As U.S. military forces hunt down the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, they are also waging a quieter campaign in the fractured country of Libya. Conducted primarily from the air and through special-operations personnel based in the western city of Misrata, the effort aims to eradicate cells of fighters who fled the group’s stronghold in the central city of Sirte before its fall to Libyan forces in December 2016.
According to Libyan officials I spoke with in December, these cells number around 500. They include capable leaders and planners who comprise what isiscalls its “Desert Brigade” and its “Office of Borders and Immigration,” a section responsible for external operations, logistics, and recruitment. Moving along the shallow valleys south of Sirte, the network has already conducted a number of attacks on checkpoints and convoys and, most recently, against an oilfield. It is also reconstituting itself. A burly 38-year old jihadist from the Libyan town of Bani Walid named Malik al-Khazmi reportedly helps lead the recruitment drive. Libyan officials believe he played a pivotal role in the rise of isis in Libya.
Born in 1996, Ahmed grew up comfortably in Janzur, a seaside settlement on Tripoli’s western edge. Then came the oil boom, and along with it, a rush of migrants from the hinterland. Janzur soon expanded into a suburb of the capital, complete with gated “tourist villages” and an American school favored by diplomats.
In 2013, Ahmed entered the University of Tripoli to study engineering. He was not religiously observant back then. He smoked cigarettes and drank bokha, a potent home-brewed alcohol. His first semester in school was a time of dislocation and questioning, wrought by turmoil in Libya and across the region. The uprising in Syria gripped him; its parallels to the struggle against Qaddafi were obvious. “We’d suffered, and we knew the Syrians were suffering too,” he told me.
Ahmed watched the Syrian war from afar, on the Internet and on Saudi satellite stations. He recalled popular Saudi clerics beseeching their audiences to support the revolution. It was a religious obligation, they said, incumbent upon all believers. But these arguments alone did not persuade him—it took a horrifying atrocity to do that. In the pre-dawn hours of August 21, 2013, a Syrian Republican Guard artillery crew in Damascus launched volleys of sarin rockets into the city’s eastern neighborhood of Ghouta. U.S. government estimates put the civilian death toll at over 1,400. Ahmed was outraged. “After Ghouta, I really decided,” he told me.
One day in October 2014, in the midst of the fighting, seven Libyans, some of them veterans of the Syria war, arrived at the abandoned headquarters of a Tripoli TV station that Ahmed and his fellow fighters were using as a camp. One introduced himself as Malik al-Khazmi and proceeded to pitch them to join the Islamic State, Ahmed told me. “The dawla [or state] is coming to Libya,” al-Khazmi told them. “Don’t you want to be the first? The nucleus?” He answered yes.
Around the same time that ahmed was joining isis in Tripoli, another Libyan some 450 kilometers to the east was making the same pledge. Born in 1976, Fawzi al-Ayat is 20 years older than Ahmed, with a much longer record as a jihadist. Like Ahmed, though, he told me his career began when a foreign conflict compelled him to travel abroad to defend Muslims.
Fawzi grew up in Sirte, the city now famous as isis’s Libyan base, and as Qaddafi’s hometown and a bastion of loyalist sympathy. Long before that, the city boasted a rich and complex social identity, comprising multiple tribes and an ancient history. In the first century, it was “a large coastal city with brick walls … date palms and sweet-smelling springs,” as a visiting Andalusian geographer wrote. But in the centuries that followed, Sirte, a middling town linked by trade to the desert south rather than to the east or west, faded to the margins. Qaddafi would eventually change this, building it up as an enclave for his favored tribes and elites, dispensing funds on villas, a university, a hospital, and the iconic Ouagadougou Center, a staggering conference hall named for the capital of Burkina Faso.
This is not the attitude back in tripoli, however. Here, a militia that passes for a counter-terrorism force is running an extensive re-indoctrination effort, rooted in Islamic scripture and jobs training. The program is run from a prison on the northern end of Matiga International Airport, where hundreds of isis fighters or suspected fighters are kept, along with common criminals and individuals caught on the wrong side of Libya’s factional divide. The prison is not controlled by the Libyan government but by a man named Abdelroauf Kara, the commander of the Special Deterrence Force, one of Tripoli’s most formidable armed groups. He has emerged as the city’s de facto counterterrorism czar.
Seated on a plush carpet before a cleric, they hunched over Korans and pamphlets written by religious authorities in Saudi Arabia. This dose of Salafist principles seemed to comprise the core of their counseling and treatment, though Kara said he addressed more worldly needs as well. After lunch, the prisoners took vocational classes: cabinet making, computer literacy, house painting, and electrical repair. All of this would help them “rejoin society,” my escort said.
I walked through the hives of activity, past the whine of buzz saws and fumes of lacquer to a small cantina where some young men were frying hamburgers. This is where I first met Ahmed. He’d been captured by Kara’s forces a few months earlier. When he made the pledge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Ahmed had hardly expected this. He’d wanted to join a project; the Islamic State’s recruiter spoke of a borderless state, where Muslims lived peaceably with one another, apart from the unbelievers. He said he was well aware of its brutality, but that the recruiters marshaled an array of theological justifications. “They showed us verses from the Koran and the Prophet’s sayings,” he said. “You see? It’s all here.”
Now, the prison clerics tried each day to purge him of what he’d been told. Earlier, Kara had given me an illustration. “We tell the Islamic State guys, ‘Westerners in Libya who buy our oil are people protected by an ahd,” or Islamic covenant, he said. “They are not kuffar”— unbelievers.
Ahmed gave me an even simpler explanation. “I didn’t know the stories behind the sayings and the verses,” he said. “The Islamic State never told me the stories.”
In the end, it was local context that blocked the expansion of the Islamic State in Libya. Libyans had their own stories, and the terrorist group found it hard to graft its narrative onto the North African state.
Still, the paths to violence are varied and personal, often forged from narrow communities and peer groups. Common threads bind them: political and economic upheaval, foreign wars, and, especially, repression, corruption, and the absence of rule of law. The latter afflictions bedevil Libya today, under the countless militias who rule with impunity across the country. With no effective Libyan government and no capable police or security services, the chiefs of these militias present themselves to outside powers as counter-terror partners, much in the same way they have done in countering migration to Europe. The real challenge, then, is dealing with extremism in a way that does not empower these men at the expense of an inclusive, civic state.
The factors that pushed Ahmed and Fawzi toward militancy remain. And the cycle of mobilization may yet turn again.