Despite victories against ISIS in cities such as Benghazi and Sirte, the militant threat in Libya remains prevalent due to the presence of sleeper cells across the country.
ISIS continues to be a threat to Libya despite major progress made against the militants over the course of 2016 and 2017. This warning comes from Libyan security officials who report that the militant group maintains a number of cells across the country and remains a formidable force in the deserts of Libya despite suffering defeat in cities such as Benghazi and Sirte.
The militant group first gained foothold in Libya in 2015, when it captured the city of Sirte, marking the third country after Iraq and Syria that the group openly controlled enough territory as part of its statehood claims. The group was ousted from Sirte mid-2016 thanks to the efforts of the militias affiliated with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Subsequently, the group managed to take over large swathes of Benghazi. The ISIS pocket there was defeated in 2017 thanks to the efforts of the Libyan National Army that is affiliated with the House of Representatives Government in Tobruk. In both instances, there were reports of large numbers of militants escaping into the deserts.
The divided nature of the anti-ISIS resistance and the existence of two mutually-exclusive governments in the country highlights the reasons why the ISIS threat has not been dealt with once and for all. Although the immediate threat of ISIS is able to garner attention, as soon as the group’s open presence comes to an end, the two sides turn their attention to each other. Furthermore, the lack of cooperation and country-wide governance creates just enough security vacuum for the militants to operate.
The results speak for themselves. Despite being secured from ISIS, the cities of Sirte and Benghazi continue to suffer from attacks from sleeper cells or raids from militants in the Libyan desert. The fact that cities that never fell to ISIS such as Misrata also suffer from attacks highlights the scale of the threat.
Officials warn that the threat is amplified due to the arrival of ISIS militants from Iraq and Syria due to the many defeats of the group there. Officials estimate that as many 7000 militants may have entered Libya, posing a threat to not just the country but the surrounding countries as well. With an ISIS insurgency also active in the neighbouring Egypt, instability in Libya poses a major threat to the whole region.