In a scene of medieval brutality, a jihadi group fighting to control a strategically important Libyan port captured ISIS’s local commander there, paraded him through the streets amid the taunts of onlookers, and then walked him to a gallows, where he was hanged.
The public spectacle—the details of which have not been previously reported in the Western press—was meant to send a message to local residents: Side with ISIS, and this is your fate. But it also vividly conveyed that, despite ISIS’s territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, the self-proclaimed caliphate does not exercise total control of Libya, a fractured country that it’s trying to use as a safe haven, training ground, and potential launching point for attacks in North Africa and potentially Europe.
The execution in the eastern city of Derna was described to The Daily Beast by two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity and are familiar with video footage of the shaming and hanging. U.S. government intelligence analysts have also seen the footage, the sources said.
The ISIS commander was marched through the street “Cersei Lannister-style,” one source said, an allusion to the queen mother in Game of Thrones, who, in the series’ recent season finale, is forced to walk naked through the streets to atone for her sins.
It was an apparently deliberate piece of propaganda, appropriating the terrifying public killing that have become ISIS’s hallmark and using them on the group itself.
The murdered ISIS chief is believed to be an Iraqi named Abu-Ali al-Anbari, who was reportedly hanged in Derna in mid-June. He may have been one of a number of veteran fighters who terrorism analysts said have traveled in recent months from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria to help ISIS. Killing al-Anbari in such a visible way would also send a potent message to ISIS top leaders.
The group “is all about messaging strength and projecting strength and basically showing they’re an unstoppable force,” Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism expert and editor of the Long War Journal, told The Daily Beast. “Here’s an example where they lost.”
But that may come as little comfort to the Obama administration, which still has to contend not only with ISIS in Libya, but a veritable stew of other jihadist fighters, some of whom are also sworn enemies of the West. Just four years after the U.S.-backed uprising in Libya was supposed to usher a democratic wave, various jihadi groups control large swaths of the country as two rival governments struggle to regain order. Many parts of Libya, particularly in the east, have been converted into jihadi training camps, attracting fighters from Tunisia to Iraq.
Al-Anbari’s executioners were members of the Mujahideen Shura Council, a coalition of al Qaeda-linked militants formed in 2014 that has been fighting ISIS to control Derna. The port city and longtime breeding ground for jihadi produced more fighters during the Iraq War to attack U.S. forces, as a proportion of its population, than any other city in the Middle East.
But while ISIS has been beaten back in Derna, it has taken over two key cities to the west, Benghazi and Sirte, both situated on the Mediterranean coast. At the end of a video in February in which ISIS executed 21 Egyptian Christians, the group warned, “We will conquer Rome.”
ISIS’s statement was arguably symbolic, but one that several terrorism analysts told The Daily Beast signaled ISIS’s ambition to use Libya as a launching pad for attacks in nearby Europe. That has alarmed U.S. intelligence officials, who are eager to beef up monitoring and surveillance of ISIS camps in Libya to help better understand the group’s goals and capabilities.
“We continue to closely monitor the deteriorating security situation in Libya, which is being exploited by ISIL and several other terrorist organizations,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast, noting that the group is not the only sworn enemy of the West to plant roots in Libya. (ISIL is the Obama administration's preferred acronym for the terror group.)
“If you look at Osama bin Laden’s files [found in his compound in Pakistan], al Qaeda believed a so-called ‘Islamic Renaissance’ was underway in Libya leading up the the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, and they fully expected jihadists to take advantage of that,” Joscelyn said. “The ISIS phenomenon makes it easier for everyone to see and makes it impossible to deny.”
U.S. intelligence agencies are also eyeing Libyan ISIS fighters’ connections to Syria and Iraq, where American warplanes have been bombing the group’s positions for months and Iraqi soldiers, supported by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, are running a ground campaign.
“ISIL’s expansion in Libya has heightened our concern, as the group has exported its brutal ideology and tactics from Iraq and Syria and used its propaganda to encourage local extremist groups to coalesce under its so-called caliphate,” the intelligence official said. “ISIL and its extremist allies in Libya pose a direct threat to Western and local interests in North Africa and could very well use Libya to try to stage attacks against targets further afield.”
Libya has also become an important transit point for fighters traveling from neighboring Algeria and Tunisia to Iraq and Syria. But ISIS spokesmen have said that if would-be jihadists can’t join the group in those countries, they should make their new home in Libya and help the group's struggle there.
Libya is contested territory, and essential to ISIS’s vision of a broader caliphate. And for that reason, the U.S. is trying to extend drone flights into the increasingly unstable country and elsewhere in North Africa.
But there’s one big problem: The region is too unstable for the U.S. and it allies to easily move in all the people and equipment necessary to conduct drones flights and keep them safe, officials concede.
So far, the State Department has approached only the government of Tunisia with a proposal to station drones within its borders, two defense officials told The Daily Beast. The administration also is considering approaching Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, the officials said.
But each of those locations present its own sets of challenges. Algeria and Morocco are suitable bases, but only if the U.S. limits its drone flights to unarmed aircraft that conduct intelligence-gathering operations, as it is now proposing. Should the U.S. seek to deploy armed drones, which are heavier and cannot stay in the air as long, they’ll need a base closer to the ISIS strongholds in Libya, which lie along the central portion of the coast.
Egypt would, in theory, be the ideal takeoff point. But while the United States provides Egypt with nearly $3 billion annually in military and economic aid, the Obama administration cannot easily ask its supposed ally for a place to station drones. Egypt’s human-rights record is just that bad, with Cairo increasingly cracking down on dissidents, civil libertarians, and independent journalists in the wake of its own 2011 uprising.
The United States has struggled to maintain its long-standing strategic and military relationship with Egypt, all while maintaining calls for democratic reforms.
“If you put a drone base in Egypt, you are de facto saying you are all in with [Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al] Sissi,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War.
Currently, some drone flights come from the Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily. But U.S. officials want bases on the North African continent, in order to avoid making a long trek over water and contending with bad weather.
But even if the U.S. had a reliable drone base, it’s not clear there are enough unmanned aircraft for the mission. The limited number of drones flying over the region today are being borrowed from military commands that are response for U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East. U.S. Africa Command, which has responsibility for Libya and is headquartered in Germany, borrows nearly all of its drones from other commands.
“We are not even close on where the drones will come from,” one defense official explained to The Daily Beast. Indeed, a second defense official said neither Africa Command nor European Command were briefed on efforts by the State Department to find a possible drone base in North Africa. Officials only learned of the push when they read a report last week in The Wall Street Journal.
In the last year, the United States has rapidly expanded its military presence in Africa, particularly in its use of drones. In a July 11 letter to the Speaker of the House addressing the U.S. use of military resources in Africa as part of the War Powers Resolution, President Obama listed the various areas that the U.S. military is operating in Africa.
The U.S. has conducted counterterrorism operations in Somalia to combat al-Shabaab, a terror group affiliated with al Qaeda. In Djibouti, the site of the only formal U.S. Africa Command base on the continent, military operations are dedicated to protecting the Horn of Africa. In Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, roughly 300 advisers are working with those seeking to “remove Joseph Kony and other senior Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leaders from the battlefield, and to protect local populations,” according to the letter. And roughly 700 troops are stationed at a U.S. base in Egypt’s Sinai.
All of those operations use drones in some capacity. But there still aren’t enough to cover Libya.
The only other possible location for a drone site would be more than 12 miles outside the region’s shores, on a U.S. ship, which would put them in international waters. But such a measure would be temporary and costly. And the bulk of the American drone fleet isn’t equipped for such maritime operations.
That leaves the U.S. in a bind: knowing that ISIS and other terrorist groups are festering in Libya, but with not enough eyes in the sky to place on them. And U.S. officials shouldn’t count on ISIS and its rivals wiping each other out.
“You’d hope that when they go to war with each other they weaken both sides. Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” said Joscelyn, the terrorism analysts. In Syria, jihadist groups have grappled for supremacy and only become more hardened. The fighting “makes them up their game, and makes each side better,” he said.