The Islamic State (ISIS) is regrouping in Libya after being uprooted from the coastal town of Sirte last year, renewing fears that the extremist group could gather strength in the conflict-ridden country.
At the same time, infighting among jihadists has grown fiercer, with rival groups battling for leadership in the Maghreb and neighbouring Sahel, analysts and intelligence sources said.
Last December marked the end of a four-month battle to wipe ISIS out of deceased dictator Muammar Qaddafi`s hometown of Sirte, 160km south-east of Tripoli. The international coalition killed as many as 1,200 of ISIS fighters, mostly through hundreds of US precision strikes and aerial bombings.
However, there is concern that the conflict between political factions and militias within Libya has allowed ISIS to gain a new foothold and expand.
ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing October 4 on a court complex in Misrata. The attack, which killed at least four people and injured more than 40, took place in an area controlled by a Libyan militia aligned with the internationally backed government in Tripoli, which was central in ousting extremist fighters from Sirte last year.
Military spokesman Brigadier- General Mohammed al-Ghosari called the bombing “a revenge attack.”
Ghosari warned in July that ISIS was regrouping for an assault on Sirte. Some of the fighters eventually moved towards the city but US air strikes appeared to ward off the assault.
The US military’s Africa Command said it had launched eight air strikes against ISIS in Libya since September 26, killing “several” of the extremist group’s fighters south-east of Sirte; 17 of them killed after precision strikes destroyed vehicles in a desert camp.
Despite the onslaught, ISIS has maintained safe havens and desert camps, analysts said, adding that that situation was unlikely to change soon even as UN plans for reconciliation and reconstruction go into effect.
Lydia Sizer, a Libya expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said divisions in Libya allowed jihadist groups to gain strength and develop bases, threatening the stability of neighbouring countries. Fighters are also said to be trained at the bases to carry out attacks in Europe.
“This infighting (between rival factions in Libya) has allowed ISIS and other Salafi-jihadi groups to evolve and grow in late 2016 and 2017,” Sizer said in an October report titled “Libya’s Terrorism Challenge: Assessing the Salafi-Jihadi Threat.”
Sizer said she expected additional violence from ISIS militants in Libya.
“In Libya itself, hotels popular with foreign diplomats and businessmen are particularly vulnerable, as are oil and gas facilities, government and security institutions and foreign missions,” she added.
As ISIS gains momentum in Libya, friction with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups is on the rise, experts noted. Infighting among jihadists has also taken place in Mali and Niger, where a recent attack targeted US military personnel and UN peacekeepers.
US officials told the Associated Press that ISIS-linked militants may have been responsible for an ambush October 4 in south-western Niger that killed three US Army special operations commandos and several local Niger forces.
The attack occurred after US and Niger forces met with local tribe members about 200km north of Niamey, near Niger’s border with Mali.
An October 3 report by the United Nations noted that assaults by jihadists against UN peacekeepers, Malian troops and French forces in Mali surged since June, with local forces suffering the most.
ISIS is also competing with its rivals in Algeria. The group’s affiliate, Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate), recently appointed a veteran jihadist as its chief after raids by security forces decimated its leadership and many foot soldiers last year.
Maghrebi intelligence sources said Jund al-Khilafa’s new commander in Algeria is Mohamed Fawzi, 47, known as Abu-Jaffar al-Afghani. A former senior figure in Katibat al Ahwal (Brigade of Horror), Fawzi has been accused of gruesome attacks against civilians during the Algerian civil war between 1992-2003.
Katibat al Ahwal is specifically blamed by the Algerian government for massacring up to 200 civilians in the village of Bentalha outside Algiers in September 1997. Islamist assailants slit victims’ throats, cut off limbs and raped the women during the five-hour massacre. Many of the victims were children.
Intelligence sources said the Algerian military has a list of 11 Jund al-Khilafa members who have been trained to carry out suicide attacks.
In a bid to counter Jund al-Khilafa in the region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has a presence in Algeria’s mountainous areas. It is led by Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel and has forged an alliance with the Signatories of Blood group, founded by former Algerian paratrooper Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as Katibat al-Mourabitoune.
Tunisian Mokhtar ben Omor Akouri was selected to head the alliance, the sources said. Akouri, 32, is from the central region of Sidi Bouzid, where Jund al-Khilafa also has a presence. Another al-Qaeda branch, known as Okba ibn Nafaa, is in Kasserine and El Kef in north-western Tunisia.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.