ABU GREIN, Libya — A howling wind filled the air with sand, enveloping the small desert outpost. Shivering from the January cold, a skinny, bedraggled man in mismatched desert camouflage fatigues, a scarf wrapped around his face, took a deep breath and stepped forward. He tightened his grip on his AK-47 as the car pulled up to the checkpoint. Without a helmet or bulletproof vest, he warily approached, asking for identification papers, searching for weapons and checking the trunk. This time there was nothing inside, save for some rope and a few empty burlap sacks, likely to be filled with wheat or barley for the drive back. He relaxed, and waited for the next car to arrive.
Just a few years ago, the land around this outpost, 180 miles southeast of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, was a nature reserve where the deposed leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his entourage would come for retreats, hunting for wild game. The spacious villas that housed them are dotted around, now empty, looted for their gaudy fixtures and fittings. Inhabitants of a nearby village have mostly fled. Once a sleepy patch of desert, Abu Grein has now become the front line against the Libyan branch of ISIS, a gathering force now threatening to demolish what’s left of the country.
The men at the checkpoints, ambling back and forth between shipping containers used as makeshift shelters, know that any one of the cars and trucks passing could be loaded to the brim with explosives, or jihadis seeking to kill them.
Mostly the militiamen come from the nearby city-state of Misrata. They knew that if ISIS gets through this front, their families and neighbors back home will be put at risk. From their stronghold in the city of Sirte about 90 minutes up the road, the list of atrocities carried out by ISIS is seemingly endless; they have dispatched suicide bombers, launched attacks on checkpoints, laid booby-trapped bombs, beheaded Christians and others, stormed the most upmarket hotel in the country, hijacked oil tankers and attacked oil facilities, kidnapped civilians, and captured fighters from the collection of dwindling militiamen that guard the front.
“Try coming here at night,” said Sadeeq Darashi, a 35-year-old fighter, during a break from the sandstorm at the nearby command outpost, a squat one-room cinder block building that also serves as a dining area, sleeping quarters, and TV room. “It’s not about the cold. It’s about waiting in terror in the dark not knowing when the next explosion will strike you.”
Months of celebration, marked with fireworks and gunfire, followed Qaddafi’s downfall at the hands of an armed uprising and NATO air power in 2011. With its oil and gas reserves and treasury full of cash — and a relatively homogenous population — many analysts and politicians predicted Libya would emerge a winner from the Arab Spring uprisings. “One year ago, the notion of a free Libya seemed impossible,” Barack Obama said in a statement on the day a captured, bloodied Qaddafi was put to death by rebel fighters in October 2011. “But then the Libyan people rose up and demanded their rights. And when Qaddafi and his forces started going city to city, town by town, to brutalize men, women, and children, the world refused to stand idly by.”
Most Americans then forgot about, or simply ignored, Libya until Sept. 11, 2012, when Islamist militants stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans.
But even before Qaddafi’s downfall, two trends had appeared that would ultimately turn Libya into the chaotic and violent failed state it is today. First, cracks widened within the already uneasy alliance of radical Islamists and former regimists who banded together to overthrow Qaddafi. The polarization between Islamists and their rivals reached crisis point following the 2013 overthrow of the Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi in neighboring Egypt, long a North Star in Libya’s political trajectory.
Second, the rebel militias who overthrew Qaddafi did not disband. They argued that the remnants of Qaddafi’s security forces were either incompetent or untrustworthy, and would need to be supplemented or replaced. The “thuwar,” or revolutionaries, formed out of the uprising against Qaddafi or its immediate aftermath, took over much of the country. When political grievances swelled, they turned their guns on each other.
Disputed elections in June 2014 further confused matters, causing the country to split into two rival camps, with two armed forces commanders, two prime ministers, and two sets of officials laying claim to the country’s oil wealth. One, under the banner of Libya Dawn, is based in Tripoli and includes militias from Misrata and Islamist armed groups dominating the capital. The other, based in the eastern cities of Tobruk and Baida, includes the elected parliament and armed forces under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a stone-faced, mustachioed 72-year-old army officer and former ally of Qaddafi. He had defected in 1990 to the U.S., where he lived in Virginia for more than 20 years before returning to Libya weeks after the 2011 uprising began, fashioning himself a savior as the country then descended into chaos.
Worried international powers and its neighbors are now trying to prod the warring factions and two rival governments under a single authority. So they declared a third government. This one has the backing of the U.N., U.S., and other Western powers, but has no armed forces and is recognized by none of the major powers inside the country. It is led by Faiz Siraj, a former architectural adviser whose political career appears to have begun with the international peace process.
On the ground, Libya is the ultimate failed state; electricity sputters in and out every few hours, running water frequently shuts off, and schools and hospitals bleed staff abroad, as medics join the tens of thousands sheltering in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and the Arabian Peninsula.
One night last month, masked men with Kalashnikovs stood sentry at a checkpoint in Tripoli’s southwest. They stopped cars, pulling their drivers and passengers out; at first it was hard to tell if they were seeking victims to kidnap for ransom in what has now become a major crime epidemic. In this case, they were merely on vice patrol, scouring cars for alcohol and drugs, or even lusty teenagers.
Diplomats and aid workers who once dined at the capital’s now-shuttered five-star hotels have all but disappeared. Streets empty out after dark as residents huddle in their homes. Production of oil, the country’s sole economic pillar, has dropped from a peak of 1.5 million barrels a day after the 2011 uprising to as little as 360,000 barrels on a good day.
Into this mess, Islamist extremists started to seize territory, gathering strength and eventually coalescing to form the Libyan branch of ISIS, which declared itself in late 2015, and has since consolidated its power in Benghazi, Derna, Sirte, and Bin Jawad. Foreign fighters have joined them, swelling ISIS's ranks to 5,000, with Libya providing an alternative destination for recruits unable to make their way to Syria or Iraq. They are drawn by Libya’s lawlessness and the world’s largest supply of loose weapons, a result of the bungled failure to secure the country after Qaddafi’s death.
“ISIS is now our top enemy,” said Ahmed Omran, spokesman for the Reaction Force, the most powerful security authority in Tripoli. “They’re the most evil criminals we’ve dealt with.” Even members of the Reaction Force — many of whom themselves lean toward puritanical Salafi Islam — have been stunned by ISIS’s extremism.
“They use very young people — 16-year-olds,” said Omran, almost drifting into a trance as he described what the Reaction Force had learned about ISIS. “It’s not the bearded guy with traditional clothes at the mosque. ISIS is the guy who comes and sits next to you and smokes shisha and drinks tea and suddenly blows himself up. It’s the guy working out alongside you at the gym. They get recruited by the internet — this is what we’re finding. It’s a very strange ideology.”
The sign hanging from the neck of the lifeless torso simply read: “spy.” After four months in detention, 42-year-old Milad Ahmed had been taken from his cell in January and shot dead in front of a solemn crowd. He was then crucified, his corpse displayed on a main square for days as a warning to other residents of Sirte. Pictures of Ahmed, who was married and had an infant child, were posted to the internet as a warning to all Libyans.
Ahmed’s mother had spent months giving his ISIS captors food and clothes to pass on to her son, without ever being allowed to see him. The accusations against him stemmed from his past as a member of an anti-Qaddafi militia, and his subsequent refusal to join the jihadi group once it took over Sirte. She returned to the city to plead with his killers to release his body to the family, so he could be given a proper burial, said relatives gathering at a makeshift mourning tent in Misrata two days after his death.
“When they brought him to be executed he couldn’t even walk because he had been tortured so badly,” said one relative, who asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted by the ISIS. “He was in a wheelchair.”
Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown, was among the last strongholds of the former regime. In late 2011, militias from Misrata pounded the city with artillery for weeks, before finding and killing the former dictator and taking control. Residents bristled at these outsiders establishing a foothold there, and it was soon handed back to local militias. But those men would then themselves be overpowered by resurgent jihadis, and by the beginning of 2015, the city was firmly in the hands of ISIS.
“We weren’t prepared for [ISIS],” said Mohamed Mohamed, a 36-year-old legal researcher who left his job at the ministry of agriculture last year to take up the fight against the jihadi group. “They attacked us from all sides. We didn’t have any protection. We didn’t have the weapons or the men that we needed. We decided to protect the lives of the young men and withdrew.”
Those now living under ISIS are paying a heavy price for the cumulative failures of Libya’s political class and the international players who stood by as the remnants of civil society collapsed. Day by day, ISIS appears to grow stronger in Sirte, employing increasingly harsh measures against civilians and cementing a reputation for cruelty and totalitarian control.
Longtime tribal and political leaders have been forced out of their positions and ordered not to adjudicate disputes, which must be referred to ISIS’s own Islamic courts. They collect taxes on each farm animal, and landlords must pay a monthly tax on the property they rent out. And ISIS demands the annual donation Muslims often make to a religious foundation for themselves.
Witnesses inside the city and fighters confronting them said they’ve encountered recruits from Tunisia, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Mali, and Niger, as well as all over Libya. A so-called accountability force imposes itself over everyday affairs. “If there’s a call to prayer and you’re not there, they stop and arrest you,” said one Sirte resident, a farmer and businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity to BuzzFeed News during a visit outside the city. “They may fine you, or send you to religious classes, or order you flogged.”
Former members of the security forces must either publicly repent or face death as “infidels” in one of two “squares of punishment,” little more than roundabouts turned into public execution arenas. “Anybody out at the time is summoned,” said the farmer. “They announce the crime. Anyone who had fought against them is shot and crucified. Some people had their heads cut off.”
Life is miserable. Banks are closed. The cell and telephone networks have been shut down. Internet and satellite television are barred. Petrol stations are dry. Passports, birth certificates, and marriage certificates are unavailable. Radio stations play nothing but speeches by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s founder, or Qur'anic verses. “At sunset, no one’s out except them,” said the farmer.
Militants roam the city in Toyota pickups, many stolen from the city’s municipal works departments. Jihadists, meanwhile, have dispersed in the city’s neighborhoods, embedding themselves among the civilian population. They regularly summon hundreds of hapless state employees for daylong Qur'anic classes at their headquarters inside the city’s convention center.
Those who could have left the city, but many have stayed, worried they will lose their homes to ISIS, or out of fear at confronting fighters at the checkpoints to the city’s exits. “They need families as human shields,” said Mahmoud Zegal, a military leader of Misrata-based forces. “When people try to leave, they ask, ‘Why are you leaving?’ Cars are searched heavily for valuables, and drivers are harassed.”
At the same time, ISIS has managed to impose some sense of order after years of war inside the city. In contrast to the months of deprivation that followed the collapse of the regime and subsequent chaos, the staples of life are mostly available, and hospitals and clinics mostly function when there is power. Those who avoid politics, keep their heads down, abide by the rules, don’t try to leave, pay their taxes, and don’t try to prevent their sons from joining ISIS can go about their business.
“People are terrorized by the propaganda that ISIS dishes out, and also the images of crucifixions and the very high-profile terror attacks and big military parades that show how big they are,” said Mahmoud, a 52-year-old Sirte resident who left a year ago and now lives in Misrata. “But at the same time, they are bringing some sense of normalcy. They are allowing food and some services to enter the city. They have restored calm.”
The U.S. special forces looked a little nonplussed, posing for an unplanned photo call in their fleece jackets, flannel shirts, and baseball caps. They had landed at Wattiya air base, southwest of Libya, on Dec. 14 last year, as part of an effort to train militias in their fight against ISIS. But the local group controlling the air base said they hadn’t coordinated their arrival, ordering the Americans to leave as soon as they arrived, photographing the clandestine operatives and plastering their images on Facebook.
“I thought it was a joke,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libya analyst for the Atlantic Council’s Middle East center, who divides his time between Libya and Tunisia.
U.S. officials later admitted they had been secretly dispatching military personnel in and out of Libya for months. “With the concurrence of Libyan officials, U.S. military personnel traveled to Libya on 14 December to engage in a dialogue with representatives of the Libyan National Army,” said a Pentagon press release. “While in Libya, members of a local militia demanded that the U.S. personnel depart. In an effort to avoid conflict, they did leave, without incident.”
Since the uprising, Libya has become a battleground for foreign powers seeking to shape events, beginning with French and Qatari supplies of weapons to the rebels fighting Qaddafi. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have been arming and launching airstrikes in support of Haftar’s armed forces, while Turkey and Qatar have allegedly helped arm the Libya Dawn forces in Misrata.
The toppling of Qaddafi in 2011 didn’t mark an end to U.S. military involvement in Libya either. U.S. forces nabbed a former Libyan militant, Abu Anas al-Libi, from the streets of the capital in 2013. And in November last year, an airstrike killed Abu Nabil, a former al-Qaeda operative who had become an ISIS leader. It was the first U.S. strike to target ISIS in Libya.
The incident at the Wattiya air base confirmed what many had long suspected: that five years after NATO fighter jets helped Libyan ground forces defeat Qaddafi’s forces, outside powers were priming to intervene in the country once again. Italy, Libya’s former colonial overlord, has been hinting for months at a possible intervention to stem the tide of migrants making their way across the Mediterranean and to check the growth of ISIS. Signs of some kind of impending air offensive have been building in recent weeks, with U.S. and U.K. officials focusing on the threat of ISIS in Libya. Obama is reportedly being pressed by his national security aides to explore military options.
Many Libyans, desperate and isolated from the outside world, welcome any increase in U.S. involvement, even though it impinges on the country’s sovereignty and national pride. “There should not have been an intervention in 2011,” Eljarh said. “But now there has to be, because Libya is no longer a Libyan problem. It’s a regional problem and an international problem.”
But others in the West and Libya say it would be a mistake to intervene. Since Western countries have ruled out the use of ground forces, any intervention, either by or air or with special forces, would entail finding local partners. And forming partnerships with local actors before the country is unified under one government could backfire. “As soon as you ally with one, the ones you didn’t ally with would view the intervening force as enemies,” said Alan Kuperman, a Libya specialist at the University of Texas in Austin. “Who might they find as allies? ISIS. By intervening we might push them toward ISIS.”
At present in Libya, one’s faction’s army is another one’s outlaw militia; each side labels the other extremists or foreign mercenaries. “In Libya, things are very complicated,” said Kamel Abdullah, a Libya specialist at the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo. “People cannot differentiate between moderates and extremists.”
Besides, he added, “Has intervention worked in Somalia? Did it work in Sudan? Has it worked in Iraq three times? Has intervention worked in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Yemen?”
The coast guard cadets were elated at their graduation. Hundreds of young men from around the country had finished their training and were getting ready to take on new jobs protecting Libya’s coastal waters, where many migrants attempt the perilous journey to Europe. They assembled on Jan. 7 for a ceremony at their training camp in Zliten, a drab, barren coastal town punctuated by small North African–style mosques about 45 miles east of Misrata.
The training base is located a few miles away from the city center, on a remote highway mostly used to transport goods between Misrata and the capital. Approaching the graduation ceremony was a truck, a water tanker, the kind used to irrigate crops or for cattle. “It didn’t raise any suspicions,” said Misrata security commander Mahmoud Zegal, as it made its way along desert roads, onto the highway, and straight for the young graduates.
The explosion was massive, turning the courtyard of the training base into a mangle of human limbs, truck gears, and bomb parts. At least 65 people were killed and more than 200 people injured in the worst terrorist attack in Libyan history.
“It was a slaughter, a mass slaughter,” Faraj Jumaa, an administrator at Zliten’s main hospital, told BuzzFeed News, during one of the first visits by a Western journalist to the city after the attack. “Right now you can find the funeral tents all over Zliten, all over our community. It’s a big loss of young men who were going to be of service to their country.”
The attack was an especially bitter one for Libyans. Unlike ISIS atrocities in Paris or San Bernardino, or even Beirut and Baghdad, it garnered few headlines and little international attention.
Libyan officials acknowledge gross mistakes led to the disaster, that their mostly poorly trained and fragmented militia forces are not nearly up to the task of defending themselves against ISIS, much less taking it on. “You don’t put a base like that on the highway with no concrete,” said Aly Abuzaakouk, foreign minister of the Tripoli-based government.
Officials admit they lack the resources to take on ISIS in Sirte without completely pulverizing the city and killing thousands of innocent civilians. “We don’t have any airplanes to go to the front,” said Mahmoud Abdelaziz, a member of the Tripoli-based parliament. “We need hospitals. How can I send my young men to the battlefront if I don’t have the ability to treat them?”
Misrata militias also feel they are bearing too much of the burden for a war effort that should be shared by all, including the international community. Even as they contemplate airstrikes against ISIS, international powers say they won’t provide significant support for Libya until the two warring political camps come together under the U.N.-backed government.
“People in Misrata and everywhere in Libya are fed up with war,” said Abdel-Rahman Swehli, a prominent local leader. “But ISIS is not Misrata’s war. It’s Libyans’. Why should Misurata take the brunt of the battle? We need other Libyans to come along and join the fight but we haven’t seen it.”
They must have been spying on the prison for weeks. At 7 a.m. on a Friday morning, the Muslim Sabbath, they made their move, while security forces had their guards down. The four gunmen, armed with suicide vests, Kalashnikov assault rifles, and grenades, blew open a hole in the wall of the prison on the Mitiga air base in Tripoli on Sept. 18 last year. They then opened fire in a bid to free Abdel-Raouf Toumi, the captured Libyan emir of ISIS in Tripoli.
Hundreds of rounds were fired over the following 45 minutes. All four assailants, along with Toumi, three guards, and a prison warden, were killed. The attack, the boldest ISIS operation in the capital, served to reinforce a growing conviction that Libya has no choice but to confront ISIS with all the tools at their disposal.
“We started investigating,” said Ahmed Omran, spokesman for the Reaction Force. “We started using espionage tactics to infiltrate and get information. We started monitoring electronic communications.”
In some cases, the threat posed by ISIS is forcing Libya’s collection of militias overseeing security to work together to prevent the group from dispatching fighters or setting up cells across the country. Officials in the city of Bani Walid, for example, recently began discreetly cooperating with security officials in Tripoli and other cities on matters pertaining to jihadis, even though they have no political ties.
“Politics aside, security services cooperate when the threat is mutual,” said Saleh Mayouf, a political and tribal leader in the city 100 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Along the front line against ISIS in Abu Grein, fighters from other parts of the country, including the south, have begun to arrive in anticipation of a future offensive. “Right now they are gathering forces,” Zegal, the Misrata security chief, said. “After completing the proper preparations of war, we will move in.”
For now the men along the front work three-day shifts, manning checkpoints and conducting patrols to glean clues about ISIS’s tactics. “They also do reconnaissance on us,” admitted Sadeeq Darashi, one of the fighters.
Another fighter, Mohamed Mohamed, 36, ducked into the small headquarters for a respite from the sandstorm. He had fought against the Qaddafi regime in 2011, returning to his job as the top legal adviser at the ministry of agriculture in Misrata after the dictator’s death. Unlike most of the other fighters, Mohamed is a college-educated, white-collar professional. Last year, he set aside his legal journals and took up arms once more, this time to defend his city against the new menace of ISIS. He told the story of the Kharijites, a violent, renegade, extremist sect of Islam outlawed and targeted by the Prophet Muhammad. “It’s a religious obligation,” he explained, not a choice, to fight against ISIS. Later, he listed the names of friends who have perished fighting ISIS and said he fears the group is getting stronger every day.
“Based on the intelligence we receive, they’ve increased their numbers with foreign recruits,” he said. “They’ve had a better opportunity than we have to gather themselves and protect themselves. We seem to have been forgotten by the international community and even our own government.”
Borzou Daragahi is a Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Istanbul.
Contact Borzou Daragahi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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