ISIS and the GNA: A Truce?

Brad Patty

2 months ago

May 09, 2019

In addition to the weapons shipping reports discussed yesterday, SSG’s Libya contacts have provided letters they claim relate to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) funding the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya.  SSG has reviewed these letters, and there is nothing in them that is adequate evidence to substantiate these claims. (The translated text is provided below.) The letters do provide evidence of withdrawals for unspecified contingencies related to the defense of the capital, Tripoli. There is no information about how the money will be spent.

However, it is interesting that last weekend’s attack in Sabha was apparently claimed by both ISIS and the GNA-aligned Libya Shield forces. Khaled al-Sharif, who reportedly made the claim for Libya Shield in an interview in the Lebanese outlet Al Mayadeen, is a former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Until the Obama administration decided to back the attempt to overthrow the Qaddafi government, LIFG was listed by the US State Department as an Al Qaeda affiliate. Al-Sharif went on to become a deputy defense minister in the GNA’s predecessor government. If Libya Shield and ISIS both claimed responsibility for the attack, it is plausible that both were involved in the attack. According to the Washington Post, he is today “an influential figure aligned with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord,” i.e., the GNA. He is therefore the right sort of person to know whether GNA-aligned forces had carried out the assault.

The Libyan information environment is very complex, with all sides waging intense propaganda efforts in order to shape the narrative. For that reason, if the only sources for Al-Sharif’s claim of involvement were Libyan outlets opposed to his organization, I would tend to discount them. However, the original source for the remarks was the interview given to Al Mayadeen, not Libyan media outlets aligned with one side of the war. Al Mayadeen has its own political alignment, one that falls in on the Assad/Iran/Turkey side of the current wider conflict in the Middle East. (The contention there that they are “the anti-Al Jazeera” is dated. In 2013, when the remark was made, it may have been true. However, since 2016 Qatar and thus Al Jazeera have moved into alignment with Iran and Turkey.) That side happens to be backing the GNA, so it is likely they played fair with him in the interview he gave.

ISIS in Libya has carried out numerous attacks against the GNA in the past, so any alignment would be news. However, there is reason to suspect a relationship has existed in the past. On 15 February 2015, ISIS put out a video of its beheading of Coptic Christians. The Egyptian Air Force responded, quite rapidly, with a set of airstrikes against suspected ISIS training camps. The Egyptians were joined by the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who serves one of the governments opposing the GNA. The UAE had been using Egypt as a staging ground for attacks on ISIS for some time. That suggests that the Egypt/UAE/LNA partnership against ISIS has been stable for years.

However, the government in Tripoli — the GNA predecessor — called the Egyptian airstrikes both a violation of Libya’s sovereignty, and also “terrorism.” Qatar recalled its ambassador from Egypt to protest the airstrikes. That suggests the Qatar/Turkey partnership backing the GNA’s membership has seen some advantage to protecting ISIS in the same period.

The Obama administration deserves credit for breaking any older relationship that may have existed between the GNA’s predecessor and ISIS. During 2016, the Obama team convinced the GNA to carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets and, when those proved ineffective, carried out hundreds of American airstrikes. That will have soured any relationship that might have existed previously.

Could a new relationship have been formed? When Ansar al-Sharia dissolved in 2017, the bulk of its surviving members are thought to have joined ISIS. Ansar al-Sharia had ties back to the GNA through the Libya Shield Force, as they fought alongside one another against Haftar’s LNA during the Battle of Benghazi. ISIS fought in that battle as well, reportedly on the same side as Ansar al-Sharia’s Shura Council of Benghazi. The photo atop this analysis is of an Ansar al-Sharia leader at the battle of Benghazi, surrounded by men offering the one-finger “monotheist” salute. It is unclear if they are ISIS or Ansar al-Sharia, but ISIS often uses that salute. If many of Ansar al-Sharia’s members did join ISIS after 2017, they would have former comrades in arms aligned with the GNA who could reach out to them. It is not clear this has happened, but these sort of shifting alliances were a feature of the wars in Iraq and Syria as well. ISIS originated in a similar shift of loyalty when jihadists and former Saddam loyalists came together in Iraqi prison camps. It is a potential to be taken seriously.

As West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center notes, in 2017-2018 ISIS carried out a number of high-profile attacks on “state institutions,” which they read as attacks meant to prevent the formation of any sort of stable, competing state. I notice that their heat maps suggest something else:  a shift away from attacks on GNA-held areas excepting Tripoli itself, toward attacks in LNA-held areas in the south and east. According to Eye On ISIS in Libya, the Russian Foreign Minister told a terrorism conference at Club Valdai that ISIS was bolstering its ties with al Qaeda in Libya, which could also tie it back to the GNA and Libya Shield Force. The Shield Force is composed of numerous elements with Qaeda ties, including the remnants of the LIFG.

With the renewed pressure from Haftar’s army on the GNA, it would make sense to pursue a truce with ISIS in order to focus on a common enemy. The Sabha attack of this weekend was carried out near a GNA-aligned region held by the southern elements of Libya Shield Force. This would have been a natural staging area for the attack, as well as a safe place to disperse afterwards. One of the joint claims of responsibility might be false, but it is also plausible that this was a joint operation.

If that proves to be the case, then SSG’s Libyan sources may well be correct that the GNA is expending its “capital defense” money at least partly in buying ISIS’s temporary cooperation. If so, they are obtaining a temporary tactical benefit that is likely to bring major strategic costs. With the collapse of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, ISIS members may wish to reconstitute it in territory they are being allowed to hold in Libya. As Vortigern learned with Hengst and Horsa, truces with such produce treachery. That lesson was repeated with the famous Danegeld, payments meant to stave off ravaging but which produced a Danish kingdom in England.

SSG will continue to monitor the situation.

 

Translation of documents:

Document 1:

Head of the Audit bureau
Governor of the Libyan central bank
Office of Ministry Affairs in the Ministry of Finance

Issued by the presidential council the following :

1- Decree number 498 for the year of 2019 regarding allocating the amount of 400 million libyan dinars for the ministry of defense to cover necessary expenses as an emergency and exceptional budget for the current events.

2- Decree number 499 for the year of 2019 regarding allocating the amount of 84 million libyan dinars for the ministry of defense deducted from the emergency budget according to the presidential decree number 72 for the year of 2016.

We extend to you copies of both decrees to be put into immediate action.

Signed by Yousif Ahmad El Mabrook
Secretary of the president of the presidential council of the GNA

Document 2:

Head of the Audit bureau
Governor of the Libyan central bank
Office of Ministry Affairs in the Ministry of Finance

Issued by the presidential council the following:

1- Decree number 497 for the year of 2019 regarding allocating the amount of 2 Billion Libyan dinars to cover necessary expenses as an emergency and exceptional budget for the current events.

We extend to you copies of both decrees to be put into immediate action.

Signed by Yousif Ahmad El Mabrook
Secretary of the president of the presidential council of the GNA

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia, as well as a Master's in history from Armstrong in Savannah.