The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS) continues to exploit the disastrous aftermath of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy in Libya, establishing a presence in what India Today calls “the third big stronghold for the Sunni Islamist group.” Over the past four months, ISIS has largely taken control of Sirte, hometown of late dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
India Today spoke with a Libyan soldier who was trying to hold the line against ISIS forces on the western outskirts of Sirte. The government–well, one of the two governments claiming to control the shattered nation–is down to a single reinforced position. “Every night they open fire on us,” the soldier complained, easily able to point out the nearby ISIS positions from which that nightly hail of bullets rains down.
“Islamic State fighters became a major force last year in Derna, a jihadi bastion in Libya’s east, and quickly spread to the biggest eastern city Benghazi, where they have conducted suicide bombings on streets divided among armed factions,” writes India Today. “By occupying Sirte over the past four months they have claimed a major city in the centre of the country, astride the coastal highway that links the east and west.”
ISIS has been sending officers from its “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria to organize local Libyan recruits, reinforced by battle-hardened Libyan members of the Islamic State returning home from duty on the Caliphate’s front lines. They also have the support of Qaddafi loyalists and foreign fighters imported from Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen.
The bloody anarchy of post-Obama Libya provides fertile ground for ISIS recruiting activities, and the jihad units they have put together seem like a match for even the best troops fielded by the government in Tripoli.
ISIS strategically out-maneuvered government forces to take Sirte, sweeping in to seize important buildings and set up fortified positions while the General National Congress government in Tripoli was busy fighting its domestic rivals along a wide battlefront to the east.
The Islamic State also seems to enjoy a disturbing level of approval from non-combatant citizens in Sirte, with one student telling India Today, “Before the revolution, life was so much better. We had electricity, security. Schools were always open. [ISIS] is fine. They leave you alone unless you fight them.”
Reuters reported on Thursday that ten people were killed and almost 40 wounded in clashes between Libya’s rival governments and Islamist militants, including both ISIS supporters and the Ansar al-Sharia gang that pulled off the Benghazi consulate attack in 2012.
Benghazi is in Islamist hands at the moment, although military forces loyal to the Tripoli government claim to have retaken a few key government buildings from them during the most recent round of offensives. The dominant force in the city is the Majlis al-Shura, the group that includes Ansar al-Sharia, but ISIS reportedly also has a presence in Benghazi. Benghazi was used to ship weapons to ISIS with State Department knowledge, back when Obama thought they were just the “junior varsity league” of terrorism, and could prove useful for toppling the Assad regime in Syria.
The Reuters report mentions Sirte, as well, and the latest news is not good:
Islamic State said in a Twitter message its fighters had seized a camp of the Misrata forces in southeast Sirte. The group published pictures purportedly showing its fighters at the camp, seizing several vehicles. A resident said the camp seemed to be in the hands of Islamic State.
The Misrata forces in question are military units loyal to the Tripoli-based government, drawn from the city of Misrata–which is starting to get a bit nervous about ISIS pushing in from one direction, while Ansar al-Sharia’s umbrella group of Islamists approaches from another. ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack in Misrata on Thursday, killing two guards at a military checkpoint. Sirte is lost, and the battlefront is shifting to a city the Tripoli government cannot afford to lose.