The Islamic State’s activity in Libya developed on the remains of Salafi‑jihadi groups that were already active the 2011 revolution. The roots of those groups can be traced back to the 1990s when the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), was one of the biggest challenges of the Qaddafi regime.
During the revolution those groups were neither the main drivers nor the initiators of the uprising against Qaddafi, which induced hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets across the country, demanding justice and an end to corruption.
However, among those fighting the regime were also Islamist militia, like various branches of Ansar al‑Shariah with local bases most conspicuously in Benghazi, Derna, and Sirte, in which they managed to carve out areas of influence following the removal of the Qaddafi.
IS in Libya started from Derna, which is the historical location for Salafi‑jihadi activity due its renown in the history of these groups in the country. The existence of these groups was good for IS, being a fertile terrain for the terrorist group propaganda and ideology. It also benefit from the existing structures and the large numbers of defectors, particularly in Sirte.
Libya became an important area for the rise of IS, mostly because of its vulnerability, in terms of security and political instability. On the other hand it has some advantages, like it’s geographical location in North Africa combined with its borders with sub‑Saharan Africa and its vast coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, which make from Libya a, well-used, transit country for migration into Europe, so a good hub for the IS fighters.
The poverty and frustration among the Libyans, made it possible for IS to take advantage of vulnerable people stranded in Libya (mostly migrants on their way to Europe) to recruit fighters and possibly radicalize parts of the population.
The ongoing Libyan political crisis has created a security situation in which everybody is vying for power and constantly creates opportunities for shifting allegiances. Based on these special features, is managed to maintain some of its activities and cells in the Libyan areal. The actual situation is similar with that in IS was flourishing in this country and as long as there is a market for non‑state actors to offer protection and livelihoods to vulnerable populations, jihadist groups will continue to be able to radicalize and recruit, or sometimes benefit from the ad hoc recruitment of individuals or groups seeking protection and livelihood without a preceding process of radicalization.
In the last couple of years, the attacks associated with IS were fewer than in previous years, but for Libya, the terrorist group still represent a threat. This is because, IS continues to hold a strong presence in the country, by establishing or attacking checkpoints, raiding and occupying urban police stations and kidnaping local notables for potential prisoner exchanges or ransom.
Overall, at the middle of 2020, Libya is still embroiled in a civil war, characterized by a mobilization of army forces close to the most important cities of Libya, like Tripoli, and street protests in all over the country. Although the security and political segments of Libyan society continues to be vulnerable, IS has weakened, making internal propaganda outputs in a desperate attempt to exaggerate its strength and influence.
Until new changes will come on the political scene form Libya, this country will remain a hot spot for the IS fighters to act as they like and to recruit new followers for their army.