By Simon Engelkes

The so-called Islamic State was ousted from its stronghold in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte in December 2016.

The breakdown of its bureaucratic structures and the fall of the allegedly strongest outpost of the “caliphate” beyond its Levantine core initiated an organizational transformation of the group’s presence in Libya. This has been witnessed to a similar extent throughout the region.

Despite the devolution of the jihadist proto-state with its three declared provinces into a covert network of dispersed mobile units roaming mostly the Libyan deserts, the Islamic State in Libya (ISL) still poses a threat to the country’s political, economic, and social stability as well as the desperately needed state-building efforts.

Remnants of ISL comprise numerous sleeper cells around Tripoli and Misrata in the West, Ghat and Al-Uwainat in the South, and Ajdabiya and Derna in the East.

Resisting frequent airstrikes, the group, reverting back to insurgency and banditry tactics, continues to take advantage of the fragile security environment and sporadically coordinates with tribal and other jihadist groups to remain present in Libya.

ISL appears to be decentralized and act opportunistically, moving along the outskirts of cities and in the periphery of the capital where it launches raids and ad hoc SVBIED attacks on LNA checkpoints and police stations and sets up roadblocks to attack civilian passers-by and fuel tankers.

Following the loss of its physical “caliphate,” ISL adopted a strategy of disruption and has the capacity to spoil efforts to forge an end to the Libyan crisis.

Attacks on vital oil infrastructure, the Libyan Investment Authority and the Central Bank of Libya can worsen the economic and humanitarian situation in the war-torn country, widen existing rifts between communities, and further drive local conflict.

The ISL attack on the High National Elections Commission in Tripoli in May showcases the group’s determination to sabotage plans to reunify Libyan institutions and exemplifies the fragile nature of attempted road maps towards a political solution.

Ongoing conflict in Derna, a historical hub of Libyan jihadism, and the lacking reconstruction of former Sirte leave parts of the Libyan population prey to ISL and other jihadist militants.

The group could serve as a fall back option for marginalized segments of Libyan society as it did when it first emerged in the two cities.

Recent clashes in Tripoli might shift the attention of security actors away from the group’s remote areas of activity and enable ISL to exploit the fragile situation in the capital to further destabilize reconciliation and peace-building efforts.

Nevertheless, ISL and remnants of al-Qaeda operatives share their destructive role in the Libyan conflict with the vast array of armed militias acting with impunity, causing power cuts, road closures and an increasing civilian death toll given the lack of any authority able to impose order on Libya’s unique kind of chaos.


Simon Engelkes is a Project Coordinator with the KAS Regional Program Political Dialogue South Mediterranean in Tunis focusing on Libya. Prior to joining the foundation, Simon worked with an international NGO in Pakistan and held positions at Reporters without Borders as well as the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) in Berlin. His areas of expertise are political violence and jihadist terrorism, non-state armed groups, and ‘rebel governance.’ He studied in Germany, Lebanon and the UK and holds an M.A. in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College London.




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