ISIS starts to tax residents in Sirte
Tunis - While the United Nations attempts to foster dialogue between Libya’s internationally recognised government in the eastern city of Tobruk and the Islamist-backed administration in Tripoli, some 400 km west of the capital, extremist ISIS militants are moving to establish a functioning state, something repeated interim Libyan governments have distinctly failed to do in the four years since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.
The Islamic State (ISIS) has set up sharia courts and reorganised the education system and curriculum in what was Qaddafi’s hometown in line with its extreme interpretation of sharia law. Now, having mercilessly crushed an uprising, it is giving everyone there a tax number and telling them they will have to pay tax. The penalty for not doing so or lying about income, according to a source in Sirte, will be draconian: beheading.
ISIS, already the sole power in an area radiating far from Sirte, clearly needs money to continue its expansion in Libya, but creating a tax system means the establishment of an administrative nucleus of a state that intends to be there for the long term.
It is already very much an international state. Its governor, Turki al-Binali, also known as Abu Sufyan al-Ualami and said to be 35 years old, is from Bahrain. Sources in the town speak of a multitude of Arab and African nationals – Tunisians, Algerians, Egyptians, Saudis, Yemenis and Sudanese as well as Chadians, Nigerians and Nigeriens. A number of the latter two, put variously at 80 or 200, are said to be from Boko Haram, the militant Nigerian group, which has also given its allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria and Iraq.
But there are also many Libyans. The chief imam in the town, Hassan Karami, is from Sirte although he was in Derna after the revolution. He is said to have been in Abu Sleem jail during the Qaddafi period. A significant number of fighters, too, are from the town or surrounding area. One of two Indian academics at a university seized by ISIS, then freed and who is now back in India, said that those involved in his abduction were local students.
In Sirte, ISIS has pursued a regime of terror to maintain its position, beheading people, including foreign Christians, and “crucifying” those it condemns as apostates. Indeed, any opposition is de facto apostasy in ISIS thinking because, as far as it is concerned, the so-called caliphate of which it is a part is divinely sanctioned. Even small crimes are publicly and brutally dealt with.
In Libya’s current deep divide, not all the horror stories out of Sirte can be verified. Libyan social media have indulged in a free-for-all of monstrosities supposedly carried out by ISIS with little concern for truth. Reports, for example, of the beheading of an Indian academic who was seized in July with the other two but not released have circulated widely although Indian diplomats say they are not true. The other side of the coin, however, is that for propaganda purposes ISIS revels in its notoriety.
Sirte is not the only ISIS centre in Libya. ISIS remains active in the hills behind Derna despite having lost the town to local pro-al-Qaeda fighters. It has a strong presence in Benghazi and a camp near Sabratha, west of Tripoli.
But Sirte is the axis of ISIS’s Libyan operations, with lines of communication east to Benghazi and Derna, west to Sabratha and its sleeper cells in Tripoli, and south to Sebha, Ubari and to Niger. The town that Qaddafi wanted to make his capital is now the capital of ISIS in Libya, and where it is consolidating its power. Moreover, having gained the strategic base because of the political divide it is using it to make the divide even greater.
On August 25th, a communications cable linking the east, west and, via Sirte, south of the country was deliberately cut by ISIS, according to officials in the Libyan Post, Telecommunications and Information Technology Company. As a result, landline and Libyan mobile phone communications between the three regions have stopped, although communications within them continues. The Al Madar mobile phone network has not been affected.
According to LPTIC, it is simply too dangerous to repair the damage at present.