Libya: After Losing Sirte, Are Jihadists Heading South ?
After they were flushed out of their stronghold in Sirte, the majority of Libyan jihadist fighters are feared to be heading south and attempting to sneak into neighboring countries wherein they hope to regroup particularly in the Sahel zone, according to intelligence experts.
Libya shares a long porous border with Algeria and Niger. The vast desert of the Sahel region offers a refuge to militant fighters. However, some militants may prefer to stick to their guns and stay in Libya, exploiting the country’s insecurity and longstanding tribal rivalries.
The extremist fighters have a robust presence in the east, in Derna and Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city. In early 2014, the terror organization ISIS announced the formation of its Libyan branch taking advantage of the country’s post-revolution civil war to establish a foothold in the country.
At the request of the UN-backed Libyan unity government in Tripoli, the US launched lately airstrikes against ISIS positions in the strategic port city of Sirte to enable local government forces make a decisive and strategic advance to capture the city.
Sirte was the only city Islamic State fully controlled in Libya and was considered the militants’ beachhead in North Africa and just across a narrow strip of the Mediterranean Sea from Europe. The loss of this city by the jihadists is the latest setback for the extremist group, which is also under pressure in Syria and Iraq after losing key cities.
Libya, following the death of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has descended into chaos, with no central government. The Islamic State has taken advantage of the situation to conquer vast swaths of land in the country, mostly in coastal regions where many criminal gangs indulge in illegal migrant trafficking.
Rival groups signed a political accord that hashed out a Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Serraj. Despite strong and vast backing from the international community, the GNA is still struggling to assert its authority challenged by Islamists and armed groups.