A demonstration marking the fifth anniversary of the Libyan revolution.
In the wake of the horrifying attack against young, predominantly female, concert-goers in Manchester this month, terrorism analysts are postulating that it represents a dangerous shift in the existing pattern of lone wolf bombings, shootings, and vehicular assaults, which are only loosely related to the global jihadi networks that seek to take credit for them. By contrast with recent attacks in Nice and Florida, Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi’s family had links to jihadi groups and he may have benefitted from extensive support and training from jihadi networks in Libya—in fact he visited Tripoli in the weeks prior to the attack.
Following the bombing, British Prime Minister Theresa May raised the UK’s threat level to critical, later reverting it to severe, while the 28-member NATO military alliance decided to formally join the US-led coalition against ISIS. In Libya, the suicide bombing has had significant repercussions, with different factions attempting to use the Manchester attack, and the massacre of Coptic Christians in neighbouring Egypt on 26 May, to undermine their rivals.
Abedi is the British-born son of Libyan parents who were connected to the al-Qaeda linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and had links to prominent jihadis in Libya. His father Ramadan Abedi and mother Samia Tabba fled to the UK after reportedly participating in the guerilla war against the Gaddafi regime in the 1990s. ISIS claimed responsibility for the Manchester attack, yet several inconsistencies in the group’s account of events and subsequent investigations by the British police suggest this may be partially a lone-wolf attack for which ISIS is simply taking credit.
In Tripoli, where tensions between rival factions had been brewing for several weeks, militias aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) took advantage of local outrage following the Manchester attack to rally support against militias that oppose the GNA and are aligned with hardline Islamist factions. Pro-GNA militias arrested Abedi’s father and his brother Hashem, accusing them of being members of ISIS. On 26 May, intense clashes broke out across Tripoli between the rival militia factions, killing 52 people. By 28 May, most anti-GNA militias had been evicted from the capital, representing a significant power shift in favour of the GNA.
Egypt responded to the ISIS attack against Christian pilgrims in Minya province by conducting several airstrikes against the city of Derna, in coordination with eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Egypt claimed the ISIS attackers were trained in Derna, yet Derna is controlled by the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), an al-Qaeda linked coalition of jihadis militias that defeated ISIS cells in the city nearly two years ago.
Significantly, the LNA has been fighting against the DMSC for control of Derna for the last three years, indicating that Egypt is likely using the ISIS massacre as a cover for providing air support to its ally Haftar. This is supported by the GNA’s condemnation of the airstrikes, calling them a violation of Libyan sovereignty.
There is a danger that these aggressive responses to the Manchester and Minya attacks by Libyan factions and their allies will be interpreted as confirmation of the continued strength of ISIS in Libya, leading to calls for stronger counter-terror policies towards Libya. Yet this is simply not the case. Although ISIS maintains a presence in Libya, its influence in the country has been significantly weakened in recent months.
After several months of fighting, US airstrikes against Sirte in support of militias aligned with the GNA resulted in ISIS being evicted from the city in December 2016. This dealt ISIS a significant blow, particularly as it was also coming under increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, and undoubtedly reduced the group’s ability to expand into other territories or to mastermind coordinated attacks.
Many commanders and fighters fled Sirte and took refuge in the desert to the south; in recent weeks they appear to have been regrouping. There have been several minor attacks on water pipelines in southern Libya and in early May, ISIS social media accounts claimed responsibility for the ambush and hijacking of fuel trucks south of Sirte.
ISIS’ loss of territorial control in Libya means it is likely to change tactics, away from ‘state-building’ and towards more traditional guerilla-style tactics. As a result, high impact attacks such as those in Manchester and Minya may become more common.
ISIS was able to establish a foothold in Libya partly by exploiting well established links between local and global jihadi networks – for example many Libyans travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s to fight with the Afghan mujahideen – and partlyby taking advantage of endemic instability, conflict and marginalisation, in particular in neglected cities such as Sirte. Although ISIS was militarily defeated in Sirte in December 2016, the conditions for the city’s residents have barely improved as Sirte sits in the no-man’s land between Libya’s opposing political and military factions. If instability in Libya worsens, ISIS may regroup and could eventually retake territory in the city .
External intervention in support of certain Libyan factions, as with the Egyptian airstrikes, risks derailing the highly fragile political reconciliation process and potentially precipitating the entire country towards full-scale war, accelerating rather than solving the conditions that allow ISIS to thrive.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.