History of ISIS in Libya
Following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya’s political and economic institutions were split along east-west lines, the sovereignty and security vacuum deepened, providing an opportunity for the nascent Islamic State group in the Levant to transplant itself into Libya.
The Islamic State in Libya’s first official branch was announced via the rebranding of existing Libyan al-Qa’ida-linked groups in the area of Derna in mid-2014. This then attracted an influx of experienced foreign jihadis to assume leadership roles within the organization. Islamic State’s Core leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formally recognized the group’s presence in Libya in November 2014.
Over the course of 2015, it established territorial control and governance mechanisms in parts of Derna, Benghazi, and Sabratha. It then launched a bold bid to conquer Sirte and threaten Libya’s Oil Crescent. By mid-2015, the Islamic State became the sole governing body in Sirte and at its peak may have had as many as 5,000 fighters occupying the city.
Airstrikes against Islamic State, authorized by Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj commenced on August 1, 2016. These—combined with prior local anti-Islamic State uprisings against the group’s brutality—virtually eliminated the group’s presence in Sabratha and Derna. Hence, by the end of August 2016, the group’s territoriality was concentrated in an ever-narrowing swath of coastal territory surrounding Sirte. In May 2016, forces from the GNA-aligned, Misratan Bunyan al-Marsus (BAM) coalition of militias advanced on Sirte and soon took over its outer suburbs. In August 2016, the United States began to provide it with air support, launching strikes on soft targets throughout the city. After more than 500 BAM combat deaths and much street-by-street fighting, especially around Sirte’s Ouagadougou centre, on December 6, 2016, the Islamic State was declared to be “fully” defeated and expelled from Sirte.
In the months that followed, the United States undertook a series of airstrikes throughout Libya, killing as many as 80 Islamic State fighters in one day in January 2017. At that time, knowledgeable sources estimated that the number of experienced Islamic State fighters in Libya had dwindled to some 200 fighters.
As of March 2021, the UN described the threat from Islamic State as “moderate”. Islamic State members are mainly located in the southern desert cities of Taraghin, Ubari and Ghadduwah. They transit the southern borders of Libya with Chad, the Niger and Sudan in small groups. Their activities are financed primarily by engaging in oil and drugs smuggling. The group continues to maintain sleeper cells in the coastal cities of Sabratah and Tripoli.
For more information on how ISIS emerged in Libya see our report The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya and for an analysis of how ISIS evolved after its defeat at Sirte from a territory holding caliphate to an insurgency in the desert, see The Islamic State’s Revitalization in Libya and its Post-2016 War of Attrition.