Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold
Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold
Though security in the Mediterranean coastal city has improved, residents remain wary of terrorists in the desert to the south who have stepped up their activity in recent months, setting up checkpoints and carrying out occasional attacks.
In a country where fighting between rival forces frequently flares, Sirte is particularly exposed. It sits in the center of Libya’s coastline on the dividing line between loose alliances aligned with rival governments in Tripoli and the east.
“If the situation continues like this then Daesh will come back, no doubt. There was a reason why they came. People were angry, felt sidelined,” said Ali Miftah, a civil servant and father of five.
“Now we don’t get any support from the government. Look at these ruins. We lost everything.”
Last month, Daesh gunmen staged a suicide attack in Misrata, the coastal city about 230 km to the northwest that led the campaign last year to expel the militants from Sirte.
Daesh also has sleeper cells in other cities along Libya’s western coast, security officials say, and there is concern foreign fighters seeking sanctuary after defeats in Syria and Iraq could once again exploit the country’s security vacuum and link up with Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the desert south.
Divisions among Libya’s many armed factions and uncertainty over how long the forces from Misrata that drove Daesh out will remain in Sirte are compounding residents’ worries.
In parts of the city, life is slowly returning to normal, though Daesh’s black logos are still visible on some shops and inhabitants struggle with cash shortages and failing public services, as they do elsewhere in Libya.
But in areas that saw the heaviest fighting, families see little hope of rebuilding their homes.
Sirte, the home city of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, was pounded by nearly 500 US airstrikes between August and December last year.
In El-Manar and Giza Bahriya, once among Sirte’s best neighborhoods, houses looking onto the crystal blue Mediterranean are now crumpled piles of twisted metal and concrete, doors blasted from their metal frames.
A damaged primary school said to have once been attended by Qaddafi lies abandoned.
Residents say skeletons among the rubble have been left to be tested to see if they belong to Daesh fighters, or their captives. They are also scared to search their ruined homes because of the unexploded ordnance in the wreckage.
Local forces man checkpoints on the outskirts of Sirte and carry out patrols to the south. But they say they lack the vehicles and weapons to pursue the jihadists, who have retreated into mobile desert camps.
Instead, they rely on the US airstrikes that have killed dozens of suspected militants this year.
“We contain the threat but we cannot chase them in their camps because we lack the right equipment like four-wheel cars needed to drive in the desert,” said Taher Hadeed, an official with the forces securing Sirte.
“It won’t be possible for Daesh to take back the city, but there is a risk of attacks.”
The forces that led the campaign against Daesh in Sirte last year are nominally loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli to the west — and Sirte now represents the eastern limit of their control.
Beyond, forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army control oil terminals they seized during the campaign. But for now, the two sides do not coordinate, said Mohamed Al-Ghasri, a military spokesman from Misrata.
Residents and officials in Sirte say the threat cannot be dealt with without proper support from the state and professional security forces.
“They are suffering from a lack of services and we don’t see any real efforts or results on the ground at any level,” said Siddeeq Ismaiel, a municipal official.
An estimated 2,500-3,000 homes need to be built so families forced to live in other parts of Sirte or Misrata can return.
“This will never end if there is no government,” said Hamza Ali, a 34-year-old university employee, standing near his brother’s ruined house.
“It will stop maybe for two, three, four, five, six months, then you will hear an explosion somewhere if there is no official security, police.”
Syrians search for Daesh captives a year after caliphate crumbles
- I still have hope he’ll come back, but I lost hope officials will help me: Syrian mother
- Human Rights Watch estimates between 3,000 and 5,000 people detained by Daesh across its onetime caliphate remain missing, a year after Raqqa’s recapture
RAQQA, Syria: When the Daesh group lost its Syrian bastion Raqqa last year, Amani hoped to finally uncover what happened to her husband who had vanished in the jihadists’ prisons.
But with many Daesh jails destroyed in fighting and no centralized body investigating the issue, she has spent a year desperately searching for Abdul-Ilah without answers.
“I thought I’d see him immediately after the city was liberated. I thought he would come back to me,” said Amani, a mother of three.
“But I haven’t heard any news on whether he’s alive or dead. No one helped me with this.”
Daesh ruled over Raqqa for three years, implementing its interpretation of Islamic law until US-backed forces seized the northern Syrian city on October 17, 2017.
Anyone who violated the jihadists’ rulings or was suspected of working against them was locked up in its notorious prisons, including under the football stadium where the group made its ill-fated last stand.
Abdul-Ilah was among them, accused by Daesh three years ago of plotting with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to bring a car bomb into Raqqa.
Amani, who denies his involvement, said she has spent a painful year searching for her husband.
Some sources told her that he had been killed, while others said he was whisked away with other detainees to Hajjin, Daesh’s final holdout in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor.
Amani now works with the Raqqa Civil Council, which has governed the city since the fall of Daesh, and has demanded a committee be created to properly follow up.
Her hair wrapped in a glittery beige scarf, she flipped through papers at her RCC office.
“Whether he’s alive or dead, I just want to know so I can rest.”
Hanan, 22, misses having her older sister Razan around.
Her 24-year-old sibling was arrested in an Daesh raid two years ago, accused with seven friends of being “regime spies” and “apostates.”
“Until today, we know nothing,” Hanan said.
“There isn’t anyone we haven’t contacted but it’s all been in vain,” she said.
Staring quietly out a window at a collapsed building in Raqqa, she mulled over the painful possibilities.
“If they didn’t kill her, maybe she died in the bombing. Maybe when they besieged Raqqa, she starved to death, or maybe they used her in a hostage swap,” Hanan said.
Since Syria’s war erupted in 2011, tens of thousands of people have been detained, kidnapped, or “disappeared.”
A majority are expected to have vanished in the Syrian government’s labyrinth of detention centers, but others were arrested by rebels or jihadists.
Human Rights Watch estimates between 3,000 and 5,000 people detained by Daesh across its onetime caliphate remain missing, a year after Raqqa’s recapture.
“It is very frustrating for families who thought that after Raqqa was taken, they would be able to uncover the fate of their loved ones,” said HRW researcher Sara Kayyali.
Many were spending their savings trying to track down relatives on their own, without official help.
“There is not even a centralized mechanism for people to register their disappeared or missing, which shows how low of a priority it is for local authorities and the US-led coalition,” said Kayyali.
Further complicating the search for lost loved ones is the vast destruction wreaked by fighting in the city.
“The difficulty is that many of the prisons holding people who had been detained or kidnapped were actually struck in the course of the battle,” said Kayyali, making it “significantly likely” prisoners were killed.
The final hope for families may lie in mass graves littered across Raqqa, where Daesh fighters, prisoners, and victims of air strikes were buried during the assault’s dwindling days.
Rescuers equipped with basic digging tools have uncovered 2,500 bodies so far, according to Amnesty International.
Those working at a recently-uncovered mass grave said they has already received 360 requests from families looking to identify their loved ones among the remains found, said Yasser Al-Khamees, who heads the recovery team there.
Zarifa Mahmoud Nazzal, 50, has scoured Raqqa’s mass graves for her son Moussa, detained by Daesh three years ago when he was just 17.
“I try to identify him by the mole between his eyebrows or the burn scars on his feet,” said Nazzal.
“Where will I even look for him? I haven’t left a single place — I searched everywhere,” she said.
Nazzal, who lives in a modest home in Raqqa’s Al-Daraiyah district, bursts into tears at the mere mention of Moussa.
“I still have hope he’ll come back, but I lost hope officials will help me.”