By Frederic Wehrey
A Libyan fighter runs for cover in the town of Sirte, where various militias have been struggling to evict ISIS.
In late July, on a tree-lined avenue of villas in Sirte, the coastal home town of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Islamic State snipers pinned down a group of Libyan militiamen. It was early evening, a drawn-out time when the fighting usually starts to pick up.
The figures of young men crouching or darting across the street with rocket-propelled grenades cast long shadows in the soft light.
Amid the snap and rattle of automatic gunfire, the stereo from a nearby Toyota played an Islamic chant known as a _nashid _that seemed at once elegiac and fortifying.
An armored personnel carrier, one of a few in the Libyan fighters’ inventory, finally broke the impasse. The hulking, dun-colored vehicle lumbered to an intersection.
From a turreted heavy machine gun, a young fighter delivered a withering fusillade toward the snipers a few hundred metres away. Shouts of “God is great!” erupted.
In the months-long struggle in the Islamic State’s Mediterranean bastion, such confrontations have become typical. The Islamic State in Libya began to arrive in Sirte in late 2014, drawing partial support from tribes and communities that had enjoyed Qaddafi’s favors but were now excluded from the revolutionary order.
Most of its real muscle, though, came from abroad: Iraqi, Yemeni, Syrian, and Saudi advisers; foot soldiers from Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, and the Sahelian states to the south of Libya.
ISIS was able to tighten its grip because Libya is a shattered, hollowed-out country, lacking the basic sinews of governance that define a functioning state. There is no singular army or police unit. Instead, a dizzying array of militias holds sway, most of them loyal to towns, tribes, or power brokers.
Much of this disorder stems from the legacy of Qaddafi’s forty-two-year rule, but a lack of international follow-up after the 2011 revolution is also to blame. Then, in 2014, the country descended into civil war between eastern and western factions, which each fielded its own parliament, Prime Minister, and coalition of militias.
Each saw the other as a more pressing threat than the Islamic State, enabling the terrorist group to take hold and spread. Early this year, a United Nations-brokered unity government, meant to bridge the divisions, arrived in Tripoli. But that government is struggling to consolidate its authority and remains unrecognized by the eastern faction, which is allied with a powerful army officer and Qaddafi-era defector, General Khalifa Haftar.
By late 2015, local militias across the country had started pushing back against the Islamic State in the pockets of territory it controlled: Derna and Benghazi in the east and the western coastal town of Sabratha.
And, in May of this year, the unity government launched a campaign dubbed “al-Bunyan al-Marsus” to evict the Islamic State from Sirte, its strongest and most strategic base, sitting astride the petroleum-rich “oil crescent.”
After some euphoric advances, the fighting has slowed to grinding, block-by-block combat against the several hundred Islamic State fighters ensconced in the city center. The Libyan casualties have been heavy: more than three hundred killed since the assault began. Faced with these losses, the unity government requested American air strikes against the Islamic State in Sirte, which came on August 1st.
But, while Western powers may be able to help the military advance, they face a tougher challenge in forging unity among Libya’s factions—even among the disparate militias assaulting Sirte.
The Libyan fighters in Sirte number in the thousands and are drawn from hundreds of militias, most from the neighboring town of Misrata. The unity government exerts only nominal authority over them.
Some militias in Sirte reject the unity government’s legitimacy altogether and fight for their own parochial reasons, forging alliances with local Sirte tribes to gain political and economic leverage. Still others are Islamists.
I visited one militia composed almost entirely of adherents of the austere, literalist current of Islamism known as Salafism. One of its leaders, a bespectacled man in a calf-length gown, sat cleaning his teeth with a miswak, a twig whose use for dental hygiene was advocated by the Prophet Muhammad.
He seemed to hold the Islamic State, the rival Muslim Brotherhood sect, and America in equal contempt. “America created the Islamic State,” he told me. Among his comrades are a few hundred fellow-Salafists from Sirte who fled last year after a failed uprising against the Islamic State and are now returning.
On the liberated outskirts of Sirte, I visited a family who had suffered the terrorist group’s rule for more than a year. We sat in the cool shade under an awning, overlooking a vineyard and an olive grove.
A gangly dog had wandered into the parched field and was chasing a solitary chicken. My militia escort squeezed off a few rounds from his Kalashnikov to scare it away.
The family’s patriarch, an eighty-two-year-old with a doleful, leathery face, described the closure of banks, whippings for cigarette possession, his forced attendance at the public beheading of a venerated Sufi sheikh for “sorcery,” and, more recently, the dwindling of medical supplies and food.
Then there were the daily indignities of being stopped at a checkpoint and interrogated about mosque attendance or berated for a minor infraction in Islamic attire. Sometimes, he shook his head, his tormentors were Africans who barely spoke Arabic. “They should be exterminated,” he said.
“Daesh was born in Iraq, grew up in Syria, and died in Libya,” the militia fighter told me, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, as we drove back to downtown Sirte. The swagger of his words was unconvincing. A front-line commander, an engineer named Ali from Misrata, spoke with less certainty.
On the hood of his truck, he unfurled a satellite map of the sprawling city and showed me just how much of it remained to be conquered. He bemoaned the lack of body armor and helmets that left his men exposed. (Since then, however, the U.S. air strikes appear to have helped significantly. As of last week, the militias had further advanced into Sirte.)
When I visited a makeshift field hospital, a balding doctor told me that snipers are an especially vicious threat. In the urban areas, he said, Islamic State fighters armed with Dragunovs perch in half-finished cinder-block buildings. Others hide in spider holes in open fields.
And then, as if on cue, two soldiers arrived on wheeled gurneys. Their heads were bandaged from gunshot wounds; the eyes of one of them fluttered tentatively while a plastic tube sucked saliva out of his mouth. The doctor rushed forward, conferring with colleagues. “You see?” he said turning to me. “This is one of the cases I mentioned. And this one’s bad—his brain is coming out.”
Explosives are another threat, whether delivered by car-borne suicide bombers who hurtle toward checkpoints or concealed as booby traps behind doors or mines beneath roads.
In a contested western neighborhood known as the Dollar Quarter for its upscale homes, Ali, the front-line commander, took me to the palatial house of one of Qaddafi’s cousins, who had been captured the night before. It had been used as an Islamic State workshop to assemble explosive devices. The corpses of five Islamic State fighters were sprawled by a pond of dirty water.
Inside the house, we saw the scrawled graffiti of the Islamic State’s motto: “Lasting and Expanding.” Power tools, a workbench, wooden storage crates for rockets, and mattresses littered a cavernous hall.
Another room held shelves of glass flasks, funnels, and beakers, along with a witches’ brew of assorted chemicals: tartaric acid, acetic acid, sodium hydroxide, sodium sulfate.
Later that night, at his militia’s forward headquarters, Ali huddled before a laptop screen with another commander, plotting the next day’s advance into the Dollar Quarter.
They watched recent footage from drones—off-the-shelf models piloted by computer-savvy fighters that have proved indispensable for adjusting artillery fire and planning advances. The local population has departed from the ISIS-controlled areas of Sirte, where fighters and their families are the only inhabitants.
The imagery is also a remarkable, high-resolution window onto life—and death—behind enemy lines: on the computer screen, a woman clothed in black strolls across a rooftop; a mortar round demolishes a parked car, and Islamic State fighters rush from a house to see what happened; a wounded fighter crawls across a road, his leaking blood visible as a long dark streak.
But now Ali faced the problem of fierce resistance in advancing through the Dollar Quarter. One of his men told him that the drone had revealed a stronghold of Islamic State fighters blocking a key artery into the eastern half of the neighborhood. “Right,” Ali said. “The British told us the same thing.”
He meant the handful of British special forces stationed in Misrata, who, the militias told me, have provided information and have reportedly engaged in direct combat by destroying suicide vehicles with missiles.
The drone footage also revealed that the Islamic State vehicles throughout the day always avoided a certain road, zigzagging around it. “It’s mined,” Ali said. He told the mortar squad to fire at the area, disperse the fighters, and even detonate the mines if they could.
By midnight, the barrage was under way. Out on a sandy lot turned silver by moonlight, a mortar crew adjusted the angle of its weapon for a steep trajectory—the Islamic State was just a few blocks away. The crew members dropped the round in the tube; a loud retort sent it whizzing into the night. Then they braced for the inevitable predawn assault by Islamic State fighters, when they know the drones are useless.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His book on post-Qaddafi Libya will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in early 2017.