By Francesca Mannocchi
A fringe Salafist group is slowly building huge influence on several fronts in Libya’s chaos, and locals are saying the rise of an ultraconservative Islamist militia looks very familiar.
It is nine o’clock in the morning when Khaled al Bouri walks with his son Mohammed through the rubble of their home in the Giza district of Sirte.
Giza was a populous neighbourhood in Gaddafi’s hometown, and in 2015 was chosen by the local Islamic State group franchise to become the capital of its “Caliphate in the Maghreb”.
After seven months of fierce fighting, the deaths of 700 soldiers and injuries sustained by 3,000 more, the city was officially retaken on December 6, 2016.
Sixteen months have since passed, yet under the rubble of Sirte there are still hundreds of corpses.
The area of the city facing the sea, the theatre of the final battle, is destroyed and uninhabited. Here there is the wreckage of weapons strewn amid the carbonised cars and the craters from the 500-or-so airstrikes.
Occasionally some resident walks through the ruins of this ghost town in search of a piece of their past.
“I do not like coming back here,” says Khaled, with the remains of a ceramic vase in his hands. “I lived in this house for twenty-five years, and for me it is too painful – but my son asks me to go back to look for his stuff. This is why I bring him here once a month.”
On the wall of the room that once was his bedroom, Mohammed writes with a marker: “My memories are buried under these stones.” On the faded light blue walls are the shadows of his figurines, the remains of Mickey Mouse embedded into the plaster, seared and scorched by mortar shrapnel.
Today Khaled’s family lives with relatives in a suburban area of the city: there is no work, schools are struggling to reopen. Infrastructure is largely destroyed and the whole coastal road has been invaded by the stench of the broken sewers.
In a room on the first floor of a destroyed house, a calendar hanging from a wardrobe door is stopped at February 2011 – the date of the Libyan revolution. Even the hopes of thousands of Libyans seem to have stopped seven years ago.
“The government told us that they would help us,” Khaled continues. “But clearly there is always money to fight the enemies, but there is never money to help the victims.
“There are still mines around here, and there is no clean water, our children will get sick and the world has left us, again. Sirte was punished after the revolution, occupied by IS – and now it continues to be punished.”
In 2015, IS fighters in northern Africa took advantage of political instability, the power vacuum and old tribal disputes to expand in Libya. And while IS is largely vanquished from this town, these conditions which acted as a catalyst in the rise of the group are far from resolved.
Libya’s economy is suffering a major crisis – public employees often don’t receive their salaries and there are fewer and fewer who trust the Tripoli government, which is supported by the international community.
The kidnappings and armed assaults are high on people’s lists of complaints. In a single week, the military prosecutor Masoud Erhouma was kidnapped by armed men belonging to an unidentified militia, and the convoy of High Council of State chief Abdelrahman Al-Sweihli was ambushed by an armed group in the Gharian area.
The powerful militias of Misrata, the first in the revolt against Gaddafi, were also the most active in the battle of Sirte. They comprised the coalition of forces named Bunyar al-Marsus, which formally has the task of ensuring the security of the city.
“The city is safe,” says General Mohammed el-Naas, the Bunyar al-Marsus commander in charge of Sirte’s security. “The city was hard hit; 500 US bombings hit the city during the war, about 2,000 buildings have been damaged and certainly there are still hundreds of corpses under the rubble.
“But there is no risk of a return of IS in the city; we have also defeated sleeper cells.”
However, the optimism of Misrata’s leaders is undermined by the attacks in the rest of the country.
In recent weeks there have been three attacks claimed by IS in Libya, the latest was a car bomb at a checkpoint in Waddan, central Libya.
At the beginning of February an attack on Dahra oil field killed three soldiers of the self-styled Libyan National Army – the militia run by rogue general Khalifa Haftar – and on February 10 another car bomb exploded 90 kilometres east of Sirte, also targeting Haftar’s troops.
“They have changed their strategies,” continues al-Naas. “They are few, but not less dangerous. Now they act in groups of four, five people at most.
They attack the checkpoints. They do not want to conquer anything, they just want to show they can still destabilise the country. IS has maintained a low profile with sporadic attacks since they lost Sirte.
“Since then, the militia have dispersed mostly in the south of the country, an area out of control where there are a few hundred fighters.”
IS targets are still the same: oil facilities and strategic cities, but unlike before, the goal is not to occupy or conquer them, rather to undermine their security and show their presence.
“They have changed the zones of influence,” says al-Naas. “Moving from the Tunisian borders to the south. The main routes today are Chad and Sudan.
They have alliances with the armed groups of these countries and also with those of Mali, and the non-existent southern borders of Libya guarantee the passage of new recruits and weapons.
“At the moment the deal with these groups is neither ideological nor religious, rather it’s necessary to guarantee an income through the trafficking of weapons, drugs and human beings and an armed control of the area.
The agreement between these groups and IS works to guarantee mutual economic benefit and a geographical control.”
The office of Ismail Shukri, head of Misrata’s intelligence agency, is spacious and bare.
On the wall to the right of his desk a screen shows images from the building’s CCTV cameras, on the left wall the television broadcasts an Egyptian soap opera.
Shukri has a beige suit, he moves elegantly, he is in the office from early morning and like many fathers in Misrata today, he has not accompanied his children to school. The town’s teachers, who have not been paid for months, have been on strike for days.
He shows much less optimism than he did during the war in Sirte, his desk full of papers to sign, but Shukri doodles nervously on a notebook.
“Leave us alone” are the first words he says, almost angrily. “I take the responsibility to pronounce these words, in my role. But it’s better if Western countries leave us alone instead of mocking us with non-standing agreements.”
He was referring to the alleged agreement much publicised by Italy’s minister of foreign affairs, Marco Minniti, with the Tebu and Awlad Sulayman tribes in Sebha.
“Those Europe call ‘mayors of the south’ do not represent anyone,” said Shukri.
“In Sebha there has been fighting for weeks, several civilians died, hospitals do not know how to cope with the demand, entire neighborhoods are in the hands of armed groups – and we can say that the whole area is less and less Libyan, and always more controlled by militias of neighbouring countries.
“And the international community, after celebrating the liberation of Sirte, has abandoned us. So, it’s much better that Europe leaves us alone in solving our problems, because at the moment it has only made them worse.”
Francesca Mannocchi is an Italian journalist who previously reported from the front lines of the battle for Mosul and on the refugee crisis in Libya. She writes and broadcasts for a number of regional and international publications.