ISIS in Libya: a Major Regional and International Threat

ISIS operatives enter the coastal city of Sirte in north-central Libya on February 18, 2015, in a show of strength accompanied by dozens of vehicles (, Since then ISIS has established itself in Sirte and the surrounding areas, turning the entire region into its Libyan stronghold and a springboard for spreading into other regions.
ISIS operatives enter the coastal city of Sirte in north-central Libya on February 18, 2015, in a show of strength accompanied by dozens of vehicles (, Since then ISIS has established itself in Sirte and the surrounding areas, turning the entire region into its Libyan stronghold and a springboard for spreading into other regions.


1.   In 2015 ISIS established two strongholds beyond the borders of its power base in Iraq and Syria: the first in the Sinai Peninsula, where it wages determined fighting against the Egyptian security forces. The second is situated in the north- central Libyan city of Sirte and its surroundings, where it has established territorial control and from where it seeks to take over the entire country. It intends to turn Libya into a springboard for terrorism and the subversion of the rest of North Africa, the sub-Saharan countries, and southern Europe. The firm territorial base ISIS constructed in Libya is the only one outside Iraq and Syria, and is potentially a greater regional and international threat.

2.   ISIS could establish itself in Libya because of the chaos prevalent after the execution of Muammar Qaddafi. As in Iraq and Syria, the governmental-security vacuum created by the collapse of the central government was filled by nationalist and Islamist organizations, local and regional tribal militias and jihadist organizations. The branch of ISIS in Libya exploited the lack of a functioning government and the absence of international intervention to establish itself in the region around Sirte and from there to aspire to spread throughout Libya.

3.   ISIS's "capital" (like Al-Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq) in Libya is the coastal city of Sirte in the north-central part of the country, which used to be Muammar Qaddafi's stronghold. In Sirte and the surrounding areas ISIS enforces its strict Salafist governmental code on the population (as it has in the cities it conquered in Iraq and Syria). It has also constructed a military infrastructure throughout Sirte which includes training camps for Libyan and foreign fighters. Its objective is to train a military force that will enable ISIS to take control of other regions in Libya and to establish branches in neighboring countries. ISIS is greedy for the oil infrastructure, whose income the organization needs to upgrade its military capabilities.

4.   ISIS does not recognize Libya as a single political entity, as it does not recognize the legitimacy of the other nation states in the Middle East. Therefore, for organizational purposes, ISIS divided the Islamic State in Libya into three provinces: Tripoli in the west, Barqa (Cyrenaica) in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest. ISIS operatives in Libya are present (to various extents) and conduct various levels of activity in the three districts (which are not contiguous), seeking to take control of the entire country. They fight against the two rival governments as well as rival militias, among them jihadist organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda. ISIS's order of battle in Libya is estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000 operatives, some of them Libyan and some foreign fighters from Arab and African countries. In Libya ISIS is supported by Islamist militias, the most prominent of which is the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia.

5.   ISIS got its first foothold in Libya in Barqa Province in the eastern part of the country. There it collaborated with local Islamist-jihadist organizations and foreign Salafi-jihadist fighters, some of whom had combat experience from the fighting in Syria and Iraq. The hard core that established ISIS in Libya was apparently composed of local fighters who had gone to Syria in 2012 and began returning in the spring of 2014. Among them were fighters from the Al-Battar Battalion, who had sworn allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In Derna, a city in the eastern part of the country, already Islamist under Qaddafi, they established ISIS's first power base in Libya. They founded a jihadist organization called Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (Islamic Youth Shura Council). On June 22, 2014, the organization declared its support for ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and went on to establish its control over Derna and the entire region.

6.   The following year, in June 2015, ISIS was expelled from Derna and from most of the other towns and cities in the region. Its expulsion was made possible by the ad hoc collaboration of two rivals: the anti-Islamist Libyan army, loyal to the Tobruk secular government in the east, and a local Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist organization called the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna. ISIS was then expelled to the mountainous region of Al-Fataih south of Derna, which overlooks the city. From there ISIS continues fighting against the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, which is trying to expel them from that area as well, so far without success.

7.   While ISIS's power base in Derna (and eastern Libya in general) suffered a serious blow, on February 18, 2015, ISIS successfully took over the large coastal city of Sirte in north-central Libya, as well as the surrounding areas. That was apparently accomplished by means of a force moved in from the east. In Sirte ISIS established its territorial center and declared the establishment of its Tripoli Province, directly subordinate to ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria. Sirte has a seaport, international airport, army bases, economic projects, oil installations and various government facilities. It is also Muammar Qaddafi's birthplace and his tribe's power base. Thus, its support, given to ISIS, has both tribal and societal roots (based on Qaddafi supporters, who want an organization that will back them and protect them from the rebels who toppled his government[1]).

8.   After the takeover of Sirte, ISIS took control of a series of villages and towns in the surrounding area and created a base of territorial control for itself, as it did in Iraq and Syria. Today ISIS controls 260 kilometers (about 160 miles) of Libya's coastal road, effectively cutting Tripoli off from Tobruk and Benghazi. From Sirte ISIS aspires to reach the capital city of Tripoli in the west, Benghazi and Derna in the east, and the oil fields in the south. Next in ISIS's sights are the cities of Misrata, halfway between Sirte and Tripoli, and Ajdabiya, near important oil installations (among them the Sidr oil port and oil infrastructure at Ra's Lanuf).

Locations of ISIS presence and control in Libya. It has territorial control over the square outlined in black. Outlined in red are large cities where ISIS is present but not in control, while Misrata and Ajdabiya are on its agenda (Google Maps).
Locations of ISIS presence and control in Libya. It has territorial control over the square outlined in black. Outlined in red are large cities where ISIS is present but not in control, while Misrata and Ajdabiya are on its agenda (Google Maps).

9.   The area of Sirte is the only region where ISIS has territorial control. In other cities and areas it has a presence or is active, but does not have effective control. Those areas include Derna and Benghazi, the territory surrounding Tripoli, and cities in proximity to Sirte (Ajdabiya in the west and Misrata in the east). However, in those locations ISIS is under considerable pressure from local forces. The lack of a territorial continuum and communications problems make it difficult for ISIS to operate in those locations. ISIS, which is aware of its vulnerability, seeks to extend its territorial power base in Sirte and unite it with other regions (as it used Iraq as a springboard for taking over eastern Syria and creating a territorial continuum between them).

10.   In and around Sirte and in other locations where ISIS established itself, it constructed a military infrastructure for terrorism and guerilla warfare against its many enemies inside and outside Libya:

1)   Inside Libya ISIS directs its terrorism and guerilla warfare against the Tripoli and Tobruk governments, the Tobruk government-supporting Libyan army and the many militias fighting against it. ISIS gives priority to carrying out attacks in the capital city of Tripoli and its surroundings to weaken the government and harm foreign representatives and citizens. In 2015 ISIS attacked the Corinthia Hotel (a diplomatic and governmental nerve center). It also carried out series of attacks on foreign legations and on oil fields east and south of Sirte (both series of attacks without significant results). It also carried out well-publicized executions of so-called "infidels," Copts from Egypt and Christians from Eritrea, to terrorize its enemies.

2)   Outside Libya ISIS directed most of its attacks against Tunisia, because of its relative weakness and its proximity to centers of ISIS control in Libya. During the past year ISIS carried out a series of showcase terrorist attacks in Tunisia. They included an attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, a shooting attack on a beach in Sousse and an attack on a bus carrying members of the presidential guard. ISIS claimed responsibility in every instance and its Libyan infrastructure was reportedly involved in training, arming and dispatching the terrorist operatives to Tunisia. ISIS in Libya also collaborates with jihadist operatives and organizations in northern Africa and sub-Saharan regions. Especially notable are the connections between ISIS in Libya and ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula, and between both of them and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which also swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

11.   Like Iraq and Syria, Libya is a country that has disintegrated and is involved in an ongoing civil war that is likely to continue for a long time. That is the result of the deep divisions between the various centers of power and the access of the rival sides to military and economic assets like oil fields, the refugee-smuggling industry and large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition from the Qaddafi era (some of which are of high quality and are smuggled from Libya to its Arab and African neighbors). It is still difficult to assess ISIS's ability to realize its far-reaching aspirations in Libya, but it has clearly established a stronghold it will not easily give up, in view of Libya's perceived importance.

12.   The establishment of ISIS (and other jihadist organizations) in Libya has the potential for many intra-Libyan, regional and international threats:

1)   Inside Libya ISIS is one of several organizations struggling for power and control. The establishment of ISIS in Libya increases the chaos and anarchy already plaguing the country, making it difficult to stabilize a central government (for various reasons not only connected to ISIS). Thus despite the efforts of the Tripoli and Tobruk governments to reach an agreement, in all probability in the coming years de facto Libya will be divided and suffer from war and turmoil, creating a governmental and security vacuum, and making it easy for ISIS to continue consolidating its power and making it difficult to uproot it.

2)   ISIS is liable to increase its ties to the jihadist organizations in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, exporting subversion and terrorism:

A.      Tunisia is currently in ISIS's crosshairs, but in the future ISIS may increase its support for jihadist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa (including Niger, Chad, Mali and Sudan). In West Africa ISIS has close ties with Nigeria's jihadist Boko Haram, which has sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

B.      ISIS in Libya's ties to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, ISIS's branch in the Sinai Peninsula, are also likely to become stronger. ISIS may also smuggle more weapons from Libya to the Sinai Peninsula (weapons which may also find their way to the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip). Libya has a wide-open border of 1,115 kilometers (almost 700 miles) with Egypt, through which operatives are infiltrated and weapons smuggled into Egypt by various organizations and criminal gangs, including ISIS. The Egyptian police consider ISIS's establishment in Libya, and especially in the eastern part of the country, as a threat to Egypt's national security, although so far no effective measures have been taken to keep ISIS from gaining strength in Libya.

Libya's geographical location may make it a regional threat, as ISIS uses it as a power base from which to export terrorism and subversion to its neighbors (Google Maps)
Libya's geographical location may make it a regional threat, as ISIS uses it as a power base from which to export terrorism and subversion to its neighbors (Google Maps)

3)   The threat to Italy and the rest of Europe:

A.      Libya's proximity to Italy makes ISIS's presence there potentially dangerous not only to Italy but to all of Europe (the distance between Sirte and Sicily is 696 kilometers, about 432 miles). Their closeness may encourage ISIS to send terrorist operatives to Italy and other European countries once it has established itself in Sirte and other locations. ISIS, through its affiliated social networks, has already threatened Italy, and may turn verbal threats into action. After the terrorist attack in Paris, ISIS posted a video entitled "Paris before Rome," sending the message that Italy's turn would come after Paris. It is also possible that ISIS's interest is not influenced only by Rome's geographical proximity and its position as the center of the Christian world, but also by the legacy of Italy's 23-year occupation of Libya.

 ISIS-affiliated Twitter account posting of a map of the Mediterranean Sea from northern Libya to Italy. The upper inscription reads, "Enlist to conquer Rome." The Arabic on the map north of Libya reads "The gateway to Rome" (Twitter account of دقةياشيخ الله ايطربك@dagadarna, August 22, 2015).
 ISIS-affiliated Twitter account posting of a map of the Mediterranean Sea from northern Libya to Italy. The upper inscription reads, "Enlist to conquer Rome." The Arabic on the map north of Libya reads "The gateway to Rome" (Twitter account of دقةياشيخ الله ايطربك@dagadarna, August 22, 2015).

B.      Libya is a point of exit for work-seeking emigrants and asylum-seekers swarming to Italy by sea from Libya, and African and Arab countries.[2] ISIS establishment in Libya has been accompanied by its cruel treatment of local populations, which may increase the flow of asylum-seekers from Libya. ISIS may use them as cover for infiltrating terrorist operatives into Italy or exploit them for financial gain.

4)   Turning a profit from Libya's oil and gas industry: ISIS is liable to take control of Libya's oil and gas industry or to damage or threaten it from its power base in Sirte. Its objective will either be to profit from selling oil to Western countries (still a viable business, but with a much smaller turnover than before Qaddafi was toppled) or at least to keep the oil profits from its enemies. In 2015 ISIS attacked the oil and gas industry in southern Libya a number of times, so far without significant success. At the beginning of 2016 ISIS attacked the important oil terminal at Sidr after it had taken control of the nearby town of Bin Jawad. ISIS can be expectedto increase its efforts to create sources of income which will upgrade its military and governmental capabilities,as it has done in Iraq and Syria.

13.   Alongside the threats ISIS in Libya poses, it also has a considerable number of vulnerabilities which can be exploited by any future campaign against it: its order of battle is limited to a few thousand operatives forced to fight armies, militias and hostile organizations (including organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda) more powerful than ISIS; there are organizations and tribes supporting ISIS in an ad hoc coalition, and when their interests shift they may abandon it for new allies; between ISIS's control of Sirte and other areas of its activities there is no territorial continuum, making it difficult to move forces from one sector to another. So far, as opposed to Iraq and Syria, ISIS has not yet taken control of oil fields and turned them into sources of profit. In addition, every country bordering Libya is hostile to ISIS and it is reasonable to assume they will collaborate with any coalition whose objective is to expel ISIS from Libya.

14.   However, no such international or pan-Arab coalition exists as yet. In countries like the United States, France, and those bordering Libya like Egypt and Tunisia, there is a growing awareness of the threats inherent in an ISIS stronghold in Libya. However, while the strategy the United States has implemented against ISIS since September 2014 professes to provide a comprehensive response to the challenge posed by ISIS, in reality it does not, because it focuses on Iraq and Syria. Therefore, it does not provide a response to ISIS's spread to other countries, especially Libya and Egypt, and to the local and regional threats inherent therein. To deal with the overall threats of ISIS's entrenchment in Libya, the United States and its European and Arab allies will have to change their concept of the anti-ISIS campaign. Their strategy should be extended to Libya and the other countries where ISIS is trying to establish itself, which would make it more comprehensive.



15.   The objective of this study is to examine the establishment of the ISIS branch in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi, and to analyze the potential threats. The disintegration of Libya into armies and militias and the vacuum created that made it possible for ISIS to establish itself there were taken into consideration.

16.   ISIS's establishment in Libya is an emerging historic event influenced by the upheaval in the Arab world. Libya is in a state of military and governmental chaos and the situation on the ground is in flux. That made it difficult to conduct research for this study. Therefore, it should be considered an interim study updated to January 2016 in which the current situation and its threats are described.

17.   Researching the study revealed a lack of reliable information about Libya in general and its ISIS branch in particular. The information herein is therefore partial and there are often gaps. Since the report deals with a contemporary situation for which there is no historical perspective, there was very little academic literature and a variety of mostly primary sources were used.

18.   Those sources included the social networks and websites affiliated with ISIS, as well as the Libyan, Arabic and international press (although the volume of information published about ISIS in Libya is far smaller that about ISIS in Iraq and Syria, currently the center of world attention). Also used were the ITIC's weekly "Spotlight on the Global Jihad" bulletins, which follow developments in Libya. In addition use was made of articles and research published by correspondents, experts and research institutes, most of them in the United States, and some in Europe and Israel.

19.   Regarding events in Libya in general and ISIS in particular, care must be taken when dealing with the great amount of propaganda issued by ISIS and/or its many enemies, intended to promote individual interests. Some of the information published about ISIS in Libya is meant to magnify or minimize and defame it in accordance with the specific interests of those issuing it. Therefore, great care was taken in analyzing the information available when writing this report.

Structure of the Report


Section 1: ISIS's perception of Libya

1.   Profile of ISIS – overview

2.   ISIS's objectives in Libya

3.   Libya as a springboard for other North African countries

4.   Using Libya's coast to infiltrate asylum-seekers into Europe

5.   Terrorist attacks against Italy and other European countries

6.   Libya as a possible alternative to Iraq and Syria

Section 2: Milestones in the consolidation of ISIS's power in Libya

1.   Overview

2.   Stage one: Libyan jihadists leave for Syria as foreign fighters and return (2012-2014)

3.   Stage two: Establishing and strengthening ISIS's territorial stronghold in Derna (April 2014 – June 2015)

4.   Stage three: Establishing a new power base in Sirte and the surrounding area (February 2015 to the present)

Section 3: ISIS consolidates its power in Sirte and the surrounding area

1.   ISIS in Sirte and its local allies

2.   ISIS's methods of control in Sirte

3.   ISIS takes over economic projects around Sirte

Section 4: ISIS expands to other locations in Libya

1.   Overview

2.   ISIS expands in the regions around Sirte

3.   Other cities in Libya where ISIS is present but does not have effective control

4.   ISIS's presence in Tripoli and to the west

5.   ISIS seeks control of Libya's oil industry

Section 5: ISIS's commanders and operatives

1.   Estimated number and origin of ISIS operatives

2.   ISIS's key operatives in Libya

Section 6: ISIS's terrorist activities and guerilla warfare in Libya

1.   The objective of terrorist attacks and guerilla warfare

2.   ISIS's modus operandi in Libya

3.   Training camps

4.   ISIS terrorist attacks and guerilla warfare in western and eastern Libya

Section 7: Libya as an exporter of ISIS terrorism to neighboring countries

1.   Exporting terrorism to Tunisia

2.   Providing weapons to jihadist networks outside Libya

3.   Collaboration between ISIS in Libya and ISIS in the northern Sinai Peninsula

4.   Collaboration between ISIS's branch in Libya and Boko Haram in Nigeria

Section 8: Distribution of ISIS propaganda in Libya

1.   Overview

2.   Videos

3.   Pictures

4.   Flyers

5.   Websites

6.   Blogs and forums

7.   Radio and TV channels

Appendix: ISIS's establishment in Libya: the internal Libyan background

1.   The political, geographical and social background

2.   The disintegration of Libya as a nation state after the fall of Qaddafi

3.   The creation of rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk

4.   Mapping the major armies and militias operating in Libya

5.   Attempts to establish a unity government

[1]The union of former Qaddafi supporters and ISIS is similar to that of former supporters of Saddam Hussein (Iraqi army officers and Baath Party members) and ISIS in Iraq. The significance is the ISIS represents not only an ideology (and practical method of applying it), but also an effort of the old guard, removed from power, to return to the political forefront under ISIS's aegis.
[2]More than a million asylum-seekers and emigrants entered Europe overland and by sea in 2015. About 150,000 of them came from North Africa, arriving by sea. Most of them apparently came via Libya.