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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

How ISIL fighters are maintaining their grip on Qaddafi’s home city

Mustafa Fetouri speaks to residents of Sirte about the experience of being ruled by the extremist group
A Sirte neighbourhood following heavy fighting in 2011. Philippe Desmazes / AFP
A Sirte neighbourhood following heavy fighting in 2011. Philippe Desmazes / AFP

Less than five years after the death of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, his home city of Sirte is now under ISIL’s full control.

It is estimated that as many as 6,000 ISIL fighters are in the city, mostly foreigners from countries including Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Chad and Nigeria.

The first ISIL-manned checkpoint is 50 kilometres to the west of Sirte, and its fighters can move relatively freely as far as Ras Lanuf oil terminals 200km to the east. On January 21, they set five oil storage tanks on fire.

Sirte is dangerous for journalists and, combined with difficult phone communications, the world is left with little information about life there.

According to residents, there is only one internet cafe and it offers an expensive satellite connection. Sirte’s banks are closed and medical supplies are scarce.

Residents usually travel to nearby cities such as Misrata to get money and other essentials. Some travel all the way to Tripoli, 450km west, and it was in Tripoli where I spoke to two people from Sirte. I also spent more than an hour on the phone talking to a friend who had come to Misrata from Sirte to get some money. For obvious security reasons, the names I use are pseudonyms.

I met Omar, who has worked in Sirte for 20 years, at a friend’s house in Sarraj district south-west of the capital. Omar wanted some advice on how to smuggle a few packets of cigarettes to his friend back home, because smoking is now banned in Sirte. He settled on tying them beneath his car.

He told me that the company he worked for has a new ISIL-appointed manager from Nigeria.

“Generally he is a nice guy who does very little. However his approval is required when we need supplies. Usually he won’t argue much since he does not understand much of the stuff we do.

“Right after he took over, he demanded that all company cars be brought in and he redistributed them to some managers, while keeping a few others at his office. I guess he gave them to ISIL members, since I never saw those cars again.

“He does not conduct meetings and hardly talks to us, but he comes in every day.”

After Omar got back to Sirte, he sent me a message that he and the cigarette packets had arrived safely.

Abdu has an office job in Sirte. He is single and lives with his two brothers, sister, father and mother.

He told me: “You might not believe this, but Sirte has been more peaceful and safe since ISIL took over. The crime rate is down and theft in particular is completely finished.

“People selling smuggled fuel leave their small buckets by the road side at night and no one will touch them. Security in Sirte now is much better than it was under Misrata militias when they were in charge between October 2011 and August 2015.

“As long as you do not cross the line, ISIL members will not intervene. The line is crossed when you are caught smoking, listening to music in public, carry tobacco in your pockets or car, or do not come to pray at the mosque.

“My brother was caught smoking outdoors so they jailed him for two weeks and taught him the Quran.”

Mohammed, who is a schoolteacher, told me: “At the beginning of the new school year we did not receive any particular instructions about what we have to do.

“Two weeks later, an ISIL member gave us instruction via the local education office that we have to separate the boys from the girls and that the girls must wear veils.

“After a month or so, we had an alert that jihad studies would be incorporated in the school curriculum but nothing has happened yet.”

One of the men told me that ISIL had made sure that the electricity supply was a priority.

“We’ve hardly had any blackouts for the past three months or so,” he said.

I asked all three men about the possibility of international air bombardment of ISIL forces in Sirte. All three thought that any intervention would have little effect on the ground.

One of them said he thought that the people of Sirte could drive out ISIL “if we have support from outside the city, but since Libya has no government it’s unlikely that we can do much”.

Another said “there are no specific locations” for ISIL members in Sirte.

“They are everywhere and within residential areas including houses. They are well dispersed among the local people, meaning any attacks on them will be harmful to civilians.”

Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist

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