LIBYA Loss of Sirte will weaken Islamic State significantly, although group could attempt one-off major attack to protect credibility

The Misratan militia announced that it had defeated Islamic State (IS) in Sirte and seized full control of the city on 6 December, though it said that it will take time for residents to return in large numbers because of the threat posed by unexploded devices. The Misratans launched their campaign to capture IS’s Sirte stronghold in early June and have been assisted in their efforts to defeat the group by US air strikes.

The fact that it took around six months for the Misratans to take control of the city illustrates the degree to which IS entrenched itself in Sirte, preferring to use large numbers of trained fighters to defend the city rather than relocate them elsewhere. This is because the group likely calculated that abandoning Sirte, part of its so-called Caliphate, could cause severe harm to its reputation and its ability to recruit regional jihadists – something that would damage its efforts to compete with al-Qaeda across North Africa.

We believe that hundreds of IS jihadists, many of whom were Tunisian nationals, have died in the six month-long offensive against Sirte, and so the city’s loss represents a significant blow to the group. The defeat will also weaken IS’s capabilities in Libya considerably, as the group now no longer has a secure stronghold from which to orchestrate attacks and direct the group’s strategy in the country. The group’s other bases, in particular Sabratah in the West and Sebha in the South, as well as its presence in Tripoli, will therefore become more important for IS’s operations in Libya.

That said, local tribes in Sirte fiercely opposed the Misratans in the past, and on 12 December local municipal councillors elected a Mayor who is reportedly close to Haftar – one of the Misratans’ rivals. Some tribal leaders in Sirte may therefore be willing to co-operate with jihadists against the militia as it attempts to assert its authority over the city. The risk of jihadist attacks in Sirte will consequently persist, which will undermine the GNA’s ability to establish full control over, and introduce stability to, the city in the coming months. Nonetheless, the fact that the IS presence there comprised so many foreign fighters indicates that it will struggle to rebuild its capacity quickly, as it will need to recruit from across the region, at a time when IS has not only been forced from its stronghold in Libya, but is also coming under growing pressure in Iraq and Syria.

IS is now under pressure to demonstrate its credibility and protect its recruitment efforts and may look to do so by carrying out a high-profile strike in Libya. There is consequently a heightened risk that the group will seek to use its reduced capabilities to conduct a major attack in the coming weeks. Potential targets will likely include GNA-linked interests in Tripoli, Misratan forces and possibly energy infrastructure. IS will struggle to strike the well-defended oil ports and terminals due to effective security measures at these sites, and so may instead consider targeting oil and gas pipelines in southern and western Libya.

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