The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a September 10 shooting attack at the Tripoli headquarters of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), which killed at least two employees and wounded 10 others. “Three suicide militants from the soldiers of the caliphate” carried out the assault, the IS-affiliated “Wilayat Libya” said in a statement posted by the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency. “Oilfields which support the crusaders and their projects in Libya are legitimate targets for the mujahidin,” the group asserted. The shooting follows an attack on Libya’s electoral commission in May, indicating that IS retains the ability to carry out operations in the capital even as it seeks to recover from the loss of its major Libyan stronghold, Sirte, in late 2016.
In December 2016, the Pentagon announced the success of its efforts, in concert with Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), to dismantle the IS stronghold in Sirte. In 2016, the U.S. conducted 497 airstrikes against IS in Libya. By contrast, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) conducted just eight strikes against IS in Libya in 2017 and only five counterterrorism strikes in Libya in 2018, three of which targeted the Islamic State and two al-Qaeda.
A July 2018 report from the UN now estimates there are still 3,000-4,000 IS fighters in Libya. While the group’s central command may now lie “in the triangle between Bani Walid, Sirte, and Jufrah district,” IS has demonstrated its ability to strike elsewhere. In addition to strikes in and around Tripoli, it also carried out a series of attacks in eastern Libya in the spring, including a car bombing in March and two more in May.
But IS may not be Libya’s greatest challenge. Tripoli continues to suffer from violence perpetrated by warring militias. The NOC attack came less than a week after a fragile UN-brokered ceasefire agreementbetween rival forces in the Libyan capital. Just hours after the NOC attack, the only functioning airport in Tripoli came under attack from rocket fire, forcing the airport to close and all flights to be diverted to Misrata. The fighting that preceded the ceasefire left at least 61 people dead and 159 others wounded.
The State Department condemned the terrorist attack on the NOC, and the threat from the Islamic State necessitates continued U.S. engagement in Libya. But the United States should also work with the GNA to bring an end to militia violence and prepare for credible and secure elections. Failure to do so would allow terrorist groups like IS to exploit the continued instability.