Islamic State leadership in Libya

Breakdown of top-leaders of IS in Libya by @MaghrebiNote:

Barqah, the foundation for the ‘Islamic State’
In an audio message published the 10th of November 2014, a man claiming to be a leader of the ‘Mujahideen in Libya’ swore his oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and accepted him as the Caliph and new leader over Libya. That man reportedly goes by the name, Abu Habeeb Al-Jazrawi – a Saudi man who just weeks before had stepped in the streets of Derna calling the people to give their allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. He had arrived to Derna along with many other fighters and leaders in mid-September 2014 in order to establish headquarters for the ‘Islamic State’ in Eastern Libya. Along with Abu Habeeb there was also Abu Baraa Al-Azdi and Abu Nabeel Al-Anbari, Abu Nabeel is a close ally & friend of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, he is an Iraqi national and also served as the former governor of Salahudeen province in Iraq[1].
Abu Baraa Al-Azdi on the other hand is a Yemeni from the Arabian tribe of Azd and he served as a Mufti for the Majlis Shura Shabab Al-Islam fi Dernah before the official announcement of pledge of allegiance[2]. Abu Baraa Al-Azdi is the religious face of the group in Dernah and has even authored books and given Fatwas for the ‘Islamic State’ in Dernah, for instance he gave a Fatwa in September 2014 on the ‘legal justification behind MSSI’s[3] swift application of the Islamic penal code’. Later on he was reportedly appointed as the Wali (governor) of Derna after the official announcement of the Bay’ah (pledge of allegiance). Another influential IS member in Derna is the Egyptian ‘judge’ that goes by the name, Abu Maryam Al-Misri.
Abu Maryam Al-Misri served as a previous judge for Ansar Al-Sharia in Dernah[4], but was later identified as IS-judge when he gave a fatwa in April 2015 where a man accused of stealing had his hand cut off in Alateek mosque in Dernah[5].
Another influential member of the Islamic State leadership, mainly in Dernah is the man known as Abdulhameed Al-Qasimi. Abdul-Hameed Al-Qasimi – a Saudi national who joined ISIS in Dernah functions as some sort of Imam or religious writer for the Islamic State in Libya. He has authored several articles on different theological & ideological issues, for instance on the Dawn Militia and how the Islamic State views them.
And most notably perhaps is how he in early 2015 authored an article on how he made his way from the Arabian peninsula to Libya to join the Islamic State, this was part of a heavy recruitment-campaign where the ‘Islamic State’ was trying to attract fighters to Libya. So it seems, besides his theological function he also has a big role in the media and propaganda of the Islamic State in Libya.

When the fighting in Benghazi broke out in May 2015 between Islamists and Haftar allied forces, fighters from what was known as MSSI back then streamed in many numbers to Benghazi in order to join the intensive fight against Haftar there. Not much is known about the actual leaders of IS in Benghazi as they mostly function as a fighting force more than they are engaged in governance or control – but there were for instance rumors of a Military commander named Abu Zaheer Al-Tunisi who was reportedly killed in fighting in Bo’atni district[6]. According to Libyan army officials he served as the commander of the ‘Islamic State’ in Benghazi – similarly a man that went by the name Waleed Al-Bernawi[7] was also reportedly killed in Al-Hijaaz street in Benghazi while fighting against the Libyan Dignity forces.

Most importantly, the presence of the ‘Islamic State’ in Benghazi was strengthened when a head Sharia representative of Ansar Al-Sharia in Benghazi, Abu Abdullah Al-Libi gave his pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. Abu Abdullah Al-Libi has a lot of influence in Jihadi circles in Benghazi where he was seen as a religious face of the Jihadists in Benghazi.
Abu Abdullah Al-Libi is now functioning as a Shar’i of the ‘Islamic State’ in Benghazi and is posting articles and Fatwas defending the group – just recently Abu Abdullah released a short article regarding the Shura Council of Benghazi in which he denied that there was a link between the Shura Council and the General National Conference, which ISIS formally calls apostates – hence defending the ‘Islamic State’ and their close alliance with the Shura Council.
He is also due to release a book named “the legal validity of the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic state”.

The Islamic State shocked the world when it entered the city of Nawfaliyah the 8th February 2015 – it was ex-Ansar Al-Sharia members who facilitated the logistic support for these huge convoys of ISIS members to enter Nawfaliyah, and the ‘Islamic State’ also demanded the residents of the town to give pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, similar to how they did it in the eastern city of Derna and a lecture was given by one of its fighters on the ‘importance of the Caliphate’.

The initial leader of Ansar Al-Sharia in Nawfaliyah, Ghedan Saleh Al-Nawfali reportedly refused to give his oath of allegiance to ISIS, and has announced that he has left the group (Ansar Al-Sharia). On the other hand other elements of Ansar Al-Sharia in Nawfaliyah did not just facilitate the logistical support for ISIS to enter Nawfaliyah, they also gave their pledge of allegiance publicly in the city. It was at this point the ISIS also gifted some of those Ansar Al-Sharia defectors by appointing one of them, Ali Qarqaa, also known as Abu Humaam Al-Libi as the governor of Nawfaliyah while appointing another ex-Ansar Al-Sharia member, Abu Dujanah Al-Libi as the preacher/Sharia representative[8].

Tarabulus (Tripolitania), the new hotspot for the ‘Islamic State’
The Islamic State marked its presence in Wilayat Tarabulus by conducting several deadly attacks in the capital – most notably the Corinthias Hotel attack that was launched by a Sudanese and a Tunisian.

But the most significant Islamic State presence in Wilayat Tarabulus is by far in Sirte – the Islamic State managed to create a stronghold for itself by successfully attracting almost the entire Ansar Al-Sharia branch of Sirte. Huge scores of Ansar Al-Sharia members defected to the ‘Islamic State’ as one of the earliest to join the group, in fact, as early as a few weeks after the official pledge of allegiance in Libya, Islamic State affiliates were claiming online that the whole branch of Ansar Al-Sharia in Sirte had defected.
The spiritual leader of the ‘Islamic State’ in Sirte is Hassan Karamy also known as Abu Muawiyah Al-Libi. Abu Muawiyah was present on the first Daw’ah event the Islamic State held on October the 30th where they called to pledge of allegiance to ISIS where he functioned as a preacher. He later participated and ordered the first Hisbah[9] activity in Wilayat Tarabulus when a group of ‘Islamic State’ fighters destroyed a shrine on the outskirts of Sirte. Abu Muawiyah also functions as the preacher of the group today in Sirte where he is responsible for the Friday speeches in the central mosque in Sirte, Masjid Rabaat.
According to a list released by the Brigade 166 (part of Operation Sunrise, Dawn Militia allied) Usama Karamy serves as the leader of the ‘Islamic State’ in Sirte.
The Governor of the Taraabulus region is according a Libyan army spokesman a man that goes by the name, Abu Talha Al-Tunisi[10].

Fezzan, the ‘Islamic State’s’ Wilayah for deadly operations
Wilayat Fezzan has functioned as a region where ISIS conducts highly destructive attacks against oilfields where it also kidnaps the workers. Not much is known of the leaders of this region – according to Wall street journal, one of the commanders of the Al-Mabrouk oil-field attack in February 2015 was an ex-member of the Tariq Bin Ziyad brigade[11] – an AQIM affiliated brigade that was led by the now killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeyd, a well known AQ-figure who led Al-Qaeda offensives in Northern Mali.

Chart: Islamic State leadership in Libya (CLICK THE PICTURE FOR FULL RESOLUTION):




[3] Abbreviation for Majlis Shura Shabab Al-Islam






[9] Islamic Police, the ’Islamic State’s’ police patrol




The Islamic State in Libya, between a Jihadi movement and a Caliphate

The Islamic State in Libya, between a Jihadi movement and a Caliphate
The Islamic State in Libya has drawn more and more attention to itself over the last few weeks and months. First in January when it executed two Tunisian journalists in Libya, then the Coptic massacre of 21 Egyptians in late February and then most recently at the Tunisian museum attack in Bardo where the perpetrators of the attack allegedly were trained in Libya.

Libya is a rare case for ISIS, very much different from its model in Iraq and Syria – in Libya ISIS has found itself to be the first Jihadi organization that starts from practically having no territory and then having to build itself and expand its territory – all this, not by running an AQ styled long term movement nor by means of simple Da’wah (preaching) activities to win the hearts of the people, but under the image of being an actual Islamic State.

So the question is, how has IS tried to deal with this and how has it tried to implement its strategy in Libya with the restricted authority it has?

ISIS is not capable of using as risky behaviour as it has in Syria or Iraq, the group has very little authority in the land and it faces much stronger fighting groups in the region that challenge it. As it sometimes becomes clear that ISIS acts very irrational and does things that are strategically illogical in order to maintain its image – although what can be seen in Libya is actually quite exceptional from the group. ISIS has been very cautious in making enemies, of course they are not BFF’s with all factions in Libya but in comparison to Syria they maintain a fairly strategic relationship with other factions.

If we take the example of the Shura Council in Benghazi, ISIS probably has the best of relations with this council more than any other faction in Libya, whether Islamists or Jihadis.
ISIS fights alongside the Shura Council in Benghazi against Haftar allied forces and in fact maintains a good relationship with the leaders of the council such as Wisam Ben Hamid and Shaykh Jalal Makhzoum. In fact just recently, ISIS affiliated social media accounts were paying commemorative tributes to the fallen Shura Council commander and Emir of the Shuhada Al-Bareqah Brigade, Buka Al-Araibi.

On the other hand ISIS is having a lot of beef with other factions such as the Shura Council of Derna and the Dawn Militia. The first clashes were seen this month, March 2015 where Dawn Militia allied brigades mainly from Misurata clashed with ISIS in Sirte outskirts and Nawfaliyah. ISIS already had called Dawn Militia apostates and released several unofficial statements branding them as deviant and misguided fighters, but Misurata fighters did not attack the Islamic State in Sirte, region after ISIS took over both Sirte city and Nawfaliyah, out of fear that it would case harm upon the civilians, as ISIS are known for destructive military techniques – but now the groups are still fighting, although the clashes are not as intensive as how they began.


Brigade 166 (Operation Sunrise, Dawn Militia allied forces) on frontlines against ISIS in Sirte, Libya
This mixed approach towards other groups is all in bid to try and show the effectiveness of its authority, to paint the situation similar to that of Syria where there are only two sides, those with ISIS and those against it. It was not long ago that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi said in an audio statement that “the organizations in Libya are nullified”, meaning that only the “Caliphate” and its authority is legitimate and all other groups should give pledge of allegiance. Its tarnishing the image of ISIS that the command of their leader is having little to no effect on the ground as no organization in Libya except elements of Ansar Al-Sharia have given pledge of allegiance.

Balancing between governance and militant activity
The limited power and authority ISIS has limits the group in their struggle to show themselves as a powerful Caliphate that “governs the affairs of the Ummah[1]” – and what is clear is that wherever ISIS has this sort of restriction it tries to compensate by doing deadly attacks that spill lots of blood. The Tripoli attack on Corinthians Hotel testifies to this tactic, so does the Al-Qubbah suicide bombings that left 47 Libyans killed. ISIS did not win over many of its followers by being a mainstream Jihadi organization that replicates Al-Qaeda – rather it stands out because it portrays itself as being an actual state, beyond a militia or Jihadi organization – so for it to keep its followers intact it must maintain this image.

The announcements of expanding into Libya and Egypt or Nigeria for that sake were very risky for ISIS when it comes to its support-base. These expansions put ISIS in a position where now it has to cater to its image and protect its reputation in more than two countries – of course it also has given ISIS advantages because it creates that sense of euphoria in the minds of its supporters – and feeds them this idea that the Caliphate is actually expanding to another continent.


Territorial Map of Derna, Libya
On the other hand ISIS has capitalized of its stronghold Derna where it releases pictures and videos very often – many of them resemble those that we see from Syria and Iraq, for instance burnings of cigarettes or musical instruments. These events are vital for ISIS because for this group governance is key and it thrives off showing these images to once again, keep away any talks of the group simply being a Jihadi movement.

[1] Islamic Nation

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