Will Caliphate Emerge Again in Libya?

Study Introduction: Reveals Adequate Changes that make way for Islamic State in Libya to Emerge

Problem of the Study:

After the decline of Islamic State in Libya ISL, its activities have nearly vanished. Hypothesis of defeat and inability to re-establish itself after it was targeted by many military operations is arousing inquiries about the ability to re-activate itself. By the time most cells of Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS, whether they are in Iraq, Syria, or Africa are witnessing a remarkable retreat and inertia. However, the organic connection among ISL cells is still vigorous, especially in North Africa. This may lead to the return of IS activities in Libya and other regions after it has been defeated.    

Purposes of the Study:

  • To search the origin of ISL and its evolution in Libya territories;
  • To shed light on the most outstanding threats and activities the organization has carried out during its active phase in provinces it was dominating;
  • To shed light on the current situation and activities of this organization, and the decline of its power;
  • To focus on the consequences of military operations waged by the Libyan military entities, particularly the National Army under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar, which confronted the activities of ISL groups.  

Location of the Study: North and Northeast of Libya

Time of the Study: Since the declaration of ISL in Derna in October 2014 up till now.

Final conclusion of study over probabilities of return of Islamic State in Libya, especially in Libya which will lead to an open conflict


By the time all parties in Libya are seeking to find out a gate for understanding over controversial issues, the problem of ISL re-emergence in Libya after activities of its cells have been recently observed, has aroused inquiry over two serious issues:

First, the probability of organization’s return in a new simulacrum after military operations dismissed its power, and nearly led to its final defeat.

Second, the feasibility of military and security mechanisms adopted to regain control over the stage that follows the defeat of ISL, that is regarded as a crucial stage in which the organization is scattered into several cells spreading in a wider geographical span than before.  

On the other side, Islamic State is trying to obviate as many successive defeats incurred in Syria and Iraq as it can, and the organization’s strategy in North Africa may play a role in changing its strategies in Libya. In addition, as a solution is not going to be found shortly between Tripoli’s government headed by Fayiz Al-Sarraj on the one hand and Tabraq’s government affiliated with The Libyan National Army under the leadership of retired Major General Khalifa Hafter on the other. This will create an appropriate environment for defeating ISL remnants over nearly a year in North Libya where so many of its fighters retreated back to the Libyan desert.         

The Evolution & Emergence of Islamic State in Libya

After Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS expanded its power in Syria and Iraq and its declaration of Caliphate in Al-Raqqa in 2014, Jihadists who mostly belonged to “Shura Council of Muslim Youth, and some members of “Ansar Al- Sharia”, emerged in the coastal city of Derna in a video recording in which they declared allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in October 2014 (4). Abu Bakr approved to append Libya to the Caliphate’s State, and he divided it into three provinces: the first was Barqa province in the east, the second was Tripoli province in the west and Fazzan province in the south. The so-called Abu Al Bara’a Al Azdi, a Yemeni national, was nominated as the governor of Barqa, and Abu Habib Al Jazrawi was nominated as a general Mufti for the province, who obtained all members’ allegiance to Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate in November 2014.

As for “Shura Council of Muslim Youth” which was the first block of ISIS’s emergence in Libya, it appeared in the city of Derna in April 2014, and it was thought that its fighters were in Syria where they fought against the Syrian regime by the name of Al-Battar Battalion, and they returned to Libya after 2012. About a month after their presence had been declared in Derna, the council began to operate security patrols, and to control government’s facilities and buildings like Hureish Hospital. In May of that same year, the Council began to issue statements convicting political Libyan bodies of apostacy, and it established Hisba[1] Commission to check acts and sets of behaviors anomalous to Islamic Sharia. It also began to publish pro-ISL statements to advocate its activities. Consequently, the board was regarded as a part of The Islamic State and as a sub-part of Caliphate in Libya.

On the other side, the emergence ISL, at that stage can be attributed to several factors as follows:

1- Military-security vacuum several Libyan territories witnessed after the collapse of Libyan regime headed by Mua’amar Al Kazafi. Libyan opposition factions went into acute inter-conflicts that resulted in a state of total chaos on both operational and security levels, especially in the North of Libya.

2- Economic Factor:

Some Jihadi organizations exploited the prevailing situation in the North of Libya that is overlooking the Mediterranean and are rich in oil. They exploited that factor, and they took over oil wells by which they funded themselves and achieved a notable development in their organizational structures.

3- Intellectual and Organizational Factor:

The control of Ansar Al-Sharia Organization and its wide expansion in the city of Derna with the presence of pro-Kazafi regime tribes, created an adequate condition for the emergence of ISL. In September 2013, a year before the ISL was declared, groups of Ansar Al-Sharia Organization held a secret meeting with the groups of Ansar Al-Sharia Organization in Tunis, Libya, Morocco, Egypt and other groups of Al-Nusra Front through which they made a new fight plan in the area, and tried to enhance the potentials of armed groups spreading on frontlines.

Organization’s Activities in Libya From Power Stage to Weakness Stage:

The Islamic State in Libya ISL, within a short period after it was established, could develop military tactics and plans to expand.  Since 2015, its strategies have been concentrated on taking control over the Libyan oil crescent and Libyan coast in order to financial independence for its activities by oil revenues as it similarly did in Iraq and Syria.   

ISL began to apply that strategy in March 2015 as its fighters managed to regain control over oil wells of Mabrouk and Al-Ghani near Sirte, but they could not preserve their control, and they withdrew back to their previous locations in Derna. in April, ISL broadcast the first mass execution against 28 Ethiopian Christians because they had rejected to pay ransom. In the meantime, it managed to take over areas surrounding the Libyan city of Sirte, then it declared the control of the entire city of Sirte in June 2015 after it had captured Sirte International airport and Al-Qardabiah Base.

Nevertheless, in July, one month after the ISL had captured Sirte, Shura Council of Derna Jihadists expelled ISL form the city of Derna, its main stronghold, which revealed the organization incapability to cover several fronts simultaneously, and its lack for human resources after previously pro-tribes made a coup against it, and they defected from it in Derna. At that time, the total number of ISL fighters was 2-3 thousand fighters. 1500 were based in Sirte.

ISL imposed its radical rules in all areas it took over, especially in Sirte, and it established Hisba System to check the acts and sets of behavior of civilians, and it assigned women to execute provisions on women inconsistent with ISIS rules. It also imposed ransom on whom it considered as Non-Muslims. It worked on activation of its missionary dissemination of its radical ideologies amongst the junior and the young. It intimidated civilians through mass execution processes and flogging in public squares.        

While, ISL was trying to progress towards the city of Bani-Ghazi starting from its locations in Nawfaliyah area in December 2015, but it could take over only a few quarters, and battles continued as street fights between ISL fighters and the Libyan National Army until it was expelled from the city in 2015.

At the beginning of the year 2016 ISL captured the town of Bani-Jawad which is located 600 kilometers to the east of Tripoli, and it waged an offensive towards the sea-port of Al-Sidra to the east of Bani-Jawad in an attempt to tie its pocket in the city of Sirte with areas under its control in Bani-Ghazi through Ben-Jawad area in order to reach Ras-Lanov and to control oil crescent there.      

ISIS bright days continued until mid-2016 which marks the beginning of ISIS weakness stage. On April 30th 2016, ISL lost its control over areas in Al-Sidra sea-port and Al-Nawfaliyah. Thus, the distance between its military pocket and the pockets it was controlling in Bani-Ghazi got wider.    

In June 2016, ISL fighters withdrew from Al-Qardabiah Air Base and the city and seaport of Sirte, which were the most primary and important defense lines of the ISL towards the entrance of Sirte. Two months later, Al-Bunian Al-Marsous Forces, the Compact Structure’s Forces, that belonged to The National Reconciliation Government, that fought ISL, and was supported by the International Alliance, managed to capture areas in the city, and it expanded and declared the expel of ISL fighters from the entire city of Derna in December 2016. That operation was regarded as most squashing strike against Islamic State Organization over weakness stage in Libya. 

After that phase and at with the beginning of 2017, many members of the organization fled into the Libyan desert and the west of Libya towards the Tunisian and Algerian borders. ISL returned to active cells stage which were manifested in minor groups spreading in specific areas, but it possessed no military capabilities that enabled it to control an entire area.

At that time, information stated that after ISL had lost Derna, it was split into three major factions. The first consisted of 60 – 80 fighters centered in Qarza area that is 170 kilometers to the east of Sirte towards the Tunisian borders, and it could spread and expand in the city of Sabratha. The second faction consisted of 100 members centered around the two oil wells of Zalla and Mabrouk located 300 kilometers to the southeast of Sirte. The third one was centered in Al – Uwainat near Algerian borders.        

With the advent of 2018, ISIS turned to long-term terroristic activities like Vehicles Born Improvised Explosive Device VBIED targeting public facilities like electricity and water networks and abrupt attacks on checkpoints and military bases whether they belonged to The Libyan Reconciliation Government, or to the Libyan National Army under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar. Libyan official information revealed that terroristic ISIS cells could organize themselves in the South of Libya under the name “Desert Army”, and those cells are still aggravatingly active in wide areas of the countries.     

Evaluation of the Most Outstanding Military Operations against ISIS

ISL was confronted to stop spread of its power in Libya by main bodies in the countries. The Libyan Reconciliation Government headed by Fayiz Al-Sarraj and brigades and battalions affiliated with it on the one hand, and forces of The Libyan National Army headed by Khalifa Haftar on the other hand. The earliest operation launched to confront ISL was “Al-karama Operation”, Dignity Operation, in 2014. That operation succeeded in terminating the expansion of the ISL towards the city of Bani-Ghazi to the east Libya, and the operation was followed by another one called “Hatf” in 2015.   

The second operation was in the city of Derna in the year 2015. It was launched by Shura Council of Derna Jihadists that came to a compromise with local battalions and other ones affiliated with radical Salafist factions that were indirectly tied with Ansar Al-Sharia Organization. The campaign expelled ISL from the city.    

However, the most outstanding campaign of the series of battles that targeted ISL was the liberation of Sirte operation or the so-called “Al-Bunian Al-Marsous”, Compacting Barrier, in which the forces of both of Major General Khalifa Haftar and Reconciliation Government Forces took part. These allied forces defeated ISL in one of its strongest strongholds in Libya. The International Alliance bombarded several locations of ISL. It led to a remarkable success of the operation.

After that, a new phase of combating ISL came. It was a phase of security operations to pursuit dormant cells of ISL, and the National Reconciliation Government established a military operations chamber for fighting ISL in 2016 after two suicidal offensives and attacks hit towns surrounding the city of Misrata. 

In April 2018, the operation was carried out in an area 60 kilometers to the east of the city of Misrata and the outskirts of other five cities which were Bani-walid, Tarhuna, Muslata, Al-khams and Zlieten.   

The Libyan National Army, on its part, declared a security operation in 2018 in the city of Derna where there were Al-Qaida-related cells under the name of the so-called “Shura Council of Derna Jihadists”. The operation led to the expel of ISIS out from the city, but it was thought that some ISL -affiliated members joined Salafist groups of the council after Derna had been liberated. Through the operation, Hisham Al-Ashmawi, Egyptian national, one of the chieftains of terrorist movements in north Africa, was captured.    

As for the feasibility of military and security operations that targeted ISL, it was observed, upon information mentioned above, that each sole military operation, launched by Libyan influential partners like National Reconciliation Government and National Libyan Army to defeat ISL, would not achieve the expected result, as many of ISL cells were still widening their activities to capture more Libyan areas. Moreover, the absence of an alleged political solution amongst the Libyan groups helped terrorist organizations expand because the politico-military chaos created a security and governance vacuum that enabled terrorist groups to increase their activities. Thus, opportunity of understanding and coordination among ISL -combating partners will certainly stop terrorist operations, and help pursuit plighted ISL members. The feasibility of coordination was obvious out of Sirte operation that was carried in collaboration between Haftar forces and Reconciliation Government’s. The operation led to the liberation of the most important areas which were controlled by ISL in Libya, and it was a turning point of the IS vitality and led to its decline.

The Most Outstanding Scenarios of ISL Future in Libya

As five years of military confrontations with ISL have passed, an inquiry pops out about the possibility or impossibility of annihilating ISL and its activities. In this context, three main scenarios can be predicted for the future of ISL as follows:

  • During the last few months, ISL managed to carry out several quality operations like the offensive it launched against Oil National Corporation in the city of Tripoli last September. The offensive was preceded by another one where ISL launched mortar rounds on the Higher Election Commission in Tripoli that resulted in the death of at least 16 people.

In addition to launching many terrorist operations and terrorist activities in several areas all over the country, some political and military entities warned of the ISL’s strong return to Libya. The most outstanding warning was given by the French president Emanuel Macron beginning of 2018 when he warned of the probability of ISL’s new return to Libya. Return scenario of ISL to conflict arena was rather probable. Its return was mainly due to chaos prevailing in the country, that is, as long as the Libyan bodies don not coordinate to pursuit remnants of ISL, both former and latter military operations targeting it will not achieve remarkable objectives, and the period needed for termination of ISL will be prolonged. It might reproduce itself, at least, under other titles.  

  • To terminate the Islamic State organization’s activity, and to condense monitoring and evaluation processes all over the cities and areas in Libya, military efforts should also be unified to confront terrorist organizations near the Algerian, Tunisian and Sudanic borders that are considered big havens of Jihadi cells. This scenario is based on an expected breakthrough in the political and military scenes through international mediations that will unify all Libyan bodies to figure out a comprehensive political solution. This alleged solution will lead to high coordination between military bodies affiliated with the Reconciliation Government and those bodies affiliated with the National Army headed by General Hafter. Efforts will be directed to the formation of comprehensive security squads all over the country to pursuit ISL’s remnants. However, this scenario won’t apparently be achieved on the short-term prospective, as conflicts and complications of this scenario are growing among the Libyan parties for the time being.     

Partial inhibition of ISL’s activities in Libya and the inability to stop it from achieving a remarkable progress will impair efforts aiming at preventing the probability of its activity growth in the country. This scenario is the one that is occurring now. The Reconciliation Government has been launching military and security operations targeting ISL, but it has been unable to inhibit its activities, and ISL was able to repeatedly target the headquarter of Reconciliation Government in Tripoli as it was referred to while talking about the first the first probability, whereas the Libyan National Army is separately carrying out operations to pursuit ISL, so that it is probable if the adopted strategy of the Libyan entities continues combating as it is going on for the time being,  ISL won’t be terminated on the short-term prospective, and it will probably reach the Mediterranean within at least five years.   


After the defeats of Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya, it is trying to search for areas to recollect its cells in order to impose its state entity, but it won’t be easily achieved again in both Syria and Iraq as operations against ISIS were supported by the presence of Americans and foreign bases affiliated with the International Coalition on the ground in both Syria and Iraq. So, the operations mentioned above made it very difficult for ISL to return as strongly as it was in the past. Anyway, the situation in Libya and North Africa is totally different where there are no Coalition bases on the ground. Instead, the Coalition is working with local partners to combat ISL, that is, the state of security alert should be imposed after the phase of weakening and exhaustion of the organization in North Africa, and specifically in Libya in order to confront the probability of its strong re-emergence in the conflict arena.    

[1] Islamic police forces who are in charge of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Commission

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