Amjad bin Sasi was a young man who enjoyed Western clothing, a fashionable haircut, and even the odd drink.
When ISIS seized control of his hometown of Sirte on Libya’s Mediterranean coast last year, bin Sasi was one of tens of thousands consigned to living in hell on Earth. His torment lasted less than a year—he was shot in the back of the head by an ISIS executioner at the age of 23.
The crime for which he was arrested? Cursing.
This is the reality of life under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Libya, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, which includes allegations of crimes against humanity, war crimes, mutilation, beatings, and extra-judicial killings.
The U.S. military has drawn up plans for an assault on the ISIS stronghold, but President Obama has refused to sanction any military intervention.
The residents of Sirte live in constant fear of being caught breaking the strict codes of conduct imposed by their ISIS rulers. Every neighbor could be an informant for the Hisba morality police, and harsh penalties are routinely handed down by religious judges after unfair trials.
“Life is hell for people in Sirte,” Letta Tayler, the author of the HRW report, told The Daily Beast. “People told me they are living in constant fear. Many of the men and women I interviewed in Misrata [a nearby city] started crying when they spoke about having to go back because they had no place to go. People were living in absolute terror.”
One of the extraordinary things about life in this ISIS outpost is that even those who bow their heads and follow the hardline rules are forced to live in misery.
There is hardly any food, no medical supplies, and even the ambulances have been stolen by ISIS fighters, according to the HRW report. The majority of the city’s stores have closed down—some by ISIS decree like an enterprise that sold frilly underwear, others due to economic ruin or owners fleeing to other parts of Libya.
A former government employee who called himself “Salem” told HRW that he was virtually housebound as he tried to stay out of trouble. “I do not leave my house except to go to the mosque: house to mosque, mosque to house. I keep my head down,” he said.
Women are not allowed to leave their homes unless fully cloaked in an abaya and niqab. Even these are rigorously policed—a poster in the city demands that the material is thick, loose-fitting, and “must not be extravagant or celebrity-like.”
Residents of Sirte are not exempted from these religious diktats at home or in their own cars. “Abu Ibrahim” explained that he had been detained by ISIS forces at a checkpoint in the city.
“One of the men, who was Tunisian based on his accent, asked me if I smoked. I replied that I didn’t. In fact I smoke but I lied because I was scared,” he told HRW. “He searched my car and found some CDs of music, and three cartons of cigarettes. He started insulting me and told me to drive to the Hisba office. They followed me in their car. At that place they told me to pledge to quit smoking, which I did, and then they whipped me 10 times on my back with a leather whip.”
At least 49 people were executed by the ISIS regime in Sirte between February 2015 and February this year. Many of the killings were carried out in the city’s central Martyrs Square. The roads are closed to traffic and loudspeakers call the residents to come and watch.
Those who are described as “spies” are then hung from scaffolding for the next few days.
Bin Sasi was shot dead in the square last December. His family gave HRW a photograph that showed him wearing sunglasses and a Timberland sweatshirt. He was clean-shaven and had slicked-back hair.
He had been arrested for cursing and invoking the name of Allah during an argument with a neighbor. “Ibrahim,” a relative, told HRW that bin Sasi had been unwilling to prostrate himself before the religious judge in court. “The judge wanted Amjad to repent for opposing Daesh [ISIS], but Amjad insulted the judge and spit at him,” he said.
His defiance cost him his life.
Thousands of other residents of Sirte have already fled, but many are stranded, unable to afford rent in other cities, too weak to move, or prevented from traveling by ISIS roadblocks.
For those left behind, there is a feeling of hopelessness. Many see the only possible salvation as further Western intervention, after the 2011 airstrikes that helped oust Muammar Gaddafi but left the country riven by civil war.
Obama told Fox News last month that “failing to plan” for the aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall was the biggest mistake of his presidency.
The citizens of Sirte likely agree.
“Many people I spoke to said they felt that the U.S. and the U.K. and others had abandoned Libya. There was this campaign in 2011 and then they left and there was this Mission Accomplished moment—harking back to George W. Bush after Iraq—but the mission was clearly not accomplished. Look at the state of Libya now,” said Tayler, HRW’s senior terrorism researcher.
“Just about everyone I spoke to called on the international community to help them out of their misery.”
“Ali,” one of more than 40 residents interviewed by HRW, said the fall of Gaddafi, who was killed in his final stronghold in Sirte, had proved a false dawn.
“The final stage of the revolution was in Sirte,” he said. “We were filled with hope. Then step by step, Daesh [ISIS] took over. Now we feel we are cursed.”