MISRATA, Libya — The weathered concrete of checkpoint 50 shimmered out of the endless beige desert south of Sirte, that strategic city on the coast that has become the most important Libyan stronghold of the so-called Islamic State.
Abu Anas and his extended family, in a convoy of a 15 cars, pulled up to the roadblock slowly, nervously.
The men, women and children, wedged uncomfortably among their worldly possessions, hold their breath. They’d survived for a year under the brutal ISIS reign by adhering to its myriad laws, and keeping out of trouble. Most of their neighbors left the city months ago, amid a fresh wave of executions and dwindling supplies.
Now forces loyal to the country’s nascent unity government were advancing into the jihadi stronghold from three sides, bringing with them war and destruction. The family decided to leave before it was too late.
“Where are you going? Why are you leaving Sirte?” barked a masked ISIS fighter peering into the window of the first car in the convoy. Behind him, in the blistering heat, 10 militants clutching assault rifles guarded the concrete structure. It’s one of three identical gateways east, west and south of the city, built by toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi to glorify his beloved hometown.
The jihadist didn’t bother listening to the reply.
“Stay and defend yourselves, your city,” he ordered, waving the convoy away and sending it back to town.
No car would pass there.
It’s been weeks now that residents of the mid-coastal city have been barred from leaving by the insurgents, who are panicking as their North African caliphate is being chipped away. Forces loyal to the United Nations-backed unity government in Tripoli have entered the city from the west and are closing in from the east and the south. Without civilians to use as shields, the militants know the town will become a free-fire zone.
If Sirte can be taken from ISIS, the impact on migrant smuggling—which ISIS has made an industry—could be profound, and Europe would find itself at least a little bit safer. But for now, the main concern of innocent people in Sirte is survival.
Abu Anas and his family got out, finally, by taking the dangerous cross-country desert smuggling routes, which wind through Libya’s vast empty quarter. Days later, from the safety of Tripoli, he told us his story.
According to Ahmed, another resident who is still inside, the insurgents have even sent back people in urgent need of medical care that is not available in the embattled city, “We’re staying put—all the roads are closed,” he told The Daily Beast via messages, as the mobile network was down. “We don’t know what ISIS is doing exactly, but they are fortifying the town. We’re all just waiting for the war to come.”
As Abu Anas recalled, much the same thing had happened in the last days of the Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The people of Sirte were ordered to stay put. “Five years on and it’s happening all over again,” said Abu Anas.
Sirte was the final battle in the NATO-backed uprising, and the scene of Gaddafi’s dramatic death in what had been a hopeful revolution. But by last year it had become a perfect target of ISIS domination. More than 2000 fighters are thought to be based in the city no. Foreign insurgents, mostly from Tunisia and Sub-Saharan Africa, account for more than 85 percent of the group, according to Sirte Member of Parliament Ziad Hadia.
The country, strangled by fighting between fiefdoms of ex-rebels, has collapsed amid civil war.
In the Spring of 2014, the armed Islamist coalition Libya Dawn seized control of Tripoli, forcing the then newly elected parliament to operate over 1,500 kilometers to the east in Tobruk. Dawn set up a rival parliament and government and claimed to hold the west, roughly dividing the country in two.
Exploiting the lawlessness, returning Libyan veterans of the Syrian conflict convinced local extremists in the eastern city of Derna to pledge allegiance to ISIS a few months later, but had to struggle to put down a local uprising. So in early 2015 Abu Bakr Baghdadi dispatched high-ranking ISIS operatives to Sirte to try again to establish a foothold for his “caliphate.”
Post-revolution Sirte had been largely forgotten by both sides of Libya’s new civil war and was only nominally claimed by forces loyal to Dawn. In May 2015 they surrendered to ISIS’s superior firepower. By early this year, a steady flood of foreign fighters, and successful recruitment from within Gaddafi’s disaffected tribe, helped ISIS swell its ranks to some 5,000 men. They formed camps in the western city of Sabratha to train a steady flow of Tunisian jihadists, four of whom were smuggled back into Tunisia last year, killing over 60 foreigners in attacks on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and the Sousse holiday resort.
In a series of takeovers near Sirte, some bloody and some bloodless, the group conquered a 250 kilometer stretch of coastal territory on the doorstop of the lucrative oil crescent and, crucially, of Europe.
Western nations, including the U.S., U.K. and Italy, who had watched the expansion of ISIS with horror, vowed to send some 6,000 troops to conquer the jihadists—if a unity government could be formed.
After months of false starts, last December the UN pushed through a peace deal and formed the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed up by local MP Faiez Serraj. The former businessman was forced to sail into Tripoli in a small boat in March, as Dawn militias fired at planes attempting to land.
Despite the war-drums sounded by militiamen, Dawn appeared to crumble as the GNA took over in Tripoli. Instead resistance came, politically and unexpectedly, from the parliament that needs to approve the GNA for it to legally function. It continues to operate an almost independent state, maintaining its cabinet, its army and separate National Oil Corporation that has tried to sell crude. This month it printed its own bank notes.
So it was with cynical shrugs that Libyans greeted the GNA’s announcement on May 5 that it had formed a military command to take back Sirte. This came just a week after powerful Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, a former exile in Northern Virginia, and commander-in-chief of the so-called Libyan Army, had announced his own plan to retake the jihadi bastion, and had mobilized troops in the direction of the city.
But, to the surprise of many, the GNA has successfully absorbed the ragbag of armed groups along the west coast who once answered to Libya Dawn and who had been fighting ISIS for years
The GNA now says it has some 5,000 troops fighting in its “Bunyan Marsus,” or “compact building” operation, and that they have made unprecedented gains.
“Right now we have advanced into the city, but we’re dealing with ISIS with extreme caution,” Mohamed al-Ghasri, spokesperson for the operations room, which is based in Misrata, told The Daily Beast.
“The operation to take Sirte will not last for much longer—we’re talking days,” he added.
In the last week the offensive has captured the town’s main power station, and Ghardibya airbase, cutting off major supply routes to the jihadists. GNA allied warplanes bombed positions in Sirte and on Thursday naval forces, under the GNA, claimed control of the waters off the city, preventing jihadists being able to flee by sea.
Friday they advanced into the city itself and began pounding’s ISIS’s incongruous headquarters: the sprawling Ouagadougou conference centre, built by Gaddafi for lavish African Union soirees.
“The countdown has begun,” GNA forces said on Twitter.
In the east the Petroleum Facilities Guards—soldiers tasked with guarding Libya’s lucrative oil crescent who have recently pledged allegiance to the GNA—retook Ben Jawad, Nofliya and Huwara, the three villages along ISIS’s 250 kilometer strip of “caliphate’.
Ghasri said they had only stalled a full advance because thousands of innocent residents still are trapped inside Sirte. “Right now there are still civilians in the city and ISIS is using them as human shields so we cannot go in,” he said.
“If we find a way to get the civilians out it would be just a matter of hours for us take Sirte back.”
People who can’t leave and have only sporadic contact with outside world, say they can hear the fighting drawing close.
“We are terrified we hear the shelling and bombings, everyday in even the eastern outskirts,” Ahmed wrote to The Daily Beast. “The war is so close.”
The fighters who once manned checkpoints and a busy Sharia court house in the city centre, are now busy building trenches and sand berms.
Food prices have more than tripled as ISIS diverts food, medicines, fuel and cash to its fighters, meaning basic necessities for civilians have to be smuggled in through complex desert routes.
“Only the poorest couldn’t get out of Sirte, most have moved to the suburbs were they can access the desert supplies,” Ahmed added.
A year of ISIS has left its mark. Human Right Watch in a May report counted at least 49 people who had been executed: decapitated or shot on charges of spying, insulting God, and “sorcery.” Residents who fled the city spoke of weekly floggings, and crucifixions’ for those who flout ISIS’s rules which ban everything from smoking to pop music.
Sitting in a scrubby living room on a ramshackle street in Misrata, 280 kilometers west of Sirte, tribal elder and now refugee Hajj Mohamed plays a video on his mobile. It was recorded at the end of 2015, and shows two men being beheaded with a four-foot saber in front of a crowd in Sirte.
The two bewildered men in orange jumpsuits are forced to their knees as their supposed crimes are read out before their heads are cut off.
“One of them is my friend, he was beheaded for being a sorcerer but he was actually a homoeopathist,” says Hajj Mohamed, his voice flat.
Hajj Mohamed’s own son was killed fighting ISIS last summer while in the ill-fated local resistance brigades. He fled soon after and since then has been assisting Sirte’s displaced people, helping them find temporary homes.
In another room, reserved for women, Om Walid, who had just arrived from Sirte, talked about forcing her 12-year-old daughter to wear a full niqab covering every inch of her body and face.
“We can’t walk anywhere without men, they tore down any posters showing women’s faces and hid all the mannequins. They even removed all the shampoo bottles with female figures on them,” she said.
She smuggled her teenage sons out after militants turned up at her home and demanded they sign up.
Before the recent bout of fighting, the jihadists imposed a curfew between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., when male citizens were forced to undergo extremist indoctrination at Gaddafi’s Ouagadougou centre—the same complex now under GNA fire.
Saïd, a medic who was forced to put up a TV screen in his clinic that played an endless loop of ISIS victories, has recently arrived in Tripoli. He said there was a medical crisis in the city as 90 per cent of the staff manning the hospitals had fled. It’s been over a year since life saving dialysis medicines and vaccines have been accessible in the town.
One of his close friends, accused of being with the security services, was crucified last year. “They strung him up first while he was still alive and put a sign around his neck, and then they shot him up there,” he recalled.
“They usually do the crucifixions on Zafran roundabout, and leave the bodies for a few days.”
ISIS, he claimed, is largely bolstered by foreign fighters. There was a bewildering array of nationalities of fighters, who range from Africans to Southeast Asians.
“Most of those at the checkpoints don’t even speak Arabic,” he told The Daily Beast.
Saïd claimed the group also is recruiting from a stream of impoverished migrant laborers, most of whom are in the country trying to eke out a living before taking the perilous sea crossing to Europe. “We noticed painters, construction workers, plasterers, odd-job men joined ISIS and were suddenly given money, had houses and cars to drive.”
“There is talk of livestock herders from Chad, and Sudan joining the Islamic State. It’s clear they’re bribed,” he added.
Hajj Mohamed, agreed, saying Isis also go to local farms in Sirte and offer migrants three times what they are being paid. “That is how they recruit,” he added.
In February a U.S. airstrike on ISIS training camps in Sabratha and subsequent raids on the area by local forces, has constricted the flow of Tunisian fighters.
In desperation, and facing the destruction of its caliphate, ISIS is believed to be paying penniless migrants hundreds of dollars per month to man checkpoints and outposts, several Libyan officials told The Daily Beast.
“ISIS pay them as much as 1,000 euros a month to encourage them to join,” said a Ghanian “pusher,” whose job is to connect migrants to Libyan king pins.
Migrants arrive in Libya in the southern part of the country after crossing the desert for several days and spending upwards of $400 just to cross the border from places like Niger, he said.
They have to pause in southern cities like Sebha to make more money to travel north. There they struggle to survive amid brutal kidnappings for ransom, and some are tempted there to join ISIS’s ranks for the free ride to the coast, and the promise of protection and accommodation.
The strategic positioning of Sirte—on the coast and at the crossroads of roads south, east and west—also allows Isis to make tens of thousands of dollars a month from the illegal smuggling trades. Intelligence officials in Libya told The Daily Beast they operate people trafficking, gun running and drugs smuggling routes, from the south to cities along the coastline. They make the most of their money from the sea crossings to Europe.
Migrants and refugees in Libya now pay smugglers as much has $1,500 for a seat in a rickety wooden boat or a rusty scow to try to get to Europe. Smugglers can make upwards of $400,000 per boatload they send across.
The multimillion-dollar business has been massively lucrative for ISIS, and it has had resources, including arms, that are the envy of its opponents.
On the front line near Sirte, fighters opposed to ISIS say they’ve felt like sitting ducks.
“We are operating with what we have—no night vision goggle, rifles with a range of just 500 meters, and no body armor,” commanding officer Mohamed Bayyoud, 35, told us in April.
“We have men enough to carry out to the job but we are in dire need of sophisticated weapons,” he said.
Wearing mismatched fatigues, a camouflage-colored Stetson and, somewhat incongruously, civilian loafers, the former lawyer cut a strange figure when checking on his men, who were stationed at this front line checkpoint for just 24 hours at a time because of the punishing stress levels.
“We are all that stands between ISIS and Europe and yet the world doesn’t care,” he told The Daily Beast.
Recognizing the concerns, in May the U.S., the U.K., the EU and the UN pledged to partially lift the arms embargo by penciling in exemptions to allow weapons to be funneled to the GNA.
Delays continued, however, amid fears that—separate from the battle against ISIS- that arming one side of an ongoing civil war would only escalate the conflict. It’s still not clear how much control the GNA has over its own forces, and whether they would turn their new weapons on their old enemy, Gen. Hiftar, and his Libyan Army.
Hiftar himself last month publicly denounced the GNA, saying it would be “unthinkable” to join their forces after ignoring repeated warnings from the unity government that launching his own battle for Sirte could be punishable by law.
There are fears that if and when ISIS is forced out of its capital, with Libya still bitterly divided and without a functioning army or police force, an insurgency would quickly be able to take root again.
In the middle are the civilians, who have weathered five years of lawlessness, and now find themselves in yet another war zone.
“We all hope that any side gets rid of ISIS, whoever it is, we don’t mind,” said Ahmed, as his Internet began to flicker off.
“We just want to get on with our lives.”