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Islamic State in Libya (ISL)

Introduction & Overview

The Islamic State in Libya (IS in Libya - ISL) is an extension of the Islamist militant organisation in Syria (ISIS) which formed in 2014. The group is present in three Libyan provinces and groups in Barqa (East), Fezzan (South) and Tripolitania (West) have pledged their allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Reuters, 2014). In a video from 2014, al-Baghdadi acknowledged the allegiance of these militant groups and declared them as wilayahs (administrative provinces) in Libya and they were given the authority to govern the territory that they held like a state, very similarly to the IS' branch in Syria (Watts, 2016). Operating from the 13th of November 2014 (date of allegiance) to the present day, they have been accused of a variety of human rights abuses including the mass murder of 21 Coptic Christians who had been kidnapped in Sirte (Al Jazeera, 2015). However, in 2016, following 2 years of attacks by Libyan Forces and United States airstrikes, the group suffered severe defeats and was eventually pushed out of several areas including Derna, Benghazi, and Sirte (Amara, 2016a).

History & Foundations

In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Libyan Civil War, many rebel fighters who had previously been fighting against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi left to fight with rebel organisations in Syria who were opposed to Bashar al-Assad and his government loyalists in the Syrian Civil War (BBC News Africa, 2014). One of these groups of Libyan fighters would in 2015 establish themselves as Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi, also known as the Battar Brigade (Wehrey and Alrababa’h, 2015). This group would go on to pledge their allegiance and subsequently go on to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria (Hummel, 2017). In early 2014 the aforementioned Battar Brigade returned to Libya and in particular the city of Derna where they formed a new faction called the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). They began fighting for influence with another militant group known as the Abu Salem Brigade and they eventually declared all out war on any opposing groups in Derna (Cruickshank et al., 2014). The IYSC eventually took control of the city of Derna and by pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they aligned themselves with ISIS and began establishing training camps surrounding the city and extending their influence along the coast (Michael, 2014).

Objectives & Ideology

The group follows the same ideological foundations as many ISIS offshoots found in the region and abroad, which is radical Salafism. They aim to develop the establishment of a global caliphate through armed Jihad and the replacement of democratic principles. Due to their scale as a local organisation, they follow similar objectives as other ISIS offshoots and the main organisation which they stem from. For instance, the group attempts to take over and control the region which they are present in, either by preying on already-existing instabilities (such as the Libyan civil war) or by preying on ethnic instability (such as in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa). Following their establishment in December of 2014, Islamic State recruiters instructed the Libyan branches of IS to focus on domestic attacks in order to take over more territory, and consequently complete their objectives within Libya (Bradley, 2015).

Military & Political Abilities

The group has extensive and similar military abilities to other ISIS offshoots, such as ISGS (ISIS Greater Sahara Province) and as such they have been able to establish themselves relatively assertively within Libya. These aforementioned capabilities include the use of small arms such as Ak-47s and HMG’s, such as the DShK HMG, which are often mounted on top of vehicles. Both of these are frequently spotted in images of the group. The group also makes use of suicide bombings in their course of action and this has demonstrated to be extremely effective. One example of this tactic in use is the suicide car bombing which killed five soldiers and two civilians at an army checkpoint in Benghazi (al-Warfalli, 2015). The group has also made use of extensive executions to establish its rule, such as the aforementioned execution of 21 Egyptian Copts in 2015. However, following clashes between the IS faction in Derna and their local rivals, the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna (DMSC) -- who were supported by the Libyan Air Force -- the Islamic State in Libya has begun to suffer setbacks. The group was eventually forced out of the city and into the countryside following intense fighting in the port city (BBC News Africa, 2016b). This has resulted in the group having to utilise its military capabilities in a different way to which they originally did, and they have resorted to more acts of terrorism, including the raiding and the attacking of checkpoints (Amara, 2016b).

Approach to Resistance

The group is extremely violent and has been accused of a variety of war crimes and human rights abuses in and around the territories which they controlled. When the port city of Derna was fully under their control, the football stadium in the city was used for public executions (Amnesty International UK, 2014). The group has a varied and extensive list of alleged violent attacks which they have claimed responsibility for, including the execution of two Tunisian journalists who had been kidnapped (Banco, 2015) as well as the suicide car bombing of a checkpoint in the southern Libyan city of Sebha in 2021 (Reuters, 2021). The group had also implemented Sharia law in the cities and provinces in which they were present within Libya, and this includes “imprisonment, amputations, public crucifixions and beheadings” as punishments for the ‘offences’ that the group believes people may of have committed (BBC News Africa, 2016a).

International Relations & Potential Alliances

Although it has limited relations with other groups within Libya in terms of alliances and agreements, the Islamic State in Libya receives quite substantial support from the central IS organisation. This comes in the form of the recognition which the group(s) achieved following the pledging of allegiance in 2014 and subsequently the IS in Libya have been described as one of its “locations with the most promise” (Zelin, 2015). Due to the Mediterranean migrant crisis and the extensive willingness by IS to use these migrants as weapons to overwhelm the Mediterranean governments (The Malta Independent, 2015), this has spurred action by national governments in the region into combatting IS in Libya directly. For instance, Italy and the United States use airstrikes and special operation forces to weaken and attack IS forces, notably killing the leader of the organisation in Libya during a US airstrike in November of 2015 (Associated Press, 2015).

Works Cited (MLA-style)

Al Jazeera (2015). ISIL video shows Christian Egyptians beheaded in Libya. [online] Available at:

al-Warfalli, A. (2015). Islamic State claims suicide bombing in Libya’s Benghazi. Reuters. [online] 25 Mar. Available at:

Amara, H. (2016). Libyan forces clear last Islamic State holdout in Sirte. Reuters. [online] 6 Dec. Available at:

Amnesty International UK (2014). Libya: shocking new video shows public execution in football stadium. [online] Available at:

Associated Press (2015). ISIS leader in Libya likely killed in US airstrike. [online] NYPOST. Available at:

Banco, E. (2015). ISIS Executes Tunisian Journalists. [online] International Business Times. Available at:

BBC News Africa (2014). Libya violence: Activists beheaded in Derna. BBC News. [online] 11 Nov. Available at:

BBC News Africa (2016a). Control and crucifixions: Life in Libya under IS. BBC News. [online] 3 Feb. Available at:

BBC News Africa (2016b). Islamic State ‘forced out’ of key Libyan city of Derna. BBC News. [online] 21 Apr. Available at:

Bradley, B.F. and M. (2015). Islamic State Gained Strength in Libya by Co-Opting Local Jihadists. Wall Street Journal. [online] 17 Feb. Available at:

Cruickshank, P., Robertson, N., Lister, T. and Karadsheh, J. (2014). ISIS comes to Libya. [online] CNN. Available at:

Hummel, K. (2017). The Islamic State’s Libyan External Operations Hub: The Picture So Far. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, [online] 10(11). Available at:

Michael, M. (2014). How a Libyan city joined the Islamic State group. [online] Available at:

Reuters (2014). Islamic State leader urges attacks in Saudi Arabia: speech. Reuters. [online] 13 Nov. Available at:

Reuters (2021). Blast kills two at southern Libya checkpoint. [online] Reuters. Available at:

The Malta Independent (2015). 11,000 migrants land in Italy in a week, ISIS had warned of sending over 500,000 - The Malta Independent. [online] Available at:

Watts, C. (2016). When The Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of the Islamic State’s Affiliates. [online] War on the Rocks. Available at:

Wehrey, F. and Alrababa’h, A. (2015). Rising Out of Chaos: The Islamic State in Libya. [online] Carnegie Middle East Center. Available at:

Zelin, A.Y. (2015). The Islamic State’s model. Washington Post. [online] 28 Jan. Available at:

Additional Resources

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