Lake Chad. How should one interpret this silence? On the one hand, the video’s message provides more evidence of the mobility and adaptability of jihadists in the region; if Boko Haram’s fortunes flag in Nigeria, jihadists can shift their attention and their rhetoric to Libya. On the other hand, the video’s silence about Boko Haram suggests a kind of competition between the Islamic State’s Libyan and West African affiliates. If, as I suspect, there is a fairly limited pool of West African Muslims ready to participate in armed jihad far from their homes, then the competition becomes almost zero-sum: fighters cannot go to both Libya and Nigeria.

Interestingly, the video appeared as a debate is playing out in the media about Boko Haram and its relationship with the Islamic State. This debate seems to reflect an analytical disagreement within the United States government: we hear some U.S. officials saying that cooperation between Boko Haram and the Islamic State (especially its Libyan affiliate) is growing,  and others saying that “there is no meaningful connection between [the Islamic State] and Boko [Haram].” The tone and message of Tripolitania Province’s video gives support to the latter view. Although Boko Haram is a formal “province” of the Islam State, the leaders in Libya appear to writing Boko Haram off – to the extent that the video features a Nigerian asking Nigerians to come to Libya.

No doubt the terror-ologists will insist that this is all evidence of Boko Haram’s master plan to take over Africa, and/or that Boko Haram will cleverly regroup inside Libya before re-emerging later. I think that kind of perspective ignores how logistically difficult much of this kind of movement and fighting must be. For West Africans to cross the Sahara, find their way to whatever (southern?) Libyan holdout the Islamic State is groping for now, and then to spend months or possibly years on the run, has got to be an unpleasant and dangerous undertaking. Even the jihadists who have unusual tenacity and luck at the game of strike-and-run in northwest Africa, such as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are (a) rare and (b) probably more often hiding and running than actively attacking or even plotting. How many West African Muslims are really going to sign up for that life? I don’t think Boko Haram should be written off (witness the recent attacks in southeastern Niger), but neither do I think that fears of African jihadist super-groups, or some kind of trans-Saharan empire connecting Libya to Nigeria, are well-founded.

The video, for all that it is slickly produced, could even be read as evincing a kind of desperation on the Islamic State’s part – which makes sense. For now, at least, the Islamic State in Libya seems to be on the decline. Attracting a small Libyan support base, an (admittedly sizable) contingent of Tunisians, and a (much smaller) number of sub-Saharan African fighters was enough to allow the Islamic State to cause severe disruption in Libya, but it was not enough to build an enduring political and territorial unit in the face of better-armed and better-funded competitors. If the Islamic State can regroup in southern Libya or elsewhere, perhaps the recruitment of West Africans will continue apace or even increase; but such a regrouping would presumably take months, and would inevitably run into the same problems the Islamic State faced in Sirte (and before that, Derna).

So it will be interesting to see how the Islamic State’s recruitment of West Africans fares now that Sirte seems to be falling. And it will also be consequential how West African governments respond to those fighters who do go, and then return; even if I am right and the flow is just a trickle, how that trickle is handled will matter a great deal (see Afghanistan, aftermath of).

Recent Developments and Perspectives on Mediterranean Migration Crisis

This year, repeated fatal shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea have shocked the world and highlighted the struggles of migrants who travel from Africa and the Middle East to the shores of the Mediterranean seeking access to Europe. I’ve written on the issue here, especially as it relates to European-Sahelian relations, and now I want to point out a few recent developments and perspectives on the crisis.


  • Naval Mission: Today, European foreign and defense ministers, meeting in Brussels, backed plans for a European Union naval mission that “will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.” The mission is supposed to start next month.
  • Italian Rescues: Last week, the Italian Coast Guard rescued nearly 2,500 migrants.
  • Shelters: The European Union, in cooperation with Niger, plans to open shelters in the Nigerien cities of Agadez, Arlit, and Diffa. The centers aim to “dissuade [migrants] from trying to reach Europe and instead offering local alternatives.”
  • Anti-Trafficking Law: On May 11, Niger’s parliament passed a “law that could see human smugglers facing up to 30 years in prison in an effort to stem the flow of illegal immigrants crossing its borders in hopes of getting to Europe.” Together, the shelters and the law attempt to go part of the way toward addressing Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou’s call to address the local roots of the migration crisis.


  • Francis Kornegay: “The Mediterranean crisis is indicative of how intellectually inadequate geopolitical and foreign policy/national security analysis has become at connecting the dots of interdependence between land and sea in the world’s unfolding power dynamics.”
  • Gary Younge: “The facts on immigration don’t fit easily on a mug, whereas the politics of xenophobia can be condensed into a single sentence. ‘They’re coming here to get what’s yours.’ This is, of course, a lie, stemming from a system in which borders reflexively open for capital and close for people.”

A Northern Nigerian Prediction about Syria, Validated

In late 2011, in Kano, I was talking about Syria’s crisis with a friend of mine. “Soon America will bomb them,” he said. At the time, I thought his prediction was wrong. But his tone – which conveyed his sense that the bombing was inevitable – stayed with me. Time has proven him right, and me wrong.

I am not a pollster and I cannot say how a billion Muslims feel about anything. But I think my friend is not alone. I think that many Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, look at American military actions in the Middle East as habitual, predatory, and destructive. My friend also said that “men with long beards” would eventually rule Libya, and that the U.S. had not understood this when it intervened there. We’ll see if he is right about that as well, and we’ll see what unintended consequences stem from American strikes in Syria.

Niger Has Received at Least Four Streams of Refugees Since 2011

Yesterday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that some 6,000 refugees have arrived to Niger from Nigeria, fleeing the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram. Reuters provides additional context.

Refugees from Nigeria add to existing and recent refugee influxes into Niger. I can count four major streams since 2011:

  1. Refugees from the 2011 post-electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.
  2. Refugees from the Libyan civil war of 2011. In May 2011 AFP put the combined total of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and Libya at 93,000. Some 60,000 of these were probably from Libya – more here. The final total from Libya, given that the war lasted for months after May, was undoubtedly higher. It is difficult to know how many of these refugees have been successfully resettled, but I would imagine many of them continue to live in precarious conditions.
  3. Refugees from the 2012-2013 crisis in Mali, whom UNHCR counts at 50,000-60,000.
  4. Refugees from northeastern Nigeria.

Throughout the crisis in Niger’s neighbor Mali, it has often been tempting – including for me – to examine Niger’s “success.” More accurate than calling Mali a failure and Niger a success would be to say that Niger faces its own problems and vulnerabilities, including refugee streams from multiple other countries in the region, and limited resources to give those people.

Niger and Libya on the Recent Bombings

(Somehow I goofed and didn’t post this on May 28th, the day I wrote it. It’s still relevant, so I thought I would post it today. – Alex)

Following the May 23 bombings in northern Niger, the country’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, charged that the attackers had come from southern Libya. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan denied this claim.

I do not know who is right. But Issoufou and Zeidan’s statements interest me in large part because of the views they reflect on what post-Qaddhafi Libya has become.


Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel…I had already warned from the beginning of the Libyan crisis…that it was necessary to avoid solutions after Kadhafi’s defeat that would be even worse, and I had said that if the Libyan state turned into a Somalia or fell into the hands of fundamentalists, the solution would be worse…Today the situation is very difficult, the Libyan authorities are doing their best to control it, but the fact is, Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel.

It’s noteworthy that Issoufou frames the problem as a regional one and not just as an issue for Libya and Niger.


It was Gaddafi who exported terrorism…The new Libya will not tolerate that.

Issoufou depicts the bombings as the work of foreigners, Zeidan depicts Libya’s problems as being the fault of Qaddhafi.

Libya and Niger have had some tension since Qaddhafi’s fall. Niger was relatively slow to recognize the new Libyan government, and the two countries have not reached an agreement on the extradition of Qaddhafi family members and lieutenants from Niger back to Libya (Zeidan raised this issue again at his press conference). Issoufou calling Libya a “source of destabilization” is strong language, and suggests that he (and possibly other Sahelian leaders) are deeply unhappy with their northern neighbor’s trajectory. Issoufou’s concerns about Libya, in other words, go well beyond the latest bombing.