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.
The Herculean Tasks of Recovery and Security
Because of the intensity of the fighting against the Islamic State, Sirte’s recovery challenges would be enormous under even normal circumstances.
Yet, the city’s geographic location between the GNA’s Bunyan al-Marsus deployments and Haftar’s Libyan National Army has meant that polarization and political tensions are further obstacles.
The proximity of the contested and coveted oil crescent is yet another destabilizing factor. All of this has underscored the importance to the international community of strengthening the city’s resilience to mitigate risks of any social and political tensions devolving into tribal clashes.
Recognizing this, international organizations engaged in Sirte—such as the United Nations Development Program and the United States Agency for International Development—have attempted to engage local actors, civil society, and the municipality in the implementation process.
They have done so to enhance the sustainability of stabilization projects as well as embed a sense of ownership that would transcend tribal-political differences.
This comes on top of assistance to repair infrastructure, particularly primary and secondary schools, the university, and the hospital.
Nevertheless, an array of local issues is slowing these efforts. With the GNA holding little power and the international community’s support lacking a long-term focus, it has been difficult to strengthen the role of civil society, increase trust in Sirte’s municipality, or improve perceptions of the GNA.
Different interpretations of what stabilization encompasses among the multitude of donor states that operate in Sirte have also translated into a fragmented response.
Judicial institutions remain non-operational—a factor that may make Sirte’s residents particularly vulnerable to the influence of any group that can provide arbitration, justice, and conflict resolution, a tactic employed by Ansar al-Sharia in 2012 and later the Islamic State.
Currently, those arrested in Sirte are transferred to prisons in Misrata due to the absence of functioning prisons in the city, which creates tensions between Sirtawis and predominantly Misrati factions of Bunyan al-Marsus, particularly among the youth.
Day-to-day policing and law enforcement are also fraught with tribal, factional, and ideological tensions. After the ouster of the Islamic State, a powerful local militia called the 604th Infantry Brigade took over much of the city’s security functions.
Drawn primarily from members of Sirte’s Warfalla and Firjan tribes, many of whom had fled the city in summer 2015 after the Islamic State had brutally crushed the Firjani uprising, the 604th fought alongside the Bunyan al-Marsus coalition, drawing support from fighters in Bani Walid, Zintan, and Sabha, and material assistance from militias in Tripoli.
A distinguishing feature of the 604th is its members’ adherence to the so-called Madkhali variant of Salafism—named after its ideological progenitor, the Saudi cleric Rabi‘ bin Hadi al-Madkhali.
While Madkhali doctrine emphasizes obedience to a sitting ruler and political quietism, as constituted in Libya Madkhali followers are anything but apolitical; they are deeply embedded in Libya’s factional conflicts across the country and have exerted increasing influence in the policing sphere as well as in media, educational, and religious affairs.
In Sirte, this influence is particularly acute. The 604th has ousted imams of mosques and replaced them with Salafis, set up Salafi primary education, occupied a technical college, and taken over media outlets.
On policing matters, it is widely regarded as the most powerful security entity, arresting criminal suspects on behalf of the Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Investigation Department, guarding Sirte’s airport, and providing personal protection for municipal officials.
In some respects this provision of security, along with the legitimacy of the 604th as a locally-rooted, tribally-based entity, has allowed it to forge a social contract with some segments of Sirte’s population.
But for many other Sirtawis, the power of the 604th is a source of deep anxiety as its modus operandi is reminiscent of the Islamic State’s.
This is cemented by the fact that the 604th enforces Salafi social mores on dress, personal conduct, and religious rituals, which have no basis in Libya’s formal, codified laws.
The relations of the 604th with Misratan Bunyan al-Marsus forces are another source of tensions. Currently, Bunyan al-Marsus armed groups are positioned on the outskirts of the city, protecting its entrances through Sirte’s Protection Force.
Established by the Tripoli GNA in 2017 and largely staffed by Misratans from the Bunyan al-Marsus, the force has assumed some policing functions, though its relations with the 604th are fraught with suspicion.
Sirte’s Protection Force has also not received any payment from the GNA since the end of the Bunyan al-Marsus operation.
Controversially, the GNA has set up and formalized funding through its Interior Ministry for Sirte’s Security Directorate—an entity almost entirely reliant on the 604th Infantry Brigade as well as some ex-members of Tripoli’s Special Deterrence Force.
Though Sirte’s Security Directorate, Sirte’s Protection Force, and the Libyan National Army’s 128th battalion have recently coordinated joint patrols to secure the road from Sirte to Jufra from the Islamic State.
The relationship between the different forces remains tenuous and this marriage of convenience may be short-lived, especially if omitted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and other actors that could leverage the momentum it has created.
Aside from these policing tensions, other challenges vex the city. Although about 90 percent of its citizens have now returned to Sirte, many returnees still remain displaced in other neighborhoods.
This raises the sensitive issue of compensation and the role of the government and international institutions in providing support.
Similarly, there are frustrations over the slow pace of reconstruction, delays in delivering work, and a lack of transparency when it comes to how finances are being spent.
Mines and other unexploded ordinance continue to pose a threat, which many consider a shortcoming of Bunyan al-Marsus forces and Sirte’s municipality.
Though efforts led by international non-governmental organizations have been focused on raising awareness of this issue, residents often complain that actual demining activities are carried out very slowly.
This, coupled with the scarcity of medical supplies in Sirte’s main hospital, is a concern for those seeking emergency medical treatment.
Tribal competition is also on the rise, especially over lucrative reconstruction contracts. In particular, some in the city fear that Sirtawi contractors from tribes with roots in Misrata are establishing a “protection market” around reconstruction and rehabilitation work in Sirte.
The absence of a tribal mediation body has helped fuel these tensions—Sirte’s Wise Men Committee, an inter-tribal mediation body, was disbanded during the war against the Islamic State and recent efforts by the municipality to reconstitute it have faltered.
Though a Communications Committee made up of influential individuals who act as middlemen between the municipality and different actors within Sirte has been operational since August 2017, it has not been able to fully take on the responsibilities previously endorsed by the Wise Men Committee.
In light of these challenges, it is not surprising that the future for many in Sirte remains bleak. While the presence of the Islamic State within the city itself has been drastically diminished, militants are regrouping in the desert to the south and the threat from ambushes or vehicle-borne improvised devices is ever present.
But more important is the challenge from continued neglect, the glacial pace of recovery, and the constant specter of communal tensions. Taken in sum, these afflictions have only underscored the disenfranchisement felt by Sirte’s citizens since 2011.
Combined with the protracted power vacuum, this despair and disarray could present a renewed opening for a radical actor to emerge—either the Islamic State or some new jihadi variant—on the basis of providing order and justice.
Reconstruction and recovery in Sirte are therefore not only conditioned on strengthening local governance resilience; they also encompass moving away from reactionary and securitized responses to a focus on building Sirte’s local security capacities and reactivating its justice institutions.
This would prevent a local groundswell of frustration, grief, and anger from developing into a flashpoint—one that would transform Sirte’s stabilization from a Herculean task into a Sisyphean one.
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.