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On Saturday, December 17, 2016, Fayez al-Sarraj, Libya’s prime minister and the chief of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), announced the official liberation of the coastal city of Sirte from the Islamic State (IS) after eight months of fighting. One day later, IS claimed a suicide bomber attack in Benghazi, leaving seven soldiers from the Libyan National Army (LNA) dead and eight injured. The attack was seen as a way for the organization to show that despite losing Sirte, it is still active in Libya.
IS had occupied Sirte since May 2015. The operation to liberate the city, called Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, was launched in May 2016 by the forces of the GNA, backed by the United States Air Force and the United States Marine Corps Harriers forces which joined the operations on August 1, 2016, with bombings targeting IS tanks and vehicles. Their implication was decisive in the liberation of Sirte as they carried out 492 airstrikes against IS targets from August 1 until December 5, 2016, according to the Pentagon. By June 2016, Libyan authorities had declared that nearly 700 fighters of the Islamic group were killed since the beginning of the operations.
In one of the two field hospitals set up on Sirte’s frontline, the Italian journalist Francesca Mannochi, reporting for Al-Jazeera, described the distress of children pulled from the rubble, dehydrated, hungry and traumatized by the strikes and the loss of their parents. They were not only the children of civilians but also of IS fighters from Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, or Nigeria. Sex slaves were also discovered during the fights, a lot of them coming from Eritrea and kidnapped in Sudan.
Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview with Fanack that Sirte’s liberation represents“a bad setback” for the Islamic State, as “this was their only territorial presence in the whole North Africa”. Mohamed Eljarh, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, told Fanack that their defeat in Sirte is “a significant loss for IS, because they are all about territory”. “They lost their territorial control of Libya, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of their activities”, he added. Eljarh said it is very important to know that while the GNA has been nominated as the authority over Sirte operation, it started without the GNA’s approval. “They only declared they were in charge three weeks after the fightings began,” he said. “After the operation, they wanted a democratically elected municipal council, and the military commander appointed the military governor. It looks fine but the reality on the ground is different, there is tension over that.”
On December 12, 2016, Libya’s Central Committee for Municipal Council Elections (CCMCE) organized mayoral elections for the city of Sirte in the capital city, Tripoli. The newly elected mayor of Sirte is Mukhtar Al-Madani, who had already been appointed mayor last summer by the Beida-based prime minister Abdullah Al-Thinni. Two days later, Ahmed Abu Shahma was appointed as Sirte’s military governor by the leaders of the operation, creating confusion over the city’s future administration. As soon as possible, demining teams were sent in the city in order to deactivate the unexploded explosives left by IS fighters.
According to Mohamed Eljarh, IS militants are facing now three possible opportunities: “They could go to the south in order to set up and regroup, set up sleeping cells in Libyan cities in order to conduct conventional terrorism operations, or cross the borders to join other jihadists in the region. Eljarh added that such cross-borders regroupment had already been observed in 2014 in the eastern city of Derna, when defeated IS militants retreated to join the Islamic Youth Shura Council, a movement which pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2014. As of the defeated IS fighters of Sirte, “they could decide to join Boko Haram, for example,” Eljarh said. The suicide car bomb attack in Benghazi on December 18, 2016, could lead to think that the second option described by Mohamed Eljarh is already being considered by IS, although it has been present in Benghazi for more than a year. “Contrary to Sirte, they don’t control exclusively any territory [in Benghazi] but they cooperate with other groups, particularly with the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries which includes Ansar Al-Sharia, an UN-listed terrorist organisation”, Mattia Toaldo explained to Fanack. “The car bomb this week is unfortunately not the first. Haftar’s forces [Khalifa Haftar has been the commander of the National Libyan Army since 2015] have claimed to have liberated the city several times but there is still a presence of IS and other groups.”
Libya has been divided by the rivalry of two parliaments since mid-2014: the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) on one side, and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives on the other. – The GNA defeating IS in Sirte does not mean either that its legitimacy to run the country will be recognized by the population. “The GNA is unpopular because of its inability to deliver on concrete things like electricity, liquidity in the banks, kidnappings prevention and service delivery in general”, Toaldo detailed. “No victory in Sirte could possibly wipe those problems away.” In a longer-term view, the defeat of IS could lead to even more violence and problems in Libya. “Now that the common enemy is out of the picture, Libyan factions could fight each other again, which would bring more instability”, Eljarh said. “You need a single government, a single authority, otherwise Libya will always be a seed for criminality and jihadism.”
This opinion is shared by Toaldo: “It ends one phase of the post-Gaddhafi anarchy and it opens a new one in which the forces that fought IS could start fighting each other again.” Toaldo added that while the northwestern Libyan city of Misrata fought IS in Sirte, the forces commanded by Haftar fight in Benghazi. He considers that Haftar’s forces, being close to Sirte, could try and move westwards. “This could provoke a clash with Misrata,” he said. “On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Haftar will be reluctant to do this move unless he feels he will not have to engage in big fighting where Misratan forces would have the upper hand. But even then, he would try to strike alliances with armed groups in Western Libya and these groups could start clashes with other militias, generating a further increase of violence and anarchy in the country”.
While IS is on the verge of reorganizing itself in Libya or other countries, the fear of more clashes between the country’s rival factions could be added to the fear of continuing terrorist attacks. As Toaldo highlighted, “jihadism in Libya existed before IS, it started in the 1990 and is unlikely to go away when IS does”.