Fierce fighting broke out Saturday between Islamic State militants and a Libyan militia that may mark the beginning of a battle to push the radical jihadis from this oil-rich North African nation.
As many as 19 people died in the confrontations, with the government in Tripoli, which is allied with the Misrata militia that battled the Islamic State loyalists, reporting that two of its fighters had died. The Misrata militia said that it had killed 17 Islamic State militants and had taken many more prisoner. The prisoners were being taken to Misrata, 150 miles west of Sirte, the militia said.
The fighting came one month after the Islamic State posted a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach. Earlier this week, the Islamic State flag could be seen firmly affixed to the landmark Ougagougou conference center in Sirte, late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown.
But the confrontation between the Islamic State loyalists and the Misrata militia’s Brigade 166 came as a surprise.
Earlier this week, a Misratan commander had told McClatchy that his group hoped to avoid a fight with the Islamists. The Misratans are overstretched by fighting in Libya’s other conflict, which pits them against forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a one-time Gadhafi general who lived in the United States for decades.
“We don’t want to open up a new front,” Brigade 166 leader Mohamed Omar el Hassan had said. He said Brigade 166’s assignment had been to “contain” the Islamic State within the city and prevent it from setting up checkpoints and taking over government facilities.
While details of what transpired are not known, that plan apparently fell apart after the Islamic State set up a checkpoint in eastern Sirte.
It’s unclear how many Islamic State militants are in Sirte or how many militants are active in other parts of Libya. Hassan said he believed there were around 200 Islamic State militants in Sirte, most of whom are Libyans.
But foreign fighters loyal to the Islamic State have taken part in other recent violence in Libya, including an attack in January on Tripoli’s Corinthia hotel that left 10 people dead.
“You do not have to pass a competitive examination to be part of IS,” said one European diplomat before Saturday’s fighting. “The very fact that there are fighters coming from abroad and killing themselves in the Corinthia shows there is intent from outside to take possession of part of Libya.”
Libya’s internal battles since Gadhafi was toppled in a NATO-assisted rebellion more than three years ago have left a dangerous security vacuum, and Sirte, a seaside town with a population of 120,000, has been especially vulnerable to Islamic State militants because its residents are stigmatized as supposed Gadhafi loyalists by both the Misrata militias and Hifter’s Operation Dignity forces.
While most Libyans celebrated Gadhafi’s death, Sirte did not. Gadhafi had poured money into the isolated town – home to his small al-Gaddafa tribe – while neglecting cities like Benghazi. Gadhafi envisioned a “United States of Africa” with Sirte as its base, and built cavernous structures like the Ougadougou complex to accommodate his dream.
The town was the scene of a notorious massacre at the end of the revolution in October 2011 when anti-Gadhafi miltia murdered 53 people, many of them Gadhafi loyalists, outside the Mahari hotel, which today is under Islamic State control. The murderers scrawled their brigades’ signatures across the walls.
Since then, Libya’s instability has worsened drastically, and the country is now bitterly split between two opposing governments, parliaments and a proliferation of militias fighting over the country’s power and assets.
The Islamic State is a relative newcomer to the country’s disarray, and its precise relationship to the group fighting in Syria and Libya is unclear.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has recognized an Islamic State branch in Derna, another Libyan city with a long history of militant activity, but whether he commands their actions or they act autonomously is not known.
“It is a very fluid jihadi landscape,” said Anas El Gomati, director of the Libyan think tank, the Sadeq Institute. He noted that militias such Ansar al Shariah, which was blamed for the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Bengahzi in 2011, can easily switch allegiances.
“It doesn’t take much for Ansar al-Sharia fighters to shift to another militia. They will still want to apply the same domestic policies, like implementing a dystopic vision for Shariah law,” he said.
Hifter has appealed for the lifting of United Nations arms embargo so that his side, which is backed by a government recognized by the United States that is currently based in Tabruk, can fight terrorists. “We are also fighting for you and, if we were to fail, the next target of terrorists would be Italy,” he said in an interview this month with the Italian government news agency, ANSA.
Brigade 166 has been patrolling Sirte for the past month in an uneasy standoff with the Islamic State. On one nerve-wracking patrol with them earlier in the week, this reporter saw the Islamic State displayed on the Ougadougou complex. Four cars filled with Islamic State fighters shadowed the Misratan patrol.
Hassan said then that his men had rid the town of Islamic State checkpoints, and secured the university, hospital and military airport. But Islamic State fighters remained camped outside the university gates in unmarked cars and headquartered along the town’s main road.
For Libya Dawn, the grueling battles against Hifter in oil-rich Sidra, Benghazi, the west and near the oil fields in the south is a bigger threat. But the Dawn coalition is split. Abobaker Alhraish, a Misratan government official involved in U.N,-brokered peace talks, agrees, for example, with the United States that Ansar al Shariah is by definition a terrorist group.
But he also had hoped to avoid a confrontation with the Islamic State in Sirte.
“We met with Sirte’s tribes and they asked us to sit with these men first and talk to them, because they are part of families,” he said. “This is why we haven’t entered yet, because the people from Sirte don’t want us to get into a war.”
(Murray is a McClatchy special correspondent.)