Libya’s Shifting Sands: Derna and Sirte
A rare look at the fight against ISIL in the cities of Derna and Sirte in the constant flux of the post-Gaddafi era.
Scroll down to watch part two: SIRTE
Filmmaker: Naser Al Badry
Libya’s Shifting Sands is a two-part series offering a rare glimpse into the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in two strategically important cities of Derna and Sirte.
The 2011 Arab Spring saw the fall of heads of government in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. A series of internationally recognised but unstable governments in Tripoli failed to unify the country or revive the economy.
Amid the chaos, weak border controls and a lack of effective government, ISIL started to gain a foothold in the eastern coastal city of Derna during 2012; and then in Sirte during 2014.
In 2015, a United Nations peace deal proposed a Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, seen as the best way to combat the increasing threat of ISIL. A coalition of Islamist armed groups emerged in Derna under the banner of the shura council, heavily opposed to ISIL.
At the same time, Khalifa Haftar, a general from the Gaddafi era, formed his own, self-proclaimed “Libyan National Army” and began “Operation Dignity”, a military campaign against local shura council armed groups in several cities, especially Benghazi. He labelled them “terrorists” because he saw them as having supported the 2011 revolution against Gaddafi – and presented himself as the sole guarantor of Libyan stability.
Haftar is a polarising figure, criticised by some for his aggressive use of force but praised by others for attempting to restore order to a war-torn country.
To complicate matters further, the GNA recently offered him the job of heading up the Libyan Army itself, on condition that he recognise the GNA.
During the confrontation in Derna, those fighting ISIL raised questions as to whether there was some sort of relationship between ISIL and Haftar’s Operation Dignity.
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“More than 22 ISIL fighters who fled Derna city are now free in Dignity Forces-controlled areas,” says Colonel Muftah Hamza, a Libyan army commander who fought ISIL in Derna. “I have evidence with their names.”
Anti-ISIL armed groups, along with the Libyan army, seized control of the strategically important crossroads al-Heela, aiming to cut off their supply lines and access to other parts of the country.
“The effort made by the Derna mujahideen shura council, seizing control of the entrance to al-Heela, was heroic and made sacrifices … revolutionaries from Derna, Tobruk and Bayda joined and we made great advances,” says Colonel Saleh Sahad, a Libyan army commander in Derna.
Realising they’d been surrounded, “ISIL contacted the Derna mujahideen shura council and requested safe passage, but we all refused and decided not to provide it,” says Colonel Hamza. “Some turned themselves in and others were killed or escaped. Their numbers decreased and their power and resources including personnel, weapons and vehicles were drained.”
But then, the renegade General Khalifa Haftar and his forces appeared – although they seemed to avoid any kind of confrontation with ISIL, even though the two were in close proximity.
More than 22 ISIL fighters who fled Derna city are now free in Dignity Forces-controlled areas. I have evidence with their names.
“ISIL was surrounded on all sides, except in the southeast, al-Heela district. Its southern side was controlled by the Dignity Forces and ISIL in the north,” explains Muhammad al-Mansouri, spokesperson for Derna Shura Council. “We always had this war in mind and had prepared to fight ISIL. But Haftar’s repeated attempts to invade the city disrupted us.”
Others, like Ismail Shokri, a Libyan intelligence officer, seem to corroborate this version of events: “Battalion 166 in Sirte was bombed. So was the force fighting ISIL in Wadi Al Lud and the Anwar Afriqya oil tanker transferring oil to al-Bokhariya station. ISIL was given the chance to leave Derna in the east and reach Buqrain.”
But General Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” continued to call the forces fighting ISIL “terrorists”. Haftar’s opposition to the local shura council groups is really the only plausible explanation for his troops failing to confront ISIL.
“We don’t recognise the Derna Revolutionaries’ Shura Council or the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council,” says Ahmed Al-Mismari, spokesperson for Haftar and his forces. “We believe they’re terrorist groups.”
Then, the army and combined armed groups were about to carry out an operation they called “al-Qubba”, aimed at ISIL’s remaining defence systems when Haftar’s forces intervened.
This allowed ISIL to attack them and resulted in the deaths of 215 men. “We fought non-stop for 24 hours,” says Colonel Muftah Hamza, “First against Operation Dignity Forces and then against ISIL. It was as if they’d united against us and we were the terrorists and they needed to destroy us.”
But after 10 months of fighting, the Libyan army and combined local armed groups finally managed to defeat ISIL in and around Derna and force them from the area.
However, hundreds of ISIL fighters were reported to have fled via the area west of the city occupied by General Haftar’s forces. ISIL then moved towards Sirte in a convoy of around 70 armed vehicles.
Al Jazeera has footage of the ISIL convoy allegedly passing close to Haftar’s airbase without being stopped.
It’s possible that Haftar’s alleged role in and around Derna during the conflict can be explained by the old saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”; and that he turned a blind eye to ISIL’s activity in the area because it was aimed the shura council armed groups in Derna to whom he was – and still is – so staunchly opposed. It is certainly part of the complex web of political and military relationships in Libya today which still make it difficult to establish any kind of unity and stability in the country.
When the fighting in Derna died down, people took to the streets to celebrate the defeat and departure of ISIL. But as they enjoyed the moment, a new chapter in the story if ISIL in Libya was about to unfold, 850 kilometres away in the city of Sirte.
In the second episode of Libya’s Shifting Sands, Libyan government-backed forces find themselves fighting ISIL in the central coastal city of Sirte, 850 kilometres west of Derna.
ISIL moved on Sirte before it was forced from Derna, partly because it saw cities where the majority of people were opposed to the revolution of 2011 as prime targets. But by 2015, the government troops were fighting a losing battle. They expected to be boosted by forces controlled by the renegade General Khalifa Haftar – but his operation proved less effective than anticipated.
In Derna, the government forces and local armed Islamist groups accused Haftar of colluding with ISIL. They referred to his group as Operation Dignity forces, after his campaign against supporters of the February 2011 revolution in Benghazi.
“Some people and military personnel in Sirte supported the old regime. So they believed that helping ISIL was better than having the 17th February revolutionaries in Sirte,” explains Ismail Shokri, a Libyan intelligence officer. So when the March 2015 fight against ISIL in Sirte began, “I remember Operation Dignity planes bombing Battalion 166 as they were fighting ISIL”, he says.
weren’t targeted or bombed so they arrived safely in Sirte, protected by Haftar. He claims to fight terrorism but why didn’t he bomb them?”]
As the government backed-forces were doing their best to fight ISIL in Sirte, General Haftar’s forces launched what they called ‘Operation Qurdabiya Two’, their supposed bid to liberate Sirte from ISIL. But it fell well short.
Ismael Shokri says ISIL wasn’t remotely fazed by Haftar’s campaign. “Why didn’t ISIL pay any attention to Operation Qurdabiya Two? There were no barricades. They completely ignored it. In fact, they moved their forces 160 kilometres west. What was ISIL’s strategy in ignoring a party that had declared war against it moving its forces to the west? The only confrontation between ISIL and al-Bunyan al-Marsous forces was from 5th to 17th May to liberate Buqrain. After that, Operation Qurdabiya 2 was totally immobile,” explains Shokri.
In January 2016, a new internationally-recognised government was announced, following a UN brokered peace deal. It was the Government of National Accord, the GNA – and in May 2016 it launched a major offensive on Sirte by deploying thousands of Linyan Army troops to the city, with United States backing. It was called ‘Operation al-Bunyan al-Marsous’ or ‘Impenetrable Wall.’
The Libyan air force also played a role in helping the government forces advance by successfully targeting ISIL positions, enabling the government troops to enter the outskirts of Sirte. They managed to surrounding ISIL and eventually overcome them, although they paid a high price. The Libyan Army suffered 700 dead and thousands injured.
In its public statements, Haftar and his people were firmly opposed to ISIL. “We believe they’re terrorists and outlaws,” says Ahmed Al-Mismari, spokesperson for Haftar and his forces. “They don’t want state institutions or the country to be developed and democratic. We know their plans and strategies and even how their leaders think.”
But many involved in the battle against ISIL in Sirte were sceptical and would have liked Haftar to have fought ISIL much more forcefully.
Brigadier Mohammed Al-Ghusri, in charge of operation al-Bunyan al-Marsous, insists there’s a Haftar-ISIL connection. “They [ISIL] travelled 800 kilometres from Derna to Sirte. They weren’t targeted or bombed so they arrived safely in Sirte, protected by Haftar. He claims to fight terrorism but why didn’t he bomb them? A convoy of 70 or 80 vehicles and 217 fighters left Derna and weren’t targeted by planes. Instead, [Haftar’s] planes bombed the 19th Battalion that was fighting terrorism,” explains al-Ghusri.
Al Jazeera obtained a leaked recording of a conversation between a member of General Haftar’s media team and an officer in Haftar’s ‘National Libyan Army’. It’s alleged that it links ISIL to Haftar’s operations in Benghazi.
Aljazeera also asked General Haftar to respond to allegations that he may have colluded with ISIL – but received no reply.
Even as the people of Sirte were celebrating the overthrow of ISIL, Al Jazeera became aware of a new potential threat to the re-building of Libya and its future stability.
It obtained a letter written by a senior figure in al-Bunyan al-Marsous. It warns of a potential new alliance in southern Libya – between the remains of ISIL and armed groups linked to General Khalifa Haftar.
The letter calls on the presidential council of the Government of National Accord to deal with this threat head on. Having lost Derna, Sirte and its influence in northern Libya, it’s perfectly possible that ISIL might make a fresh bid for power in the south.
With weak borders where arms and people trafficking are rife, a group as unscrupulous as ISIL could easily exploit the lawlessness of the south to mount a new danger to a country already in a state of continued turmoil.