Among the conflict-scarred pockets of Libya’s fractured landscape, the central coastal city of Sirte is a place of distinctive despair. Strategically located at the western edge of the country’s petroleum-rich “oil crescent,” it sits on the fault-line of Libya’s opposing factional forces. For many in the West, however, it is most famous as a loyalist haven, the place where Libyan dictator Mo‘ammar al-Qaddafi fled in his final days and met his end during the 2011 revolution. Then it entered the spotlight again as the place where the Islamic State established its strongest territorial outpost outside of Syria and Iraq, before the group was ousted by Libyan forces backed by Western airpower and special forces in 2016.
More than a year after this liberation, Sirte has again faded to the margins, to the chagrin of its war-weary inhabitants. Vast sections of its downtown have been reduced to rubble, schools and universities have been closed, and mines and dead bodies still litter its streets and alleyways. More important than this physical devastation, however, is the damage to the city’s political institutions and communal fabric. To be sure, much of this damage was rooted in the Islamic State’s violent rule. While providing some degree of sought-after order and service provision, the Islamic State accelerated the erosion of tribal authority, upended social norms, and caused widespread displacement and trauma. Yet in many respects, Sirte’s current afflictions are also a continuation of its unbroken history of exclusion in the post-2011 order and deep political wounds that have yet to heal.
A BITTER LEGACY OF MARGINALIZATION
Behind the easy stereotype of being a loyalist stronghold, Sirte has a complex identity and history. Its population of 150,000 includes over 20 tribes: the more prominent of these—the Warfalla, the Qaddadfa, the Awlad Suleiman, and the Firjan—have important links to tribal kin across Libya. For centuries, Sirte was a middling settlement on the margins, linked by trade and social ties to the desert south rather than to the east or west. When Qaddafi’s reign began in 1969, all that changed. Born in the nearby village of Qasr Abou Hadi, Qaddafi built Sirte up as an enclave for his favored tribes and elites, lavishing it with public housing, a university, and seaside villas. Though Tripoli remained the capital, the dictator shifted several government institutions to the city, while promoting the ascendancy of his own once-minor tribe, the Qaddadfa, over Sirte’s larger tribes.
The 2011 uprising dealt a catastrophic blow to the city’s political standing and social fabric. Along with the town of Bani Walid, most of Sirte remained loyal to the Libyan dictator and endured a ferocious assault by anti-Qaddafi rebels backed by NATO airpower during last weeks of the war. Vast sections of the city were destroyed by indiscriminate shelling and thousands of people fled. Victorious rebel forces looted homes, while conducting arrests and executions of Qaddafi loyalists—real or suspected—often solely on the basis of affiliation to the Qaddadfa or Warfalla tribe. Much of the punishment was meted out by revolutionary fighters from Misrata, a powerful port city located 270 kilometers to the west. The ensuing animosity between Sirtawi tribes and Misratan forces would become a key feature of the city’s troubled history after 2011, one that partly facilitated the growth of the Islamic State.
In the months and years after the revolution, Sirte became a place of neglect, exclusion, and desperation. Many of its leading figures saw themselves targeted by the Political Isolation Law, a sweeping piece of legislation passed by Libya’s parliament in 2013 that excluded broad swathes of individuals from future government employment on the basis of their affiliation with the previous regime.
Added to this political marginalization, the post-revolutionary period brought far-reaching changes to the city’s social structure, conflict-resolution mechanisms, and tribal hierarchies. Many in Sirte accused the Misratans of favoring a local Sirte tribe with roots in Misrata—the Ma‘dan—while ceding security responsibility to a jihadi-leaning militia coalition, the Sirte Security Committee. As criminality, disorder, and inter-tribal disputes escalated, these jihadis presented themselves as conflict arbiters and police, and by 2013, with support from a Misratan jihadi militia, had coalesced into Ansar al-Sharia (formed independently from the similarly-named militia in Benghazi), which would become the progenitor of the Islamic State in Sirte.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ISLAMIC STATE
Though the rise of the Islamic State had occasioned some debate within Ansar al-Sharia, by the summer of 2014 key Ansar leaders from Sirte were traveling to Syria to pledge allegiance to its caliphate, while the Islamic State in turn dispatched foreign advisors and ideologues to Sirte. Initially, the Islamic State focused on preaching and religious education, though it gradually expanded into security provision and judicial matters. The latter was important given the collapse of courts and, crucially, the weakness of tribal elders to offer protection and engage in conflict mediation.
The Islamic State faced little resistance from Sirte’s divided tribes. By holding out the prospect of “repentance,” it was able to enlist members of former loyalist tribes—the Qaddadfa, Warfalla, and Magharba—who viewed the jihadi group as either protection against the Misratans or, at the very least, the lesser of two evils. Increasing defections from Ansar al-Sharia and an influx of foreign fighters from the Arab world and the Sahel filled the Islamic State’s ranks. By late 2015, having crushed an uprising by the Firjan tribe and expanded into nearby towns, the group’s control was complete.
A crucial element in the Islamic State’s rise was Libya’s national civil war between two loose constellations of armed groups: Libya Dawn, a western-based coalition of Islamists and revolutionary towns, including Misrata, and Operation Dignity, comprised of eastern tribes, federalists, and disaffected military units, who had loosely coalesced into the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. By late 2014 and early 2015, the conflict had escalated into a battle for the oil facilities of the Sirte Basin. Geographically, the city of Sirte fell squarely on the seams of this fighting and with both sides more focused on fighting each other, the Islamic State was able to expand unobstructed.
Given their proximity, the Misratan militias were best positioned to confront the Islamic State, but the port city’s leaders feared that any expenditure of military force would leave them weakened against Haftar, whom they considered a greater threat. It was not until May 2016, after the Islamic State had attacked checkpoints east of Misrata and threatened to cut off its trade route to the south, that Misratan-led militias finally moved on Sirte. Mindful of the troubled history between Sirte and Misrata, Western diplomats tried to make the campaign more of a truly national effort, to include Haftar’s forces, but that did not happen.
The resulting six-month operation, Bunyan al-Marsus, or Solid Structure, was backed by American airpower and Western special operations forces. Over 700 anti-Islamic State fighters, mostly from Misrata, died in the fighting. The operation was under the nominal authority of an internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, but in fact many of the anti-Islamic State fighting units grew increasingly wary of the government, and some were openly hostile to it. Airstrikes and artillery caused significant damage to Sirte’s seaside and downtown areas, where the Islamic State made its final stand, though a number of its fighters had fled the city beforehand. While civilian casualties were reportedly minimal, the campaign left thousands displaced within and outside the city. Predictably, some of the formerly loyalist tribes in Sirte feared a repeat of the excesses by Misratan militias in 2011 and fled. However, aside from some scattered reports of looting, the abuses did not happen to the extent feared.
THE HERCULEAN TASKS OF RECOVERY AND SECURITY
Because of the intensity of the fighting against the Islamic State, Sirte’s recovery challenges would be enormous under even normal circumstances. Yet, the city’s geographic location between the GNA’s Bunyan al-Marsus deployments and Haftar’s Libyan National Army has meant that polarization and political tensions are further obstacles. The proximity of the contested and coveted oil crescent is yet another destabilizing factor. All of this has underscored the importance to the international community of strengthening the city’s resilience to mitigate risks of any social and political tensions devolving into tribal clashes.
Recognizing this, international organizations engaged in Sirte—such as the United Nations Development Program and the United States Agency for International Development—have attempted to engage local actors, civil society, and the municipality in the implementation process. They have done so to enhance the sustainability of stabilization projects as well as embed a sense of ownership that would transcend tribal-political differences. This comes on top of assistance to repair infrastructure, particularly primary and secondary schools, the university, and the hospital.
Nevertheless, an array of local issues is slowing these efforts. With the GNA holding little power and the international community’s support lacking a long-term focus, it has been difficult to strengthen the role of civil society, increase trust in Sirte’s municipality, or improve perceptions of the GNA. Different interpretations of what stabilization encompasses among the multitude of donor states that operate in Sirte have also translated into a fragmented response. Judicial institutions remain non-operational—a factor that may make Sirte’s residents particularly vulnerable to the influence of any group that can provide arbitration, justice, and conflict resolution, a tactic employed by Ansar al-Sharia in 2012 and later the Islamic State. Currently, those arrested in Sirte are transferred to prisons in Misrata due to the absence of functioning prisons in the city, which creates tensions between Sirtawis and predominantly Misrati factions of Bunyan al-Marsus, particularly among the youth.
Day-to-day policing and law enforcement are also fraught with tribal, factional, and ideological tensions. After the ouster of the Islamic State, a powerful local militia called the 604th Infantry Brigade took over much of the city’s security functions. Drawn primarily from members of Sirte’s Warfalla and Firjan tribes, many of whom had fled the city in summer 2015 after the Islamic State had brutally crushed the Firjani uprising, the 604th fought alongside the Bunyan al-Marsus coalition, drawing support from fighters in Bani Walid, Zintan, and Sabha, and material assistance from militias in Tripoli. A distinguishing feature of the 604th is its members’ adherence to the so-called Madkhali variant of Salafism—named after its ideological progenitor, the Saudi cleric Rabi‘ bin Hadi al-Madkhali. While Madkhali doctrine emphasizes obedience to a sitting ruler and political quietism, as constituted in Libya Madkhali followers are anything but apolitical; they are deeply embedded in Libya’s factional conflicts across the country and have exerted increasing influence in the policing sphere as well as in media, educational, and religious affairs.
In Sirte, this influence is particularly acute. The 604th has ousted imams of mosques and replaced them with Salafis, set up Salafi primary education, occupied a technical college, and taken over media outlets. On policing matters, it is widely regarded as the most powerful security entity, arresting criminal suspects on behalf of the Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Investigation Department, guarding Sirte’s airport, and providing personal protection for municipal officials. In some respects this provision of security, along with the legitimacy of the 604th as a locally-rooted, tribally-based entity, has allowed it to forge a social contract with some segments of Sirte’s population. But for many other Sirtawis, the power of the 604th is a source of deep anxiety as its modus operandi is reminiscent of the Islamic State’s. This is cemented by the fact that the 604th enforces Salafi social mores on dress, personal conduct, and religious rituals, which have no basis in Libya’s formal, codified laws.
The relations of the 604th with Misratan Bunyan al-Marsus forces are another source of tensions. Currently, Bunyan al-Marsus armed groups are positioned on the outskirts of the city, protecting its entrances through Sirte’s Protection Force. Established by the Tripoli GNA in 2017 and largely staffed by Misratans from the Bunyan al-Marsus, the force has assumed some policing functions, though its relations with the 604th are fraught with suspicion. Sirte’s Protection Force has also not received any payment from the GNA since the end of the Bunyan al-Marsus operation. Controversially, the GNA has set up and formalized funding through its Interior Ministry for Sirte’s Security Directorate—an entity almost entirely reliant on the 604th Infantry Brigade as well as some ex-members of Tripoli’s Special Deterrence Force. Though Sirte’s Security Directorate, Sirte’s Protection Force, and the Libyan National Army’s 128th battalion have recently coordinated joint patrols to secure the road from Sirte to Jufra from the Islamic State, the relationship between the different forces remains tenuous and this marriage of convenience may be short-lived, especially if omitted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and other actors that could leverage the momentum it has created.
Aside from these policing tensions, other challenges vex the city. Although about 90 percent of its citizens have now returned to Sirte, many returnees still remain displaced in other neighborhoods. This raises the sensitive issue of compensation and the role of the government and international institutions in providing support.
Similarly, there are frustrations over the slow pace of reconstruction, delays in delivering work, and a lack of transparency when it comes to how finances are being spent. Mines and other unexploded ordinance continue to pose a threat, which many consider a shortcoming of Bunyan al-Marsus forces and Sirte’s municipality. Though efforts led by international non-governmental organizations have been focused on raising awareness of this issue, residents often complain that actual demining activities are carried out very slowly. This, coupled with the scarcity of medical supplies in Sirte’s main hospital, is a concern for those seeking emergency medical treatment.
Tribal competition is also on the rise, especially over lucrative reconstruction contracts. In particular, some in the city fear that Sirtawi contractors from tribes with roots in Misrata are establishing a “protection market” around reconstruction and rehabilitation work in Sirte. The absence of a tribal mediation body has helped fuel these tensions—Sirte’s Wise Men Committee, an inter-tribal mediation body, was disbanded during the war against the Islamic State and recent efforts by the municipality to reconstitute it have faltered. Though a Communications Committee made up of influential individuals who act as middlemen between the municipality and different actors within Sirte has been operational since August 2017, it has not been able to fully take on the responsibilities previously endorsed by the Wise Men Committee.
In light of these challenges, it is not surprising that the future for many in Sirte remains bleak. While the presence of the Islamic State within the city itself has been drastically diminished, militants are regrouping in the desert to the south and the threat from ambushes or vehicle-borne improvised devices is ever present. But more important is the challenge from continued neglect, the glacial pace of recovery, and the constant specter of communal tensions. Taken in sum, these afflictions have only underscored the disenfranchisement felt by Sirte’s citizens since 2011. Combined with the protracted power vacuum, this despair and disarray could present a renewed opening for a radical actor to emerge—either the Islamic State or some new jihadi variant—on the basis of providing order and justice.
Reconstruction and recovery in Sirte are therefore not only conditioned on strengthening local governance resilience; they also encompass moving away from reactionary and securitized responses to a focus on building Sirte’s local security capacities and reactivating its justice institutions. This would prevent a local groundswell of frustration, grief, and anger from developing into a flashpoint—one that would transform Sirte’s stabilization from a Herculean task into a Sisyphean one.
* This background article is drawn primarily from the authors’ fieldwork and interviews in Sirte.