August 19, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s New Mediterranean Capital

• The so-called Islamic State has managed to gain full control of the key Libyan city of Sirte, turning it into its capital much as it did in Raqqa and Mosul

• The group recently crushed an attempted uprising by local leaders, killing 57 people—some through crucifixion and beheading

• The situation is severe enough that the Arab League met on August 18 and agreed on the need for a military response—though details were lacking

• The central location of Sirte places the group in a powerful position to expand west towards Tripoli and east towards Benghazi, though there are formidable militias and groups opposed to its presence.


The Islamic State has effectively established a capital on the Mediterranean Sea in the Libyan city of Sirte, to go along with its proclaimed capital cities in Raqqa,Syria and Mosul, Iraq. As examined in an August 6 paper by the Washington Institute, the group has taken firm control of the centrally located city, presenting a serious threat to a country already reeling from armed conflict and chaos. The situation in Sirte has worsened in recent weeks, and the Islamic State has exhibited its trademark brutality in spectacular fashion.

One of the key assumptions of the current anti-Islamic State strategy—particularly in Iraq and Syria—is that local populations would rise up against the group’s rule. This is an assumption that has been proven wrong for over a year, and has now proven tragic in Sirte. An attempted uprising by locals opposed to the presence of the Islamic State led to the deaths of at least 57 people, most of them from the Farjan tribe. After the clashes, the Islamic State kidnapped 12 tribal leaders and publicly beheaded and crucified them—a shocking low for a country long torn apart by violence. The violence was enough that Libya's internationally recognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, called on the international community to help combat the Islamic State, saying his country lacked the capability to do so on its own.

The situation is alarming enough that the Arab League met on August 18 to discuss possible responses. The group approved the use of force in theory, but did not provide details as to what a military response would entail. Airstrikes are likely, given that Egypt previously carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Libya after the videotaped beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on the shores of the Mediterranean in February. Egypt has called for support in re-arming the Libyan government, while Algeria, which shares a border with Libya, labeled the situation in Sirte a possible threat to the entire region. Airstrikes might blunt the Islamic State’s momentum but, as seen in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—to name just a few examples—airstrikes will not solve the problem, and tend to drag on with compounding negative unintended consequences.

As noted in a February 6 IntelBrief, the Islamic State is determined to establish a meaningful and lasting presence in Libya, and this determination will need to be matched by regional and international parties in order to avoid further catastrophe. In the six months since that IntelBrief, the situation in Libya has fluctuated, but not improved. The Islamic State was pushed out of its eastern stronghold in Derna, but has more than made up for that loss with its seizure of Sirte. It is consolidating its power more effectively now, in part by taking a page out of its Iraq manual. The group is incorporating former Qadhafi loyalists into its ranks much as it did former supporters of Saddam Hussein. Their influence is magnified in Sirte, which is the hometown of Qadhafi, and fertile ground for recruitment by the Islamic State.

The situation in Libya will need the sustained attention of an international community already struggling with crisis fatigue. There are no easy solutions in Libya, a country that has two competing governments and countless warring militias and terrorist groups. The group has demonstrated a highly successful pattern of seizing, consolidating, and expanding. This pattern of expansion and brutality will continue unless countered by an effective Libyan government aided by sustained international assistance. Unfortunately for Libya and the region, neither of those two requirements—a unified stable Libya and a fully engaged international community—are likely anytime soon.


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