ISIS Loses Libyan Stronghold

ISIS lost control of its primary Libyan stronghold in the eastern city of Derna on June 12. Local Islamist groups expelled ISIS from the city following ISIS’s assassination of a local leader. The loss of Derna is unlikely to affect ISIS’s military strategy in Libya, as the organization controls other cities along the central coast. However, it suggests that ISIS may struggle to maintain social control in cities outside of Iraq and Syria, as the organization ultimately seeks to do across the Middle East and North Africa.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s affiliate in Libya lost control of its eastern stronghold of Derna after tensions with a local Islamist militia escalated into violent conflict on June 9, 2015. Gunmen from ISIS allegedly assassinated Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB) leader Nasser al-Aker, who was a senior member of the al-Qaeda-associated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The Mujahedeen Shura Council of Derna (MSC Derna), an umbrella group controlled by ASMB, released a statement declaring jihad on ISIS in Derna soon after the assassination. Clashes erupted across the city. Anti-ISIS forces cleared ISIS from central Derna and captured ISIS’s headquarters on June 13, despite ISIS’s defensive deployment of multiple SVBIEDs. ISIS now holds no territory inside the city.

Social media reports from activists within Derna indicate strong local animosity towards ISIS. Derna’s residents organizeddemonstrationsagainst ISIS on June 11 and 12, and according to unconfirmed rumors may have been armed by ASMB to participate in military operations against ISIS. After ISIS’s expulsion, MSC Derna released statements announcing the reopening of a hospital, the creation of a program to return stolen cars, and plans for a municipal council, likely in an attempt to replace ISIS’s governance efforts. This development demonstrates the ability of local groups likely to capitalize on discontent within ISIS’s areas of control to undermine the organization.

ISIS’s expulsion is especially striking because Derna contains historically strong extremist networks, some of which have ties to ISIS. Records captured from ISIS’s predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2007 revealed that Derna contributed more foreign fighters per capita to AQI than any other city. Derna natives associated with ISIS in Syria returned to Libya in 2014 and formed the Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam group, which later took control of Derna. These militants administered sharia law, conducted public executions, and provided basic services in all areas of the city. The group publicly declared its allegiance to ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2014, and ISIS recognized it as an official affiliate in November 2014.

ISIS is executing a coherent global strategy that involves defending its territory within Iraq and Syria, establishing affiliates within the Middle East and North Africa, and encouraging terror attacks in the wider world. ISIS’s regional affiliates, or wilayats, allow the organization to claim success even when it suffers losses within Iraq and Syria. ISIS also uses its regional affiliates to exacerbate local and regional conflicts in order to facilitate the organization’s expansion beyond Iraq and Syria in the long term. ISIS’s regional efforts have been most successful in Libya, where the group controls terrain, administers governance, and operates militant training camps. ISIS’s leadership now encourages fighters who cannot travel to Iraq and Syria to fight in Libya instead.

ISIS seeks to exacerbate the Libyan conflict and seize terrain where Libya’s rival governments are unable to prevent the group’s expansion. The organization’s campaign includes explosive attacks on prominent targets, strikes on oil infrastructure, and sustained guerilla warfare to fix adversaries in major cities. ISIS also takes advantage of the disorder within Libya to seize terrain through conventional maneuver operations, most recently near the city of Sirte on Libya’s central coast. ISIS’s presence in Derna appears unlinked to its military offensives in central and western Libya, making the loss of the city unlikely to interrupt those operations. However, the development indicates that ISIS may face challenges in establishing social control in Libya in the long term, given its brutal methodology and intolerance of other armed groups.

ISIS’s recent loss suggests that the group failed to cultivate support in Derna. This failure may be due in part to ISIS’s inability to provoke mobilization on sectarian grounds as it has done in Iraq and Syria, since Libya has a Sunni majority population. It is also likely a result of ISIS’s inability to cooperate with other militant organizations. This latter vulnerability may impair ISIS’s efforts in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, all areas characterized by increasing disorder and competition amongst multiple armed groups. ISIS’s leadership acknowledged the challenge of indigenous opposition in a speech on June 23, 2015, specifically warning anti-ISIS forces within Syria and Libya to cease targeting the group.

ISIS likely will continue to execute military operations in order to seize terrain within Libya. ISIS controls Sirte entirely, and may attempt to launch an offensive on the valuable oilfields southeast of the city. ISIS also maintains a presence in Benghazi, and likely will continue to launch explosive attacks on Tripoli and Misrata. ISIS’s increased rhetoric against local enemies since the loss of Derna suggests that the organization’s friction with local groups likely will persist, however. This uncompromising stance may chronically undermine ISIS’s efforts to expand and govern in the Middle East and North Africa.

By Cody Zoschak with Harleen Gambhir