Loss of Sirte is latest setback for extremist group, but officials say they could launch counteroffensive.
TUNIS, Tunisia—Islamic State fighters fleeing their Libyan stronghold of Sirte are seeking to cross the border into neighboring countries or possibly regroup in southern towns to fight again, Western and local officials say.
The extremists have headed to the long, porous border that Libya shares with Algeria and Niger. The countries bordering Libya have been on high alert, officials say, as part of efforts to block foreign fighters who may be looking to return home to other parts of Africa. But the vast desert expanse of the Sahel region offers a refuge to militant fighters that has long vexed U.S. counterterrorism forces.
“These borders are so huge and they require a degree of professionalism that these countries do not have in order to monitor them,” said a Western official who is monitoring the offensive in Sirte.
Although the offensive to clear Islamic State from the coastal region around Sirte began in May, recent U.S. airstrikes have played a pivotal role in the battle for the city, which is the hometown of late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. The U.S. airstrikes have helped an alliance of ragtag Libyan militias dislodge a cornerstone of Islamic State’s caliphate and now surround the remaining fighters in a handful of neighborhoods.
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. But Sirte’s loss is the latest setback for the extremist group, which is also under pressure in Syria and Iraq after losing key cities and seeing its resources and supply lines pinched.
U.S. officials once considered the Libyan branch as the extremist group’s fallback option as it suffered territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. That option has crumbled as the offensive gained intensity.
Western officials assess that hundreds of fighters fled Sirte weeks ago before the city was fully surrounded, fleeing south. About half of Islamic State fighters in Sirte are considered foreign, according to Western officials monitoring the offensive. The majority are Tunisian but include an array of sub-Saharan nationalities, notably Sudanese and Nigeriens, these officials say.
A Tunisian military officer said his country’s air force has been on high alert for the possibility of these fighters fleeing back home. That has involved increasing overhead surveillance flights, with the support of the U.S. military, to monitor any cross-border movements by the militants in Libya.
Libya’s neighbors are adopting other methods to slow the flow of extremists back home. Tunisia last year began building a wall and water trenches along its Libyan border. Meanwhile, Algeria is reportedly building a fence to stanch the flow of militants and their supplies, in addition to beefing up border security.
A Libyan military intelligence officer at the operations room in Misrata, a neighboring coastal city whose militia is leading the battle, said there was little that local forces could do to prevent the exodus as the offensive began.
“There was almost 100 miles between us and Islamic State [in Sirte],” said the officer who asked not to be named in line with the protocol of the operation room, which functions as a nerve center orchestrating the battle for Sirte. “All that space was open desert for them to escape.”
Militants who aren’t seeking to flee across borders may also exploit Libya’s insecurity and longstanding tribal rivalries by taking refuge in the country’s southern towns, where locals oppose the government in Tripoli and the powerful militia of Misrata city.
The extremist fighters also have a robust presence in the east, in Derna and Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city. Those pockets raise the possibility that the militants will regroup to launch counteroffensives, Western officials in Tunis said.
Of particular concern is the small city of Bani Walid, which sits at a southern crossroads connecting Tripoli to Misrata. The conditions that gave rise to Islamic State in Sirte are ripe in Bani Walid, whose Warfalla tribe is spread between the two cities and have complained of disenfranchisement by the government in Tripoli and Misrata’s powerful militia. But Sirte residents also experienced the militants harsh punishment for violations of Islamic edicts, which involved frequent beheadings.
“In Sirte they told us ‘the Islamic State fighters are our sons’ and asked that we not harm them,” said the Misratan military intelligence official. “Bani Walid will say the same, but when they start chopping off their heads, they will come to us begging for help.”
Islamic State announced the formation of its Libyan branch in early 2014, taking advantage of the country’s postrevolution civil war to establish a foothold in the country. Before the current offensive, U.S. officials considered Islamic State’s Libyan operations to be the extremist group’s most powerful franchise outside of its command in Syria and Iraq.
Despite the recent setback for Islamic State, Libya’s political situation isn’t looking much better than it did in 2014. Two governments claim authority, one in Tripoli that is backed by the United Nations and an opposing government in the east, which has drawn on support from regional powers including Egypt and the U.A.E.
In recent weeks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called on all governments to rally their support to shore up the government in Tripoli.