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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Isis Regroups Using Low Cost 'Vex and Exhaust' Attrition Tactics in South Libya

Counterterrorism & Security

Marwa Mashaly

Sat, 31 Aug 2019 13:25 GMT

“We are fighting terrorists on behalf of the world in Libya," Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesperson General Ahmed al Mesmari said in a statement last week at a press conference showing the devastating situation in southwestern towns in Libya especially Murzuq and the Fezzan region.

The LNA spokesperson was not exaggerating when he referred to what is happening in Libya as a fight against the major international terrorist groups in the world today. These groups are represented by armed militias linked to the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group and al-Qaeda deployed by Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and backed by the newly revived Isis foreign fighters who have infiltrated Libya from the southern border.

The south of Libya has been destroyed by the armed militias linked to the GNA, known also as Tripoli's government that has failed to unify Libya since 2016 and chose to collaborate with hundreds of foreign armed terrorists to reclaim illegally its authority over the country. This has left Libya with severe political and tribal conflicts and with an on-going civil war since 2014.

This atmosphere of political conflict and civil war is the natural environment in which Isis's ideology thrives. Many security and counter-terrorism experts confirm that Isis's revival in Libya is inevitable after its defeat by US-backed anti Isis coalition in 2016 and after losing their dominance on coastal cities in the north like Sirte.

The Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) is an academic institution at the United States Military Academy in West Point, USA and has provided an extended study on the recovery of Isis in the south of Libya to wage a war of attrition that seeks to obstruct the formation of a Libyan state.

The study shows that in the last two years, Isis has adopted new approaches to recruitment and financing. The group has become more reliant on sub-Saharan African insurgents and has simultaneously deepened its connections with Libya’s desert smuggling networks, which connect North Africa to the African Sahel countries in West Africa. Moreover, its organisational structure appears to have shifted from ‘state-like’ to ‘guerrilla insurgency-like’.

Lachlan Wilson, security expert and director of Eye on Isis in Libya (EOIL), a platform monitoring the group’s history in Libya, stated that in 2018-2019, Isis's actions and statements in Libya, indicate that, for the time being, it no longer aims to win or hold territory. "Rather, (Isis) appears to have deliberately returned to its first phase of insurgent activity, termed 'Vex and Exhaust' by the jihadist theorist Abu Bakr Naji," Wilson said.

Wilson reported that the group has been waging high-profile attacks on symbolic state institutions since 2018. It has undertaken attacks, targeted Tripoli and involved suicide bombers. The attacks targeted the Libyan Foreign Ministry, the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and the High National Electoral Commission (HNEC). "By attacking these institutions, Isis appears to be attempting to unsettle foreign assistance, to weaken Libya’s recovering oil sector (upon which the whole economy depends), and to disrupt elections." Wilson said.

Jason Pack is president of the Libya Analysis platform, known as LLC, and is the author of ‘The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya’. He said that, "as a result of the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) on-going campaign to ‘liberate’ southern Libya from terrorists and to reopen its oil fields, Isis has intensified its campaign in the desert." It undertakes hit-and-run attacks in formations ranging in size from half a dozen to two dozen fighters," Pack said. 

In these attacks they use "sanctuaries and the relationships to various local community hosts, following a similar approach to the classic theories of Mao Tse-tung on the stages of guerrilla warfare, in which insurgent groups can use their attacks to harm the enemy, increase their recruitment, cement their local alliances and build their internal organisation, all simultaneously." Pack said.

The Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) study stressed that Isis executes its attacks in Libya by limited numbers of fighters, while still delivering high-impact results, by adapting its structure and employing low-cost hit-and-run. Due to its limited self-funded revenue and the loss of its former riches, Isis continues to extort money from civilians through temporary checkpoints, kidnapping for ransom, raids on local security outposts, and undertaking smuggling-related activities. 

The group likely retains a minority part of the monies accumulated in Sirte and processed by its ‘Dar al-Muhasaba’ (accounting department), though the exact amount remains unknown. Moreover, its movement toward southern Libya has helped facilitate an expansion into the realm of migrant smuggling to compensate for losses in its capabilities.

According to the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), non-Libyans make up almost 80% of Isis in Libya. The group appears to have become more disconnected, from Isis's core in Iraq and Syria, both in terms of personnel and command-and-control. This may be due to either the death or arrest of senior leaders in the group with ties to the 'Levant' or Syria. 

Today, the majority of foreign fighters affiliated to Isis are from Chad, Niger, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Eritrea, and Mali. Isis takes advantage of the links these foreign fighters have to human trafficking networks, choosing to recruit from among migrants attempting to reach Europe.

Last month, a UN report was published which referred to the conditions of war zones in Africa and ‘fragile countries’, it noted that, "Isis-related activities gained momentum over the course of the past months as the political and security crisis deepened in Libya." The UN report backed the new statistics of the Fragile States Index for 2019, powered by the Fund for Peace (FFP), showing that Libya is among the 26 fragile countries in Africa who have limited ability to carry out the basic mechanisms of governance. Libya attained the Very High Alert category in the chart, reaching 92.2%, due to terrorism and civil war. 

Due to growing concerns about the revival of terrorism in Libya, the Group of Seven (G7) summit in France released last week a statement calling for an international conference to address the crisis in Libya that would include all regional and international stakeholders connected to the Libyan conflict. 

This statement followed the meetings held by France, the UK, the US, Italy, Egypt and the UAE as a part of the ‘P3+3 countries’ in Paris last week to “study and evaluate the security and financial conditions in Libya". According to the French embassy in Libya, they discussed the plan with the UN Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, before the UN Security Council (UNSC) on July 29th.

Egypt’s President and current chairman of the African Union, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi also urged leaders of the G7 in last week’s meeting to end foreign interference in Libya’s domestic affairs and concentrate their efforts on reaching a comprehensive political settlement, which he said could restore stability, uproot terrorism and eliminate militias in Libya.

Middle East Africa