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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A Quick Note on Banditry and Counterterrorism in Niger

RFI (French) reports that over the weekend, Nigerien soldiers in the northeast of their country clashed with armed Chadian bandits. The bandits reportedly fled toward the Nigerien border.

The incident reminds me of a quote (French) I’ve come back to again and again, from Mohamed Anacko, president of Agadez’s regional council. This came in the context of discussing France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism program, Operation Barkhane, in a 2015 interview:

First of all, I should say that if Barkhane had not been there, the last Nigerien lock would have been forced open during the war in Mali. The national army would not have been able to prevent the terrorists from coming to set up shop in the north. But it is true that from the start, Barkhane suffered from a lack of communication. When you send helicopters and planes into the desert, without having created an information mechanism, you should expect that the populations will see a new form of colonialism in it…The inhabitants do not understand that Barkhane only takes action against certain armed groups. There are gangs, coming from Chad or Sudan for example, that practice looting, particularly since gold panning became important. But Barkhane, because that is not its mission, does not take an interest in them. Neither do the Nigerien security forces, moreover. However, these are the persons who create conditions propitious for the installation of terrorism. The risk is that the population will create militias to defend itself. What’s more, the struggle against terrorism, it’s first of all about intelligence. There must be collaboration with the inhabitants, who know the region. If not, Barkhane will have to content itself with doing tourism in the desert.

Words worth reflecting on.

Libya Roundup, 6/8

Here are a few items on Libya that caught my eye this week:

  • Jacob Mundy in The Conversation: “Libya’s transitional leaders, some of whom will be presidential candidates, are entangled in – and benefit from – the country’s war economy. So do various armed factions that may view the vote as a threat to their interests and disrupt the process before it begins.” See also Tarek Megerisi.
  • Al Jazeera on Khalifa Haftar’s forces entering into Derna. More at The Independent and Al Arabiya.
  • Reuters: “The United States said on Wednesday [June 6] it had conducted a precision air strike near the Libyan town of Bani Walid, killing four Islamic State militants…One of those killed in the strike was Abd al-Aati Ashtaiwy, a Libyan who had traveled to Syria and had previously been based in Sirte, which Islamic State controlled from 2015-2016, according to the Bani Walid source and local reports.” Here is AFRICOM’s statement.
  • RFI (French) on allegations that various (non-Libyan) African rebels are training in southern Libya.

Libya: Press Roundup, Key Documents on the Sarraj-Haftar Meeting in Paris

On July 25, two of the most important figures in Libyan politics – Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army – met in Paris and agreed on a ceasefire.

Here are a few a relevant statements:

  • The joint declaration by Sarraj and Haftar.
  • The speech by President Macron (French).
  • United Nations Security Council: “The members of the Security Council welcome the meeting of Fayez Al Sarraj, President of the Presidency Council of Libya, and General Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the LNA, hosted in Paris by the President of the French Republic on the 25th of July, and the Joint Declaration issued after the meeting. Council members urge all Libyans to support a negotiated political solution, national reconciliation, and an immediate ceasefire, as called for in the Joint Declaration.”
  • U.S. State Department: “We welcome the Joint Declaration from the July 25, meeting between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar, hosted outside of Paris by French President Emmanuel Macron. We call on all Libyans to support political dialogue and adhere to a cease-fire, as stated in the Joint Declaration.”

Here’s a roundup of some press coverage. Much of the coverage has been quite critical, including when it comes to assessing the role of French President Emmanuel Macron:

  • L’Express (French): “If the initiative seems praiseworthy, nevertheless the hardest [part] remains to be done.”
  • Bloomberg: “A French-led effort to reunify fractured Libya failed to consult powerful local forces and risks achieving little beyond boosting the legitimacy of a renegade general who has recently racked up significant battlefield gains.”
  • The Economist: “The deal is but a small step. More agreements are needed before elections can be held and the fighting, which now involves myriad groups, is likely to continue. As it is, the LNA, which backs a separate government in the east, rarely battles the forces aligned with Mr Serraj. But General Haftar is free to keep pummelling terrorists, which is what he labels most of his opponents. The country’s powerful militias were left out of the talks in Paris, which were chaired by the newly appointed UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. So like previous deals brokered by the UN, this one lacks widespread support, at least for now.”
  • VOA: “The meeting…was not coordinated with the Italian government. [Italian Prime Minister Paolo] Gentiloni’s ministers took the unusual step of openly criticizing the French president this week, voicing their frustration with Macron’s efforts, which they argue distract from a coordinated U.N. and European Union effort to engineer a political deal in Libya between three rival governments and dozens of militias.

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.

Libya: A Controversy Around an Anti-Ibadi Fatwa

Libya has multiple governments and as such it has multiple poles of would-be official religious authority. One such body is the Supreme Committee for Issuing Fatwas (Al-Lajna al-‘Ulya li-l-Ifta’) connected to the Libyan Interim Government. That government is based in the northeastern city Al-Bayda and is associated with Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Committee kicked off a tremendous controversy by issuing a fatwa (Arabic) that denounces the Ibadis, a non-Sunni, non-Shi’i Muslim sect prevalent in Oman and with a small but significant presence in parts of North and East Africa. The fatwa comes in response to a question about the permissibility of praying behind an Ibadi imam – effectively, a question about whether Ibadis should be considered genuine Muslims or not. The response reads, “Ibadism is a deviant, misguided sect. They are Kharijite Batinists. They hold infidel beliefs, such as their belief that the Qur’an is a created object, and their belief in denying that we will see [God in Paradise], so do not pray behind them and don’t esteem them.”

For context, “Kharijites” is a pejorative term that can refer to a specific early Islamic sect but that also can be used widely as a term of abuse. Describing the intricacies of the historical relationships between Ibadism and Kharijism is, I think, a task best left to specialists, so I won’t attempt it here. “Batinism,” meanwhile, is used here as a pejorative term meaning people who claim to see hidden messages in the Qur’an.

Turning back to the fatwa’s reception, negative reactions came immediately from Libyan Amazigh/Bergers, who saw the fatwa not just as a religious provocation but an ethnic one. Ibadism is sometimes associated with the Amazigh in Libya and vice versa. The Amazigh Supreme Council called the fatwa “a direct incitement for a genocide of the Amazigh people in Libya.” (Read a little background on the Ibadis in Libya here.)

Another negative reaction came from a rival governmental religious body, the Dar al-Ifta’ (House of Issuing Fatwas), whose legal status under the Government of National Accord is now somewhat unclear (it’s been reportedly shut down, but it’s still issuing statements). Although the Dar al-Ifta’ and Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gharyani have a reputation in many quarters as divisive and even extremist, in this context the Dar al-Ifta’ presented itself as a non-sectarian force working for Libyan unity. In a statement (Arabic), Dar al-Ifta’ denounced the “sectarian chaos that simple-minded idiots and youngsters are trying to ignite among the Muslim citizenry.” (See also here.)

Other Libyan commentators have seen the fatwa as evidence of creeping Salafism/Wahhabism (Arabic) in Libya – for all that the eastern Libyan government and the forces of Haftar are often seen as anti-Islamist and even “secular,” there is a strong Salafi influence on those bodies.

Those are just a few of the reactions in an ongoing domestic controversy. It will be interesting to see whether the pressure and criticism elicit any changes on the part of the Supreme Committee or the eastern government.

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.