Sirte: From Gaddafi's oppression to the brutality of IS

Sirte: From Gaddafi's oppression to the brutality of IS
Feature: Investigating life in the Libyan city of Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown, overrun by the Islamic State group and declared an 'Islamic emirate' in June.
4 min read
17 December, 2015
The city of Sirte has been left in ruins [AFP]
Hala Omar, a Libyan widow, is terrified of what might happen to her since she discovered that the Islamic State group has drawn up a list of widows and divorcees in the city of Sirte with the intention of forcing them to marry its fighters.

The group obtained the names and addresses of the women after kidnapping an official in the city's civil administration and taking control of his files.

Hala's husband was killed during the 17 February revolution against the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, while he fought against Gaddafi's forces. Hala and her children were left to suffer the instability that followed.

The family's suffering has been made worse since IS took control of Sirte and began threatening residents with death or imprisonment.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed investigated what life in Sirte has become since the IS group's black banners were unfurled in the city that was once the stronghold of Gaddafi's green flags.

From green to black 

IS took control of Gaddafi's hometown in June of this year, and reports of human rights violations slowly began to emerge - despite the media blackout imposed by the group.

One IS fighter told al-Araby that senior leaders in the group had told him and his fellow fighters that they would have fought alongside Gaddafi against NATO and their Libyan rebel allies - had he not "waged a war against our religion".

The fighter, who was once part of Gaddafi's army, said a number of fighters loyal to the former dictator in Sirte had joined the jihadist group, however they do not hold senior positions - contrary to popular rumours.

Activists and residents who have managed to flee the city told al-Araby that the only banner permitted to be raised in the city is the black flag of IS.

The IS group believes the flag of the Libyan revolution and Ghaddafi's green flag - with which many Sirte residents continue to identify - represent "heretical systems" according to many here.

A city in ruins

The city of Sirte was heavily damaged during the Libyan revolution because it was one of Muammar Gaddafi's last strongholds and was heavily bombarded by rebels and NATO forces. But it was the arrival of IS that destroyed what had remained in the city.

"It's strange that many Libyans in the east and west of the country still do not realise the disaster," Mohammad Idris, a Sirte resident, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"They think what happened in Benghazi is the calamity - while the real calamity that might completely divide and destroy the country is Sirte."

The city faces severe food and fuel shortages, in addition to a shortage of medical supplies and necessities such as baby formula, say residents.

Many activists also fear for the women of the city under IS rule, as the group is known for its medieval repressive practices. It is feared the listing of the city's widows and divorcees is only a first step.

The group has also targeted personal freedoms by forcing shops that sell cigarettes to close as part of its plan to ban smoking.

Military advantage

"The entire city is under IS control. It has dominated through its highly organised military and administrative units," said a former Libyan officer who uses the pseudonym Hassan al-Sirtawi.

"The group was able to kick out the forces of the General National Congress after clashes erupted when IS insisted on raising its banners over the city's buildings. Since then it announced the city as an Islamic emirate," added Sirtawi.

While Sirtawi and other Sirte locals believe IS has a considerable military force in the city that cannot be easily overcome, the Libyan political analyst Abdul Hamid al-Nami disagrees.

"IS in Sirte is mainly a media phenomenon," Nami told al-Araby. "The group does not represent a real danger and does not have the means for long term survival."

The political analyst believes that if Libyans were to unite they would easily be able to defeat the jihadist group without the need for foreign military assistance.

However, residents forced to live under IS rule tell of brutal tactics employed by the group to terrorise Sirte residents and ensure compliance with its rules.

A growing group

IS spends large amounts of money to recruit new members and pays up to $500 to each new member, which has increased the number of its fighters to more than 2,000.

A UN report published earlier this month estimates that IS has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters in Libya, with an estimated 1,500 deployed in Sirte.

Meanwhile, a report by the Small Arms Survey published in 2014 states that IS in Libya receives a steady stream of weapons and fighters through the southern Libyan desert which is used as a safe passage by jihadi groups.

The group includes members from Sudan, Algeria, Tunis, Yemen and other Arab and African countries who were able to use the state of lawlessness in Libya to gain entry into the country, according to Hassan al-Sirtawi, the Libyan army officer.

Sirtawi believes that the group is very well armed and organised - especially after a number of jihadist factions joined their ranks.

The could however be defeated, Sirtawi said, if a Libyan unity deal comes to fruition.