|Area of operations Libya||Strength 5,000-6,500 or 10,000|
|Active 13 November 2014 - Present|
Ideology Salafist Islamism Salafist Jihadism
Leaders Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Leader of ISIL) Abu Nabil al Anbari (Nom de guerre Abul Mughirah al Qahtani) † Abdel Qader al-Najdi
Headquarters Derna (November 2014 - June 2015) Sirte (July 2015 - 6 December 2016) Benghazi (December 2016 - present)
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is a militant Islamist group active in Libya under three branches: Fezzan Province (Arabic: ولاية الفزان, Wilayah al-Fizan) in the desert south, Cyrenaica Province (Arabic: ولاية البرقة, Wilayah al-Barqah) in the east, and Tripolitania Province (Arabic: ولاية الطرابلس, Wilayah al-Tarabulus) in the west. The branches were formed on 13 November 2014, following pledges of allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by militants in Libya.
Following the 2011 Libyan Civil War, which resulted in the ousting of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his government, many rebel fighters went to Syria to fight alongside militant groups who were fighting Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists in the Syrian Civil War. In 2012, one group of Libyans fighting in Syria declared the establishment of the Battar Brigade. The Battar Brigade would later pledge loyalty to ISIL, and fight for it in both Syria and Iraq.
In the spring of 2014, up to 300 Battar Brigade veterans returned to Libya. In Derna, they formed a new faction called the Islamic Youth Shura Council, which began recruiting militants from other local groups. Among the joinees were many members of the Derna branch of Ansar al-Sharia. During the next few months, they declared war on anyone in Derna who opposed them, killing judges, civic leaders and other opponents, including local militants who rejected their authority such as the al-Qaeda-allied Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade.
In September 2014, an ISIL delegation that had been dispatched by the group's leadership arrived in Libya. The representatives included Abu Nabil al Anbari, a senior aide to al-Baghdadi and a veteran of the Iraq conflict, the Saudi Abu Habib al-Jazrawi, and the Yemeni or Saudi Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, a militant and preacher from Syria. On 5 October 2014, the Islamic Youth Shura Council-aligned militant factions came together and pledged allegiance to ISIL. After the pledging ceremony, more than 60 pickup trucks filled with fighters cruised through the city in a victory parade. A second more formal gathering involving a larger array of factions took place on 30 October 2014, where the militants gathered to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the city square.
On 13 November 2014, al-Baghdadi released an audio-recording in which he accepted pledges of allegiance from supporters in five countries, including Libya, and announced the expansion of his group to those territories. He went on to announce the creation of three "provinces" (wilayah) in Libya: Wilayah al-Fizan (Fezzan in the desert south), Wilayah al-Barqah (Cyrenaica in the east), and Wilayah al-Tarabulus (Tripolitania in the west). The three wilayahs in Libya represent statelets, meaning they are a governates that hold territory and operate like a state.
Attacks and expansion across Libya
When founded, ISIL claimed a presence in al Bayda, Benghazi, Sirte, al-Khums, and the Libyan capital Tripoli. The Cyrenaica branch of ISIL had around 800 fighters and half a dozen camps in Derna's outskirts. It also had larger facilities in the Jebel Akhdar area, where North African fighters were trained.
In December 2014, ISIL recruiters in Turkey told their Libyan associates to stop sending fighters to Syria and to focus on domestic attacks, according to the Wall Street Journal. In the following weeks, ISIL carried out attacks against oil installations and international hotels, performed mass executions and attempted to take over further Libyan territory. The group made tactical alliances with al Qaeda-linked groups that did not formally pledge allegiance to it, such as the Benghazi branch of Ansar al-Sharia, members of Tunisia's Ansar al-Sharia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's Tarek Ibn Ziyad Brigade. On 30 March 2015, Ansar al-Sharia's general Sharia jurist Abu Abdullah Al-Libi pledged allegiance to ISIL, a number of the group's members defected with him.
The city of Sirte had been loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and suffered massive damage at the conclusion of the 2011 Civil War, later becoming home to militant Islamist groups like Ansar al-Sharia. ISIL formally announced their presence in Sirte in early 2015, driving a parade of vehicles through the city and declaring it part of their caliphate. Ansar al-Sharia split over how to respond, with most of their members joining ISIL. The group reportedly recruited many locals, former Gaddafi supporters alienated from the post-war political order in Libya, after they "repented" and pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. They were quickly able to take over much of the city. ISIL implemented their harsh interpretation of Sharia gradually, first focusing on building loyalty and allegiance from the tribal society of Sirte. In August 2015 Islamic codes of dress and behaviour began to be enforced more strongly and punishments like crucifixions and lashings began to be carried out. There was an uprising against ISIL in Sirte in the same month, with members of the Ferjani tribe, Salafists and former members of the security forces attacking ISIL forces. ISIL brought in reinforcements from outside of Sirte and the uprising was swiftly defeated, with media reports claiming dozens or hundreds of Sirte residents were killed after the fighting.
ISIL began to solidify its rule in Sirte, increasing its state building efforts and using it as a base to expand its territory. ISIL fighters from Sirte took over the neighbouring towns of Nofaliya, and Harawa during this period. They also seized control of Ghardabiya Air Base and important infrastructure like power plants and part of the Great Man-Made River water irrigation project. By early 2016, there were an estimated 1,500, mostly foreign, fighters in the city, and Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, commander of NATO's Allied Maritime Command, warned that ISIL militants aspired to build a maritime arm that could carry out attacks in the Mediterranean Sea against tourist and transfer ships.
The group suffered reverses in other parts of Libya during this period, including in Derna, Benghazi, and Sabratha. In June 2015, clashes erupted in Derna between ISIL and the rival Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna supported by the Libyan Air Force, which caused heavy casualties on both sides and led to ISIL forces being driven out of their strongholds in the city the following month. In November 2015, a US air strike killed ISIL's leader in Libya, Abu Nabil al Anbari. He was succeeded by Abdel Qader al-Najdi. In early 2016, the Khalifa Haftar-led Libyan National Army, reportedly with the assistance of French Special Forces, captured parts of Benghazi that had been held by ISIL for months. In February 2016, a U.S. air strike targeted an ISIL training camp near Sabratha, killing more than 40 people including the Tunisian ISIL member Noureddine Chouchane, linked to the 2015 Sousse attacks, as well as two Serbians who had been kidnapped by ISIL in 2015.
In December 2016, following a 7-month long battle, ISIL was cleared from Sirte by Libyan Forces, with assistance from air strikes by the United States. The group withdrew to desert areas south of Sirte, and began mostly low level attacks on Libyan forces and local infrastructure. In January 2017, U.S. airstrikes on an ISIL base 25 miles southwest of Sirte reportedly killed over 80 militants.
Libyan intelligence chiefs claimed in early February 2016, that the Islamic State is recruiting fighters from Africa's poorest nations, including Chad, Mali and Sudan. ISIL offers generous salaries compared to the average wages in the region. Many of the fighters reach Libya using existing people-smuggling routes used by African migrants heading to Europe.
The "Media Office for Cyrenaica Province" has published photos and other material showing buildings with ISIL insignia, suicide bombers, parades, and pledges of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A reporter for The New York Times who visited the outskirts of Sirte found that ISIL had taken over the local radio station, and all four stations on the dial were being used to transmit Islamic sermons.
ISIL in Libya had threatened to facilitate the arrival of thousands of migrants to destabilize Europe if they are attacked.
Billboards instructing women how to dress according to ISIL's interpretation of Sharia were erected in Sirte in July 2015. The billboard gave a list of restrictions on dress for women.
"Instructions on wearing the hijab according to Sharia
- It must be thick and not revealing
- It must be loose (not tight)
- It must cover all the body
- It must not be attractive
- It must not resemble the clothes of unbelievers or men
- It must not be decorative and eye-catching
- It must not be perfumed."
Human rights abuses and war crimes allegations
By late 2014, Derna was fully under ISIL control, with the Black Standard flying over government buildings, police cars carrying ISIL insignia, and the local football stadium being used for public executions. A Human Rights Watch report accused ISIL linked groups in control of Derna of war crimes and human rights abuses that include terrorizing residents in the absence of state authorities and the rule of law. Human Rights Watch documented 3 apparent summary executions and at least 10 public floggings by the Islamic Youth Shura Council, which joined ISIL in November 2014. They also documented beheadings of three Derna residents and 250 seemingly politically motivated assassinations of judges, public officials, members of the security forces, journalists, and others with no public investigations. Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East, and North Africa director said, "Commanders should understand that they may face domestic or international prosecution for the grave rights abuses their forces are committing."
Under ISIL's watch, women increasingly wore face veils and young men caught drinking alcohol were flogged. Education changes included male/female segregation of students, and the removal of history and geography from the curriculum. New Islamic religious police flyers ordered clothing stores to cover their mannequins and not to display "scandalous women's clothes that cause sedition." The law school was closed.
Claimed and alleged attacks
Commentary and significance
The growth of its branch in Libya is seen by ISIL and its proponents as a model for ISIL expansion outside Iraq and Syria.
The Long War Journal wrote that no well-established Libyan militant organizations had pledged their support to the group and that "the Islamic State has failed, thus far, to garner the allegiance of Ansar al Sharia Libya, which is notorious for its role in the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Benghazi and remains one of the most powerful jihadist organizations in eastern Libya. None of Ansar al Sharia's allies in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, the Islamist coalition fighting General Khalifa Haftar's forces for control of territory, pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. The Islamic State has supporters in Libya, particularly among the jihadist youth. But other groups are still, by all outward appearances, more entrenched."
Libya Dawn claimed that it had intelligence reports showing that those who claimed to support ISIL in Tripoli were agents provocateur planted by foreign countries to discredit it. The statement was viewed as an attempt to explain away the growing issue of the extremists in western Libya, with ISIL supporters said to be present at the Majr camp in Zliten, and in Sabratha. Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat and Leader of the Opposition Simon Busuttil called for the United Nations and European Union to intervene in Libya to prevent the country from becoming a failed state.