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ISIS’ Libya Stronghold Is Crumbling, But They’re Still Deadly

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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A contingent of pro-government militias have captured Islamic State’s Libyan headquarters, in addition to most of the coastal city of Sirte, but the terrorist group may still pose a threat, according to one expert.

Libyan militia forces confirmed they seized the Ouagadougou convention center, ISIS’ base of operations in Libya, Thursday. Militia leaders told BBC news Wednesday that ISIS has been cleared from all but three residential areas and a villa complex in the city. Libyan forces have begun removing mines and and other traps left over by the terrorist group across the city.

Despite the pending victory, Frederick Kagan, the director of American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, has cautioned that losing Sirte will not mitigate the ISIS threat in Libya.

“The fall of Sirte is not an existential threat to ISIS in Libya,” wrote Kagan in an emailed statement Thursday. He explained that “the majority of ISIS’s fighting force has withdrawn to southern Libya or infiltrated civilian populations.”

Militias loyal to the U.N. and Western-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) have been engaged with ISIS forces in Sirte for weeks. The battle tipped in the militias’ favor when the U.S. began conducting air strikes Aug. 1.

Sirte, the only Libyan city conquered by ISIS, has been controlled by the terrorist group since February, 2015. Many of the 5,000 fighters who initially took the city were veterans from ISIS’ campaigns in Iraq and Syria, the group’s so-called “parent tumor.” Currently, officials have estimated less than 1,000 fighters remain in Sirte, although they are well dug-in.

Retaking Sirte serves a dual-purpose for the fragile GNA. First, it removes ISIS as a security threat in the region. Second, the defeat of ISIS will help the GNA establish legitimacy over rival politicians and militia groups.

Kagan noted that ISIS in Libya could revert to more terrorist-like tactics should it lose its conventional territory.

“ISIS may reconstitute in a safe haven in southern Libya, from which it will resume attacks in northern Libya and attack into neighboring Tunisia and Algeria.”

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