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Testimony

Libya’s Terrorist Descent: Causes and Solutions

Testimony for House Foreign Affairs Committee - Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade
27th September 2016

Download the full testimony here.

Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating and members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the turmoil in Libya. Obviously, the multi-sided conflict in Libya is complex, with various forces pulling the country in multiple directions. My testimony today focuses on the jihadist groups operating inside Libya, especially the Islamic State’s arm and groups belonging to al Qaeda’s network. I am going to emphasize five key points:

  1.    The Islamic State is on the verge of losing its safe haven in Sirte, Libya. The loss of Sirte would be a major blow to the so-called caliphate, as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization has invested significant resources in this state-building project. From the Islamic State’s perspective, Sirte was one of the most important cities under its control. This was true even though most of the city’s citizens had fled the jihadists’ occupation. By controlling Sirte, the Islamic State was able to portray its “caliphate” as having significant territory outside of Iraq and Syria. If Baghdadi’s loyalists are cleared from Sirte in the coming weeks, then the U.S. and its allies should trumpet the group’s loss. During its rise to power, the Islamic State’s motto was “remaining and expanding.” This was a key part of the organization’s marketing message. But in Libya, as in Iraq and Syria, it is no longer true.
  1.   Despite losing its grip on Sirte and the surrounding towns and villages, however, the Islamic State will retain a presence inside Libya. The group has cadres in Benghazi and elsewhere. The Islamic State’s leaders likely evacuated some of their men from Sirte as the offensive on the city progressed. It is important to note that even though the Islamic State is on the verge of a significant defeat, the effort required a robust commitment by local Libyan ground forces, as well as more than 170 “precision” American airstrikes to date. As the Islamic State’s men have been cleared block by block from Sirte, they have demonstrated that they continue maintain a strong operational capacity, launching suicide bombings in neighborhoods they’ve lost and killing dozens of their Libyan enemies. The U.S. and its partners will have to make sure that they hold Sirte once it is cleared, as well as prevent the Islamic State from seizing significant terrain elsewhere. 
  1.    The Islamic State’s loss of Sirte will be viewed in jihadist circles as a vindication of al Qaeda’s strategy. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, repeatedly warned that the premature declaration of an Islamic state harms the jihadists’ cause. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) emir, Abdulmalek Droukdel, has made the same argument. Al Qaeda has consistently argued that a jihadist state cannot survive if the U.S. and its allies decide to intervene. This is exactly what happened in Sirte.
  1.    Some assume that, unlike the Islamic State, al Qaeda does not seek to control territory and build Islamic emirates (states). But this is an erroneous assumption. A wealth of evidence shows that this is, in fact, al Qaeda’s primary goal. However, al Qaeda and the Islamic State have very different strategies for achieving this same end. AQIM and its allies briefly controlled much of Mali beginning in 2012. Documents recovered in Mali show that AQIM was laying the groundwork for an Islamic state. But Droukdel and his advisors concluded that their effort needed to be firmly rooted in the host society, so AQIM was willing to partner with tribes and organizations that did not share its ideology. AQIM is following a version of this same strategy inside Libya today and has been working to embed itself in various local groups and communities. The Islamic State’s model for state-building is top-down authoritarian. In the view of Baghdadi and his key advisors, all Muslims must submit to the so-called caliphate’s authority. Al Qaeda’s follows a bottom-up plan, which means that the organization is seeking to spread the jihadist ideology, win popular support and embed itself within local societies. Al Qaeda and AQIM, which is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri, are not close to achieving their goals in many areas. But the al Qaeda network remains deeper than many assume.
  1.    In addition to the assistance the U.S. military provides local forces, the U.S. government should work to expose al Qaeda’s network inside Libya. Sun light is a key part of any plan to combat al Qaeda’s clandestine strategy. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has dispatched operatives to Libya in the past. AQIM doesn’t typically advertise its presence in Libya, but has clearly backed groups such as Ansar al Sharia in Libya and the Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna. Indeed, al Qaeda has worked under multiple brand names in Libya.