By Hassan Morajea and Maria Abi-habib
Libyan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes retook the coastal city of Sirte from Islamic State on Monday, ending a monthslong battle for the extremist redoubt and dealing a fresh blow to the extremist group’s regional ambitions.
The victory over Islamic State was secured when forces loyal to the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli took over the last militant-controlled neighborhood in Sirte, according to a spokesman for the military offensive. Dozens of Islamic State fighters surrendered, and the women and children accompanying them were transported to government-controlled territory.
The overall toll for Libyan government forces in the protracted battle to retake the Mediterranean coastal city was heavy: Nearly 700 of the pro-government fighters were killed and many more wounded since the offensive began in May, according to authorities.
“Islamic State’s rule over Sirte is now over,” said the spokesman, Mohammed al-Ghasri, adding that pro-government forces were still scouring the area for potential suicide bombers.
Islamic State’s defeat in Libya comes as its forces are dislodged across Syria and Iraq, where its leaders reside and from where it manages its affiliates such as Sirte. The franchise has taken a hammering at the hands of the U.S. and an array of local allies, from militias in Libya to Kurdish rebels in Syria.
As Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate lose its ability to act like a nation-state, replete with a military force capable of conquering and controlling territory across the Middle East, it is falling back on insurgent style hit-and-run tactics such as suicide bombings as a way to assert influence. Consequently, the group could be more eager to launch attacks on soft targets in Europe, according to a report last week by the European Union’s police agency.
Sirte was the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi and fell under Islamic State rule in March 2015. Crippled by tribal disputes, no other Libyan force attempted to retake control of the city until May, when the extremist group’s drive to expand neared the powerful city-state of Misrata.
That prompted Misrata’s militia to begin their offensive to roll back the 170-mile stretch of Mediterranean coastline held by Islamic State, culminating in Monday’s victory.
In August the U.S. threw its weight behind the offensive and began providing air support for pro-government forces. By Monday, it had carried out 492 airstrikes against Islamic State targets, according to the Pentagon.
As Islamic State fighters lost their last remaining foothold in Sirte, they put their families into battle in a last-ditch attempt to inflict casualties on government forces, Mr. Ghasri said, including a woman who detonated her explosive load while being evacuated. On Friday, two suicide bombers detonated their explosives and killed two government soldiers, according to the offensive’s press office.
Mr. Ghasri, the military spokesman, said there remained much work to do to make Sirte habitable. “Families won’t be able to return until mines are cleared,” he said.
Although Islamic State has endured a string of military defeats across the Middle East, the land mines and improvised explosive devices they leave behind have slowed the U.S.-led military campaign. The explosives prevent U.S.-allied forces from Libya to Iraq from fully liberating formerly militant-held towns, which in turn allow reconstruction and the renewal of government services, and enable residents to return home.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord is also concerned that hundreds of Islamic State fighters escaped Sirte and dispersed to towns and smaller cities in the south of the country. Mr. Ghasri said government forces would now expand their military operations there.
Samantha Reho, a spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, which oversees American military operations and military relations with 53 African nations, said Monday that U.S. airstrikes could be expanded to target Islamic State in other parts of Libya.
Demonstrating their ability to continue wielding influence, Islamic State recently released a video of their militants manning a checkpoint on a desert road just south of Sirte.
The success of the Sirte offensive is crucial step in the effort by the U.N.-backed Tripoli administration to expand its influence across Libya as a rival government in the east refuses to recognize its legitimacy.
The government can now focus more of its energy on implementing rule of law and reviving the country’s oil production, which is currently a mere fraction of what it was before Libya’s civil war broke out in 2011.
Hassan Morajea, a freelance Journalist.
Maria Abi-Habib is a roving Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, focused on terrorism issues and jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Wall Street Journal