How Libya’s Sirte fell into the hands of ISIS

Friday 21/08/2015
Screen grab of propaganda video in which ISIS boasts of seizing a large amount of weapons in Sirte

TUNIS - The central Libya coastal town of Sirte, Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown and scene of his last stand, again threatens to become the anvil on which Libya is either broken or remade.

Thanks to the Libyan political cri­sis, the town, roughly equidistant from the power bases of the interna­tionally recognised Libyan authori­ties in the east and the rival Libya Dawn/General National Congress (GNC) regime in Tripoli, is in the hands of militants supporting the Islamic State (ISIS).

ISIS’s takeover of Sirte was made possible mainly because of aliena­tion based on resentment of the revolution and of the occupying forces from Misrata. Despite claims that ISIS in Sirte consists of largely foreign fighters, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that most of its people are not only Libyan but local.

The takeover of Sirte from the Misratans occurred between April and June. The reaction in much of Libya at the time was patchy and resigned, with the main players try­ing to run the country blaming each other for Misrata’s fall. Amid the mutual condemnations, there was little sympathy for the town, with more than a suggestion that, as a bastion of the former regime, it was getting what it deserved.

That is no longer the case. Sirte is fully back at the centre of Libyans’ concerns.

The slaughter there of members of the Farjan tribe and Salafists as well as others who rose up against ISIS angered and united Libyans in the east, west and south. Claims put the number of dead, some of whom were beheaded, as high as 200, although that figure has been disputed.

ISIS had taken over almost all the mosques in Sirte, with the exception of a small number of Salafist ones, including the Cordoba mosque. Its imam, Khalid bin Rajab Ferjani, had refused to hand it over. He was shot by ISIS on August 10th.

The following day, Salafists and members of the Farjan tribe, sup­ported by members of the Qaddadfa and others, rose up against ISIS. They were no match for the terror group, which searched house-to-house for suspected opponents, killing many of those they found, including a number of women. One, named Khadija Al-Ferjani, was ar­rested and reportedly killed after she supposedly shot a number of ISIS gunmen who had broken into her home to search for insurgents.

ISIS crucified a number of those it killed, tying them to gibbets for pub­lic display, both as statement that it considers them apostates and as a warning to others that a similar fate could befall them.

The declaration of takfir (an ac­cusation of apostasy) against its op­ponents has also been used to deny them Muslim burial in the town’s cemetery. Families were ordered to bury their own in ordinary ground outside Sirte.

The Cordoba mosque, its library reportedly burned by ISIS, has been renamed “Masjid Abu Musab al-Zar­qawi” after the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a US air raid in 2006.

The events shocked Libyans with both sides of the political divide demanding decisive action against ISIS. Even controversial Sheikh Sadeq al-Ghariani, deposed as grand mufti by the House of Representa­tives but still accepted as such by the regime in Tripoli, got in on the act, demanding that both Libya Dawn and General Khalifa Haftar crush ISIS. However, there is no cooperation between the two sides which, given the strength of ISIS in Sirte, is deemed absolutely neces­sary for military action to succeed. The Libyan National Army was said to be making plans to attack Sirte and its planes carried out an assault on ISIS targets but without much effect, while Misratan forces were said to be advancing on the town and waiting orders to attack.

But again, in reality, nothing has happened, although in an August 17th letter to the Arab League, the GNC boldly claimed that its forces could and would destroy ISIS.

The main objective of the letter was to warn the Arab League not to approve military action against ISIS without GNC permission.

Taking a different tack and admit­ting that it does not have the ca­pacity to hit ISIS alone, the Libyan government in Beida called on the Arab League to authorise air strikes against it in Sirte, thus the reason for the GNC letter. Ignoring the GNC, it did so at an emergency meeting Au­gust 18th, although not in specific terms.

It now remains to be seen if Egypt and Jordan and possibly the Unit­ed Arab Emirates will send in the bombers.

Certainly, fearing that the situa­tion could get much worse, many residents are now reported to be fleeing the town.