Terrorist and Armed Groups in the Fezzan-Sahel Region: Recruitment and Communication Tactics

January 2021

In Terrorist and Armed Groups in the Fezzan-Sahel Region: Recruitment and Communication Tactics Jason Pack, the Founder & Emeritus Director of Eye on Isis in Libya, recently published a report commissioned by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (StratCom) on terrorist and armed groups in the Libyan South. Co-authored with Stefano Marcuzzi, the report explores the resilience of terrorist and armed group activity in the Fezzan region of south-west Libya. Read the report here.

The Islamic State’s Revitalization in Libya and its Post-2016 War of Attrition

March 2019

On 21 March, The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) released its March issue of Sentinel (Volume 12, issue 3), to which Libya-Analysis Jason Pack and Lachlan Wilson contributed with an article entitled ‘The Islamic State’s Revitalization in Libya and its Post-2016 War of Attrition’. Jason Pack is President of Libya Analysis LLC and Dr. Lachlan Wilson is Managing Director of Eye on ISIS in Libya and the Program Manager at Libya-Analysis LLC. Pack and Wislon’s report decrypts the strategies adopted by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya since its territorial loss of Sirte in 2016. They argue that ISIS has engaged in a war of attrition seeking to derail Libyan state formation. Their report is articulated in four parts. First, they present an overview of the emergence of ISIS in Libya in 2014 and its evolution throughout the Libyan crisis. In a second part, they demonstrate how the Islamic State has appeared to have shifted strategy. Pack and Wilson identify that ISIS’s new approach relies on simultaneous military campaigns. On the one hand, the organization has been conducting high profile attacks on symbolic state institutions, and in parallel it has also engaged in a campaign in the desert throughout larger areas of the country. Then, the report focuses on the resources developed by the Islamic State to pursue its goals in terms of money, manpower and structures. Moving on, Pack and Wilson question the future of the Islamic State in Libya, alerting that the Islamic State in Libya may actually pose a greater threat to the state-building processes in 2019 than it did in 2016 given the present circumstances. They note:

The international community would be remiss to continue pushing political reconciliation while not providing sufficient attention to the intertwined ‘elephants in the room’ of Libya’s illicit economy and the threat from a resurgent Islamic State satellite. […] Looking further ahead over the next year—and assuming that sufficiently bold and coordinated actions from Libyan authorities and their international partners fail to materialize—the status quo in Libya will most probably be maintained; […] In this and other similar scenarios, the Islamic State in Libya is poised to exploit latent social fissures to help facilitate a descent into a large-scale conflict. In doing so, the group will be fulfilling its proximal ambition: maintaining the vicious circle of instability in Libya, which provides it with an ideal breeding ground.

Click here to read the article.

Al-Qaida’s Strategy in Libya: Keep it Local, Stupid

December 2017

Rhiannon Smith, the Managing Director of Libya-Analysis and Eye on ISIS in Libya (EOIL), and Jason Pack, the founder of Libya-Analysis and EOIL, have written an article for Perspectives on Terrorism that looks at how al-Qaida-linked groups focus on the local struggle in Libya, how they have shaped their strategies and activities in the country, and what impact this has had on the communities where they are active.

Smith and Pack argue that in Libya, al-Qaida-linked groups have done a better job than their ISIS-linked counterparts at staying rooted to local concerns, local actors, and evolving country dynamics, and that this has allowed them to mimic and replicate local and traditional power structures. The authors state:

Globally, al-Qaida has survived so long despite its defeats and setbacks because it has learnt from past failures and adapted. Where ISIS has invited direct confrontation and military annihilation through its high-profile brutality, al-Qaida has adopted a cautious bottom-up approach to building support. This keeps it below the radar, but makes it no less dangerous.  ASL [Ansar al-Sharia Libya, an al-Qaida linked group] has already applied this technique in Benghazi, and it is likely that its official disbandment is a continuation of this strategy. By publicly claiming it has disbanded, ASL may be able to protect itself against complete annihilation at the hands of Haftar’s forces, distance itself from the last three years of fighting in Benghazi, and allow its members to reintegrate into the city at a social level rather than a military one. As such, they may live to fight another day and rejoin other al-Qaida linked groups. The threat that ASL directly poses may be significantly reduced in the short term, but while chaos and insecurity still reign throughout Libya, it may not take the group, or others similar to it, long to rebuild a support base. In Derna, the DMSC [Derna Mujahadeen Shura Council] has cemented its legitimacy, not by watering down its ideological beliefs, but by framing its objectives so that they specifically appeal to the historic and socio-political context of Derna itself. By defeating ISIS and fighting against Haftar, the DMSC and its constituent parts have appealed to ingrained fears of central authority, thereby portraying themselves as patriotic Libyans first, Salafi-jihadis second. Indeed, al-Qaida-linked groups have done a better job mimicking such local and traditional structures than their ISIS-linked equivalents.

Defusing the Ticking ‘Jihadist’ Timebomb: Can Transitional Justice Help Counter the Trend of Radicalisation in Tunisia?

6 November 2017

In a new working paper published by Hate Speech International, Houda Mzioudet and Eye on ISIS’s Rhiannon Smith discuss radicalization in Tunisia and whether the country’s Transitional Justice process can help diffusing a ‘jihadist’ timebomb in the country. The 29-page report offers insight into radicalisation and violent extremism in Tunisia, looks at its root causes and gives an overview of the Transitional Justice process and its role in the struggle against radicalization in the country. Its key findings are:

  • Transitional Justice Allows Grievances To Be Aired, But Justice Must Also Be Seen To Be Done: If the perpetrators of human rights violations made public through the TDC hearings are not prosecuted or held accountable in some form, there is a risk that the process of publically airing human rights abuses and grievances will actually reinvigorate public anger and frustration, potentially radicalising a new cohort of disenfranchised Tunisians.
  • Transitional Justice Can Help Redress Past Abuses Against Islamists But Not At The Cost Of Justice For Other Victims: By introducing reforms and establishing justice mechanism which appear to favour one section of society over another, the legitimacy and effectiveness of transitional justice mechanisms is likely to be undermined and could create a backlash which reignites tensions. There is a danger that a zero-sum approach to justice will lead to a cycle of repression and retribution which is likely to facilitate further radicalisation rather than preventing it.
  • Transitional Justice Mechanisms Can Help Seek Justice For Terrorism But Should Not Be Used As An Excuse For An Arbitrary Crackdown On Islamists:Excessive use of violence by the state legitimises the use of violence by those opposed to it, facilitating radicalisation. Transitional justice mechanisms should aim to create wide reaching institutional and systemic reforms which can tackle the root causes of the systemic grievances that led to the 2011 revolution and have also contributed to elevated levels of radicalisation among Tunisian youth.
  • Transitional Justice Mechanisms Can Help Bridge The Gap Between The Citizen And The State But Face Challenges in Implementation: Many of the grievances that sparked both the Tunisian revolution and the apparent acceleration of young Tunisians joining jihadist groups have their roots in the corruption and inequality that is endemic at an institutional level in Tunisia. Institutional change is by its very nature both excruciatingly slow and difficult to achieve. Transitional justice mechanisms have the potential to begin the process of reforming institutions and bridging the gap between the citizen and the state thereby treating, or at the very least recognising, the underlying cause of some of the country’s current problems. However, this is dependent on the state not obstructing or undermining the transitional justice process.

Click here to download the full report.

The Decline of ISIS in Libya and the Levant is a Concern for Tunisia

August 24, 2017

In an article for the Middle East Eye, Rhiannon Smith and Lachlan Wilson discuss how the military gains against ISIS first in Libya then in the Levant could have a destabilising impact on Tunisia as the thousands of Tunisians fighting overseas for IS begin to return home and look to establish a new IS vanguard in North Africa. This could result in an increased ISIS presence in Tunisia itself or a regrouping of IS cells with Tunisian support in Libya’s deserts and potential hotspots such as Sabratha.

Tunisia provides fertile ground for an impending IS presence. IS cells are already developing capabilities, undertaking a few deadly terrorist attacks as well as lower level insurgent strikes on Tunisian security forces. Cells sympathetic to IS are active in 17 of Tunisia’s 24 governorates that includes Sfax and Sousse on the east coast, Jendouba closer towards the Algerian border, and the capital Tunis in the north. The group have undertaken over half a dozen attacks in the last six months and recently claimed an IED attack against a Tunisian army armoured vehicle in Jabel Mghilla. Greater coordinated activity and experience, provided by an influx of IS members from Libya and the Levant, could prove a significant threat to Tunisia’s security

Click here to read the full article.

REPORT: The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya

June 20, 2017

For the past three decades, Libya has been a rich recruiting ground for the global jihad. Investigating the precursors and then subsequent evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist actors throughout this period presents actionable insights into how jihadist actors coalesce; how they interfere in post-conflict state building; the threats they pose to civilians, nascent economies, and external states; and finally, what complexities remain when their hold on territory has been eradicated, but their adherents have not been killed nor their ideology debunked. In “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya,” Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran examine ISIS’s pre-history, birth, expansion, consolidation, and dispersal in Libya, as well as the broader political context of the country –offering advice and recommendations for how Western governments and militaries should approach jihadist actors globally.

Over the last three years, ISIS has become the enemy of the vast majority of the Libyan people. By ignoring Libyan tribal norms — killing too many people and brutally crushing resistance — ISIS first lost the city of Derna in early 2015, and then later, its stronghold in the city of Sirte in late 2016. This fits into a larger regional dynamic, whereby ISIS’s brutality has tended to backfire, while its administrative capacity has won it support. As such, ISIS initially thrived in vulnerable localities in Libya because it exploited local cleavages and because previous central governments were reluctant to devolve power to local authorities. Surveying this history, the authors conclude that Western policy must seek to get militias and local councils to take ownership of governance and justice issues, rather than merely directing them to fight ISIS or other jihadists. True national reconciliation and inclusiveness in Libya, especially between formerly pro-Qaddafi actors and rebels, and between anti-Islamist and pro-Islamist actors, is required to end the cycle of statelessness and radicalization in Libya.

Significantly, this report sheds light on Libya’s constantly evolving position within the global jihadist networks connecting Afghanistan, Iraq, Europe, and North Africa. It is out of this milieu that Salman Abedi, the British-Libyan suicide bomber involved in the May 22, 2017, Manchester Arena attack, sprung. His father supported the al-Qaeda aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1990s, and it was a natural progression for Salman to transition from that milieu to ISIS. As western governments address this constantly evolving threat, they must understand that there is no such thing as a purely military strategy to defeat ISIS in Libya. The group is a symptom — rather than a cause — of broader Libyan problems, especially weak governance. The dysfunctional tyranny exercised by Libyan militias is at the heart of the country’s instability over the past five years and contributed to attracting ISIS. Therefore, the authors explain, any anti-ISIS strategy for Libya cannot be based on counterterror efforts alone; international and Libyan policy must treat the root causes that made Libya’s governance vacuum an effective incubator for jihadist operations.

Click here to read the full report. Click here to read the main findings and recommendations from the report.

The Role of 20th Century Jihadism in Manchester Attack

May 29, 2017

In an article for Al Monitor, Jason Pack and Lydia Jabs discuss the role that suicide bomber Salman Abedi’s connection to, and  his family’s long history within, Libya’s tight-knit activist Salafi movements may have had on radicalizing Abedi and facilitating last week’s attack in Manchester.

Abedi’s radicalization and his execution of the attack was likely facilitated by others in his community, and in Libya, even if he did not completely confide his intentions to his companions. The southern Manchester area where he resided has produced known IS operatives and recruiters, some of whom lived less than a mile from the Abedi brothers — attending the same local Didsbury Mosque, where Abedi’s father used to occasionally lead prayers. In particular, security sources are investigating Abedi’s relationship with two IS recruiters, Amir Khalil Raoufi and Raphael Hostay, both killed in Syria in the past three years and hailing from the same neighborhood.

Since the arena bombing, another male from the neighborhood has been arrested. German intelligence revealed that Abedi passed through known hot spots of extremism, Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, twice since 2014 and may have traveled to Syria, where it is alleged that he received paramilitary training. Proof of Abedi’s ties to an international IS network entrenched within Libya and the UK and with a history of connections to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan demonstrate that IS emerged from the seeds planted by previous waves of jihadi movements. IS is not a new phenomenon; it merely reconnects existing jihadi networks in a new way. This is crucial to remember as despite recent military setbacks for IS in the Levant and in the Libyan city of Sirte, the movement is able to fall back upon its base — pre-existing jihadi networks.

Click here to read the full article.

Non Military Perspective on Recent Developments in Libya

May 25, 2017

Rhiannon Smith has authored a report for NATO’s Open Perspectives Exchange Network (OPEN) looking at non-military perspective on recent developments in Libya. She outlines the current situation in Libya and analyses how different organisations frame their approach to the country, whether in humanitarian, development, or political terms, highlighting the challenges of creating concrete results on the ground.

Although the potential insecurity and destabilisation posed by terrorism and irregular migration from Libya are likely to be the most pressing concerns for NATO, these challenges will only be solved by addressing the violence, lack of governance, and institutional fragmentation, which have created the power vacuum that facilitates both human trafficking and extremist groups. This points to a number of strategic implications for NATO.

  • Address the cause of the problem, not the symptom: As Libya’s difficulties have multiplied, and an increasing number of people have suffered as a result, the reaction has been to solve the proximate symptom (e.g., deaths at sea or the rise of ISIL) rather than the underlying cause. Unless insecurity, economic decline, and other structural problems are addressed through an effective combination of political and economic/developmental engagement, extremism and migrant trafficking will persist.
  • Look beyond the formation of a unity government: A unity government is a means to an end – one that will create the political conditions where Libyans can inclusively discuss and decide the future of their country. However, the existence of unified institutions is only the first step. The international community must provide support and direction to these institutions – through incentives and disincentives – to operate in a manner that will foster continued peace and stability.
  • Enable reconciliation at all levels: The grievances and hostilities created through conflict are intrinsically personal. As a result, it will be integral for international actors to enable a process of reconciliation at the national level – while also supporting community-level conflict resolution and reconciliation efforts, which are too often overlooked in conflict-affected countries like Libya.

In pursuing these high-level implications, the report recommends NATO and other international actors to consider more specific, tactical recommendations such as working with local partners, engaging with local authorities, and mapping local tensions and priorities.

Click here to access the full report.

Tactical Lessons from the Ejection of ISIS from Sirte

May 23, 2017

In the second instalment for Atlantic Council, Dr Alia Brahimi and Jason Pack discuss the tactical lessons that can be learnt from the ejection of ISIS from Sirte in December 2016. Although the authors stress that ISIS is far from defeated in Libya, the group’s loss of territorial control is significant. They argue that reliance on local anti-ISIS militia is double-edged,  a light and targeted Western military footprint can be effective, and that the timing of any anti-ISIS military operation is key.

As in Iraq and Syria, the frontline against ISIS in Libya is dominated by non-state actors pursuing competing goals and ideological visions. These centrifugal forces inevitably complicate the larger war against ISIS and like-minded groups, which must be predicated on unity and peacebuilding…

It seems that any effective anti-ISIS coalition ought to be national rather than parochial, and political rather than purely military. As Western policymakers chart a course for the eviction of ISIS from its native strongholds in the Levant, it would make sense for their battlefield efforts to actively reflect a strategic, post-conflict solution for Iraq and Syria. The military track may contain the problem of ISIS, but only a national political track can solve it.

Click here to read the full article.

Strategic Lessons from the Ejection of ISIS from Sirte

May 17, 2017

In an article for the Atlantic Council’s MENASource, Dr Alia Brahimi and Jason Pack write the first of two article looking at valuable lessons that can be learned from the ejection of the Islamic State (ISIS) from Sirte. This first article delves into the strategic lessons, arguing that 1) Governance failures drive jihadism; 3)  Weakening ISIS strengthens al-Qaeda; and 3) ISIS’s governance model is unsustainable. A second article will look at the tactical lessons.

In Libya, ISIS’s governance model was financially and socially untenable. Ultimately, ISIS never managed to generate a social base. By contrast, in Syria and Iraq, this base currently exists by default, as the state is widely perceived by Sunni communities to be a sectarian predator.

Yet, ISIS’s inherent vulnerabilities notwithstanding, it is difficult to see strategic progress against the group, while uncertainty over the most basic governance questions prevails. Since December, there has been no agreement on how Sirte itself will be run––in fact, Sirte’s new mayor, elected by municipal councilors, was kidnapped in February. The question mark that now hovers over Sirte’s fate, after ISIS, joins a series of unresolved questions on the future of Libya as a whole.

Click here to read the full article.

Migration and Jihadism in the Sahel

April 2017

Rhiannon Smith has edited a report on Migration and Jihadism in the Sahel, authored by Dominic MacIver and published by Norwegian think tank Hate Speech International. The report looks at political rhetoric conflating migration across the Mediterranean with the apparent rise of violent jihadism in Europe and asks whether there is a demonstrable link between migrants, jihadist groups and the lucrative smuggling networks which link Africa to Europe, and if so, how can it be managed?

Jihadist groups and smuggling networks are able to take root due to the power vacuum created by a lack of security, stability and state control in the region. Meanwhile, the population of vulnerable, determined individuals created by such conditions provides the opportunity for illicit profits. As state security forces deteriorate or resort to corruption and repression, jihadist groups may find more malleable recruits in the from of marginalised young men who feel abandoned by their governments. Smugglers, for their part, find customers and middlemen willing to risk it all to seek a better life elsewhere”.

Click here to read the full report.

Russia Tests Trump with Bid for Lead Role in Libya

19 January, 2017

Continuing the theme that the US must take a leadership role in Libya and that a Special POTUS Envoy appointment is the way forward, Jason Pack wrote an article with Thomas Dinham in the Beyond BRICS section of the Financial Times.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi believes Haftar is a bulwark against Muslim Brotherhood influence in Libya and a pliant proxy capable of securing Egyptian influence in a future Libyan state. Russia sees Libya as another theatre in which to expand its putative regional role and prove its credentials as the leading international player in the “fight against terrorism”. Haftar, with his anti-Islamist agenda, reliance on Russian equipment and the backing of the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk – Libya’s legitimate legislature which asserts a claim counter to the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) that it is also Libya’s font of government – represents a viable means of out-manoeuvring the west and bringing Libya closer to Russia’s orbit.

Both Egypt and Russia view the incoming Trump administration as potentially amenable to their preferred outcome in Libya, which would see Haftar officially assuming control of Libya’s security forces, free of direct civilian oversight. With Haftar and the LNA controlling the most important levers of the state, a token civilian administration would provide a democratic facade while deferring to Haftar and, by extension, Cairo and Moscow, in all important matters. The attempt to impose this outcome would not only mean a drastic curtailment of western influence in the oil-rich state, but also a dramatic escalation of Libya’s civil war…..

To read the whole article click here.

A Grand Political Bargain for Libya and the Evolving Russian Role

January 13, 2016

Continuing our focus on the need for US engagement in Libya at this critical time as Russia appears to be muscling in, Jason Pack has written an article for Al-Monitor which follows up on our recent Foreign Affairs piece. The Eye on ISIS team are continuing to push for the Trump Administration to appoint a Special POTUS envoy because we see it as essential.

A Trumpian Peace Deal in Libya?

January 10, 2016

In an article for Foreign Affairs, Jason Pack and Nate Mason write that the moment is ripe for alternative mediation efforts in Libya—outside of the existing UN framework — and argue there are good reasons for the Trump administration to pay attention to Libya sooner rather than later, as the conflict is evolving in ways that threaten U.S. interests. They argue that only the United States can offer full entry into the global economy and give international legitimacy to the various Libyan factions. Pack and Mason suggest the appointment of a special presidential envoy for Libya.

Trump’s signature policy towards Libya should be the appointment of a presidential envoy—akin to the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, a position currently held by Brett McGurk. Only a presidential envoy can make the United States primus inter pares among Western nations in setting and coordinating policy towards Libya. Up to and until now, the British, French, Italians, and the UN have all exercised leadership in some capacity when it comes to Libya. Washington has only taken control when it comes to airstrikes and counterterror policy. It was a bit player in the negotiations to broker a unity government or to deal with postwar reconstruction. This muddled leadership has led to poorly coordinated and incoherent policy. If the United States wants to end the civil war Libya, it must no longer lead from behind. It must actually lead.

A special presidential envoy focused solely on Libya would have the power to coordinate all federal agencies’ policies towards Libya, supersede the flawed UN process, and coordinate the special envoys of the informal P-6 on Libya (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The envoy would also delegate to various European allies complementary roles in making a new Libya policy succeed. The envoy would need to be able to demonstrate—to both various Libyan factions and European chancelleries and envoys—that he  has access to the president and is the only font of government policy on Libya. The role of the State Department’s Special Envoy for Libya should be eliminated because it lacks sufficient authority over the other federal departments that are integral to U.S. policy toward Libya.

Trump’s transition team is already thinking seriously about Libya and recalibrating policy toward the Middle East. Phillip Escaravage, a member of the Forbes publishing family who has a decade of experience focusing on Libya, has been rumored as a possible pick for POTUS Special Envoy for Libya or Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. The Forbes family were early Trump supporters and represent the kind of private sector know-how the president-elect prizes.

Click here to read the full article.

Op-Ed: Libyan commander Haftar may grow stronger under Trump regime

December 24, 2016

Rhiannon and Jason’s thoughts on the chances of a new policy of the Trump administration leading to a reconciliation among Haftar, Misrata, and Zintan were featured in an article in the Digital Journal.

As Pack remarks, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) even threatened to liberate Tripoli from militia and Islamist control. Haftar has made such threats off and on ever since his Operation Dignity began in May of 2014. Pack claims that Haftar mobilized reinforcements at an airbase south of Zawiya, the main oil port in Western Libya. However, his allies the Zintan brigades so far have refused to move against Tripoli.

Peace in Libya? One Man Donald Trump is Unlikely to Ignore

December 24, 2016

In an article published in Middle East Eye, Rhiannon and I argue that Haftar’s growing influence and momentum in Libya mean that deals are increasingly being struck and compromises being made between rival factions in western Libya in order to avoid conflict and ensure a place under any new political agreement.  Trump is likely to pivot towards Haftar adding yet further momentum to these trends.  As the Transition Team may not hit the ground running immediately on Jan 20, we can bet than February and March will see a significant reshuffling of the the international community’s alliance structure.

Many speculate that the incoming US administration will look more favourably at anti-Islamist strongmen like Haftar and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, freeing them up from previous international norms which hamstring their attempts to crush their enemies…. On 14 December, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) announced its intention to “liberate” Tripoli from what they dub militia and “Islamist” control. Two days later, it mobilised reinforcements at the Watiya airbase south of Zawiyya, the main oil port in western Libya.

On 14 December, the Zintanti Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) unit based in al-Rayayna in the Nafusa mountains lifted its two-year blockade on the pipeline running from southern oil fields to the Zawiyya refinery. This is expected to allow up to 400,000 barrels per day of crude to flow, which would significantly boost Libya’s oil exports and revenues. The National Oil Corporation had been pushing for this blockade to be lifted since Haftar reopened the oil crescent. It’s significant that this happened at the same time as LNA fighters were spotted moving south of Zawiyya.  As a result of Haftar’s inevitable role in future political agreements, it seems that through informal channels of contact between Haftar’s loose allies in Zintan and factions from Misrata and Tripoli a pipeline deal has been negotiated which seeks to benefit all these parties under any new peace process….

What does seem more certain, however, is that Haftar’s growing domestic and international power means that he and his allies must be brought inside the international political process on Libya. It might be that Donald Trump, with his flexible approach to diplomacy and his desire for a pragmatic defence of American interest abroad, may be just the person to do this.

To read the full article click here.

From Qadhafi to Chaos: The Origins, Expansion, Decline, and Rebranding of the Islamic State in Libya

December 19, 2016

Click here to watch the video podcast of Jason Pack delivering a lecture at the University of Oslo on the rise and fall of Islamic State in Libya, and the implications and lessons that can be learnt from analysing this phenomenon. This lecture was kindly organized by the Centre for Islamic and Middle East Studies and took place at the University of Oslo on December 5, 2016.

With IS Expelled from Libya’s Sirte, What Comes Next?

December 14, 2016

As always the intricacies, and obscure and complex interconnections of Libyan politics never ceases to surprise and amaze. Since last week’s liberation of Sirte by Misratan fighters, a whole range of proximal effects have dominoed outwards towards a very uncertain distal future: 1. Internal fissures inside Misrata; 2. Lifting of the longstanding blockade on the Ryanana valve in the West allowing the Western fields of Al-Fil and Sharara to come back online; 3. The further expansion of Haftar’s control and appeal; 4. A weakening of the UN process. I sought to explore all these interwoven strands in an article focusing on the dangers of internal tensions within Misrata for Al-Monitor.

Now that IS has been territorially defeated, the question of greatest significance for Libya’s trajectory is not the one the intelligence agencies are focused on, which is what the remnants of IS will do next. Rather, it is the question diplomats and analysts have long been pondering: What will the victorious Misratan fighters do next? Potential IS terror attacks may cause panic, but the actions of the fighters from the northwestern city of Misrata have the capacity to unify or conversely destabilize the whole country. The Misratans took down IS not out of a particular hate of jihadis, but out of a desire to obtain further Western support and become Libya’s dominant political force. The gambit may have backfired. Will we now see a hot civil war between Misrata and Field Marshal Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who dominates in Libya’s east? Or with the removal of a common enemy, will the component parts of Banyan Marsus (BM) break apart, allowing Misrata’s enemies to become the dominant military force in Libya?…

These internal Misratan divisions have been simmering for some time, and although they have been brought to the surface by recent events, this does not mean that Misrata is on the verge of civil war. Misrata, perhaps more than any other post-Qaddafi power center, has succeeded in overcoming internal strife in order to put its interests first. However, with Libya’s fluid alliances changing faster than ever, and the GNA possibly entering its dying days, what Misrata does next is likely to shape Libya’s trajectory over the coming weeks.  The world cannot afford a collapse of Misratan power and stability. Therefore, Western policymakers should not leave Misrata out to dry. America in particular must not let the Misratans go unrewarded for fighting and dying against IS. President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team should understand this all too well. Furthermore, for Libyans to be able to settle their differences and achieve a lasting political compromise, a genuine balance of power and mutually acceptable stalemate must first be reached. Only then should a new political process be initiated — ideally, one that includes both Hifter and the Misratans.”

To read the full article click here. 

As the Islamic State Rejoices, Obama Must Strike Back While He Still Can

November 21, 2016

In an article for Middle East Eye, Jason Pack argues that given the uncertainty around Trump’s future foreign policies, if Obama wants to take IS out for good, he must make bold moves while he still can. He concludes that:

If he chooses to double down, Obama must commit significant political capital to incentivising comprehensive political compromises between the different militia components of the anti-IS coalitions in Libya and Iraq. He must also ramp up our special forces commitments and risk significant American battlefield casualties to get the job done. Just retaking key cities won’t be enough; IS has to be eradicated to be defeated. This means the un-PC step of killing all of its top leadership and decimating its rank and file. This was a tall order for a presumptive Clinton White House in 2017, and now it must be accomplished in Obama’s remaining two months or left to a very uncertain future.”

Click here to read the article in full.

Defeating’ the Islamic State? Lessons from Libya

November 4, 2016

In an article for Hate Speech International, Jason Pack and Rhiannon Smith discuss what lessons can be learned from the battle against ISIS in Sirte which might be relevant for the ongoing offensive against ISIS in Mosul. They conclude that:

In Libya as in Iraq, ISIS’ rise is a symptom – and not the cause of the current conflict. Therefore, viewing the battle for Sirte as a purely military counter-terror operation that can be treated separately to the Libyan political context is not only intellectually false, but also incredibly dangerous. The same applies in the battle for Mosul. Our study of the fight against ISIS in Libya suggests that Western efforts to put military gains before political coalition building in Iraq are likely to backfire in the medium term.”

Click here to read the full article.

Coup’ Attempt Could Complicate Libya’s Fight Against ISIS

October 24, 2016

In an article for Religion and Geopolitics, Rhiannon Smith and Jason Pack discuss how recent developments in Libya are causing political alliances to shift and outline how these developments might impact the fight against ISIS in Sirte. They conclude that:

In the worst case scenario, Ghwell’s ‘coup’ may unleash a new wave of conflict between pro and anti-unity government militias, driving the unity government into exile and possibly establishing a new de-facto government in Tripoli, presided over by Islamist hardliners loyal to Libya’s supreme religious leader, the Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariyani. He would actively halt the fight against ISIS to bring all hardline Islamists into his fold. This would lead to the collapse of the UN process with nothing to replace it, short-circuiting attempts to defeat ISIS in Sirte, which would allow the group and other jihadis to extend influence. Conflict in the capital could also strengthen Haftar’s hand, pushing towards separatism, legitimising military rule and the use of force against Islamist militias, while emboldening those same Islamists to work with ISIS remnants against Haftar.

Time will tell on which of these trajectory Libya’s ever-fluid and confusing political landscape is currently evolving, but the direction it takes will certainly influence how much or how little success Libyan forces will have in defeating ISIS.”

Click here to view the full article.

The Haftar Effect on the Battle for Sirte

October 14, 2016

In an article for Al Monitor, Eye on ISIS founder Jason Pack discusses the impact of Haftar’s seizure of the oil crescent, and the political power he has subsequently gained from this move, on the Misratan-led campaign against Islamic State in Sirte. He argues that Haftar’s growing power could lead to an increase in jihadist recruitment fuelled by anti-Haftar sentiment, or it could lead to a tacit peace and stability between Misrata and the LNA, increasing the likelihood of defeating ISIS in Sirte.

Debunking Trump’s Lies about ISIS and Libya and How Hillary Should Counterattack in the Second Debate

October 7, 2016

The Eye on ISIS team’s first major intervention in the presidential campaign has just come out! In it our Hate Speech International report, “Who pays for ISIS in Libya?”,  is featured in my major opinion article about Trump’s lies about Libya and ISIS in the first debate  and how Hillary should aggressively rebut them in the second debate. In it, I give Hillary some tips on how to change her strategy to keep Trump off guard in the second debate.

I am very proud of this article. It features my academic work as the key way to debunk Trump’s egregious lie that ISIS controls Libya’s oil. It is very encouraging to know that the Clinton campaign and various high profile supporters have referenced our work (offline thus far though) as they have sought to reference it to refute Trump’s claims that ISIS controls Libya’s oil. That is really a unique honour for us. This is a very important issue and if you could send around to people in the know that would be very valuable, especially before Sunday’s debate.

Controlling Libya’s Wealth: Haftar’s Long Game

September 29, 2016

Jason Pack writes  an opinion piece for Al Monitor looking at the flow of Libya’s oil revenues and discussing how Haftar has been able to take advantage of ISIS’s severely decreased ability to launch terror attacks in the oil crescent.

Hifter’s move was brilliantly timed because his opponents from Misrata recently made progress against the Islamic State (IS) in Sirte and severely decreased the threat of terror attacks on port infrastructure. By letting the oil flow, Hifter can claim he is rising above politics and is acting in the best interests of the Libyan people, something the international community would be hard pressed to challenge given he has seemingly handed the ports over to the National Oil Corporation.”

Haftar’s Takeover of Oil Crescent Could Weaken Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 14 , 2016

Jason Pack and Rhiannon Smith write an opinion piece for the Middle East Eye looking at how Haftar’s recent takeover of the oil crescent ports is likely further weaken the Government of National Accord (GNA), and how a haphazard, reactionary response from international and local actors could also weaken the coalition fighting against ISIS in Libya.

Already there are reports of anti-Haftar Islamist militias gathering to launch a counter-offensive, while it is conceivable that the Misratan-led forces currently fighting IS in Sirte will also turn their attentions to the LNA forces to the east once Sirte is liberated.

Unfortunately, the ingredients for a new phase of internecine conflict, centred on the oil crescent, are all there, and the dynamics will be made more complex given special forces from several Western countries that are currently on the ground supporting both the LNA and Misratan forces in their separate fights against IS

Who Pays for ISIS in Libya?

August 24, 2016

EOIL’s first major publication drawing upon our thousands of pages of primary source materials and hundreds of categorized webposts dating back to 2014, has been released by the Norwegian think tank, Hate Speech International.

In the report  “Who pays for ISIS in Libya?” (which you can access by clicking here) James Roslington and Jason Pack look at the Libyan group’s sources of seed capital and how its financial model differs in key ways from that of the parent organization in Iraq and Syria.

We conclude that ISIS’s financing mechanism in Libya appears to have failed long before the local group suffered its military reversals over the past few months. The Libya case study also reveals the importance of financing to ISIS’s and other jihadi organisations’ sustainability and organizational models throughout the world.

Our findings were also timely. As Sirte is being progressively liberated, ISIS lucre is being uncovered.  We write:

As central Sirte was falling to anti-ISIS fighters in late August 2016, they discovered various caches of ISIS loot acquired from Sirte’s formerly wealthy class in mid-2015 which revealed quite a bit about how the group acquired its war chest. Gold, jewelry, and foreign cash were stashed in ISIS’s so-called Dar al-Muhasaba (Accounting Department).

These seizures are reminiscent of how the Nazi regime utilized pillaged Jewish property — both doling it out as favours to loyalists and using it for state building purposes. Also reminiscent of totalitarian regimes is the extent to which groups of Sirte’s inhabitants that were willing to acquiesce to ISIS’s state building efforts could benefit from them financially. The key to getting on ISIS’s good side was paying tax and adhering to its social norms.

RUSI held a launch of this paper at 61 Whitehall, London on September 5th.  Presentation of the research findings and their implications for policymakers in the UK and across Europe was followed by a panel discussion with Mary Fitzgerald and Abdul Rahman al-Ageli about the current situation in Libya and the ongoing military campaign against ISIS more widely. The discussion was chaired by report author Jason Pack.  We are following this up with other events in DC and Oslo about ISIS’s finances.

For IS, Losing Sirte Won’t Mean Losing Libya: Analysts

August 17, 2016

Libya Analysis’ Jason Pack was quoted in an article in the Daily Mail.

The thrust of the article is that after the loss of Sirte ISIS survivors are likely to disperse throughout the country and continue to engage in their terrorism.

It would probably prompt the group to change tactics, said Ethan Chorin, an American former diplomat in Libya and head of Perim Associates, a consultancy. Libya will “very likely see a shift in IS strategy to a more diffuse and intensified campaign of terror and intimidation,” he told AFP. “IS and like-minded Islamist fighters have consistently shown an ability to ‘melt away’ at will,” Chorin said.

“It is likely that the victorious militias will defy GNA rulings and expose the fact that the GNA is not actually a unity of anything,” said Jason Pack, a Libya-focused researcher at Cambridge University who consults for Western governments.” As always in Libya, it is the men with guns who hold political power, not those with fancy suits and titles.”

Click here to read the full article

After Sirte, What’s Next for ISIS in Libya?

August 17, 2016

Jason Pack, Ruwan Rujouleh and Nadav Pollak have an opinion piece on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation website.

Each of the authors presents his own belief:

Nadav Polak speculates that to divert attention from its loss in Sirte, ISIS may stage attacks on Italy. Italy is a suitable target for ISIS, he believes, because Italian forces were involved in the anti-ISIS Sirte effort, and the US might station drones there to use against ISIS in Libya.

Italy was already a desirable target for ISIS before its losses in Sirte, but now it might increase its efforts to target the country. Italian security agencies are already on edge and close cooperation with Libyan, American, and other European countries will hopefully help to stop any ISIS plans.

Jason Pack feels that the underlying weaknesses in Libya — the fractured political situation, proliferation of local militias, the smuggling and human trafficking all are breeding grounds for ISIS or other similar groups.

After the city is retaken, serious rifts within GNA-affiliated militias are highly likely between those supporting a full attack against General Khalifa Haftar in the east and those wishing to oust Islamist and extremist militias from Tripoli. Victorious militias will likely defy unity government rulings and expose the extent of the government’s lack of control. It is important to continue to stress the danger from sleeper cells, revenge attacks, and the enemies of the GNA working together with jihadis of all stripes, including former ISIS elements, to wage a guerilla war against the unity government and Haftar.

Ruwan Rujouleh believes that ISIS will rebound quite successfully from the loss of Sirte.

ISIS is an organisation that crosses borders both tactically and ideologically. It is likely that the group will transfer its battles to Libya’s neighbours if it loses the city, smuggling its fighters, estimated to number thousands, over the border. They would pose a real threat to neighbouring countries if they manage to run from Sirte.

Click here to read the full article.

Are Obama’s Libya Strikes Helping to Defeat ISIS?

August 11, 2016

Jared Metzger of Parallax treats the complexities surrounding  US airstrikes in Libya by contrasting the views of Obama, Tim Kaine, and myself as to the legal, military, and political implications of the airstrikes. Obama seems to be coming at the issue from a purely CT perspective ignoring the domestic political ramifications for Libya.  Kaine’s obsession about the legalities of how America projects force and whether we have a valid AUMF is not because Kaine is against the action in Libya but because he wants a full congressional declaration of war on ISIS as a separate AUMF and that is why he is obscuring that the UN-recognized government has called for the US airstrikes  obviates the need for any further AUMF. And I believe that the key issue is whether or not the airstrikes are getting us closer or farther away from a true anti-ISIS coalition.

Pack is not entirely opposed to U.S. involvement in Libya, but he believes that the phasing of the current military operations is flawed. He is worried that U.S. bombings could exacerbate existing political divisions, further inhibiting the formation of a genuine unity government…. Although an airstrike campaign aimed at the remaining ISIS commanders in Sirte may conclusively drive them out of the city, that does not mean that ISIS is defeated in Libya.

To read the whole article click here.  To subscribe to Parallax and get a news brief daily in your inbox click here.

Oil and ISIS in Libya

July 31, 2016

In an article in Al-Monitor, Jason Pack argued that the political fractures that are preventing progress on ISIS are the same ones preventing progress on exporting oil and this is shown by the so-called national oil deals. The  July 2 merger of the rival eastern and western National Oil Companies (NOC) is a sham, announced likely to demonstrate “progress” to the Western, says Jason Pack.

The eastern Tobruk government and the western Tripoli-based GNA are still pursuing different oil policies and maintain separate NOCs. Simultaneously, each is trying to prevent the other from benefiting from the country’s oil wealth. In retrospect, it appears the merger announcement three weeks ago was likely fabricated to allay Western demands for progress in the oil sphere… Rather than seeking to secure genuine political compromises or incentivize coordinated fighting against the Islamic State (IS), the UN appears to have prioritized bribing key militias to allow oil to flow through infrastructure that they control.

The dynamics which underpin Libya’s problems are equally at work in the oil sector

It has long been appreciated that it is not IS’ control of the coastline, but rather the rivalries between the federalists — rogue Gen. Khalifa Hifter‘s Libyan National Army (LNA) — and the Islamist-aligned militias of Misrata that are preventing a resurgence of Libyan hydrocarbon exports. The federalists have long occupied the key terminals Ras Lanuf and Sidra, which are located in the oil crescent region that stretches from Bin Jawwad, east of Sirte, to Marsa Brega, southwest of Benghazi.

Knowing that possession is nine-tenths of the law, they shut off the spigot of Libya’s key oil terminals in 2013-14, when prices were still reasonably high, bringing the then-government in Tripoli to its knees. By their own admission, their “strike” cost Libya approximately $100 billion in revenue.

All these boycotting groups would be better served if Libya’s oil flowed and the wealth was reasonably fairly distributed. …  [Federalist leader Ibrahim] Jadhran does not want the oil to flow if the Tripoli-based NOC, and hence Misratan and Islamist interests, benefit from the cash. Those interests and the UN may be willing to buy Jadhran off to let the oil flow, but doing so will cut other actors out of the game, such as Hifter or the Tebu militias in the south, engendering them to derail things. While Jadhran may have control of the oil ports in Zuetina, Sidra and Ras Lanuf, the LNA and aligned tribes control the oil fields in the Sirte and Sarir basins, meaning that steady oil exports are unlikely to resume in the short term.

Click here to read the full article.

Historical Analysis of the Rise and Current State of ISIS in Libya

July 11, 2016

In this podcast for GeoPoliticsAlert Jason Pack, founder of Eye on ISIS in Libya explains the historical roots of ISIS in Libya by tracing the involvement of Libyans in the Afghani and Iraqi jihads to the return into the anti-Qadhafi movements and then the post-Qadhafi rebranding of various Ansar al-Sharia and other jihadi offshouts into the ISIS fold in the years 2014-15.  Understanding this trajectory sheds light on the extent to which ISIS is an ‘authentic’ phenomenon in Libya, while also deriving from Levantine models.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Fighting Islamic State in Libya

June 18,  2016

Writing about Banyan Marsus’s operation to retake Sirte from the Islamic State and the breakthroughs of June 9, The Economist has done what it excels at: condensing a very complex story into a readable and succinct overview.

Now the jihadists are hitting back in an attempt to retake the port and other areas. Hundreds of its fighters, many from abroad, remain holed up in Sirte. The GNA’s offensive has stalled. Its forces, made up mostly of militias from Misrata, in the west, have thus far shown a willingness to take casualties. More than 100 of their men have died and some 500 have been injured. But in order to clear Sirte of jihadists, more sacrifice will be needed….   Many of the group’s leaders are thought to have slipped out of Sirte and gone south. The GNA had threatened its offensive for weeks, so the jihadists knew it was coming. Though aided by American and British soldiers, who are helping with logistics and intelligence, the GNA’s forces failed to secure all of the routes out of Sirte. That would have needed better co-ordination with local militias. “Even if Sirte is liberated, that does not mean that IS is gone from Libya,” says Jason Pack of Eye On ISIS in Libya, a monitoring service….

The GNA’s quick advance has, for now, weakened Mr Haftar’s claim to be the West’s best hope of defeating Libya’s jihadists. He looms over the eastern government and is often considered a spoiler of efforts to unify the country. Some say he is losing recruits to the GNA. But it too has been exposed. Its fighting force, drawn from the western town of Misrata, is much the same as the one that backed the old western government and battled Mr Haftar. “It is not a unity government, just a rebranding of Misratan militias,” says Mr Pack. Their loyalty can be fickle. Last year they fought another militia that is now attacking IS from the east.

To read the whole article click here.

ISIS and Oil — Targeting Infrastructure to Weaken the GNA

May 17, 2016 Founder Jason Pack and Partner Lydia Sizer tackled the question of ISIS’s attacks on oil infrastructure in Foreign Affairs.  ISIS in not yet on the retreat in Sirte and won’t be till a genuine coalition of the major non-jihadist militias in Libya confronts it.  Yet, the West should try more serious incentivization to achieve that outcome. The idea of a naval blockade of Sirte could also be useful. Merely arming the GNA will be insufficient.

In fact, ISIS’ success depends on keeping Libya lawless, and one of its strategies to maintain the disorder is to block the unity government from generating revenue from its oil in the east. Libya relies on militias not accountable to the unity government to defend these sites, and ISIS can easily confront them to disrupt production at valuable installations in the oil crescent, such as its only operational port, the crucial Marsa Brega terminal.

Although ISIS has been weakened, even losing control of Ajdabiya in March 2016, it still poses a threat to eastern oil sites through its base in Sirte and the surrounding towns including Nawfaliyyah, Hawara, and Bin Jawwad. Over the past few months, according to locals in the area, the group has also been trying to secure transport routes from the south to help it bring in reinforcements from its other north African and sub-Saharan affiliates. Continued disunity among the local anti-ISIS groups will undoubtedly undermine any efforts to permanently push ISIS away from the major oil sites. The leaders of these groups are caught up in their own power struggle, which has even inadvertently aided ISIS’ goal of disrupting oil revenue. Forces loyal to General Khalifa Hifter, a former Qaddafi official who later defected, have initiated an oil blockade at Marsa al-Hariga to prevent the unity government from benefiting from exports from the port. This partisan maneuvershows that even supposedly anti-jihadist actors such as Hifter are incapable of putting aside their petty differences to work together against ISIS.

To read the whole article click here.

May 10, 2016

Don’t Believe Libya’s ‘Race to Sirte’ Rhetoric

Drawing upon research from the whole Eye On ISIS team, Jason Pack — founder of EOIL — wrote an article for Middle East Eye explaining how and why Haftar and the Misratans are fighting a rhetorical war over who is ‘more prepared’ and ‘more capable’ of taking on ISIS in Sirte. It would be beneficial for the fight against ISISif the various factions could put aside their petty grievances and focus on fighting a shared enemy. But events are moving in the opposite direction. In fact, the longstanding Cold War between the Misratans and the LNA has turned hot, with the clashes at Zillah on May 3. These blunders benefit ISIS which is able to pick off its opponents one by one catching them on their heels (like with the attacks at Abu Grein on May 5). The destructiveness of internecine conflict is further highlighted by the current standoff over oil in the East.

The presidential council of the UN-mediated Government of National Accord (GNA) and its affiliated, mainly Misratan, militias and the opposing Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Haftar have initiated a rhetorical race for Sirte. The Misratans and the LNA are the two main military forces inside Libya; they each appear poised to use the fight against IS to further their own dominance as well as to signal to the international community that they alone are the most trusted partner for confronting IS. This petty jockeying is likely to completely prevent the emergence of a genuine anti-IS coalition able to coordinate an attack on Sirte or administer conquered territory…..

Jadhran’s Federalist movement’s control over the oil crescent is now greatly diminished, especially after the arrival of Libyan National Army special forces commander Wanis Bukhamada to effectively mediate the peaceful cooperation of the Petroleum Facilities Guard and the army in the region. This means that the new government and the international community have effectively lost control of Libya’s oil region….

The “race” to Sirte is a trope used by Libya’s primary non-jihadist actors to whip up media frenzy attempting to gain international support. Each proclaiming their own righteousness, they attempt to weaken their traditional tribal and regional enemies denying them access to funds, arms and political support. No one can say if any serious fighting against IS will ever materialise. Even if certain militias do build up the gumption to attack Sirte, until a genuine coalition is formed, they are unlikely to be successful.Western policymakers and regional states shouldn’t trust their Libyan allies’ pronouncements that they are the “man for the job” to defeat IS. Results speak louder than words. And until now, claims to be confronting IS have only been dividing Libyans rather than uniting them.

To read the full article click here.

April 21, 2016

Tripoli Cannot Impose Unity on Libya

In an editorial for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Jason Pack, the founder of Eye on ISIS in Libya worked closely with Nate Mason, a partner of Eye On ISIS in Libya, to evaluate the political, military, and economic environment in which the UN-brokered GNA will be implemented. Among the concerns are the various militias that currently control many services like electricity and water in various municipalities.  These militias would possibly retaliate if they felt short changed by a centralized government.  Moreover, the presence of ISIS, particularly in eastern Libya, is a continued threat to stability.  So, while the GNA has an opportunity for consolidating governance and initiating efforts to rebuild Libya, Western powers must be wary not to expect the unity government to exert comprehensive power throughout the country.

Libya is a consensus-driven society. It requires bottom-up conflict resolution to end the hostilities and refocus attention on rebuilding the country. The greatest obstacle to consensus, however, is fear among militias that they and their hometowns will not get a fair share of the spoils when the conflict ends. This, rather than religious or ideological concerns, is what motivates most militias.

he threat of attack on oil ports, wells and pipelines from the ISIS-controlled towns of Bin Jawad and Nawfaliyah remains extreme. After the ISIS attacks on al-Bayda field on 2 April, three key oil fields were evacuated on 8 and 9 April at the request of the Marada Martyrs brigade, an LNA-affiliated militia, due to the ISIS threat.

A deal between Haftar and the new government could be perceived as allowing him dominate eastern Libya. This has the potential to stoke opposition and strain whatever coalition the GNA can build in the west, where there is much opposition to Haftar. This puts the GNA in a bind. Without some kind of accord with Haftar, there is little possibility of establishing even nominal GNA authority in the east.

To read the full article, click here.