WASHINGTON, DC — The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) remains a “potent” menace in Libya more than a year after U.S.-backed local forces pushed the group out of former stronghold Sirte, experts told a House panel.
Soon after the Islamic State (IS) lost Sirte in December 2016, U.S. and Libyan officials began warning about a potential resurgence of the terrorist group, noting that the jihadists were regrouping elsewhere in Libya, namely the desert valleys and inland hills southeast of the country.
In written testimony prepared for a hearing Wednesday held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and Africa, Christopher Blanchard, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), acknowledged:
Transnational terrorist groups and locally organized armed extremist groups, including supporters of the Islamic State organization and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), remain active in Libya. Some IS fighters appear to have regrouped in rural areas after fleeing Sirte in late 2016, and the group claimed a series of attacks on Libyan forces in 2017.
Robyn Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), predicted early this year that ISIS would “give priority to the restructuring of security forces and infrastructure, and to launch strikes, which may include targets in the Libyan oil crescent.”
While testifying before U.S. lawmakers in March, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander, described ISIS as “dispersed and disorganized and likely capable of little more than localized attacks.”
However, Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow for the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cautioned in his written testimony prepared for the House panel hearing Wednesday that the group presents a “potent” threat, telling lawmakers:
The aftermath of Sirte also raises the question of the Islamic State’s potential reemergence. Based on my discussions with Libyan officials, the Islamic State has fled to the desert southwest of the city where it remains dispersed but still potent.
It could easily exploit Libya’s political divisions and the inability or unwillingness of Libya’s armed groups to confront it. We have seen this before when Libya’s opposing factions were so focused on battling one another that they ignored the growing radical presence in their midst.
This is why national-level political reconciliation is so important, along with unifying and reforming the security sector.
Echoing the other expert witnesses, Alice Friend, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also testified that ISIS is still active in Libya.
The group maintains “a scattered presence in the East and South, and the commander of Africa Command testified that the U.S. conducted eight strikes against ISIS targets in late 2017 and early 2018,” she wrote.
Although ISIS has suffered significant losses in its collapsing caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the group remains a serious threat outside those two countries, particularly in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, West Africa, Egypt, Bangladesh, Philippines, and Tunisia.
ISIS jihadists are “adapting” to their ongoing demise in Iraq and Syria by intensifying their activity “in all” other corners of the world, including Africa, Bangladesh, and Southeast Asia, Nathan Sales, the counterterrorism coordinator at the U.S. Department of State, told reporters last month.
The U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment unveiled in February predicted that ISIS would “enhancing its global presence, championing its cause, planning international attacks, and encouraging its members and sympathizers to attack in their home countries” this year.
“ISIS’s claim of having a functioning caliphate that governs populations is all but thwarted … Outside Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s goal of fostering interconnectivity and resiliency among its global branches and networks probably will result in local and, in some cases, regional attack plans,” it added.