The grinding fight to root out ISIS in a battered Libya

Frederic Wehrey writes: 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 their 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. [Continue reading…]

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