Islamic State shifts focus from territory to infrastructure in Libya

By: Casey Mallon, CIB Africa Desk
Analytical Question: Will the Islamic State be wiped out in Libya in 2017?

As Islamic State operatives have been pushed from the coastal town of Sirte into the Libyan Desert, there have been several reports of attacks on water and oil pipelines. The group, therefore, continues to pose a significant threat as it increasingly uses unconventional means to undermine Libyan security, despite losing its remaining territory in Libya. This development supports my current analytical conclusion that, with moderate confidence, the Islamic State will not be wiped out in Libya in 2017.

Libya’s political situation has been chaotic since Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator for 42 years, was ousted from power and killed during the 2011 Arab Spring. Since then, no group has been able to firmly unite Libya, so the country remains divided between various local militias. With no firm government exerting control over the entirety of Libya, security vacuums, namely areas devoid of any governmental presence, have formed. In 2014, the Islamic State launched several branches in Libya, exploiting security vacuums to amass land, finances, and power. At the end of 2016, US airstrikes, combined with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) ground forces, pushed the Islamic State out of the city of Sirte, which until then was its stronghold in Libya. Islamic State militants who were not killed in the battle for Sirte, have fled into the desert. The latter remains a security vacuum, allowing the militants to regroup and adjust their modus operandi.

Islamic State militants have now shifted their focus from taking control of physical territory to disrupting infrastructure, operating in small bands of no greater than 20 men. Conducting operations in small groups, and carrying out attacks on carefully selected facilities, as opposed to carrying out full-scale invasions, makes it much more difficult for the GNA and its allies, including the United States, to track down and stop these militants. Three separate Islamic State groups have been identified in Girza, near the Zalla and Mabrouk oilfields2, and near the Algerian border. All have been launching attacks disrupting Libya’s oil and water infrastructure3. On January 19, American B2 bombers targeted two Islamic State camps belonging to one of these groups.

The two groups in Gizra and near the Zalla and Mabrouk oilfields, pose internal threats to the safety and wellbeing of small towns in Libya’s countryside, and to Libya’s oil exports. The group located near the Algerian border, however, poses a much bigger threat, as it has the potential to disrupt water installations that affect Algeria, Chad, Niger and other West African countries3,4. This development demonstrates how the Islamic State is able to remain functional and still pose a significant security danger, despite losing physical land holdings. That trend is also evident in Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State continues to lose land, yet still holds a strong presence, and even in the West, where the Islamic State has never held physical territory, but has been able to carry out unconventional attacks. With the United States taking a more aggressive role, and backing the GNA with airstrikes, the Islamic State recognizes that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to launch a successful operation to retake Sirte in the following months. Indeed, to avoid detection by security forces, and to maximize flexibility, the Islamic State has begun to rely more heavily on coordinated efforts by several small groups in countries like Libya, and by individuals, mostly in the West2.

In the words of Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, “While [the Islamic State] no longer controls territory, the fight against terrorism is far from finished”3. Indeed, as long as Libya continues to be in a chaotic, fragmented state, the Islamic State will continue to exploit security vacuums to regroup and launch small-scale attacks on Libyan water and oil infrastructure. Kobler’s insightful statement, in combination with several news reports, reinforces my analytical conclusion, stated with moderate confidence, that the Islamic State will not be wiped out in Libya in 2017. Taking back Islamic State-controlled territory is a small feat compared to undermining the Islamic State’s true source of power, namely the jihadist ideology.


[1] Anonymous (2016) “The Repercussions of Losing the Sirte Region on ISIS’s Position in Libya and the Nature of the Islamic State (Preliminary Assessment)The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 19 December.

[2] Lewis, A. (2017) “Islamic State shifts to Libya’s desert valleys after Sirte defeatReuters, 10 February.

[3] Pearson, J. (2017) “Libya sees new threat from ISIL after defeat at SirteThe National, 10 February.

[4] Anonymous (2017) “COMMENT: Water as a force for peaceThe Independent, 24 January.