The recent advancement of forces loyal to the unity government into Sirte is a significant setback to ISIS' project in Libya. Sirte was one of the only places outside of Syria and Iraq in which ISIS was able to establish a model of governance similar to that which it enforced in cities like Raqqa and Mosul. More importantly, the terror organisation saw in Libya, or more specifically its base in Sirte, a gateway to other places in North Africa, and a place to fall back on if the viability of the organisation in Syria and Iraq is compromised.
To be clear, ISIS' defeat in Sirte would by no means be the end of ISIS' presence in Libya, especially because the reasons behind its rise are still evident in the country. Libya is still divided, with dozens of different militias fighting for power. For many of them, fighting ISIS is not the top priority. ISIS lost other bases of operation in Libya before, such as the one in Derna, yet it was still able to keep its strength and mobility. In the near term, some of ISIS' local fighters might be disillusioned with it and decide to join their former militias such as Ansar al-Sharia, but many foreign and other local fighters will stay loyal to ISIS. Some of these fighters might decide to join ISIS affiliates in other cities such as Benghazi, or they can try to find a new place to regroup in southern Libya.
For ISIS leaders in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, shifting the focus from this defeat will be important. One way to do it will be to execute an attack on European soil, and in that regards Italy is a prime target as it sent special forces to Sirte and the US might use Italian bases to conduct drone strikes against the group in Libya. Italy was already a desirable target for ISIS before its losses in Sirte, but now it might increase its efforts to target the country. Italian security agencies are already on edge and close cooperation with Libyan, American, and other European countries will hopefully help to stop any ISIS plans.
Throughout 2015, ISIS prepared to make Sirte its last redoubt should the battle turn against it in the Levant. Since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya has lacked a functioning sovereign government. Squabbling factions were unable to unite against the jihadi group. Western policymakers were slow to grasp the extent of this threat.
It is impossible to defeat ISIS and Islamist extremism in the Levant if Libya's oil wealth, permissive environment for smuggling and human trafficking, and massive artillery arsenals are easily accessible by global jihadi forces. Due to a lack of forethought and resolve, every aspect of the West's and its local partners' efforts to defeat ISIS in Libya has been poorly timed. In Sirte, this has meant that an opportunity to deal ISIS a knockout blow was missed. Simply pushing ISIS out of its stronghold will likely allow the top fighters to form sleeper cells, escape into the desert, or rebrand themselves by working with non-ISIS jihadi militias.
The assault on Sirte should have begun with a siege of ISIS territory combined with a naval blockade. Instead, over the spring of 2016, the UN-backed unity government harped on about how it would defeat ISIS, while refusing to attack or call for a blockade. This allowed ISIS to dig in, while allowing its most valuable assets to flee to fight another day. The timing behind the request for US airstrikes was also out of sync. The unity government had hoped to take on ISIS on their own and only called for American support when its forces got bogged down in July.
Even larger than these military mis-timings, is the political mis-ordering. A genuine anti-ISIS coalition was needed before the fight for Sirte began. Yet, the UN process focused on political bigwigs rather than working with militia stakeholders on the ground. Due to this lack of unity, as the Government of National Accord (GNA) approaches a key victory against ISIS in Sirte, paradoxically it may also be facing a defeat in its legitimacy. The political process in Libya remains derailed, and the UN-mediated GNA continues to lose clout, despite notable successes against ISIS in Sirte.
After the city is retaken, serious rifts within GNA-affiliated militias are highly likely between those supporting a full attack against General Khalifa Haftar in the east and those wishing to oust Islamist and extremist militias from Tripoli. Victorious militias will likely defy unity government rulings and expose the extent of the government's lack of control. It is important to continue to stress the danger from sleeper cells, revenge attacks, and the enemies of the GNA working together with jihadis of all stripes, including former ISIS elements, to wage a guerilla war against the unity government and Haftar.
On 15 August, ISIS released an official statement taking responsibility for two suicide attacks targeting pro-unity government forces in Sirte, which caused dozens of casualties. Last week the pro-government forces seized control of the Ouagadougou centre, ISIS' Sirte headquarters, which the group had controlled since February last year. The battle to free the coastal city from the jihadi militants has been backed by US airstrikes and special forces from the US and other countries. The forces fighting to retake the city mainly comprise militants linked to the Misrata military council. ISIS has stated that it still controls some neighbourhoods in the city, as pro-unity government forces continue to advance.
Along with its stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, Sirte is considered to be vital for ISIS. This is partly because of its location near the Libyan oil crescent area; if ISIS controls Sirte it controls the prized resource. Second, Sirte is a few hundred miles from Rome. Aside from the proximity this gives the group to Europe, ISIS propaganda repeatedly notes that taking control of Italy's capital is an essential step in preparing for Judgement Day and the last battle against the "crusaders." Despite these beliefs, ISIS has not carried out any attacks in Italy to date.
Retaking Sirte from ISIS has implications for the group across North Africa, and for stability in Libya in particular. But ISIS is an organisation that crosses borders both tactically and ideologically. It is likely that the group will transfer its battles to Libya's neighbours if it loses the city, smuggling its fighters, estimated to number thousands, over the border. They would pose a real threat to neighbouring countries if they manage to run from Sirte. Tunisian and Algeria have announced a number of times over the past year that authorities have thwarted ISIS' attempts to bootleg fighters and arms into their territory.
Moreover, ISIS losing Sirte does not necessarily mean completely ridding Libya of the group. In fact, it might bring back the scenario of what happened in the eastern city of Derna last year. Back then, ISIS fighters were ousted but came back, strongly reformed, to take control of Sirte. In any case, as in Syria, the situation on the ground is more complicated than merely isolating ISIS as the enemy. Yes, they might lose the coastal city – but they will come back. If only it were that easy.