Islamic State (IS) militants on October 28 launched a surprise attack on al-Fuqaha, a small town in central Libya, killing at least four people, including the mayor’s son and two police officers, and kidnapping 10 others. Both the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the U.S. Embassy strongly condemned the deadly attack and called for the immediate release of those kidnapped. The attack is the second major terrorist incident in two months, reflecting IS’s commitment to the guerrilla warfare strategy it has adopted in Libya after the loss of its coastal stronghold of Sirte in December 2016.
In a statement from its Amaq news agency, IS claimed credit for the attack against “Haftar’s apostate militias,” a derogatory phrase used by Islamists to describe the Libya National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. IS also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing and an explosion targeting a vehicle that was in pursuit of its fighters. The group did not provide the exact number of casualties.
The eastern-based LNA, which has launched a wide-scale military operation against foreign-armed groups, responded to the attack, but IS militants fled. According to the LNA spokesperson, the assailants also torched the local police station, five houses, and three vehicles.
In 2015 and 2016, IS adopted a strategy of controlling territory in Libya. However, after a U.S.-led campaign drove out its militants from Sirte, the group shifted to guerrilla operations in remote areas and suicide attacks in major cities, exploiting political divisions and militia violence. In 2017, IS reportedly set up a “desert army.”
The al-Fuqaha attack reflects the instability of Libya’s central region amid a surge in attacks against LNA forces and civilians by IS and other armed groups coming from Sudan and Chad. IS-led attacks have repeatedly targeted al-Fuqaha. In August 2017, IS beheaded 11 people, including nine LNA fighters, in Jufra district, where al-Fuqaha is situated.
Despite UN-backed efforts to reconcile the two main political bodies, namely the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR), Libya’s persistent volatility is likely to provide IS a fertile ground to rebuild. To prevent an IS comeback, the United States should work with the internationally recognized GNA and other responsible parties to unify counterterrorism efforts, avoid futile rivalries, and reach a durable solution under the auspices of the UNSMIL. Short of intervention, this is likely the best way to counter IS and armed groups attempting to exploit political divisions or further undermine Libya’s stability and security.