The so-called Islamic State was ousted from the Libyan city of Sirte in late 2016 by joint U.S. and Government of National Accord forces. Using materials uncovered as part of a major new project tracking airstrikes and civilian harm in Libya, Airwars recounts the rise and fall of the terror organization through the eyes of local citizens, journalists and fighters.
Reported and Written by Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour
During its year-long occupation of the Libyan city of Sirte, the local branch of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) used both terror tactics and petty officialdom to enforce its will. A trove of videos uncovered by the Airwars team captures ISIS in action — and also reveals the terror group's later destruction as a result of heavy U.S. airstrikes.
During its short occupation of Sirte, ISIS was often keen to film and then propagandize its actions.
In one video released on the terror group's Telegram channel, heavily armed Al Hisbah “enforcers” stalk through a Sirte marketplace, demanding that local people stop trading after the call to prayer. The ISIS police then check vendors for banned items — on the lookout for books about the devil, sex and desire. In the next scene, ISIS fighters can be seen gleefully
destroying their discoveries — smashing shisha pipes with hammers; and destroying cigarette cartons, and even a drum kit. All were forbidden in Sirte under ISIS’ extreme interpretation of Islam — one in which Al Hisbah actively persecuted the local population.
Sirte had been the hometown of Libya's former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the once-feared leader ousted and slain in a bloody 2011 uprising. The power vacuum left by Gaddafi's death — later described by Barack Obama as the greatest foreign policy mistake of his presidency — proved fertile territory for an expansive Islamic State, which by 2015 already controlled great swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Videos like those from 2015 and 2016, when ISIS ruled Sirte, show how it established totalitarian rule in the city within a short period of time. Before then, a loose alliance between the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA), the militant group Libya Dawn and the Al Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia had controlled the city between them. Yet their forces were quickly overrun by ISIS — in part due to the political turmoil which engulfed Libya following the collapse of the provisional government in late 2014.
“We forced the hijab on women and we caught the smugglers,” ISIS officials can be seen explaining to a small crowd of people. “We’re providing courses about Islam for prisoners and the people.”
Religious education became mandatory in Sirte under ISIS rule. Radical Islamism did not have a particularly strong tradition in Libya prior to NATO's intervention, with the country deciding on a secular government in 2012.
That meant ISIS had to supplement its local support by recruiting members from other countries, in order to consolidate Sirte as its Libyan stronghold. People from Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria or Syria were offered what they believed to be the ideal environment to practice an extreme version of Islam.
Once it had seized the city, ISIS quickly established its own police force — introducing gender segregation at schools; banning alcohol; and introducing Draconian punishments such as cutting off limbs and beheading people. In its propaganda videos, the terror group proudly
depicts crucifixions and the beheading of Christians. These savage punishments usually were followed by interviews with young ISIS members who described their motivations.
“This is a message to fight to all the Muslims in Libya — to fight the Jews and Crusaders. ISIS scares them by controlling more and more cities, and applying Sharia law,” a masked fighter brags in one video. His call to extremism is followed by footage of a tribunal against an alleged thief, which ends with the accused having his hand cut off.
Sometimes it appears no detail is too small to warrant the attention of ISIS's thought police. Videos posted to the terror group's Telegram account show Al Hisbah patrols obsessing over Western-made products in a local supermarket, including a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo.
ISIS for a while also had established footholds in the Libyan cities of Sabratha and Derna. But airstrikes — and ground assaults from the more moderate Derna Shura Mujahideen Council — soon saw the terror group concentrated in just one city: Sirte.
At their peak, between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS members reportedly controlled the city. Similar to its big brother in the Levant, ISIS’ presence in Libya sparked both local and international fear — this time of the jihadists spreading throughout Libya and then across North Africa. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya reacted in May 2016 with the formation of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous operation (in Arabic, 'Impenetrable Wall'), which immediately advanced on Sirte.
However after some initial success in gaining control over outer neighborhoods of Sirte (reportedly with British special forces support), Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous struggled to break through ISIS’s inner line of defence - which heavily employed snipers and suicide attacks.
This in turn prompted the GNA to request air support from the United States, which officially joined the battle on August 1, 2016. With U.S. air support the GNA was now able to advance more quickly, launching its
Macmadas operation on August 12. By the end of that month the troops had captured additionally neighborhoods from ISIS — though the operation was briefly halted because of reported concerns for civilian lives.
ISIS suffered heavy losses in the attacks, including senior figures. Waleed al-Farjani, a senior judge of the Islamic court in Sirte was killed together with the Egyptian Abu Omar al-Muhajir on August 15, for example.
ISIS continued to lose its senior members in Sirte right up to the end. Fayez Al-Bidi, an imam from Benghazi, reportedly was killed in an airstrike around December 4. Al-Bidi, a former leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, had fled from military operations against his previous organisation to Sirte — where he became a senior ISIS figure and was reportedly in charge of the terror group's main prison.
Civilians at Risk
While there is no doubt that much of Sirte was destroyed in the subsequent fighting — and that trapped civilians were harmed — there are still no reliable numbers on how many died.
Reporting on the military operation and on civilian harm was difficult for locals and journalists for various reasons. The Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces cut off communication channels, so that people trapped in the city could not reach the outside world. And only a small number of journalists had access to the battleground, which made critical reporting almost impossible.
Nonetheless, some people on both sides sides were able to capture aspects of the battle for Sirte — in doing so creating accounts of life in a city which would be almost completely destroyed in the expanding fight against ISIS.
The first known report of likely civilian harm from U.S. strikes was published on August 12, 2016. Various sources claimed that a teenager named Mohammed al-Qadhafi [a variant spelling of Gaddafi] died as a result of an airstrike on his family home, near the Gulf Challenge School.
With the battle for the city now fully underway, Asharq Al-Awsat reported on Sept. 8, 2016 that civilians had become trapped in Sirte's “600” neighborhood — and that ISIS was using them as human shields. The GNA's forces brought a temporary halt to their operation — although the Libya Herald claimed that the interruption was due not to the risk of civilian harm, but because ISIS fighters had managed to get behind the GNA frontline. (This is video of an airstrike on Sirte posted by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces.)
ISIS desperately tried to fight off the advancing enemy during the campaign. It even reportedly used female snipers — a highly unusual move for the otherwise ultra-conservative terror group. Later Al Jazeera reported that the group was employing female suicide bombers as well.
Another credible report of possible civilian harm from the U.S.-backed GNA assault came from Twitter on October 12, 2016. Majdi Alshrif and Hameda MK posted images of dead and injured children, which they claimed had been taken in the rubble of a collapsed house.
On that same day the U.S. self-reported 10 airstrikes in Sirte, while local sources also described artillery shelling by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous in the 600 neighborhood.
Throughout the month of October there were repeated reports of civilians being trapped in besieged areas due to the lack of a safe passage. On October 21, Ahmed El Sharkawy claimed on Facebook that women and children were trapped under rubble in the city. A week later, the assault had to be halted again, as ISIS was once more said to be using civilians as human shields according to GNA spokesperson Rida Issa.
In November, the fight for the remaining neighborhoods of Sirte still under ISIS control intensified further — with the jihadists refusing to give up despite now being fully encircled by GNA troops. The besiegers in turn not only faced continued suicide attacks, booby traps and mines; but also had to avoid civilian casualties — including ISIS hostages and human shields. Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Rida Issa as saying that “GNA troops could hear ‘the cries of civilians every time a strike is carried out’ but he did not know their number, only that ISIS had entrapped them.”
Women and children were among the victims — many of them family members of ISIS fighters. Al Aan TV interviewed Tasnim Alkhudry, a radicalised woman detained in a Sirte prison who gave a frank account of events in the besieged areas:
“I was convinced by their ideology, so I moved to this city as my sister was living there. After living among them and losing our husbands, we discovered that ISIS members have engaged in hugely unacceptable behavior.
"Apparently the Islamic State was not a genuine Islamic state that can protect vulnerable people like kids and women. The State was crossing the boundaries of fair behavior. Therefore, when the war started in Sirte we were able to observe breaches of the rules of Islam — and the use of children and women as human shields.”
By Dec. 6, 2016, ISIS was finally defeated at Sirte. It now became easier for journalists and investigators to gain access — with the significant damage to the city also now visible to all.
During the final days of the campaign and its immediate aftermath, the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces reported saving hundreds of people from the rubble, including many children. The video outlet known as Libya’s Channel published troubling footage of a small child wandering slowly out of a destroyed home, for example. Al Jazeera also showed powerful images of injured children receiving medical aid, and the many destroyed neighborhoods of Sirte.
On Dec. 16, Elkul reported that the Misurata Central Hospital had received 47 injured children and 16 injured women during the whole campaign. And a few days later MC Doualiya published an article saying that “dozens of bodies are still under the rubble, the smell is very foul and it is feared that it will cause diseases such as plague.” The site quoted a local citizen talking about unrecovered bodies: "There are terrorists, but also women and children who died of hunger and thirst under the rubble.”
Even so, there is still no official casualty count for those innocents caught up in the fighting at Sirte. The United States Africa Command, AFRICOM, ran the U.S. air campaign which resulted in almost 500 strikes in 2016.
When questioned about specific alleged civilian harm events during the battle, a spokesman told Airwars that, "With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.”
Privately however, one senior U.S. military official indicated to Airwars that civilian casualties from U.S. actions may indeed have occurred at Sirte — but that no estimates could be reached at present based on the available evidence.
The battle for Sirte again makes clear why tracking harm from the perspective of affected civilians themselves is so important. Local reporting clearly suggests that non-combatants weren’t just trapped in the city, but were actively held hostage in besieged neighborhoods by ISIS. Even so, the U.S. still conducted 495 airstrikes at Sirte, while its ground allies the GNA also conducted airstrikes as well as intense artillery shelling during the siege.
By Airwars estimates at least 37 civilians were killed and 69 more injured as a result of airstrikes during the campaign. To date, none of the belligerents have been willing to concede any civilian harm from any of their own actions.
Media sources also reported around 2,500 ISIS fighters slain. Around 700 GNA fighters also were reported killed, and between 3,200 and 4,000 injured.
More than 18 months after the end of the Sirte campaign, some unclaimed bodies are still kept in refrigerated containers near Misurata. Families are often reluctant to be associated with relatives who fought with ISIS. Al Aan TV filmed the containers and said there were still hundreds of unidentified corpses within — some of them women and children.
Additionally, many children reportedly were left orphaned by the battle, with their parents said to have fought and died with ISIS. The scars left by ISIS' brief occupation of Sirte — and the brutal assault to free the city — may be borne for generations to come.