S. M. Carlson served as a terrorism expert with the U.S. government for more than twelve years, including with the Central Intelligence Agency and in Libya. She can be found on Twitter @smcarls1. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of Libya-Trained Terrorists’ External Attack Capability
Date Originally Written: June 23, 2017.
Date Originally Published: July 3, 2017.
Summary: Libyan terrorism is not new, nor are attacks conducted outside the country by terrorists that trained in Libya. The external attack capability is evolving, however. The most recent attacks in the United Kingdom highlight the changing threat posed by Libyan terrorists, trained fighters, and their capability and intent to reach into Europe. That threat extends beyond a single group.
Text: Libya-trained terrorists have conducted multiple deadly attacks in North Africa in recent years, but the May 2017 attack against a Manchester concert by a Briton of Libyan descent, who reportedly fought and possibly trained in Libya, was among the first major attacks with direct ties to Libya outside the region, since the 2011 intervention and death of Muammar al-Ghadafi.
Although a myriad of terrorist groups, extreme militias, and umbrella organizations operate in Libya due to the permissive environment there, the most well-known remains the Islamic State. Its fighters are capable of carrying out external attacks outside the region. The capability probably resides more with the trained fighters, rather than a single group, and likely does not require a top down structure.
Since 2011, other major external attacks specifically targeting Westerners include those in In Amenas, Algeria; Sousse, Tunisia; and Tunis, Tunisia. Terrorists reportedly staged or trained in Libya prior to all three attacks.
In January 2013, terrorists linked to al-Qa’ida conducted a multi-day siege, held hostages, and killed dozens in an attack against a gas plant in In Amenas, Algeria, close to the border with Libya. In June 2015, gunmen opened fire on tourists at a beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia, killing and injuring dozens, which the Islamic State claimed. In March 2015, gunmen opened fire at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, killing and injuring dozens, mostly tourists, which the Islamic State claimed.
The Islamic State, however, had gained a foothold in Libya prior to the attacks in Tunisia, announcing its presence there in late 2014. It quickly expanded and thrived in the lawlessness of Libya. Fighters flocked to the group. It created a stronghold in the city of Sirte.
The United Nations (UN)-backed Libyan government in late 2016 requested U.S. assistance in its fight against the group and it agreed, conducting hundreds of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the city. The terrorists fled the city and set up training camps nearby, where the group’s external plotters were reportedly planning operations against Europe. Two U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bombers then dropped more than 100 munitions on those camps, killing more than 80 Islamic State members in January.
The UN-backed government declared defeat over the Islamic State in Libya, but while the group had lost its stronghold, the remaining fighters dispersed. In the intervening months, Islamic State fighters began efforts to regroup and many warned the Islamic State in Libya was attempting to consolidate once again.
It is no longer attempting. The Islamic State branch in Libya is active once more, proving yet again that airstrikes alone cannot defeat terrorism. Strikes may be a useful tool, but they are not a long-term solution. The strikes did not entirely disrupt the group or experienced fighters that already left the country.
In May 2017, the remaining Islamic State in Libya fighters made their continued presence known and then the branch’s reach became apparent later that month on a global scale.
The Islamic State’s branch in Libya claimed an attack in Southern Libya in early May that killed two. Islamic State fighters also executed a man and clashed with a militia in the Bani Walid area in late May. These were some of the first attacks claimed by the group’s Libya branch since the airstrikes in December.
The Islamic State then claimed attacks in the United Kingdom in late May and early June 2017, both of which had Libya connections. Salman Abedi and Rachid Redouane were of Libyan descent and fought in Libya. Redouane, who helped kill and injure dozens in London in early June, reportedly fought with a militia in Tripoli that later sent jihadist fighters to Syria. Abedi, who killed and injured dozens at a concert in Manchester in May, reportedly met in Libya with Islamic State members also tied to the November 2015 Paris attack.
Abedi also reportedly fought in Ajdabiya in 2014, was injured, and taken to Turkey for treatment using a false passport. Italian investigators in April believed that an unspecified number of Islamic State fighters from Libya had entered Europe, in a similar manner to Abedi, as wounded Libyan fighters seeking medical treatment.
Therefore, even if the Islamic State were truly defeated in Libya today, the fatal ripple effect of its experienced fighters will likely be felt for years to come. In addition, the Islamic State reportedly has 500 fighters remaining, and possibly training, in Libya, but there are an estimated 3,000 more jihadists in the country.
The Islamic State is not the only terrorism problem in Libya. Only in the last three years have fighters in the country begun using the title of “Islamic State.” There were many terrorists groups in Libya before that, and many will likely come after it. The fighters flow between them.
The fighters frequently change groups and alliances based on a variety of factors at play in Libya. The groups themselves also change names, often to conceal extremist affiliation, ideology, or intent. That makes terrorist groups and fighting networks difficult to untangle.
From al-Qa’ida to Ansar al-Sharia (the group responsible for the 2012 Benghazi attacks) to the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (an umbrella group) to the Benghazi Defense Brigades (a rebranding), extremist groups in Libya adapt to the ever-changing environment there.
Defeating the Islamic State in Libya does not solve the country’s terrorism problem, as its experienced fighters retain the intent and capability of carrying out terrorist attacks.
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