An Explosive Renewal of the Islamic State in Libya? (Guest Post)

An Explosive Renewal of the Islamic State in Libya? (Guest Post)

This is the first guest post on my website, written by the knowledgeable Calibre Obscura. As this topic revolves around IS’ use of SVBIEDs in Libya, my previous in-depth article on the topic is a good primer.

Late in the day on June 6th 2021, a local police facility on the edge of the town of Sebha was hit by a devastating SVBIED attack. The considerable explosion damaged multiple police vehicles, wounded five, and killed two men, including a local commander of the Criminal Investigative Division, Captain Ibrahim Abdel Nabi Mana’ Khayali. The event quickly reached headlines across Libya and by a day later, across the world. However, like many such incidents, the explosion merely blended into the news of the Middle East and within a couple of days was barely covered in Arabic-language outlets, let alone those in the West.

Despite this lack of coverage, or general interest in a conflict-torn area of the globe, especially one nominally controlled by the authoritarian General Haftar, this incident deserves a closer look. Within hours of the incident (Before 11pm BST), Telegram channels associated with the Islamic State delivered several messages about the attack; that it was the responsibility of the Islamic State in Libya, carried out by a foreign fighter named Muhammad al-Muhajir, and claiming in detail the human losses inflicted on the local police; “killing at least 4 of them, including an officer holding the position of head of the Criminal Investigation Division, and another officer holding the position of head of Administrative Affairs for the Division, in addition to wounding others”. This claim, which was soon bolstered by a similar statement from the group’s Amaq News Agency, was also accompanied by a still of the explosion from a distance down the long road from the attack site. This was then followed by a video of the attack from the same angle, and a rare photoset of the IS cell responsible, in which only the face of the attacker is not obscured.

This was absolutely remarkable, as the SVBIED attack was the first claim from the Islamic State in Libya in a year, and the first SVBIED attack claimed by the group in more than three years.

The disinterested observer may ask why any of this is notable. In isolation as a single car bomb, it is not. However, taking into account both local and global indications in the activity of the Islamic State, the incident deserves at the least closer analysis given subsequent events.

The Sebha SVBIED attack was followed by another, similar attack that largely went unnoticed, because it failed almost entirely. This second attack took place in similar circumstances, this time on the edge of the town of Zillah, approximately 350km North-East of Sebha. There, an LNA 128th Brigade checkpoint was targeted by a covert SVBIED based on a pickup truck in the morning of August 22nd, 2021. However, this time the attack failed, with the only resulting damage being a fire that burned the minor facility and a couple of adjacent vehicles. Why the SVBIED, which had a typical load of artillery shells, failed to successfully detonate is unclear. This may indicate that the local IS cell responsible for the attempt is inexperienced with SVBIED construction, and hence may have constructed a faulty device.

The driver of the vehicle, an unnamed man (but claimed by some local media to be of Sudanese origin), had exited the vehicle before the explosion occurred, and was subsequently shot by the LNA. He died shortly afterwards. For their part, the LNA claimed to have foiled the attack, whilst the Islamic State claimed the next day to have “detonated a car rigged with explosives at the checkpoint of the Taghut Haftar militia” causing the “destruction of the checkpoint and a number of vehicles” as well as “inflicting casualties”. Although it is common for parked VBIEDs to be employed by Non-State actors across the globe, it makes little sense to employ them against checkpoints through which traffic flows.

Whilst the IS claim is broadly accurate, it is notable that the group decided to quickly claim a bodged attack, overstating the damage caused; a few LNA personnel may have been lightly wounded at most. In IS’ weekly newsletter, al Naba, released 7 days later, the group went further; the possible attempted escape of the driver was presented as an Inghimasi attack. This claim is tenable, but does not appear to be accurate; local media does not show any weapons captured from the man, and neither does he appear to be wearing a magazine rig, a PBIED belt (As is typical for Inghimasi attackers) or anything that indicates he was anything but a covert suicide bomber presenting himself as a civilian. Hence, it appers that IS Central media apparatus has been instructed to artificially boost the significance of the attack. In reality, it can be stated with moderate confidence that either the bomber lost his nerve, or that the firing mechanism failed and he attempted to escape.

Whilst this attempt failed, it is worth consideration; Zillah is much further north in Libya than Sebha and could represent a resumption of IS activity in an area that it had not significantly operated in since April 2019. The Islamic State has been foiled in its attempts to make a comeback in Northern Libya after its 2016-era successes, by American airstrikes and CT efforts carried out by both the UN-recognised GNA and General Haftar’s LNA, most often the latter in Southern Libya. In September 2020, the LNA killed a man they identified as the leader of the Islamic State in Libya, “Abu Moaz al Iraqi”, a presumed Iraqi militant. This title is somewhat dubious, as was the broader situation surrounding the LNA raid on the safe house around the outskirts of Sebha.

What is less dubious is the multiple US airstrikes & CT operations across the South of the country that foiled the Islamic State’s first attempt to move to a kinetic stage in 2019. (This was via the well-worn tactic of the “roaming convoys, a subject for another post.) After late 2019 directions from Islamic State central command, quite possibly from the Caliph himself, IS Libya appears to have been instructed to play a supporting role for the operations of the Islamic State in the Lake Chad and Sahel areas (Now subsumed into “West Africa Province”), with conceivable linkage to the Sinai also. This supporting role has primarily involved the facilitation of the movement of manpower, funding and leadership directions from Iraq, Turkey and Syria to their branches many thousands of miles away. IS operatives recently arrested by the LNA and the GNA appear to have played roles in IS logistics and funding networks.

The non-Kinetic approach has prevented substantial CT pressure being brought to bear against IS operatives in Libya itself, and they have used their access to tribal and smuggling networks in the porous South to assist their compatriots. It would be unusual for a covert network to decide to bring such attention to itself as to damage this arrangement, unless overruled by a higher authority: the higher ranks of the Islamic State. Such a command would also be unexpected given the usual deference given by IS-C to local concerns and method of operation, unless very senior leadership gave the command. The construction and use of a traditional covert SVBIED is not without its costs, both financial and most obviously human, so this attack can be presumed to be intended as a clear statement, even if that statement has been ignored by the wider world. Whilst local operatives can (and do) carry out targeted killings of “problematic” local officials, these killings are usually covert, low cost, and often unclaimed, such as a small IED (For example, IS claimed to ambush/destroy an LNA convoy in al-Fuqaha on June 14th) or close range assassination. An SVBIED with a valuable foreign fighter is another matter entirely, let alone two.

These attacks should also be seen in their wider context. In the late stages of IS’ Ramadan campaign, an isolated claim of an attack in Diyala/Iraq threatened that IS wold strike “where you feel safe”. Since that statement, a previously denied ISIS VBIED in the city of Mosul was claimed with very rare video footage, an IED detonated in the “secure” area of Kadhimiya (Baghdad), and a catastrophic suicide bombing took place in a Sadr City market on July 19th. Whilst most of these “non core” attacks weren’t particularly significant in terms of casualties, it may be an indicator that the Islamic State leadership has urged action in unexpected areas. An ongoing IS campaign to infiltrate regional capitals in Iraq is known, and multiple attack plots were foiled in Erbil in recent months; another area known to be a subject of intense IS efforts to carry out mass-casualty actions.

Whether these attacks or attempts are related to a global campaign is unknown. However, given the very rapid & detailed claim of the SVBIED which killed those policemen in the desert, now almost forgotten, it can be assessed with high confidence that the Islamic State Central leadership valued the attack, intending it to carry significance. So far in 2021, the Islamic State in Libya has had a mere 50% success rate for the use of VBIED against the LNA; cells out in the deserts may well be working to increase that percentage.

If you enjoyed this article and have an interest in anything related to small-arms, check out Calibre Obscura’s website and twitter feed. Alternatively, you can donate to him here.

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