By Sudarsan Raghavan
For nearly two years, this ancient, beachfront city, famed for its Roman ruins, was one of North Africa’s largest smuggling hubs, a gateway for tens of thousands of migrants seeking better futures in Europe.
Now, there are none on the beaches where hundreds of rickety boats once ferried them to Italy illegally, none in the migrant detention center where they ended up when an attempt failed.
At the five-star West Tallil Holiday resort, the white, two-story villas once housed as many as 3,000 migrants at a time waiting to set sail. Their traffickers, who had seized the hotel, had erected sand dunes along the beach to hide them from Libyan coast guard patrols and curious swimmers.
The resort is now empty, as are the smugglers’ other safe houses.
Ferocious street battles among rival armed groups erupted this fall, ultimately driving out the young warlord Ahmed Dabbashi, whose militia ran the trade in migrants. The victors then expelled the migrants.
A rare visit by a reporter to Sabratha this month revealed how the massive trafficking of Africans, which has roiled European countries and raised concerns about widespread abuses of the migrants, is tied up with Libya’s internal power struggles.
The ebb and flow of migration reflect the shifting fortunes of the city’s civil war, emblematic of the strife afflicting Libya since the Arab Spring.
Dabbashi, a black-haired and bearded fighter from a prominent tribe, widely known by his nickname Amu, had been above the law. As a teen, he had stolen cars and robbed shops, then graduated into trafficking arms and fuel.
By the summer of 2015, he had entered the burgeoning migrant trade, according to local officials, tribal leaders and United Nations investigators. His control over that trade deepened as Libya’s weak, U.N.-installed government in the capital, Tripoli, looked the other way.
“He was a vicious fighter,” Col. Najmi Farah, a police investigator, said of Dabbashi. “He always carried two revolvers.”
Locals say he once killed two men and dumped their bodies on the street to stir fear in people. From then on, residents were too scared to look him in the eye.
The fierce urban clashes broke out after one of Dabbashi’s cousins was killed in September in a skirmish with a competing armed group.
Soon, other militias and tribes joined the fray, making common cause against Dabbashi’s forces, called the Anas al-Dabbashi Brigade.
Some migrants were killed in the crossfire, their bodies strewn in the streets. Thousands more fled to neighboring areas. When the migrants reemerged, an unlikely coalition of Libyan National Army soldiers and ultraconservative Muslim fighters were in control of Sabratha. Known as the Anti-ISIS Fighting Room, they swiftly dispatched most of the migrants to detention centers in other cities.
“It’s finished for now,” said Muhammed Amma, 32, a migrant from Chad who fled the fighting and was now cleaning streets for the municipality. “The boats to Europe have stopped.”
Amid the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Dabbashi helped lead a rebel brigade during the NATO-supported revolt that toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. When Dabbashi’s cousin, Anas, was killed in one clash, the brigade was renamed in his honor.
In the ensuing chaos, criminal and smuggling networks expanded. Human smuggling became the most lucrative.
“It’s easy money,” said Hussein Dhwadi, Sabratha’s mayor. “It’s better than trafficking in drugs.”
In August 2015, more than 200 migrants drowned off the coast of Zuwarah, 15 miles west of Sabratha. That disaster triggered an angry backlash by locals in Zuwarah, who pushed the smugglers out. Thousands of migrants headed toward Sabratha, generating even more wealth for Dabbashi.
Though Dabbashi was known to smoke and drink whiskey and seldom prayed at the mosque, members of his clan aided or sympathized with the Islamic State, which had by then turned Sabratha into a clandestine haven, according to interviews with local officials, police and tribal leaders. In a report this year, U.N. investigators said the Dabbashi militia had “links with local elements” of the Islamic State.
Neither Dabbashi, who is in hiding, nor a senior member of his militia could be reached either by phone or through messages left on his Facebook page.
After U.S. airstrikes pummeled an Islamic State compound in Sabratha in February 2016, killing scores of militants, tribal and local armed groups rose up to push out the remaining extremists. Dabbashi himself turned forcefully against the Islamic State, a strategic decision to preserve his trafficking. He also nominally aligned himself with the Western-backed government in Tripoli, one of three regimes competing for authority in the country.
“The Dabbashi militia was in control of everything,” said Khalid Muhammed Hassan, an influential leader of a rival tribe. “They had money and power.”
Dabbashi’s fighters manned round-the-clock checkpoints at the entrance and the exits to Sabratha and sometimes demanded bribes. They parked their tanks and trucks at a former Islamic State camp. They also trained there, using an obstacle course with tunnels to crawl through, spiked fences to jump over and ropes for climbing.
Anyone deemed a threat to their trade in humans was a target. In April, gunmen followed Jamal Ali to his office. An aid worker, he had worked with the United Nations to expose beatings and sexual assaults against migrants.
“They fired bullets at me,” recalled Ali. “But I got out of my car and ran.”
Battle for the city
Resentment against Dabbashi’s militia rose.
“We were against them,” Hassan said. “War was inevitable.”
On Mayor Dhwadi’s desk at the Sabratha Municipal Council, his wooden nameplate is marred by a pair of bullet holes. In the summer, Dabbashi’s gunmen entered the building searching for the mayor, who was out of town.
“It was an aggression not against me but against the whole municipality,” Dhwadi said.
Tensions between the militia and the wider community, including local authorities and influential tribal leaders, finally boiled over. When the killing of Dabbashi’s cousin touched off a full-blown war, rival tribes and even ordinary citizens picked up arms to fight alongside the Anti-ISIS Fighting Room.
Fierce battles between militiamen armed with Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy artillery raged through Sabratha’s neighborhoods. Shells pounded the walls of Sabratha’s ancient outdoor theater, built by the Romans more than 1,500 years ago. Artillery and rifle fire tore into schools, municipal buildings, hospitals and storefronts.
On Oct. 6, after 19 days of fighting, Dabbashi was ousted from the city.
When the Room captured a tan-and-black military building that had been Dabbashi’s operations center, they made a disturbing discovery. There were 15 African migrants locked inside what had become a makeshift jail.
“Some were sick,” recalled Sgt. Shaqir Oshash, who now guards the site. “Others couldn’t move. They hadn’t eaten in a long time.”
An uneasy peace
Silence now fills the large warehouse that served as the government-run detention center. On the floor are worn-out mattresses, blankets, ragged shoes and empty water bottles — debris left behind by thousands of migrants.
Since Dabbashi’s militia was ousted, more than 10,000 migrants have been expelled from Sabratha, local anti-migration officials said. Those who arrive are quickly detained and placed on a bus to detention centers elsewhere in Libya. In Tripoli, many are being put on planes to be deported back to their home countries.
While the battle for Sabratha choked off the flow of migrants bound for Europe, it had already been declining in the months before hostilities broke out.
Italy and the European Union had begun training and equipping the Libyan coast guard, which increased patrols in the summer to intercept and return migrants to Libya, often to face more abuse.
Leading figures in Sabratha provide another explanation for the reduction. They say they believe Dabbashi had received a significant payment from Italy to stop the migrant smuggling trade.
In a telephone interview, Italy’s ambassador to Libya, Giuseppe Perrone, disputed that account. “We don’t fund militias,” he said.
The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe this year has declined 47 percent from 2016. But more than 170,000 migrants still arrived, and more than 3,000 drowned this year.
Around Sabratha, thrilled residents said prices of food and other goods have gone down because of the sharp reduction in migrants.
On a recent day, uniformed soldiers manned checkpoints, carefully searching vehicles. More residents are driving their cars at night, no longer afraid of drugged-up militia fighters. In an enclave once dominated by Dabbashi, graffiti on a wall reads: “Libya is back. Sabratha is back.”
Sabratha’s residents said they feel more secure.
“Previously, we couldn’t walk at night,” said Abdul Hakim Al Mashawat, who lives across the road from the rubble of the Islamic State compound destroyed by the U.S. airstrikes. “By sunset, we locked ourselves inside. Sometimes, the militiamen can take your car.”
But few believe Sabratha’s woes are over.
The commanders of the Anti-ISIS Fighting Room said they are getting little assistance from the Tripoli government. At stake, they said, is their control over the city. “We need support,” said Col. Ibrahim Majoub. “Otherwise, things could deteriorate at any moment.”
The group’s allegiances are also in question. Some officers openly express support for Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a strongman based in eastern Libya who doesn’t recognize Tripoli’s authority.
Dabbashi, meanwhile, is sending threats to local authorities and tribal leaders and calling his supporters to stage an uprising, community leaders said. In a Dec. 5 Facebook post, Dabbashi wrote: “We will return to the city during these days with our weapons and force.”
African migrants who were trapped in the middle of the street fighting said they now have another journey in mind: After seeing a few bullet-riddled bodies of fellow migrants, Muhammad Amma wants to return to Chad.
“There are too many problems now,” he said. “Once I have the money, I will go home.”
Sudarsan Raghavan, the Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief, has been variously based in Nairobi (twice), Baghdad, Kabul, Johannesburg and Madrid. He joined the Post in 2005 after working mostly in Africa for Knight Ridder, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsweek.