August 2, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Targeting the Islamic State in Libya

• On August 1, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the Libyan city of Sirte.  

• The airstrikes, requested by the Libyan Government of National Accord, appear to be the beginning of a sustained military campaign.

• The U.S. has long planned to increase direct military action in Libya to prevent the Islamic State from further entrenching itself along the coast.

• Libya does not present the same growth potential for the Islamic State as Iraq and Syria, though systemic extremism and lawlessness ensure the group will linger in Libya for years.


The metastasizing nature of the so-called Islamic State has required the military effort to combat the group to grow alongside it. Though the U.S. has struck high-value targets in Libya before—most recently in February—it has not engaged in a sustained air campaign against the Islamic State in Libya. However, the announcement on August 1 of two airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in the coastal city of Sirte may be an indication that the operational tempo against the group in Libya is about to increase. The strikes came at the request of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been trying to battle the Islamic State while simultaneously attempting to navigate the numerous militias and armed rivals that make foreign intervention highly problematic.

For a time in late 2015, it appeared that the Islamic State was on the verge of making Sirte its de facto third capital after Mosul and Raqqa. Unlike Iraq and Syria, the environment in Libya has posed unique challenges for the Islamic State’s ‘fight everyone everywhere’ strategy; the lack of a sectarian wedge in Libya blunts the group’s appeal. Still, the Islamic State managed to take control of the important coastal city of Sirte in May 2015, and estimates of the group’s total strength in Libya ballooned to 4,000-6,000 fighters in April 2016.

To prevent another Raqqa or Mosul, the U.S., as well as France, the UK, and others, have spent months building liaison relationships with various militia and GNA forces. These relationships take time to build, as do intelligence gathering networks that can generate information accurate enough for targeting purposes. The August 1 strikes in Sirte indicate that cooperation and coordination has progressed to a level in which all parties are comfortable moving ahead. The scale and pace of any U.S. air campaign in Libya will not compare to those in Iraq or Syria, but comments made by U.S. officials indicate airstrikes will continue as the GNA seeks to gain footing in the fractured country.

The increased U.S. effort in Libya not only adds to the financial and operational costs of the war against the Islamic State; it adds another chapter to the contentious legal foundation upon which almost all U.S. counterterrorism operations have rested since September 2001. The August 1 strikes in Libya were authorized under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was passed seven days after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The AUMF states, in part:

‘That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.’

The linkage of Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya, in August 2016 to the al-Qaeda plotters in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2001, is tenuous at best. Such a link hinges on the early relationship between al-Qaeda central at the time of 9/11, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad, which would later become known as ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ (AQI)—but not until 2004. AQI would go on, after several mutations, to become the group currently known as the Islamic State. Thus, numerous degrees of separation exist between the Islamic State in Libya and the targets authorized under the 2001 AUMF, underscoring the legal quandary the Obama Administration has faced in its efforts to combat the Islamic State. While attempts to craft newer AUMF legislation more applicable to the current fight against the Islamic State have stalled, the military operations against the group continue to increase.


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