Fighters in Libya have announced the near-total eradication of the Islamic State from the coastal city of Sirte, hometown of late dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The BBC cites Libyan military spokesmen as confirming that the area of the town still controlled by the Islamic State has been reduced to “fewer than ten houses,” and soldiers expect to clear that small area in the very near future. A government spokesman told CNN that civilians have begun celebrating, shouting, “Allahu akbar,” in the streets.”
The military operation to return Sirte to Libyan unity government control began in May, and Libyan officials are refusing to officially declare that the group has no control over any part of the city yet.
“They’ve now taken control of the last area, but that does not mean military operations have ended,” spokesman Ahmed Hadia told the BBC.
“Our siege on Jiza is continuing and when we liberate it from the terrorist group, we will start the second stage which is removing mines and chasing the escaping militants,” militia spokesman Mohammed Al-Ghasri told the Libya Observer, referring to the neighborhood within Sirte where the ten Islamic State-controlled buildings remain. To highlight the ongoing nature of the operation, the Observer reports that fighters killed over two dozen Islamic State fighters on Monday.
The United States has aided Libyan unity government fighters with air support, Reuters reports, speeding up the liberation process. The elimination of jihadis openly battling the government would not complete the liberation of Sirte, however, as unity government soldiers would then have to comb every building for land mines, booby traps, or sleeper jihadi agents. Al Jazeera notes that these sleeper agents are not necessarily the young Muslim men usually associated with ISIS; in an incident last week, “two women pretending to be civilians fleeing ISIL blew themselves up, killing four soldiers and injuring at least 20.”
The Islamic State has had control of Sirte, a city of 80,000 people before the invasion, since 2015. Sirte sits on the Libyan coast, directly across the Mediterranean Sea from southern Europe, making it a desirable location for the Islamic State to establish itself.
Facing defeat in most of Iraq and Syria outside of its strongholds, Raqqa and Mosul, the Islamic State has expanded its reach, seeking control over more of Africa and the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. In Libya, recent reports suggest that the Islamic State has become a less prominent threat than its progenitor, al-Qaeda, which the State Department reported in September took “advantage of the deteriorating security situation across Tunisia, Libya, and Mali, to plan and conduct expanded operations” in 2015.
That same report identified al-Qaeda members as having participated in the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and warned that the group had begun expanding throughout the most unstable regions of Libya.
That same month, Senior Editor of the Long War Journal Thomas Joscelyn told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade that anti-terror operations should focus more on helping “expose al-Qaeda’s network inside Libya” as the Islamic State loses its grip on Sirte, its only known stronghold in the country.