By Frederic Wehrey & Emad Badi
After the removal of the Islamic State, Sirte faces multiple reconstruction and security challenges. Among the conflict-scarred pockets of Libya’s fractured landscape, the central coastal city of Sirte is a place of distinctive despair.
Strategically located at the western edge of the country’s petroleum-rich “oil crescent,” Sirte sits on the fault-line of Libya’s opposing factional forces. For many in the West, however, it is most famous as a loyalist haven, the place where Libyan dictator Mo‘ammar al-Qaddafi fled in his final days and met his end during the 2011 revolution.
Then it entered the spotlight again as the place where the Islamic State established its strongest territorial outpost outside of Syria and Iraq, before the group was ousted by Libyan forces backed by Western airpower and special forces in 2016.
More than a year after this liberation, Sirte has again faded to the margins, to the chagrin of its war-weary inhabitants. Vast sections of its downtown have been reduced to rubble, schools and universities have been closed, and mines and dead bodies still litter its streets and alleyways.
More important than this physical devastation, however, is the damage to the city’s political institutions and communal fabric. To be sure, much of this damage was rooted in the Islamic State’s violent rule.
While providing some degree of sought-after order and service provision, the Islamic State accelerated the erosion of tribal authority, upended social norms, and caused widespread displacement and trauma.
Yet in many respects, Sirte’s current afflictions are also a continuation of its unbroken history of exclusion in the post-2011 order and deep political wounds that have yet to heal.
A Bitter Legacy of Marginalization
Behind the easy stereotype of being a loyalist stronghold, Sirte has a complex identity and history. Its population of 150,000 includes over 20 tribes: the more prominent of these—the Warfalla, the Qaddadfa, the Awlad Suleiman, and the Firjan—have important links to tribal kin across Libya.
For centuries, Sirte was a middling settlement on the margins, linked by trade and social ties to the desert south rather than to the east or west. When Qaddafi’s reign began in 1969, all that changed.
Born in the nearby village of Qasr Abou Hadi, Qaddafi built Sirte up as an enclave for his favored tribes and elites, lavishing it with public housing, a university, and seaside villas.
Though Tripoli remained the capital, the dictator shifted several government institutions to the city, while promoting the ascendancy of his own once-minor tribe, the Qaddadfa, over Sirte’s larger tribes.
The 2011 uprising dealt a catastrophic blow to the city’s political standing and social fabric. Along with the town of Bani Walid, most of Sirte remained loyal to the Libyan dictator and endured a ferocious assault by anti-Qaddafi rebels backed by NATO airpower during last weeks of the war.
Vast sections of the city were destroyed by indiscriminate shelling and thousands of people fled. Victorious rebel forces looted homes, while conducting arrests and executions of Qaddafi loyalists—real or suspected—often solely on the basis of affiliation to the Qaddadfa or Warfalla tribe.
Much of the punishment was meted out by revolutionary fighters from Misrata, a powerful port city located 270 kilometers to the west. The ensuing animosity between Sirtawi tribes and Misratan forces would become a key feature of the city’s troubled history after 2011, one that partly facilitated the growth of the Islamic State.
In the months and years after the revolution, Sirte became a place of neglect, exclusion, and desperation. Many of its leading figures saw themselves targeted by the Political Isolation Law, a sweeping piece of legislation passed by Libya’s parliament in 2013 that excluded broad swathes of individuals from future government employment on the basis of their affiliation with the previous regime.
Added to this political marginalization, the post-revolutionary period brought far-reaching changes to the city’s social structure, conflict-resolution mechanisms, and tribal hierarchies.
Many in Sirte accused the Misratans of favoring a local Sirte tribe with roots in Misrata—the Ma‘dan—while ceding security responsibility to a jihadi-leaning militia coalition, the Sirte Security Committee.
As criminality, disorder, and inter-tribal disputes escalated, these jihadis presented themselves as conflict arbiters and police, and by 2013, with support from a Misratan jihadi militia, had coalesced into Ansar al-Sharia (formed independently from the similarly-named militia in Benghazi), which would become the progenitor of the Islamic State in Sirte.
The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State
Though the rise of the Islamic State had occasioned some debate within Ansar al-Sharia, by the summer of 2014 key Ansar leaders from Sirte were traveling to Syria to pledge allegiance to its caliphate, while the Islamic State in turn dispatched foreign advisors and ideologues to Sirte.
Initially, the Islamic State focused on preaching and religious education, though it gradually expanded into security provision and judicial matters. The latter was important given the collapse of courts and, crucially, the weakness of tribal elders to offer protection and engage in conflict mediation.
The Islamic State faced little resistance from Sirte’s divided tribes. By holding out the prospect of “repentance,” it was able to enlist members of former loyalist tribes—the Qaddadfa, Warfalla, and Magharba—who viewed the jihadi group as either protection against the Misratans or, at the very least, the lesser of two evils.
Increasing defections from Ansar al-Sharia and an influx of foreign fighters from the Arab world and the Sahel filled the Islamic State’s ranks. By late 2015, having crushed an uprising by the Firjan tribe and expanded into nearby towns, the group’s control was complete.
A crucial element in the Islamic State’s rise was Libya’s national civil war between two loose constellations of armed groups: Libya Dawn, a western-based coalition of Islamists and revolutionary towns, including Misrata, and Operation Dignity, comprised of eastern tribes, federalists, and disaffected military units, who had loosely coalesced into the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar.
By late 2014 and early 2015, the conflict had escalated into a battle for the oil facilities of the Sirte Basin. Geographically, the city of Sirte fell squarely on the seams of this fighting and with both sides more focused on fighting each other, the Islamic State was able to expand unobstructed.
Given their proximity, the Misratan militias were best positioned to confront the Islamic State, but the port city’s leaders feared that any expenditure of military force would leave them weakened against Haftar, whom they considered a greater threat.
It was not until May 2016, after the Islamic State had attacked checkpoints east of Misrata and threatened to cut off its trade route to the south, that Misratan-led militias finally moved on Sirte.
Mindful of the troubled history between Sirte and Misrata, Western diplomats tried to make the campaign more of a truly national effort, to include Haftar’s forces, but that did not happen.
The resulting six-month operation, Bunyan al-Marsus, or Solid Structure, was backed by American airpower and Western special operations forces. Over 700 anti-Islamic State fighters, mostly from Misrata, died in the fighting.
The operation was under the nominal authority of an internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, but in fact many of the anti-Islamic State fighting units grew increasingly wary of the government, and some were openly hostile to it.
Airstrikes and artillery caused significant damage to Sirte’s seaside and downtown areas, where the Islamic State made its final stand, though a number of its fighters had fled the city beforehand. While civilian casualties were reportedly minimal, the campaign left thousands displaced within and outside the city.
Predictably, some of the formerly loyalist tribes in Sirte feared a repeat of the excesses by Misratan militias in 2011 and fled. However, aside from some scattered reports of looting, the abuses did not happen to the extent feared.
.. continues in Part 2
This background article is drawn primarily from the authors’ fieldwork and interviews in Sirte.
Frederic Wehrey – Senior Fellow in Middle East Program. Wehrey specializes in post-conflict transitions, armed groups, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
Emadeddin Badi is a Business management graduate. Emad worked as an international soft skills trainer at Dale Carnegie Training, focused on engaging Libyans to solve conflicts via dialogue. Emad is CEO of Project Silphium, a Libyan NGO, and has helped diversify PS’ to become a well-established and trusted platform promoting gender equality and advocating for women involvement in peace building solutions.