Leadership and Structure 

The Islamic State in Libya’s organizational structure appears to have changed from three separate wilayat (provinces demarcated along the supposedly traditional Ottoman/Italian/monarchial provincial boundaries) with defined state-like departments (diwans) and a hierarchal chain of command, into guerilla-style desert brigades and networked cells with more horizontal command structures. The small size of these cells makes their detection more difficult, allowing the group to better achieve the hit-and-run tactics needed for its ‘Campaign in the Desert.’

It is crucial to remember that when the Islamic State was seeking to expand its territorial reach and financial catchment area outward from Sirte in 2015-2016, it very infrequently dispatched cells for hit-and-run attacks far away from its base of operations. In effect, the Islamic State in Libya has reverted to disparate insurgent cells. After the loss of Sirte in 2016 and the sustained U.S. airstrike campaign in 2017 targeting key Islamic State camps and hideouts near Sirte, Bani Walid, and Sabratha, the group’s top- and mid-tier leadership were significantly weakened.

Despite this, the group managed to preserve a modicum of its initial rank-and-file manpower post-Sirte, and now several notable top-tier leaders have emerged to facilitate its new strategy. This leadership cadre has included Mahmoud al-Barassi (a Libyan national from a prominent eastern tribe) and Al-Mahdi Rajab Danqou. Al-Barassi, who founded the group’s Benghazi branch and led the bombing and assassination operations against local security forces, is thought to have led the group’s remnants operating in the desert areas between Ajdabiya and Bani Walid. 

In September 2020, the Libyan National Army (LNA) announced that it had killed the then head of ISIS in North Africa, Abdul Qader al-Najdi (also known as Abu Moaz al-Iraqi) in Sebha, southern Libya. Al-Iraqi entered Libya via Turkey on 12 September 2014 with Abdulaziz al-Anbari, the former Emir (leader) of ISIS in North Africa, carrying a fake Libyan passport. He had previously served as al-Anbari’s deputy. After al-Anbari was killed in Derna in 2015, al-Iraqi assumed the position of Emir.

On 14 March, the LNA announced the arrest of ISIS leader Abu Omar in Ubari. It was reported that the LNA 116 Battalion and the Asifa unit stormed an ISIS base and seized two men and a woman from the group, blew up an ammunition store, and confiscated a large number of weapons stored at the site. According to the LNA, Abu Omar was a ISIS leader in Sirte andwas linked to the group’s Emir in Libya, Abu Moaz al-Iraqi, who was killed in September 2020 in Sebha. The LNA claims that Abu Omar was coordinating terrorist operations with the commander of ISIS in Niger and Mali, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi.