Is ISIS preparing to relocate to Libya?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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I have already written that ISIS seems to be preparing for defeat in Syria and Iraq. I wrote that Assad is being bolstered by Russia, the Kurds are being bolstered by the West and Shiite Iraq is supported by Iran.

All these alliances are progressively beating back ISIS. I suggested that the likely outcome is that from now on ISIS will simply be eroded with a long war of attrition until the group can no longer recruit enough fighters to sustain its gains.

I concluded that this would mean that ISIS would give up territorial ambitions and would revert to Al-Qaeda tactics of having a non-territory based structure whose goals would be to carry out terrorist attacks, which would destabilize nation-states in the region and weaken Western state actors, perhaps paving the way for it to re-emerge at a later date.

But it seems that this diagnostic may have been premature. Even if the territory they occupy now in Syria and Iraq is regained by those states, it does not necessarily mean that ISIS needs to go underground.

There are still plenty of failed states left in the Muslim world where ISIS could re-establish their territorial “caliphate”. And it seems that the new designated location might be Libya.

ISIS has made its presence felt in Libya for over a year now and it has consolidated in Sirte, the former hometown of Muammar Qaddafi. Sirte lies on the Mediterranean coast half-way between Tripoli and Benghazi, the respective capitals of the two main factions in the ongoing Libyan civil war.

Following the same template as in Syria, they have established a foothold in-between the two main combatants in a civil war and have proceeded to try and recruit as many of the Islamist militias running around the place as they could.


In the last few days, reports have emerged that senior ISIS figures from Syria may have arrived in Sirte and taken to re-organising the local chapter with the usual flourishes of theatrical violence. This may be a sign that the ISIS hierarchy are preparing for a slow re-allocation of assets, and eventually maybe even relocating the core of the organization there.

Relocating to Libya would make a great deal of sense. ISIS has certainly lost the military momentum in Syria and Iraq – they are surrounded by much stronger enemies on all sides, and even when they do take non-Sunni territory, they cannot hold it for long.

There are still plenty of failed states left in the Muslim world where ISIS could re-establish their territorial “caliphate”

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But in their game, this kind of momentum is one of their main propaganda assets. If they remain stagnant, their recruitment rates will plummet and their organization will collapse soon after. In this, they have to keep running to stay still. Which is why ISIS always has and always will seek to open up new fronts when it is ground down to a halt in its current engagements.

But it also helps that Libya looks like wide open territory at the moment. There are two dominant groups claiming to be the legitimate government of the state, meaning that Western intervention will be hampered by questions of sovereignty and legality in the face of international law.

But underneath those two dominant groups, there are also a huge number of sectarian, political and tribal fault lines which can be tactically exploited as the groups seeks to expand its influence and territorial reach.

These are still early days for ISIS in Libya, but thankfully, it seems that our governments are already awake to the dangers and, for once, are looking to engage with the situation pro-actively.

Hopefully, this time we will manage to close down this front before it really opens up, and in the process, also make up for the responsibilities we have abandoned towards Libya in the years since we have helped them overthrow Gaddafi.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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