Why Defeating Da’esh in Sirte is Not Enough

Da’esh-Affiliated Fighting Forces in Libya

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The full article by Emily Estelle is published below.


معهد دراسات يحذر من أن القضاء على داعش سرت لا يعني إنتهاء التنظيم

ليبيا24- وكالات

قال معهد «أميركان إنتربرايز» للدراسات في مقال له إن تركز المعركة ضد «داعش» على تحرير مدينة سرت دون استراتيجية واضحة لمحاربته في باقي المدن سيكون بمثابة «انتصار عسكري منعزل»، وسيتعافى التنظيم من خسارة سرت وسيستمر في تهديد شمال أفريقيا وأوروبا من مناطق أخرى داخل ليبيا.

ورأت كاتبة المقال الباحثة، إميلي استل، أن «الهجوم ضد سرت ليس بالشيء المفاجئ بالنسبة للتنظيم فهو يستعد منذ فترة بوضع خطة لتعويض خسارته، فهدف التنظيم هو الاستمرار داخل ليبيا حتى وإن كان ذلك يعني عدم التشبث بمدينة سرت، وهي الطريقة نفسها التي اتبعها التنظيم لتعويض خسارته في سورية والعراق».

ورجحت الكاتبة أن يقوم التنظيم بنقل قواته إلى جنوب ليبيا، في حالة خسر مدينة سرت، خاصة وأنها «ملاذٍ آمن يستطيع التنظيم من خلالها الاستمرار في تنفيذ الهجمات.

وطالب المقال الإدارة الأميركية والقوى الغربية بوضع استراتيجية مفصلة للقضاء على تنظيم «داعش» في مدينة سرت وجميع المدن التي يتواجد فيها داخل ليبيا وشمال أفريقيا، لأن انسحاب «داعش» من سرت وحدها لن يضمن حماية المصالح الأميركية في الإقليم.


ISIS’s Courses of Action – Out of Sirte

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Key Takeaway: ISIS is laying the groundwork to abandon Sirte and will then pursue an alternate course of action to continue its campaign in North Africa without its Libyan stronghold. ISIS will most likely seek to build a safe haven in southwestern Libya, but it also has the dangerous option to escalate its campaign in neighboring Tunisia.

Introduction:

The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS) affiliate in Libya is facing a multi-pronged offensive in Sirte, its stronghold on the central Libyan coast. It may be preparing to withdraw from the city. Libyan and international actors will trumpet this loss as a major victory. Losing its North African hub will be a major setback for ISIS in Libya; however, it is also an opportunity for the group to open new fronts in North Africa. The coming offensive on Sirte has been apparent for some time, and ISIS’s seasoned military planners will have prepared for it.[1] ISIS will pursue a course of action designed to mitigate the loss of Sirte and allow it to continue to operate in Libya, and maybe even extend its campaign to neighboring states.

ISIS’s Strategic Objectives in Libya:

ISIS seeks to maintain and expand its caliphate in Libya, especially in urban centers; prevent the reconstitution of a strong Libyan state; expand its area of influence in the region; and set conditions to expand its caliphate to Tunisia and Algeria. ISIS must maintain the ability to operate in Libya in order to pursue these objectives.

Current Situation:

ISIS took control of Sirte in early 2015.[2] It has since become ISIS’s North African hub—home to senior leadership from Iraq and Syria, a base for conventional military power, and a safeguard for ISIS’s legitimacy, which rests on governing a territorial caliphate.[3] ISIS has struggled to take full control of Sirte’s population and continues to falter in its efforts to govern the city, however.[4]

Libya’s armed factions are converging on Sirte. General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is moving toward Sirte from the east, and its allies are advancing on the city from the southwest. Misratan militias are also advancing toward Sirte from the west.[5] An offensive to retake Sirte, though it may be interrupted by political conflicts within Libya, is only a matter of time.[6] The force numbers that will mobilize to Sirte, the level of coordination between Libya’s armed forces, and the character and extent of international support for anti-ISIS operations remain in question. Support from the West will likely include training, equipment, intelligence, and possibly air power.[7]

ISIS is reacting to the LNA and Misratan mobilizations by deploying fighters to the eastern and western limits of its coastal territory, booby-trapping the outskirts of Sirte with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and fortifying sniper positions in and around the city.[8] ISIS has also sent convoys—reportedly carrying leadership—out of Sirte and toward the Fezzan region in the southwestern Libyan desert, which is already a Salafi-jihadi safe haven.[9]

Forecast:

ISIS is approaching a decision point in Sirte. It would choose, ideally, to hold the city, both as a failsafe for territorial losses in Iraq and Syria and as a support zone for its larger North Africa campaign. Should Sirte come under significant pressure, however, ISIS will likely prioritize retaining a sustainable regional base of operations in Libya over making a final stand for the coastal city.

ISIS draws its strength from the ability to claim governance over population centers.[10] Sirte is ISIS’s first capital outside of Iraq and Syria and a safeguard for the group’s ideological legitimacy.[11] ISIS is not currently at risk of losing its capitals in Iraq and Syria, Raqqa and Mosul, however, making Sirte less critical for its survival in the near term.[12] ISIS is thus more likely to treat Sirte more like Palmyra, Ramadi, or Tikrit, where it fought hard but ultimately executed tactical retreats when holding the cities became untenable.[13] ISIS also fought for its first Libyan stronghold, Derna, before relinquishing it in June 2015.[14] It attempted to reclaim territory from a base on the outskirts of Derna until April 2016, when anti-ISIS operations mounted in Derna and the group withdrew its fighting force to Sirte to preserve it.[15]

There are indicators that ISIS is preparing to abandon Sirte. The deployment of fighters to the limits of ISIS’s control is likely meant to fix enemy forces along frontlines. This positioning, along with the fortification of sniper positions and heavy IED emplacement, would allow ISIS to fight a preliminary battle to impose costs on LNA and Misratan forces and then safeguard the rapid withdrawal of its fighting force from Sirte. ISIS has used IED emplacement to slow its pursuers in Iraq, Syria, and most recently, in Derna, Libya.[16] It will likely launch a campaign of asymmetric and mass-casualty attacks in order to fix its enemies in place and facilitate withdrawal, as it has done in other theaters; and an ISIS leader in Sirte has already announced the group’s plans to conduct such a campaign on Libyan oil infrastructure and population centers.[17] ISIS has also laid the groundwork for leaving Sirte by opening ground lines of communication (GLOCs) from Sirte into the Fezzan region.[18] These indicators mirror ISIS’s prior use of controlled withdrawal when faced with enemy offensives in Iraq and Syria.[19]

The timeline for this withdrawal is not clear, and it remains dependent on ISIS’s own assessment of its ability to hold Sirte. Indicators that ISIS will not withdraw from Sirte include ISIS’s successful fixing of enemy forces at the edges of its control zone, explosive attacks behind enemy lines, continued ISIS leadership presence in Sirte, continued governance activities inside Sirte, and the deployment of ISIS reinforcements to Sirte. It is also possible that ISIS will withdraw temporarily or intermittently from Sirte, as it did in Baiji, and then return if the holding force is insufficient.[20] Indicators for this course of action include the movement of ISIS’s fighting forces to neighborhoods south of Sirte, an uptick in ISIS attacks on holding forces during troop rotations, and attacks on key infrastructure in the vicinity of Sirte.

ISIS’s Possible Courses of Action (COAs)

The following COAs are derived from the assessed possibility that ISIS will ultimately conduct a controlled withdrawal from Sirte. The first is ISIS’s most likely course of action (MLCOA), and the second is ISIS’s most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) according to U.S. national security interests.

MLCOA – ISIS Develops Safe Haven in Fezzan

ISIS is most likely to move the bulk of its fighters into Fezzan in southwestern Libya after withdrawing from Sirte. It could develop a safe haven there with little resistance, from which it would pursue lines of effort to derail the formation of a strong Libyan state, setting the conditions for its return to the Libyan coast.

ISIS’s primary line of effort would be expanding its area of operations in Fezzan. This would require ISIS to make deals with some local tribes and marginalize others, as well as secure checkpoints on key GLOCs throughout the region. ISIS will likely pursue a secondary campaign of asymmetric attacks aimed at undermining the incipient unity government, using attack cells in northwestern and northeastern Libya. This line of effort would include explosive attacks and raids on oil infrastructure meant to cripple state finances. ISIS could also conduct mass casualty attacks on soft targets in population centers, especially in Tripoli and Misrata, to discourage public confidence in the new government.

This COA gives ISIS the opportunity to extend its influence in Libya’s neighbors. ISIS would use a safe zone in the Fezzan to support attack cells operating in Tunisia and Algeria. There are more dangerous variations of this COA in which ISIS seizes a population center in the southwest, possibly Ubari, which would provide it with an alternate source of revenue and safeguard its ideological legitimacy.[21] ISIS could also use a safe haven in Fezzan to support a campaign in the Sahel region, including cross-border attacks on French and U.S. basing in northern Niger.

MDCOA – ISIS Doubles Down on Tunisia

ISIS seeks to expand its caliphate to Tunisia. ISIS will most likely withdraw from Sirte to the south and west, giving its primary fighting force in Libya access to the Tunisian border and pre-existing support zones in the region.[22] It may therefore use the loss of Sirte as an opportunity to double down on Tunisia, where it seeks to declare a wilayat.[23]

ISIS’s primary effort would be a cross-border offensive aimed at seizing territory in Tunisia, similar to its March 2016 attack on Ben Guerdane but with a larger force.[24] The group could augment its attack cell in northwestern Libya to target an eastern Tunisian population center, or attack softer targets in Tunisia’s remote south. ISIS could also, more dangerously, utilize its Libya-based combat power, expertise, and resources to spark a Salafi-jihadi insurgency inside Tunisia, using networks it already has. These networks include a Tunisia-focused cell in northwestern Libya, support zones inside of Tunisia, and an extensive network of Tunisian ISIS militants currently based in Libya.[25] A sustained ISIS-led campaign in Tunisia would pose a grave threat to the Tunisian regime and set conditions for ISIS to seize territory in the country’s underdeveloped central provinces.

ISIS would likely pursue a secondary line of effort of asymmetric attacks against state or economic institutions and population centers in northern Tunisia to further destabilize the state. It would also pursue a line of effort within Libya to derail the unification of the Libyan government, thus preserving its support zone in Libya.  ISIS would also seek to deter Western intervention in both Tunisia and Libya, possibly by attacking U.S. or allied military targets in those countries and basing in neighboring countries, like Niger.[26]

Conclusion

Sirte is an important asset for ISIS in Libya, but it is not required for the group to achieve its objectives. It is dangerous to cast the loss of Sirte as the sole key to defeating ISIS in Libya. ISIS has planned and will prosecute a strategy to mitigate the loss of Sirte and open up new fronts, as it did with the loss of Derna. Treating ISIS’s withdrawal from Sirte as an unqualified victory risks obscuring its ability to pursue new, and possibly more dangerous, courses of action in North Africa.

Charles Cohn contributed to this piece.


[1] For analysis of ISIS’s military planning capabilities, see: Jessica D. Lewis, “The Islamic State: A Counter-strategy for a Counter-state,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2014, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/islamic-state-counter-strategy-counter-state.
[2] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Burgeoning Capital in Sirte, Libya,” The Washington Institute, August 6, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-states-burgeoning-capital-in-sirte-libya.
[3] Emily Estelle and Katherine Zimmerman, “Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya,” AEI Critical Threats Project, March 3, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/libya/estelle-zimmerman-backgrounder-fighting-forces-in-libya-march-3-2016; and Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman, “U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, Report Three: Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength,” AEI Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War, February 2016, http://post.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/PLANEX%20Report%203%20FINAL.pdf.”
[4] “Islamic State fighters in Libya doubled but militias check growth: U.S.,” Reuters, April 7, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-islamic-state-libya-usa-idUSKCN0X42IT; “Bodies of two Daesh members found in Sirte,” al Wasat, April 26, 2016, http://www.alwasat.ly/ar/news/libya/103937/ [Arabic]; and “Sirte.. Displacement for money, and the fate is unknown,” Akhbar Libya, April 28, 2016, http://www.akhbar-libya.ly/libya-news/56677.html [Arabic].
[5] Moutaz Ali and Jamal Adel, “IS Sirte heartland facing three-pronged LNA and Misratan attack,” Libya Herald, April 26, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/04/26/is-sirte-heartland-facing-three-pronged-lna-and-misratan-attack/.
[6] “Libya, the government demands a halt to anti-ISIS offensive on Sirte,” La Stampa, April 28, 2016, http://www.lastampa.it/2016/04/28/esteri/libia-il-governo-chiede-di-fermare-offensiva-antiisis-su-sirte-XZD5RPfm2SGSLt7DhylNDO/pagina.html [Italian].
[7] “British ground troops could go to Libya, says Philip Hammond,” The Guardian, April 24, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/24/british-ground-troops-could-go-to-libya-says-philip-hammond.
[8] “Eyewitnesses: Daesh convoy moves toward the south and another towards Harawa,” Akhbar Libya, April 26, 2016, http://www.akhbar-libya.ly/libya-news/55498.html [Arabic]; “Airstrike on a concentration of Daesh elements at Gate 60 west of Sirte,” al Wasat, April 27, 2016, http://www.alwasat.ly/ar/news/libya/103982/ [Arabic]; “Airstrike on a concentration of Daesh elements at Gate 60 west of Sirte,” al Wasat; “ISIS in Sirte cuts electricity on the coastal road and executes two in Sirte,” al Wasat, April 28, 2016, http://www.alwasat.ly/ar/news/libya/104149/.
[9] “Eyewitnesses: Daesh convoy moves toward the south and another towards Harawa,” Akhbar Libya; and Gen. Carter Ham, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 7, 2013.
[10] Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman, “U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, Report Three: Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength.”
[11] Claire Coyne, Emily Estelle, Harleen Gambhir, “ISIS’s Campaign in Libya: January 4-February 19, 2016,” AEI Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War, http://www.criticalthreats.org/libya/coyne-estelle-gambhir-isis-campaign-in-libya-february-19-2016.
[12] Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman, “U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, Report Three: Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength.”
[13] “Scores of Syrian troops killed in ISIS-led car bomb attacks near ancient Palmyra,” ARA News, March 28, 2016, http://aranews.net/2016/03/scores-syrian-troops-killed-isis-led-car-bomb-attacks-near-ancient-palmyra/; Lawrence Bonk, “ISIS Flee Tikrit…And Leave Behind Bombs And Booby Traps,” Independent Journal Review, April 28, 2016, http://www.ijreview.com/2015/04/286914-isis-flees-tikrit-cowardly-leave-behind-bombs-booby-traps/; and Matt Bradley and Ghassan Adnan, “Islamic State Militants Flee Ramadi Stronghold Amid Iraqi Offensive,” The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-militants-flee-ramadi-stronghold-amid-iraqi-offensive-1451232693.
[14] “ISIS Loses Libyan Stronghold,” Institute for the Study of War, June 24, 2015, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/isis-loses-libyan-stronghold.
[15] “24 youths killed in Derna in only two days,” al Wasat, April 23, 2016, http://www.alwasat.ly/ar/news/libya/103522/ [Arabic]; and Ayman al Warfalli, “Islamic State in retreat around east Libyan city: military,” Reuters, April 20, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-idUSKCN0XH27H.
[16] “24 youths killed in Derna in only two days,” al Wasat; and Ayman al Warfalli, “Islamic State in retreat around east Libyan city: military,” Reuters.
[17] Emily Estelle and Katherine Zimmerman, “Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya;” and Jessica Lewis McFate, “The ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy,” Institute for the Study of War, May 2015, http://understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISIS%20Defense%20in%20Iraq%20and%20Syria%20–%20Standard.pdf; “Daesh is ready to target Tripoli and oil ports,” al Wasat, April 26, 2016, http://www.alwasat.ly/ar/news/libya/103945/ [Arabic].
[18] For example, ISIS’s efforts to open checkpoints south of Sirte: “Daesh controls Khashum al Khail gate south of Sirte,” al Wasat, April 8, 2016, http://www.alwasat.ly/ar/news/libya/101884/; the re-appearance of ISIS Wilayat Fezzan in southwestern Libya: “Previously-dormant IS province in Libya claims attack on soldiers, capturing officer,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 12, 2016, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; reported ISIS deployment near southwestern Libyan oil fields: Chris Stephen and Patrick Wintour, “Libya UN envoy calls for west’s help in anti-ISIS fight ahead of summit,” The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/21/libya-un-envoy-calls-for-wests-help-in-anti-isis-fight-ahead-of-summit; and ISIS’s shipment of weapons to Boko Haram across Libya’s southern border: Helene Cooper, “Boko Haram and ISIS Are Collaborating More, U.S. Military Says,” New York Times, April 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/21/world/africa/boko-haram-and-isis-are-collaborating-more-us-military-says.html.
[19] See ISIS’s March 2016 retreat from Palmyra: “Scores of Syrian troops killed in ISIS-led car bomb attacks near ancient Palmyra,” ARA News.
[20] Sinan Adnan, “Iraq Situation Report: August 25-27, 2015,” Institute for the Study of War, August 27, 2015, http://www.understandingwar.org/map/iraq-situation-report-august-25-27-2015.
[21] Chris Stephen and Patrick Wintour, “Libya UN envoy calls for west’s help in anti-ISIS fight ahead of summit,” The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/21/libya-un-envoy-calls-for-wests-help-in-anti-isis-fight-ahead-of-summit; and Claire Coyne, Emily Estelle, Harleen Gambhir, “ISIS’s Campaign in Libya: January 4-February 19, 2016.
[22] Emily Estelle, “Desknote: ISIS’s Tunisian attack cell in Libya,” AEI Critical Threats Project, March 8, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/libya/estelle-desknote-isiss-tunisian-attack-cell-libya-march-7-2016; and Gen. Carter Ham, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 7, 2013.
[23]See discussion of ISIS’s efforts in Tunisia in the eight issue of the group’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, entitled “Shari’ah alone will rule Africa,” March 2015. Available from the Clarion Project: http://media.clarionproject.org/files/islamic-state/isis-isil-islamic-state-magazine-issue+8-sharia-alone-will-rule-africa.pdf.
[24] Tarek Amara, “Militants attack Tunisian forces near Libyan border, 50 killed,” Reuters, March 7, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-security-idUSKCN0W90J6.
[25] Emily Estelle, “Desknote: ISIS’s Tunisian attack cell in Libya;” “Update and Assessment: April 20, 2016,” AEI Critical Threats Project, April 19, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/threat-update/april-20-2016; and Alessandria Masi, “Islamic State’s ‘Caliphate’ In Libya Depends On Tunisian Foreign Fighters And Desert Training Camps,” February 20, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/islamic-state-caliphate-libya-depends-tunisian-foreign-fighters-desert-training-camps-1822318.
[26] Asma Ajroudi, “Will Tunisia Host a U.S. Base to Fight ISIS in Libya?” Al Arabiya, July 23, 2015, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2015/07/23/Will-Tunisia-host-a-U-S-base-to-fight-ISIS-in-Libya-.html; Larisa Brown, “British soldiers are deployed to Tunisia to help stop Islamic State crossing the Libyan border,” Daily Mail, February 29, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3469979/British-soldiers-deployed-Tunisia-help-stop-ISIS-crossing-border.html; and Randeep Ramesh, “SAS deployed in Libya since start of year, says leaked memo,” The Guardian, March 25, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/25/sas-deployed-libya-start-year-leaked-memo-king-abdullah.