Benefiting from Libya’s political chaos, Islamic State militants are consolidating their base in the city of Sirte and grabbing new territory, pushing back fighters from Misrata.
Libya’s two dueling governments, one based in Tripoli and the other based in Beida and Tobruk in the country’s east, are running dangerously low of cash as they back armed groups against each other, allowing the Islamic State to exploit the rift to grab territory.
The Tripoli-based government, known as Libya Dawn, and its rival, the Dignity coalition based in the east, have yet to come together to target the Islamic State’s growth, even as some commanders for Misrata’s militia, long considered the country’s most adept and a mainstay of Libya Dawn, worry that their city has become an Islamic State target.
“Daash are the biggest enemy,” said one Misratan intelligence official, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of his work.
Still, many in the Tripoli-based government view defeating Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who is aligned with the Dignity coalition, as a higher priority.
The Islamic State found fertile ground for development among Sirte’s disaffected, who were on the losing end of the 2011 war that toppled hometown boy Moammar Gadhafi and found their once-favored city devastated by the fighting and the NATO aerial campaign, according to one religious sheikh who fled his house on the outskirts of Sirte after Islamic State devotees moved into the house next door three months ago.
Some unhappy Gadhafi supporters at first had gravitated to Ansar al Shariah, the Islamist militia tied to the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
Then about six months ago, foreigners began arriving in Sirte, the sheikh said.
“The foreigners came one by one so the people of Sirte didn’t feel their presence,” he said. Recently, he said he was stopped at an impromptu checkpoint. He noticed the gunmen were not Libyans but from countries like Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen.
Like other religious and tribal leaders, he asked to remain anonymous, saying it is too dangerous to speak out against the Islamic State, which he estimated number as many as 1,000 men in Sirte. He said they control control all the mosques.
“They have never given me trouble as they respect me – I taught some of them about the Quran before,” the sheikh as he sat in his refuge of a small, whitewashed room lined with mattresses in Misrata.
The fighters, he said, appeared to have money, had stocked up on supplies like fuel, and had recruited quietly through family networks.
The Islamic State flag now flies over the sprawling Ougadogou conference center Gadhafi built in Sirte. The militants also control the university, the Ibn Sina hospital, government buildings, including the police station and the passport office, as well as the seaport.
The militants also occupy the luxury Mahari hotel, the horrific scene of a seaside massacre by Misratan fighters against alleged Gadhafi loyalists in 2011, and more recently a suspected site for gruesome execution videos produced by the Islamic State.
Views of the Islamic State as a threat continue to evolve within the Tripoli-based government, and those from Misrata within it.
In January, after a spectacular terrorist attack on Tripoli’s Corinthian hotel and the videotaped beheadings of Egyptian laborers, Misrata dispatched its Brigade 166 to contain the Islamic State threat inside Sirte while other units continued fighting Hifter, a former Gadhafi general who defected to the United States in the 1980s and returned to Libya as the NATO air campaign deepened in 2011.
Misrata authorities talked tough about the Islamic State threat in March after Islamic State fighters murdered 10 Misratan militia members at a checkpoint, declaring their intention of ending the group’s presence in Sirte.
But an offensive by Hifter on Misratan forces outside Tripoli coincided with Misrata’s buildup to fight the Islamic State. Faced with two enemies, the Misratans chose not to engage in what they feared would be drawn-out urban combat in Sirte and instead tried to contain the Islamic State. The result was a series of tit-for-tat skirmishes on Sirte’s outskirts.
Despite the rising toll of Misratan fighters killed by the Islamic State around Sirte, Libya Dawn leaders continue to insist that Hifter was the deadlier threat.
The Misratan intelligence official, who spent time tracking down and capturing Islamic State militants, voiced frustration at what he perceived as a lack of support from the government in Tripoli. He produced a thick stack of unused credit cards from Aman Bank that he claimed was found on an Islamic State suspect and were used as a recruiting tool. Each had a spending limit of 20,000 Libyan – about $14,000.
He also had a notebook filled with phone numbers of suspects he claimed were pulled off Islamic State pages on Facebook, and religious literature culled from mosques in the coastal town of Sabratha, a major center for recruitment.
Misratan fighters also blame Tripoli’s Defense Ministry for their defeat at the hands of the Islamic State at Sirte’s airport on May 29. The airport had been a Misratan military base, but Islamic State fighters overran the Misratan positions. They also seized the massive pipeline that funnels water from desert aquifers to feed Libya’s thirsty coast. Soon after, the Islamic State captured the city’s main power station, 30 miles to the west. They also now control the coastal road east of Sirte running toward the country’s lucrative oilfields.
The Tripoli government provided little support – weapons, ammunition and wages – Misratan fighters complain, and now they fear the Islamic State is attacking Misrata itself, with a series of recent explosions inside the city.
A spokesman for the Tripoli government, Jamal Zubia, called for international support against the Islamic State. Libya Dawn’s rival in the east is the internationally recognized government.
“We are up against a well-financed enemy with sophisticated support,” he said. “And the international community should support us against them.”
But Zubia ruled out direct intervention, such as the NATO bombing campaign that toppled Gadhafi. “No one will accept that,” he said.
For Jamal Trachey, the military leader of Misrata’s elite Third Force, Tripoli’s hesitancy to tackle the Islamic State is a mistake. His fighters have been attacked by the Islamic State on the isolated desert road between the coast and Jufra, in southern Libya where they are based.
“The Islamic State is a bigger threat than Hifter,” he said.