Islamic State militants ferociously put down a civilian uprising in the Libyan city of Sirte this week, further tightening the group's grip over the terrorized local population, and cementing control of key roads that lead to the desert country's central oil fields and beyond.
Outrage over the assassination of Khaled Al-Ferjani, a conservative imam, by the self-styled Islamic State (IS) last Monday triggered a rebellion by residents of Sirte's District Three, most of them from the Ferjani tribe. The Salafist cleric had been an outspoken critic of IS in Sirte, a coastal city halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli that was former strongman Muammar Qaddafi's favored hometown, and had refused their demands to handover the neighborhood's Cordoba mosque.
On Thursday, IS fighters unleashed sophisticated and deadly firepower against the civilian-led insurgency, killing at least 40 people and wounding dozens more. Reports of beheadings have surfaced on Libyan social media, and people posted images of bodies strung-up on posts as IS preached loyalty to their self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from the now-captured mosque at Friday prayers.
"The people in Sirte are angry — they are boiling," one Sirte resident told VICE News. In March, after joining the 166 Brigade in Misrata, about 150 miles northwest of Sirte, he was placed on an IS "wanted" list. He has family, originally from Misrata, who still live in Sirte, and said when he was fighting he wore a balaclava to avoid recognition in town. "IS are blowing up homes of wanted people. They've got a list of people they want to kill."
Both the Libya Dawn forces, linked with Tripoli-based government and backed by Qatar and Turkey, and General Khalifa Heftar's Operation Dignity forces, allied with the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and supported by the UAE and Egypt, said they were bombing IS positions.
Repeated calls by Heftar to lift the international arms embargo in order to fight terrorism have not been answered, with diplomats skeptical as to whether shipping weapons into a county already brimming with arms would be used to target IS, or further fuel the civil war.
A Libyan ground assault has yet to materialize, and while the dueling governments plead for indirect international support to combat IS, they balk at foreign boots on the ground.
Misratans say the Tripoli-based government has not backed them with weapons, ammunition, or medical help to fight IS.
Local ceasefires have recently been brokered between warring groups in western Libya, but their fighters have yet to join Misrata in providing a unified military response to IS. And by holding a showpiece military parade in downtown Tripoli during the IS assault on Sirte, the Libyan Dawn alliance has signaled that it is still divided on who constitutes their biggest threat: Heftar or IS.
"Sirte residents been left to deal with extremist IS alone, as none of the two Libyan governments have stepped up their responsibilities," Hanan Salah, a Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, tweeted this week.
IS was a latecomer to Libya. Surfacing first in Derna last fall, its presence has spread rapidly since the high profile attack on the luxury Corinthia hotel in downtown Tripoli in January, and the brutal, slickly videotaped mass beheading of Egyptian laborers along the Libyan seashore soon after.
Now driven to the outskirts of Derna and in the battle against Heftar's forces in Benghazi, Sirte is fertile ground for the militant group. A home to tribes favored by Qaddafi, including his own Qaddafa tribe, Sirte's residents suffered when NATO bombing and ground attacks devastated their town during the 2011 revolution.
Today, IS in Sirte is a toxic mix of disenfranchised local residents and defectors from Islamist group Ansar Al Sharia, which was previously the dominant group there. An increasing number of foreigners from Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, and Yemen have also joined.
"Suddenly young people were joining IS. They were on the radio station promising them heaven and money," the now-wanted Sirte resident explained. "We played football together and were not very religious growing up. But after the revolution, many people in Sirte saw death and doomsday and became more religious."
'Suddenly young people were joining IS. They were on the radio station promising them heaven and money.'
Misratan security officials have confiscated recruitment tools from captured IS fighters, including stacks of unused credit cards and brochures, and tracked down militants from contact numbers on IS Facebook pages.
In March, VICE News accompanied fighters with Misrata's Brigade 166, the special force tasked to contain the IS threat, on a fast drive through the heart of Sirte, past the ominous black IS banner pinned to their headquarters in the Ougadougou complex.
Days later, an explosive fight between IS and Brigade 166 left 17 militants dead and opened up a new front line. After the coldblooded murder of 10 Misratan fighters at a checkpoint by IS, Misratan forces geared up to oust them for good.
But Heftar's shock attack on Libya Dawn forces on Tripoli's outskirts on March 21 derailed the offensive. Misrata now faced two enemies, and stretched thin in fights against Dignity across Libya, Libya Dawn opted out of a messy urban battle in Sirte and chose to contain IS there instead.
After tit-for tat skirmishes, the Misratans were driven out of their key Sirte positions at the airbase and power plant by suicidal IS fighters, armed with powerful weapons, a seemingly endless supply of ammunition, and little fear of death.
IS now controls the coastal town's airport, seaport, and government buildings, the precious man-made river source that pipes water through the desert to the coast, and an enormous power plant that supplies the central region.
Significantly, they have also infiltrated key roads running from Sirte to the east along the coast, and to the isolated town of Jufra in the south, both near Libya's lucrative central oil fields, coastal terminals, and smuggling routes.
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Oil production in the area is currently shut down, with Libya producing fewer than 400,000 barrels per day, down from the peak of 1.6 billion during Qaddafi's rule.
Misratan forces are now pushed back 60 miles west from Sirte at a desert intersection called Abugren. They are guarding another key road from the coast to Jufra and Sebha in Libya's south, where their Third Force is also based. The road is used to bus fighters, petroleum, and supplies down through the desert.
"Abugren is the red line for us," declared Ali Abusetta, a local government official in Misrata who is a strong supporter of the talks brokered by the United Nation's Bernadino Leon for a unity government. Abusetta believes a unified front could tackle IS, but admits Heftar and holdout GNC members could spoil the deal.
"We underestimated Daesh in Sirte and we did not do our homework well," a Misratan security official admitted to VICE News on condition of anonymity, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
"The political situation in Libya did not help us mount a significant attack and the West did not intervene," he added. "So Daesh felt safe that no one would interfere and they expanded. No one put Daesh as a priority."
Anas El-Gomati, director of the Saddeq Institute, agrees. "IS in and around Sirte have been stress-testing Misrata, and been able to penetrate checkpoints and critical security infrastructure with their daring acts of violence," he told VICE News. "They want to see how far Misrata is willing to go politically, militarily and territorially.
"IS now understands that the oil fields are not manned, and they can operate there as a result of disinterest by both sides of the civil war," El-Gomati continued. "It's unlikely in the near future IS will exploit oil resources — but they will frustrate efforts of the unity government, or the alternative Dawn and Dignity governments, to do the same."
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