More than two weeks ago, Libya’s powerful Misrata militia was gathering forces outside the city of Sirte for what its fighters said would soon be an offensive to eject a few hundred Islamic State militants from late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown.
The battle was never joined, however, as the Misrata militia shifted its fighters elsewhere to counter what its leaders considered a bigger threat – forces from the so-called Operation Dignity of former Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who’s loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al Thinni in the eastern city of Tobruk. The Misrata militia’s loyalty is to the so-called Libya Dawn government in Tripoli, headed by Islamist-leaning Prime Minister Omar al Hassi.
Now the Misratans appear once again to be renewing their focus on the Islamic State after a series of raids and sniper attacks in recent days claimed the lives of a growing number of fighters. Last week, an Islamic State ambush killed five Misrata fighters – including three brothers – as they were keeping watch at a power plant outside Sirte. A week earlier, another Islamic State ambush killed 10 fighters whose nighttime funeral became a rallying point for Misratans angry over the multifront war now faced by their fighters.
“I am shocked and surprised that the idea of IS even exists in Sirte,” said Naji Zubia, a medic who had volunteered for Sirte’s front line.
What to do about the Islamic State presence in Libya is a conundrum for the Misratans, who see themselves as the protector of the anti-Gadhafi revolution that toppled the longtime dictator more than three years ago but failed to usher in a peaceful transition to democracy.
Libya already had descended into a chaotic jumble of rival armed groups by the time Islamic State loyalists surfaced in the eastern city of Derna last fall. The group was seen as a bit player, even after it posted a video in February showing the beheading on a Libyan beach of 21 kidnapped Egyptian workers. It wasn’t until clashes in Sirte a few weeks ago that the government in Tripoli acknowledged that the armed men who’d taken over Sirte’s convention center as a headquarters were Islamic State and not Gadhafi loyalists.
The Misratans still hope tribal leaders in Sirte can persuade the Libyan Islamic State members to surrender and expel the foreign fighters among them, instead of launching what could prove to be a very costly urban battle.
Still, Misratan forces being withdrawn from what had been battle lines near Sidra and Ras Lanuf – a cease-fire has been declared there – are being redeployed to Sirte, though whether they will launch their long-promised assault remains to be seen.
The Misratans’ reluctance to attack the Islamic State in Sirte underscores how complex Libya’s battlefields have become. With fighters, weapon supplies and morale stretched thin in the contest between Libya’s dueling governments over oil wealth, wiping out the growing Islamic State threat largely has taken a back seat to fighting each other.
The Islamic State has exploited Libya’s chaos by targeting both sides of the national power struggle. Last week, Islamic State suicide bombers targeted Hifter’s forces in Benghazi, even as they also hit the Misratans.
The danger of turning their attention to the Islamic State became clear to the Misratans on March 21, when Hifter launched a surprise offensive on the town of al Aziziyah, just 25 miles from Tripoli. Hifter declared the assault was part of a plan to liberate Tripoli from the Dawn government.
The Misratans quickly redeployed to the west, with the coastal road to Tripoli filled with military traffic headed to reinforce the capital. A leader of one Misrata brigade, the Marsa, bled to death near Sirte after an Islamic State sniper shot him in the thigh; his men blamed the redeployment for Walid Ismael’s death, saying the move left them with no medic to treat him.
Now, the Misratans, with more 200 revolutionary brigades and up to 60,000 fighters, are trying to figure out how to counter Hifter’s forces, not just near Tripoli, but at the contested al Watiya airbase near the Tunisian border, and at the strategic Brak al Shati airbase in the south, at the same time they fend off the Islamic State.
“All Misratans believe they made the revolution. We made it, we will defend it, and we will keep it,” said Monsief Walda, the Misratan chief of Tripoli’s military operation room, who is cobbling together militias to defend the city from another Operation Dignity attack.
Fighters pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in Sirte are a mix of foreign fighters, disenfranchised locals, and revolutionaries from the town and surrounding area, including Misrata. Many have roots in Ansar al Shariah, the radical group blamed for the attack on the 2012 U.S. compound in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Frederic Wherey, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Islamic State threat ought to make it easier for U.N. envoy Bernardino Leon to broker a cease-fire between the Dignity and Dawn factions, “because the longer the war goes on, IS will exploit the fissures and grow.”
But he admitted the prospect seemed unlikely. “Dignity is using the IS threat politically, and Dawn has a propensity to put IS on the back burner, to deal with later,” he said.
“Both those approaches are not sustainable,” he said.