On December 6, 2016 militias loyal to Libya’s dysfunctional Government of National Accord, (GNA), claimed full control over Sirte, late Gaddafi’s home city, after ejecting Daesh fighters, who had been entrenched there for almost two years.
No one knows for sure how many fighters died, how many survived, and where the surviving terrorists are now?
Particularly vague is the fate of the top Daesh leaders including a couple of Libyans. Yet the head of GNA, living the part as if he is really in charge, went on TV on Sunday, December 18, 2016, to announce the full liberation of Sirte and the end of military operations.
The United States’ Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, provided air cover with 495 sorties while a coalition of militias known as Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous (Solid Structure) laid siege to the city for over seven months. By the time the battle was over, 713 were dead, over 3000 fighters wounded and massive damage done to already destroyed city. It neither means the end of Daesh in the country nor stronger stable and united Libya!
There is still no clarity as to who else fought Daesh apart from Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, and what impact liberated Sirte might have on the fight against terror in Libya?
Daesh took over Sirte incrementally in small but decisive steps that stretched from late 2014. By early 2015 the group’s leadership structure was in place, its cadres took over all government departments and started running electricity, police and security services amongst other public utilities. However, the world knows little about how it all happened at best believing the old easy explanation in such cases: Daesh exploited security and political vacuum in Sirte and in wider Libya.
This is certainly part of the story but it does not offer a convincing answer. Since entire Libya suffers from both political and security voids, why didn’t Daesh exploit them in other much easier places to take over and control?
A quick recap of post-civil war events will be in order. By the time civil war ended in October 2011, Sirte was reduced to a flat ghost city. Thousands of its residents, including tribal leaders, public figures, and potential future leaders had disappeared into exile or militias’ controlled prisons; many of them were indeed killed.
This total emptying of the city made it easy prey to all kinds of criminals, including, professional thieves let alone armed militias seeking revenge for anything particularly the fact that it was Sirte where Gaddafi made his heroic stand.
A month later, in November 2011, Ansar -el Sharia, whose base is in Benghazi, 500 km east, took over the city and for the next few months ran it in a reasonably good way: They provided services, brought in supplies, secured the streets, and even forced the government of the day to provide some compensations to large number of war victims who had lost almost everything.
After the national elections in July 2012, Ansar-el Sharia were ejected; they refused to accept the election process as a matter of principle since it contradicts their strict interpretation of Sharia!
Another militia, Zawia Martyrs Brigade, loyal to the then government, took over Sirte and worked very hard to restore some civic infrastructure. The city appeared to be coming back from the dead and internally displaced residents started to trickle back to their homes and business. Schools reopened and food was plenty. Police started patrolling the streets. All this was a short lived respite because in early 2013 the city passed into the hands of a Misrtata militia, Al Farouq brigade, which received help from other Misratan militias. Headed by Hassan el-Karami, Al Farouq used to be based in Benghazi.
By the time Al-Bagahdadi got the information in Iraq and started to connect with Mr. el-Karami, the Al Farouq leader had led his followers into Sirte. He had declared his loyalty to Daesh sometime while in Syria.
As he consolidated his power over the city, top Daesh lieutenants were dispatched from Reqqa in Syria to take over the leadership of Daesh in Sirte leaving Mr. el-Karami to become Mufti of the group. He is the only known Libyan to have such a top post in the terror organization in Sirte.
Daesh was able to recruit fighters particularly from Tunisia, Mali, Chad, and Egypt. By early 2016 when the US hit what it claimed to be a training center for Daesh in Sabratha, 70 km west of Tripoli killing 43 people, the group was already strong enough roaming freely from Sirte all the way to the outskirts of Benghazi.
Misrata commanders as well as politicians knew all along what was happening in Sirte. Not only that they were pleased with it secretly funneling supplies and arms to Sirte with the aim of using Daesh to score some political and militarily points even as they were planning for the Libya Dawn operation which started in July 2014.
The Libya Dawn Op ended on August 23, 2014 after controlling Tripoli and in the process displacing thousands. Libya Dawn’s Misrata-Islamist coalition set up their own government known as Government of National Salvation (GNS) first headed by Omar al -Hasy and later by Khalifa El-Ghwal. Lacking any international recognition and suffering from lack of domestic legitimacy, GNS, was desperate to have both or any.
GNS and Misratan commanders and politicians therefore came up with the idea of using Daesh as a bargaining chip especially with the European Union. The EU, then, as now, had two serious issues connected to Western Libya: flow of migrants from Libyan shores and Daesh in Sirte, one-hour flight from Italy!
GNS offered to help with the EU’s two worries in return for political recognition that will see GNS as the only legitimate government of Libya instead of the Tubrok based elected government. Some in the EU appeared to welcome this although secretly and without anyone noticing.
Major Western media outlets, including BBC and London based daily, The Independent, seemed to fall in the trap and reported from Tripoli how GNS was becoming effective in controlling migration and preparing to fight Daesh in Sirte. Johns Simpson of the BBC went as far as interviewing one of Libya’s famous jihadists, Khaled El-Shrif, who is Afghan war veteran and a prominent face of the Libyan Fighting Group.
Daesh was already beyond the control of Misrata and became a fighting force to be reckoned with. It started to use religious rhetoric against Misrata itself, 250 km west of Sirte. It carried out car bombings at least three times against Misrata controlled road checks killing dozens. Neither EU nor any other country recognized GNS despite its PR campaign while Daesh was expanding.
By the time the Libyan Political Accord, LPA, was signed on December 17, 2015 Daesh was knocking on Misrata’s door and threatening Tripoli itself. Both GNS and its Misratan backers realized that they cannot hide the truth anymore and had to do something about the terror group to whom they literally handed over Sirte. Widely hated inside Libya and lacking any political credibility, they again found a way out in the Government of National Accord, GNA, set up after the LPA was signed.
Most countries including EU and USA quickly recognized GNA as the only legitimate government in Libya. In reality GNA is no more than a name and does not control even Tripoli to where it relocated from Tunisia in March 30, 2016.
Since GNA is the only government the world is willing to accept why not join it, however, nominally! So Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous claimed they were part of GNA and GNA had only to welcome the idea. In reality GNA does not have any power whatsoever over what Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous does or does not.
BLOOD TAINTED IMAGE
The Misrata militias or the core force that liberated Sirte are tirelessly marketing themselves as a force that works for good and helps national cause in fighting terror. The Misratans have positioned themselves as good-will guys accepting the GNA not only to brush up their blood tainted image but also to counter Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who is leading the Libyan Armed Forces in Eastern Libya with certain recent successes.
The less mentioned party that helped take Sirte back from Daesh is known as Brigade 605. They came late into the battle since they were not ready.
Unlike Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, Brigade 605 is inclusive and widely representative of Libya since its fighters have come from Tripoli, Bani Walid, Khomas, and many other places. 605 is made up of Salafists who came together on religious grounds since they consider that Daesh is not a Muslim organization. Brigade 605 was set up by a Sirte Imam, whose mosque was invaded by Daesh in its earlier days in the city. Its main supporters and financiers are individuals and other militias who share their ideology. However, they had limited capacities in fighters and hardware as compared to the Misrata dominated Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous which doesn’t want to share victory with any others.
Now that Sirte is Daesh free, does this have any positive impact on the wider Libya in terms of defeating terror once and for all?
Well, Sirte has a unique strategic location as it sits in the middle of Libya and along the highway connecting East and the West of the country. Also not far away are the main oil terminals in Ras La Neuf and Zueitina. Furthermore, the city is at the intersection of roads that connect the south to the coastal region.
However, controlling Sirte does not mean that terror groups including IS are denied safe haven in Libya’s large swaths of difficult desert terrain with virtually no government control.
Sources from villages in the region southwest of Sirte tell a different story. It is that Daesh fighters are roaming the area without any challenge erecting night mobile road checks wherever they like.
One of the few luckiest to survive the road checks is Abo Baker Agnona, owner of Libo FM radio station, who is well connected in Tripoli. At the height of the fighting to eject IS from Sirte last June, he was traveling with his friend from Bey, southwest of Sirte, to Zamzam in the same area; just before he got to the road check post, another friend, who passed by the area hours before, alerted him to avoid that stretch. So, he drove around the check point but found himself heading to another road block with masked men on both sides of the road waving him to stop. He survived the hail of bullets fired at his car by driving at a very high speed. His companion was injured and the car extensively damaged.
In southern Libya an eye witness told me, on condition of anonymity, that many IS fighters have fled Sirte and arrived in southern cities including Sabha. He said “I saw a couple of those guys in Sabha because I knew them from before and was surprised to actually see them here.”
Al-Qaeda and Daesh still operate in eastern parts of Benghazi, where Libyan Armed Forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, have been battling a coalition of such groups for the last two years. Derna, mid-sized town northeast of Benghazi on the Mediterranean Sea, is partly controlled by at least two groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb led by elusive terrorist Mukhtar bel Mukhtar.
IS’s fighters have melted away and spread throughout the country with sleeping cells; their safe houses are occasionally discovered by security forces even in Tripoli, the capital, as well as Misrata.