A little more than a month ago, Libyan forces claimed they had all but driven the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) out of their stronghold in Sirte, birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi. “We think that Sirte will be liberated within days, not weeks,” a military spokesman said, saying the only real problem remaining was an infestation of ISIS snipers.
On Friday, Reuters reported that Libyan forces were still engaged in “heavy fighting” that left “dozens dead,” a week after a previous offensive fizzled out. Now, after heavy shelling and airstrikes, the Libyans say they are once again making progress against Islamic State militants.
Reuters reports the Libyan brigades are “made up mainly of fighters from the western city of Misrata,” which is usually described as a source of militia troops “aligned” with the recently installed unity government – formally known as the Government of National Accord – but not entirely controlled by it. The chaos of post-Obama Libya continues to hamper both efforts against the Islamic State, and the accuracy of reporting from the conflict zone.
Last month, the Libyan military expressed confidence that all routes of retreat for the Islamic State had been cut off, and they would face destruction while pinned down in Sirte. However, on Wednesday, International Business Times reported that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned of the “distinct possibility” that ISIS will spread its influence across Libya and other regions.
The U.N. Security Council’s report on Sirte warned that, despite earlier claims of ISIS being trapped in the city, several thousand jihadis have left Libya and are “regrouping to launch attacks.” The U.N. warned that ISIS fighters could “relocate and regroup in smaller dispersed cells throughout Libya.” Also, ISIS is still actively recruiting fighters from Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa, as is its terrorist rival, al-Qaeda.
The U.N. also commented on the ongoing factional chaos in Libya, noting that an Islamist militia, called the Defending Benghazi Brigade, used shoulder-fired missiles and heavy machine guns to shoot down a helicopter belonging to a rival militia on Tuesday, killing two French special forces troops who were on board.
The helicopter belonged to General Khalifa Hifter, who is opposed to the Government of National Accord but supports the original, internationally recognized Libyan government-in-exile, which was displaced to Tobruk when Islamist gangs took over the capital of Tripoli.
Dislodging the Islamic State from its urban strongholds will always be an ugly business, which is why preventing them from spreading in the first place was a vital mission President Obama should never be given a pass for failing.
Tens of thousands of civilians live in Sirte, and it has been hammered by airstrikes and artillery barrages, followed by a battle that reportedly saw ISIS blowing up armored vehicles with car bombs. Conditions for civilians caught in that battle will be dire, as they will be for the even larger, and potentially more savage, battles for major Islamic State fortresses like Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
The military death toll from the latest fighting in Sirte is reported by Reuters as at least 50 ISIS militants killed, in addition to 25 Libyan fighters killed and 200 wounded.
The Libya Herald reports that among the civilian casualties was TV reporter Abdulgader Fassouk, shot by an ISIS sniper while covering the battle. The day before his death, he reported on “the risk war correspondents faced, and the lack of physical protection and safety equipment in Libya.”
“He was the second Libyan journalist to [be] killed in action in a month. Khaled Zintani was shot dead, also by a sniper, exactly four weeks ago, while covering fighting in Bengahzi’s Gwarsha district,” the Libya Herald writes.