It's been more than a year since Islamic State fighters consolidated their brutal rule over the coastal city of Sirte and the Libyan desert beyond, establishing their first foothold outside their so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Now, they might be on the verge of losing it, to a coalition of Libyan armed groups backed by Western nations — but they are putting up a vicious fight.
The hometown of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who fell in 2011 in a revolution followed by a war that hasn't stopped since, lies 240 km (150 mi) east from Misrata, home to the fighters leading the charge on Sirte. In a surprising series of rapid victories, Misratan and allied forces this past month have successfully pushed the militants on the defensive, back hundreds of kilometers, to the now-besieged city.
But that push, after a year of stasis, comes at an alarming human cost. The fighters on this front line say IS is deploying against them suicide bombers who drive what they call Mad Max-style vehicles — rigged contraptions designed to kill the most people. So far they have killed 150 fighters and wounded hundreds more.
The toll is evident at Misrata's emergency hospital, swamped with casualties and with their families, friends and fellow fighters, anxiously waiting to hear about the wounded or the dying.
And then there are the makeshift landmines and booby-trap explosives, not to mention possible human shields, that have become a trademark of retreating Islamic State fighters in Iraq and have been appearing in Libya too.
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Last Thursday at the Sirte frontline, one day before his death from an IS explosive device, Abdul Salem Anijar, a deminer from nearby Zliten, showed VICE News the homemade, rudimentary landmines his team had dismantled that day.
"Everything is booby-trapped," he said, speaking over a loud barrage of mortars and gunfire from the fight. Anijar and his team had painstakingly dismantled the lethal devices ahead of the fighters for 16 days and nights straight, but lacked the proper equipment for the enormity of the task facing them, he said.
Even with those deadly constraints, the battle's swift momentum is changing the calculus for Libya's rival political powers, and it's putting the initiative in the hands of the western-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, while taking it away from General Khalifa Haftar in the east.
For the GNA, allied with the Misratans — who have some of the strongest armed groups to come out of the 2011 revolution — and propped up by Western nations that are also providing discreet military support, taking Sirte would be a chance to gain legitimacy by ridding Libya of the Islamic State.
For Haftar, a former Qaddafi general who now leads the strongest militia in the east with support from several Arab governments — and has long waged a war against Islamists in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city — not getting to Sirte first is a military and political setback. The government-in-exile that he supports, based in Tobruk and one of three competing political powers in Libya, will also suffer.
Islamic State is a latecomer to Libya's chaos. It debuted in the country with a high-profile attack in January last year at the luxury Corinthia hotel in Tripoli, followed a month later by a gruesome, videotaped mass killing of Christian Egyptians.
In Sirte, IS first attracted members from the local chapter of an Islamist extremist group, Ansar al-Sharia — whose Benghazi fighters are accused of the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012 — to their bigger, better-financed brand of jihad. They also recruited marginalized residents nostalgic for the Qaddafi regime, and former intelligence officials. Injected into the mix was a steady stream of foreign fighters from countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Niger, Iraq and Yemen. In January 2015, IS hoisted its black flag from the city's landmark, the sprawling Ouagadougou complex, and declared it was in Sirte to stay.
Alarmed Misratans soon dispatched a brigade to clear IS out. However, they failed to gain the trust and support of Sirte's wary tribal elders, still stinging from the revolutionary fighting in 2011, which left their town in ruins. The Tripoli-based government that preceded the current Western-backed one, and its allied militias known as Libya Dawn, were too preoccupied with a violent power struggle against Haftar to lend much support.
And so, the Islamic State commanders has been relatively free to consolidate its grip over Sirte, holding a mostly terrified population hostage, controlling government offices, banks, mosques, checkpoints and communications, enforcing its brand of Islamic law, and brutally cracking down on dissent. Like in Syria and Iraq, beheadings and crucifixions in public have worked to silence the population.
It also steadily expanded its presence from Sirte into Libya's oil fields, cutting off strategic roads and taking control of lucrative smuggling routes, and edging westward towards Misrata itself.
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After a year of attacks against Misratan forces, it took two spectacular suicide bombings near their town in early May to finally put Misrata on the offensive.
15,000 people have fled the city to avoid an inevitable urban battle. Mohammed, who fled Sirte from Misrata three weeks ago and who did not want to use his real full name for fear IS would destroy the home and business he left behind, said he first learned of Islamic State when one of his employees, an Egyptian Coptic Christian, went missing in November 2014. He resurfaced as one of those beheaded in the IS execution video three months later.
The Salafists in Mohammed's neighborhood, fundamentalists Muslims who were however notorious for their strong dislike of IS in Libya, rose up and suffered a violent crackdown; protesters were rounded up and executed last August. "Their way of getting information from anyone was to put them in an [orange] execution suit," he said. "Once they put me in an execution suit and I thought death was near, I told them everything I knew."
According to Mohammed's estimates, there are about 2,000 fighters in the city, with an additional 1,000 religious and logistics staff. About 90 percent of Sirte's residents have fled, he believes, leaving behind those who have family members in the Islamic State or who have nowhere else to go. The city is now effectively under siege. Black market prices for gasoline and cooking gas in the town have skyrocketed, and communications are completely cut off, he said.
The siege won't lead to an easy victory, according to Mohammed. IS fighters are holed up in homes lining the seashore, near the luxury Mahari Hotel — the scene of a massacre of Gaddafi loyalists by vengeful revolutionaries in 2011 — and the roads leading to them are mined, he said. "Sirte is full of weapons from Qaddafi, and Daesh have all of them," he said, using the Arabic name for IS.
The past week fighters have taken back Sirte's power station and airport, and are now battling the militants in the heavily mined farmlands surrounding the city itself. The Misratan coalition has killed around 700 IS men so far, its spokesman Mohamed al-Ghasri has said.
According to coalition leaders, the operation to drive IS out of Sirte is led and carried out by Libyans, and Western militaries are helping only in advisory and logistics roles, not actually shooting. That contradicts a report in the The Times on May 26, which quoted one field commander as saying British special forces fired a missile at a suicide car bomber gunning for his men. The British do call in coordinates for Misratan warplanes to strike, from a location pointed out to VICE News near Sirte's frontline.
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Coalition leaders say they want to wrap up the conquest of Sirte within days, despite the spectre of a looming, bloody urban battle and the daytime fasting that their soldiers observe during the month of Ramadan, which ends on July 5. They are not the only ones approaching the besieged city: heading towards Sirte from the east is an uneasy coalition partner, Ibrahim Jadran, who leads a force of fighters protecting the nearby oil fields and now allied with the GNA.
They are also keeping a wary eye on the militias of General Haftar. Military leaders in Misrata are aware that the general's tribe, the Ferjan, are the majority population in Sirte, an important fact in a society where tribal affiliation matters heavily.
To ensure they are welcomed, Misratans are already promising that they will treat the people of Sirte fairly.
Military commander Bashir Al Ghadi told VICE News he has met with local government officials from Sirte now exiled in Misrata to talk about the next step. "When we enter Sirte, we will hand it over to local families once we secure it," he said. "They will warn people that if anyone is punished for cooperating with Daesh, we will take this seriously."
A previous version of this story misidentified the geographic location of Sirte. The story has been amended.