The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya


1. Brutality Backfires

Our data show that, over the last three years, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has become the enemy of the vast majority of the Libyan people. By killing too many people and brutally crushing resistance, ISIS first lost Derna and in December 2016, lost Sirte. This fits into a larger regional dynamic, where ISIS brutality occasions backlashes: ISIS lost in Yemen because they were too brutal and acted against tribal norms, undermining their ability to compete with more established groups like al-Qaeda. Furthermore, in Libya, ISIS has been doubly challenged by its inability to rely on sectarian cleavages to marshal support from the Sunni population as it has done in Iraq and Syria.

2. Statelessness Created ISIS

There is no such thing as a purely military strategy to defeat ISIS. ISIS is a symptom of broader Libyan problems, especially weak governance. The tyranny exercised by Libyan militias has been at the heart of Libya’s instability for the past five years. It constituted a major contributing factor to the environment that attracted ISIS in the first place. Therefore, international and Libyan policy needs to treat root causes. Any anti-ISIS strategy for Libya must include a plan for bolstering Libyan institutions and dealing with Libya’s militia menace. Merely evicting ISIS from Sirte has not and will not solve any of these underlying problems as ISIS cells maintain a presence in Libya and their ideology persists. Libya’s ongoing statelessness allows it to be used as a training ground and communications hub for ISIS to project power abroad. The unique effectiveness of Libya’s governance vacuum as an incubator for jihadist operations was showcased to devastating effect with the May 22, 2017, Manchester Arena bombing. To rebuild Libya, militias must be folded into civic life—their functions professionalized through new, coherent security institutions. Now that ISIS has lost its territorial control of Sirte, Western governments should provide further support for efforts to formalize, institutionalize, and restructure Libya’s security institutions.

3. Necessity to Decentralize Authority

ISIS was allowed to thrive in vulnerable localities in Libya because previous central governments have been reluctant to devolve power to local authorities. Western policy must seek to get the militias and local councils to take ownership of governance and justice issues, rather than merely directing them to fight ISIS or other jihadists. The governance of Sirte in the aftermath of liberation from ISIS control is a case in point.

4. Marginalization in Libyan Society Enabled ISIS

ISIS has been able to exploit, and seek refuge within, communities that suffered in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. Communities vulnerable to ISIS’s exploitation have included both pro-Qaddafi elements and more radical elements of those militias that supported the uprisings. True national reconciliation and inclusiveness in Libya, especially between formerly pro-Qaddafi actors and rebels and between anti-Islamist and pro-Islamist actors, is required to end the pattern of radicalization in Libya. This can be achieved by building a genuine reconciliation process into any new unity government plan and into the new Libyan constitution.

"ISIS is a symptom of Libya's underlying disease: lack of governance. . . Treating the cause of Libya’s instability, and not just its symptoms, requires targeted capacity-building programs that empower Libyan actors to fill the vacuums that have allowed for jihadist expansion."

Heavy fighting in Sirte in 2011 left much of the city in ruins. Photo credit: European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr.

Recommendations: A Purely Counter-Terror Approach To ISIS in Libya Is Insufficient

Targeted Capacity-building Programs to Fill Power Vacuum Exploited by ISIS

ISIS is a symptom of Libya's underlying disease: lack of governance. The country does not require nation-building assistance writ large, nor does it need injections of development aid. Treating the cause of Libya’s instability, and not just its symptoms, requires targeted capacity-building programs that empower Libyan actors to fill the vacuums that have allowed for jihadist expansion. In its assistance efforts, Western actors, including the United States, should be wary and mitigate the risks of becoming embroiled in the complex environment.

If the United States continues to prioritize countering ISIS globally and containing the migrant crisis, it will need to focus on Libya more than it has in the past. Foreign assistance budgets are expected to tighten under the Trump administration; however, while prioritizing Libya’s jihadist threat will require more funding, the challenge for the US government will be deciding shrewdly where to allocate scarce resources for maximum impact. In the current foreign assistance climate, the United States will likely only be spending money in Libya on projects that are perceived as having a direct bearing on US national security interests. To date, these have been viewed in counter-terror terms. We counsel that the current view of US national interests be expanded to include governance, especially at the local level, in Libya.

Jihadist organizations have been able to survive and thrive in Libya because they offer governance functions to a population that is starved for them. Even if ISIS fades as a phenomenon, other jihadist groups will persist and will likely continue to control pockets of territory as the Benghazi and Derna Revolutionary Shura Councils currently do, even as they come under increasing pressure from Haftar’s forces in early 2017.

ISIS provided more extensive governance than any of its jihadist competitors in Libya. It was uniquely brutal because it was not really run by Libyans and was oblivious to their social and cultural sensitivities. This was more responsible for its demise than any anti-ISIS military offensives, airstrikes, or special operations. As ISIS’s direct territorial threat fades, policy makers must ask how a new framework of decentralized Libyan governance can be encouraged to prevent ISIS, and similar groups, from reemerging. Only a national governance solution that takes into account local Libyan particularities can diffuse the appeal of jihadist groups, while building Libyan political, social, and military mechanisms to contain them.

Throughout 2015 and early 2016, ISIS failed to establish itself as a significant player outside of Sirte and its environs. It was only a brief interloper in Derna and Sabratha. Although ISIS successfully played the role of spoiler throughout Libya, it was never the sole, most deeply-rooted, or even most militarily powerful jihadist group in Libya. It follows that international efforts to return Libya to peace and prosperity should not focus on ISIS exclusively or be curtailed in ISIS’s wake. Instead, foreign governments should seek to help Libyan-led efforts to eradicate the existence of a permissive environment for jihadist recruitment, training, and territorial control. This can only be achieved by ameliorating the causes of conflict between Libya’s mainstream groups and not by supporting one faction over another. It is critical that Libyans recognize that these mainstream groups include members of tribes and residents of cities perceived as loyal to Qaddafi. Any solution—such as the 2013 Political Isolation Law—that institutionalizes these groups as second class citizens will be perennially unstable.

Map 1. Map showing control of Libya and location of ISIS attacks as of May 2015.

Decentralization and Power Sharing Can Tackle Zero-Sum Mentality & Contribute to Stabilization

Decentralization and power sharing can tackle Libya’s “winner-takes-all” mentality and contribute to the nation’s stabilization by empowering Libyans at the local level to take their destiny into their own hands. Libyan municipality-based organizations, whether they are local councils, business elites, or militias have consistently outperformed national entities and should be seen as “successes to build on” rather than “obstacles to be overcome.”[1]

To prevent ISIS’s resurgence, the international community must focus on combating the political, security, and governance vacuum in Libya. Recent cleavages between families, tribes, and communities have had a knock-on effect on existing competitions between localities over scarce assets like natural resources and political power. Different Libyan factions and individuals assume the other will adopt a winner-takes-all approach to power should they prevail. So, individual Libyans coalesce into interest groups, usually along municipal/tribal lines, in an effort to magnify their strength and maximize their chance of being part of a winning coalition. Although the alliance system among Libya’s main blocs has shifted repeatedly since 2014, the result has been mostly bloody stalemate. ISIS and other jihadist actors ostensibly offer to transcend petty squabbles, forging a unity rooted in Islam, but the group is really just another faction seeking to take all and capitalize on the fragmentation of Libya’s political framework and social fabric. That ISIS's brutality has undercut its effectiveness—as demonstrated in this report—does not diminish the challenge of the zero-sum mentality that permeates Libyan militias.

In a rentier state[2] with a welfare and subsidy-based social contract such as Libya, the key central government responsibility is spending and distributing oil money. Devising a way to equitably distribute money to local councils is likely much easier than trying to create a truly unifying central government out of myriad warring factions that view each other as potential future oppressors. Empowering local government through decentralization could also help integrate vulnerable communities (e.g., Tebu, Tuareg, Amazigh, and marginalized tribes like the Qadhadhfa and Megarha) more closely into Libyan society, building a new national identity while providing these groups with the means to resist jihadist groups like ISIS. Ultimately, this is the only sustainable way to defeat ISIS and the other jihadist groups from which it derives and into which its remnants will likely flow. At present, years of Qaddafi’s sham local empowerment through the Jamahiriyyan system of “Basic People’s Congresses”—a congress consisting of every adult man and women in the local municipality—and similar initiatives, have sapped the public spiritedness otherwise inherent in Libyan society. A cultural shift galvanized by local leaders is needed.

Decentralized governance in Libya may not look how foreigners expect it to look. No country can provide an existing model for Libya. Neighboring countries with similar tribal or resource wealth dynamics present few compelling examples of long-term good governance; other models fail to address Libya’s unique circumstances. Rather than try to fit Libya into an existing model, Libya’s international allies would do better to encourage Libya to develop its own solutions building on the strength of its robust local community structures. These structures have, after all, largely prevented the country’s total collapse in the midst of anarchy. For many Libyan municipalities, local leadership consists of some combination of elected officials, militia commanders, religious leaders, tribal elders, business leaders, and local notables. Foreign governments frequently blanch at working with such groups, fearing it undermines their efforts to build up official institutions. However, these groups are often considered legitimate by their communities.

No one expects an aged tribal elder to run for office or an important business leader to abandon business for politics. They still expect those individuals to be consulted on local affairs and be actively included in the political leadership of the community. Foreign governments will need to take Libya’s lead as to what constitutes legitimate leadership and be flexible in working with whomever locals put forward as their interlocutors. These interlocutors will likely vary significantly among the many cities, towns, and desert areas around the country. Some cities will present all elected officials while others will put forward religious leaders and tribal elders along with their elected officials. If the municipalities can peacefully agree on their local leadership, foreigners should accept their choices and confine their role to helping construct a framework in which local leaders can work together to share power at the national level. It is necessary that this process of strengthening municipalities and local governance is accompanied by a plan to establish strong national institutions such as a national parliament and national ministries. This bottom-up model is likely the best approach to enable the creation of efficacious central institutions capable of devolving appropriate amounts of power to the local level.

Although not based on kinship or regional ties, jihadists insert themselves into the ongoing conflicts that are inherent to local/tribal realities. They have also established a pattern of spoiling the emergence of any coherent governance at both the local and national levels. Until Libyans can negotiate an agreement amongst themselves that changes the winner-takes-all dynamic of the conflict, it is almost certain that they will continue to face a terrorist threat from rebranded ISIS fighters as well as other jihadist actors.

Map 2. Map showing control of Libya and location of ISIS attacks as of May 2016

Continuation of Limited Special Forces Deployments

Train and equip missions are unlikely to succeed as long as governance weaknesses persist. Given this situation, we recommend the continuation of limited western special forces deployments working alongside Libyan allies and the avoidance of unilateral, long-term train and equip programs until a true unity government emerges.

While massive train and equip missions may not work, Western powers cannot sit on their hands if ISIS re-emerges or takes on a new form elsewhere in Libya. Hence, we suggest targeted special operations forces involvement and the skill transfer that this involves. The continued commitment of Western special operations forces is superior to immediately arming and training Libyan forces.[3] The rapid injection of significant resources into Libyan armed groups, if and when peace takes hold, would risk creating new competition for foreign military resources and exacerbating pre-existing power dynamics between militias from different tribes, cities, or religious orientations. Until there is a true unity government in place that is acknowledged as legitimate by the country’s main regional blocs, it is not wise to undertake a massive train and equip program that seeks to integrate militias into formal security institutions.

The negative consequences of engaging in such programs prematurely have been felt in Libya and abroad; training programs suffered from half-hearted commitment, a selection process that favored recruits from certain Libyan militia factions, and lack of discipline among recruits. [4] Still, close military counter-terrorism cooperation with NATO powers will be required to keep the jihadist threat at bay as national and local governments establish themselves. The small numbers of US and British special forces deployed to Misrata to support pro-GNA forces during the Sirte offensive seem to have been critical to the breakthroughs made. Similarly, French special forces deployed with the LNA were instrumental to their successes in Benghazi. The deployment of fewer than four hundred Western personnel to liaise with pro-GNA militias during their fight against ISIS drastically improved their capacities for reconnaissance, battle planning, surveillance, and mopping-up operations.[5]

Given these dynamics, it is better to commit limited Western forces in the short term to engage in the mentoring of loyal forces, while the Libyans take a structured approach to building up their own military and security sector in a way that does not upset the existing balance of power. The provision of this assistance and the success Libyan forces experience as a result, for example after the Sirte offensive in 2016, could be used as an incentive for reluctant militias to rally behind a unity government. These forces could remain embedded within the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Libya to focus on counter-terror operations at borders with Tunisia and Algeria, or inside friendly Libyan militias (as it is claimed they were doing during the anti-ISIS campaign in Sirte).

The international community, especially NATO, could take a lead role providing the technical assistance Libyan authorities need to build these new defense institutions.[6] Simultaneously, the international community should be more transparent in its security assistance to assure Libyans that they are not interfering in local affairs, but helping build capacity in the security sector. Specifically, the international community should insist that professionalization efforts for new groups like the PC’s Presidential Guard should be transparent to avoid confusion over legitimacy or allegiance, as occurred in October 2016, when the rump GNC in Tripoli established its own so-called Presidential Guard.

The Libyan national government will be better off negotiating a unitary and comprehensive army and police training program instead of fielding a raft of training offers from different countries. The last thing Libya needs is individual army and police units trained by different countries to different operational standards. Libya should negotiate and pay for its own training unless it cannot afford it. Even then, it should negotiate deals that meet its needs rather than choose among whatever is offered for free. Foreign governments should only help pay if Libya truly cannot.

"Until there is a true unity government in place that is acknowledged as legitimate by the country’s main regional blocs, it is not wise to undertake a massive train and equip program that seeks to integrate militias into formal security institutions."

Address Social Fissures That Create Governance Vacuums

In concert with decentralization, Libyans should take other steps to address social fissures that create governance vacuums. The provision of foreign assistance to support the establishment of transitional justice processes, if requested, could help reconcile differences and rebuild trust between conflicting parties.

Any grand bargain culminating in a true unity government should involve a Truth and Reconciliation initiative. Such an initiative is long overdue and could diffuse the tensions between pro- and anti-lustration factions within Libya.[7] Some groups in Libya believe they “own” the revolution because they paid for it in blood—and were on the winning side. They see a “fair” division of power and money as one that favors them and their cities. The corrosive effects of this approach to governance have been seen from Algeria to Zimbabwe and guarantee ongoing tension and instability. Cities such as Sirte and Bani Walid, which have been perceived as pro-Qaddafi, must be accorded the same rights to self-governance and their share by population of the oil revenue as every other city and population. Libyans may be able to manage this themselves through traditional dispute settlement mechanisms, but if they request foreign assistance with transitional justice it should be provided. It should not be forced on them as a precondition for other assistance however.

Within the framework of a coherent and well-planned devolution process, local governments should be explicitly empowered to take all responsibilities not specifically assigned to the central government. Confusion about roles and responsibilities in Libya has contributed to disorder. Simply assigning specific roles to the national government and empowering local governments with authority over everything else should minimize this confusion and excuse for inaction. More detailed roles and responsibilities will evolve over time, but to begin with, local officials should be responsible for most government functions.

The PC should nominate a widely known and respected Libyan leader to take over the Ministry of Local Governance (which should under no circumstances be eliminated in a smaller cabinet). That person, and his or her staff, should be encouraged to work closely with the Central Bank of Libya and the HoR to release necessary funds to local governments on a consistent basis. The minister of local governance should also go on a highly publicized listening tour across Libya to develop trust, stronger relationships with municipal leaders, and knowledge of local needs.

Map 3. Map showing control of Libya and location of ISIS attacks as of May 2017.

Support for Bureaucratic and Fiduciary Competencies, Media Training, and Parliamentarians

If Libyans can agree to decentralized governance as a means of ending conflict over oil revenue, foreign powers should be prepared to offer focused support immediately to help implementation. This should include independent advisors to support basic bureaucratic competencies and fiduciary duties, reinvigorating assistance pledges, especially to neglected areas, media training, and providing capacity building for parliamentarians.

Basic bureaucratic competencies are usually absent in Libyan government entities. The first step in international best practices for government procurement, for example, is generally to write a request for proposal (RFP). Outside of the National Oil Company and the Libyan Investment Authority, essentially no Libyan government entities follow the procedure of writing RFPs. Basic budgeting and strategic planning are also lacking. Foreign governments should pay for independent private companies to work with each municipality to write RFPs and to hire private sector accountants to help them with basic bureaucratic competencies. The municipalities need to have advisers whose fiduciary duty is focused exclusively on providing basic governance functions to their constituents, rather than the current practice of employing development consultants with a wide remit who tend to favor civil society development over administrative capacity building. Not only would Libyans not trust foreign government advisers, but foreign development agencies often have other loyalties and priorities.

The UN should renew and strengthen its focus on harnessing the many different assistance pledges to Libya, especially to Sirte, ensuring that they are complementary and not contradictory; that they are requested by Libyans; and that they cover all areas of need. If areas of need in Sirte and other areas vulnerable to jihadists are not covered, the UN should publicly identify them and lobby international partners to assist.

The international community should revive media training—such as that offered by the BBC Media Action team—especially for major local news outlets, to encourage more neutrality, and possibly even support the creation of a new, overarching news network to be funded through existing Libyan funds. In particular, it would be important to establish a training program, if not a complete curriculum, on investigative journalism. The importance of the media as a watchdog for transparency and honest practices in government is essential, and it is based on the capacity of journalists to research and investigate the activities of political actors and institutions.

Another area where international actors can help is in strengthening the preparation and capacities of parliamentarians and parliamentary groups. This could be done through ad hoc training programs but also through exchanges between parliamentary institutions of various countries. For example, Libyan delegations of parliamentarians could be invited to spend time experiencing the working of partner institutions in Western democracies. The same action could be taken regarding municipalities. A program could be established in which a municipality in a Western country “adopts” a municipality in Libya, as in a sister city arrangement, and engages in a series of exchanges of personnel, so as to improve the bureaucratic efficiency and the functioning of Libya’s governing structure.

"Within the framework of a coherent and well-planned devolution process, local governments should be explicitly empowered to take all responsibilities not specifically assigned to the central government."

Some Resources Should Be Focused on Economic Reconstruction

To confront the root causes of ISIS’s rise in Libya, the international community in general, and the US in particular, should focus resources on economic reconstruction to confront black and gray markets and expand the job market for youth. This could be achieved through incentivizing the elimination of fuel subsidies, supporting a modern commercial code, and funding scholarship and vocational programs locally or abroad.

Black markets (like those which export subsidized gasoline to Tunisia and other neighboring countries where local prices are much higher) spur large-scale organized crime and can fund actors like ISIS, in addition to costing the Libyan treasury huge sums. For this reason, the elimination of fuel subsidies is not just an economic issue. This is a pressing domestic policy challenge, which is serious enough that foreign governments should incentivize the national government to eliminate fuel subsidies immediately. It is best done while oil prices are low and the Libyan public is aware that the national finances are near collapse. Waiting until things are more stable makes the ability to obtain public buy-in much less likely.

Open markets are critical to Libyan economic development. The Libyan Bar Association is already preparing to offer guidance on creating a modern commercial code when stable governance emerges. Foreign governments can help by opening their markets to Libyan products. It will likely take some time for Libyan companies to seek out and implement guidance on how to meet European Union (EU) and other technical standards, but Libyan business leaders are very capable of doing so, given enough time. They should be incentivized to meet these standards by low tariffs on potential Libyan exports like dates, olive oil, canned tuna fish, tomatoes, light manufactured goods, aluminum, steel, glass, and whatever else Libyan entrepreneurs may start producing.

Mr. Jason Pack is the Founder and Emeritus Director of Eye on ISIS in Libya. He currently serves as Executive Director of the US-Libya Business Association (USLBA). He is also the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis. In this capacity, he is the North Africa Analyst at Risk Intelligence, a Danish company specializing in maritime risk and long-range assessment.
Ms. Rhiannon Smith is Managing Director at Eye On ISIS in Libya and Managing Director of Libya-Analysis, a consultancy organization specializing in producing bespoke reports on Libya for Western companies and governments. She is also the North Africa Editor for Norwegian think tank Hate Speech International.
Dr. Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Mezran joined the Hariri Center as a senior fellow focusing on the processes of change in North Africa. As a distinguished Libyan-Italian scholar, Mezran brings enormous depth of understanding to the transition in Libya and elsewhere in the region.

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[1] Jason Pack and Mohamed Eljarh, “Localizing Power in Libya,” Atlantic Council, November 26, 2013,

[2] A rentier state is a state which derives most of its national revenues from “renting” its indigenous resources (oil in Libya’s case) to external clients.

[3] We do not believe that Russian, Egyptian, or Gulf Special Forces deployments have a stabilizing effect on Libya. Their rules of engagement and political objectives tend to favor one Libyan political faction over the others rather than working with anti-jihadist militias to build capacity and assiduously not choosing a side in the political conflict as has largely been the practice of American and British Special Forces.

[4] Lindsey Hilsum, “Thursday night was riot night at Bassingbourn base,” Channel 4 News, November 6, 2014,

[5] First author discussions with top NATO and UK officials; International Crisis Group, “The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset,” Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report, No. 170, November 4, 2016, 22; The exact number of Western special forces is not publicly known. The ICG report concurs with the primary author’s conversations that French special forces were the most involved in on the ground fighting and proved instrumental in Haftar’s gains against the BRSC in Benghazi.

[6] “NATO ready to help Libya build defence institutions if asked - deputy NATO chief,” Reuters, April 16, 2016,

[7] Jason Pack and Sami Zaptia, “Libya Needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Guardian, October 13, 2011,