There is increased international concern that Islamic State (IS) could use the current security vacuum — caused by the US departure from northern Syria and subsequent confrontation between Kurdish forces and the Turkish military — to re-gain lost prestige in its former heartland. In Libya, however, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) was celebrating what it believed was a significant rollback of the group’s influence in its most important emirate outside Iraq and Syria.
AFRICOM officials announced on 10 October that in the four airstrikes it conducted in late September and early October, US air assets were able to reduce the number of IS militants in Libya to around 100 fighters. This compares to its maximum fighting force of approximately 5,000 fighters when it controlled several hundred square kilometres in and around Sirte.
Despite the celebrations at AFRICOM’s Stuttgart headquarters, however, domestic anxiety prevailed about IS’ potential to mount a comeback in Libya. Part of this rests on the fact that a reactive policy of drone strikes against terrorist cells does little to undermine the ideas that enable terrorist organisations like IS to proliferate in the first place. They also do not thwart the facilitation and recruitment network that make it possible for IS fighters to shuttle between frontlines across the world. In Libya’s security vacuum there is little hope for a long-term solution to prevent IS’ resurgence.
Trying to capitalise on these local anxieties and the current global anti-Turkish sentiment the spokesman for Khalifa Haftar’s LNA highlighted the risk that the Turkish invasion of northern Syria could enable the thousands of IS prisoners guarded by Kurdish forces to escape. He insinuated that Ankara could even facilitate their escape to cities like Tripoli, Zuwara, and Misrata to fight alongside Haftar’s enemies in western Libya. Indeed, according to Kurdish officials, hundreds of IS detainees escaped from a camp in northern Syria on 13 October following Turkish airstrikes on the area.