By Aidan Lewis
Islamic State has lost senior figures in an unsuccessful seven-month battle to defend its coastal stronghold in Libya, but there are already signs it will try to fight back through sleeper cells and desert brigades.
That has prompted fears of a counter-attack or insurgent campaign that could enable the militants to show they are still in business despite the rout, a heavy blow for a group that is also under intense military pressure in its core territory of Iraq and Syria.
Some cells have already been active. Islamic State is thought to be behind at least two dozen attacks or attempted attacks to the south and west of Sirte since August, said Heni Nsaibia of Menastream, a risk consultancy that monitors jihadist activity in the region.
Before May, IS was thought to have several thousand fighters stationed in Sirte – estimates of the exact number varied widely. Both leadership and rank and file had a heavy foreign presence, drawing on recruits from north and sub-Saharan Africa, according to Sirte residents and security officials in Misrata, the city that led the campaign to retake the jihadist stronghold.
Much of that force has likely been wiped out over the past seven months, with dozens killed on both sides during the heaviest days of fighting. Islamic State was targeted by nearly 500 U.S. air strikes since Aug. 1.
Foreign commanders have also died, according to messages of mourning posted on social media accounts close to the militant group, though it is unclear how far up the hierarchy they were or how important to the group’s future operations, said Marco Arnaboldi, a researcher of political Islam specializing on Libya.
Ibrahim Baitulmal, head of Misrata’s military council, estimated that 1,700 jihadists’ bodies had been recovered during the campaign, adding that the number killed would have been higher since the militants retrieved some of their own dead.
He said among those killed in the final days of the battle in Sirte was Abu Habib Jazrawi, a Saudi who is thought to have taken the name Abdul Qadr al-Najdi before being named as Islamic State’s leader in Libya in March.
Islamic State has not announced his death. Regional media reported that Najdi was replaced in September by a Tunisian, Jalaludin Al-Tunsi, possibly appointed to carry on the fight outside Sirte. “He’s one of the leaders who is going to prepare the next wave of Islamic State from south of the city,” said Arnaboldi.
The jihadist group has made no secret of its plans to continue the fight, in a country still roiled by the turmoil it exploited in the past. In August, the new leader of its east Libyan branch, Abu Musab al-Farouq, said high-level figures who had escaped from Sirte were helping it regroup not far away.
In late October the head of the west Libyan branch, Abu Hudhayfah al-Muhajir, acknowledged that the group had been suffering, but said it would continue its campaign for “conquest and empowerment” and was still attracting a steady flow of foreign fighters.
“Most of our people in Sirte have moved to neighbouring areas six months ago – and are still moving – during which they experienced the worst,” he said in an interview with Al Naba, an Islamic State newsletter.
Fighters from the armed groups that defeated the jihadists feted the end of a punishing six-month battle by flying Libyan flags over the Mediterranean city, once known mainly as the home town of late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, more recently as the main stronghold outside Syria and Iraq of Islamic State’s caliphate.
But the campaign has been far from the unifying event some had hoped for. Celebrations have been muted by the risk of jihadist counter attacks and the potential for renewed war among Libya’s military factions.
Just hours after the last district in Sirte was cleared, fighters in a newly formed force swept up from the desert south of the city towards Libya’s Oil Crescent, looking to recapture ports that had changed hands three months before.
And in the main city in the east, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) continued to suffer heavy casualties as it struggles to secure parts of Benghazi against Islamist-led rivals after more than two years of warfare.
U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler told the Security Council this week that while a peace plan signed a year ago had stalled, weapons were still being delivered into Libya, the economy was facing “meltdown”, and the country remained a “human marketplace” for migrants trying to reach Europe.
The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) scrambled to take command, but only ever had nominal control over fighters on the ground, some of them with different agendas beyond the campaign in Sirte.
The brigades hoped the battle would be finished in weeks, but their progress was halted by Islamic State snipers, suicide bombers and mines. By mid-summer, with casualties mounting and an official request from the GNA, they called in the help of U.S. air support. Nearly 500 strikes were carried out over Sirte between Aug. 1 and early December.
After the last buildings in Sirte’s Ghiza Bahriya neighborhood were secured on Tuesday, jubilant fighters paraded through the streets, chanting that the deaths of more than 700 men from within their ranks had not been in vain.
“Every time after we win a war we celebrate,” said Ahmed Algennabi, a 28-year-old salesman in a Misrata perfume shop. “But now I don’t think that it’s the end of this war, and I expect more fighting against Islamic State.”
Libyan security officials say a significant number of militants left Sirte before the battle or in its early stages, and that Islamic State has cells along Libya’s western coast as well as in the hinterlands. Even as the fighting continued in Sirte’s residential neighborhoods, the group carried out attacks from behind the front lines, including suicide bombings and a major ambush.
But they are also nervous about Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the LNA in the east, who has fought on the side opposed to Misrata’s brigades in a stop-start national conflict since 2014, and has recently been boosted by his own military advances.
In September, with Misrata’s fighters still tied up in Sirte, Haftar’s forces moved to seize the Oil Crescent ports, some of them just 200 km (125 miles) to the east, and many see him edging towards national power.
Key facts about Islamic State in Libya
Libyan forces are trying to secure the city of Sirte after ousting Islamic State from its former North African stronghold in a battle that lasted nearly seven months.
It also profited from a security vacuum caused by the turmoil that followed Libya’s 2011 revolution, and from 2014 a conflict between loose alliances of armed groups loyal to factions based in Tripoli and the east.
In October 2014 militants from al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia who largely controlled Derna announced they were transferring their loyalty to Islamic State. Ansar al-Sharia members in several other parts of eastern and central Libya also switched allegiance.
Senior emissaries were sent to the country by Islamic State’s leadership in Iraq, including former leader Abu Nabil al-Anbari, Bahraini preacher Turki Bin Ali, and Saudi national Abu Habib al-Jazrawi.
In Sirte, hometown of late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Islamic State took full control in early 2015. The group eventually extended its presence along a coastal strip of about 250 km (155 miles) either side of the city.
In many areas, however, Islamic State struggled to expand or retain territory. In Derna, the group was chased out by rival Islamists and other opponents, and in Sabratha local brigades took on militants in February in the wake of a U.S. air strike.
Many of those appointed to senior positions in Islamic State’s Libyan branch were foreign, drawing on large numbers of recruits from countries including Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan, according to security and intelligence officials in Misrata.
Some senior figures were dispatched from the Middle East. These included Wissam Abd al-Zubaidi, also known as Abu Nabil al-Anbari, a former intelligence official and IS governor from Iraq who arrived in Libya in 2014 to lead operations there and was killed in a U.S. air strike in Derna in November 2015.
In March, Islamic State publication Al-Naba named Abdul Qadr al-Najdi as the new leader. Najdi is thought to be the new name for Abu Habib Jazrawi, a Saudi earlier dispatched to Libya by Islamic State’s leadership in Iraq. Regional media reported that he was recently replaced by a Tunisian, Jalaludin Al-Tunsi.
Keen to fight the perception that it was a foreign import, Islamic State also placed Libyans among its leadership in the North African country. A number of senior Libyan figures were killed during the battle in Sirte.
From February 2015, the militants also targeted Libya’s oil facilities, causing extensive damage and further reducing the oil production on which the Libyan economy is highly dependant. In January 2016, attacks against major oil terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf caused significant damage to storage tanks.
In early May the jihadists pushed north-west from Sirte towards Misrata, briefly capturing the small town of Abu Grain and several villages in the area. That advance triggered the counter-attack that developed into the campaign to recapture Sirte.
Islamic State also enforced its ultra-hardline rule on Sirte’s residents, prompting many who had not already left the city to flee. Smoking was banned, barber shops closed, women and teenage girls were made to wear long black robes, and boys were trained as fighters.
Aidan Lewis – Reuters correspondent based in Tunis, covering Libya. Ex BBC, AP. Previously London, DC, Algiers, Rome.