Control and crucifixions: Life in Libya under IS

  • 3 February 2016
  • From the section Africa
Images from Islamic State videos from Sirte

Five years after the violent uprising that brought down Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, fighters from so-called Islamic State (IS) have established a base in the coastal city of Sirte.

With an estimated 1,500 fighters in the city, they have started to impose their own rule of law, with dress codes for men and women, segregation in school classrooms and the establishment of a religious police.

Punishments inflicted on residents, for crimes ranging from theft or alcohol production to "spying", include imprisonment, amputations, public crucifixions and beheadings. The group has set up its own "police force" and is reported to be carrying out house to house searches and forcing people to attend Islamic re-education classes.

The head of intelligence in nearby Misrata says most of the IS fighters who control Sirte are foreigners - from Tunisia, Iraq or Syria.

Access to the city is dangerous for journalists and there is limited communication with people who live there - often for fear of retributions. We spoke to people who have been forced to leave the city, to escape Islamic State.

Warning: You may find some of the content below disturbing

'Bint Elferagani' - children's doctor

I was a children's doctor at the Ibn Sina Hospital. I'm now in Tripoli having escaped with my immediate family back in August 2015 when clashes were starting. But of course like others, we have relatives still inside. We sometimes contact them via the internet thanks to a satellite connection. But more widely, there's no internet or phone lines available.

Those who remain in the city tend to be the less well-off ones who can't afford rent in other cities. We have also been told about the lack of medicines at hospitals. Those with life-threatening conditions who can get out, are getting out.

The killing is unbelievable. I lost four cousins on my father's side, five cousins on my mother's side, three other relatives and two neighbours.

One cousin was crucified at the Zaafran roundabout.

Another cousin was killed at the Gharbiyat roundabout and a third was beheaded.

The fourth was killed with a tank missile. My friend lost three of her young brothers.

My friend, who also left Sirte, settled in Zliten recently. But the situation there is tragic. Her brother was killed in an explosion, the suicide attack on 7 January. He was about to graduate at the military school. An occasion of happiness was turned into one of mourning.

Islamic State has taken over key locations in Sirte

Image: Copernicus Sentinel-2/ESA image captured on 29 November 2015

Image caption Islamic State have taken over key locations in the city

I blame regional countries for IS. I hate hearing names of certain countries now: Egypt, Tunisia, Qatar, Algeria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria. We Libyans, would have sorted our problems by ourselves if they had left us alone.

There are Libyans amongst them (Islamic State) like the Benghazi and Derna jihadists. Libya is a small place, we all know each other.

My dad is a senior policeman and was getting threats in Sirte. Anyone who works with the police can be kidnapped or killed unless you join them.

Daesh forces (IS) are mainly in the city centre. A friend tells me they took over our empty house as well as the main government buildings like council buildings, the hospital I used to work at, the local mosque and the university.

Public crucifixions

Image caption One man who had fled Sirte had this image of his brother, who he said had been shot in the public square and then crucified

'Al-Warfali', from Sirte

I left Sirte back in early December. Islamic State fighters took over the city in February 2015. It wasn't an invasion per se. It was a combination of local jihadi fighters (Ansar Al-Sharia) declaring their allegiance to the Islamic State group and later being joined by fighters fleeing or beaten by the forces of General Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi.

There are also other nationalities in the ranks of IS that we either noticed from their accents or looks. They included Tunisians and Egyptians. They were not just Arabs. In April 2015, there was a special parade welcoming people they said were Boko Haram fighters from Nigeria.

IS was quite laid back at the start in terms of implementing their harsh interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. You get the feeling that they were focussing on building loyalty and allegiances from the tribal society of Sirte.

It was only in August when Islamic codes of dress and behaviour began to be implemented more noticeably. It was also then when crucifixions and lashings began to be meted out to anyone convicted. These usually take place after Friday prayers.

Until I left in December with my family, going in to and leaving the city was quite routine. The only people experiencing problems when it comes to their freedom of movement is anyone associated with other fighting groups or suspected of being a "spy".

Most foods and items at the shops are slightly more expensive. But there hasn't been any petrol available for a year and a half. People who still receive their public sector salaries from Tripoli choose to stay. Leaving simply does not make economic sense for most people.

Image caption Letter distributed by Islamic State in Sirte to public sector workers

'Re-education' courses

Leaflets and letters have been distributed to shopkeepers and public sector workers inviting them to "re-education" courses run by Islamic State.

IS have their command centre next to the domed, marble-clad Ougadougou Conference Centre - built by Muammar Gaddafi to host pan-African summits.

The centre is now used for courses where IS members instruct employees in the importance of adhering to their version of Islamic law.

The letters warn: "Whoever does not attend will be liable to questioning."

Image caption Re-education courses at the Ougadougou Conference Centre

'Ibrahim' from Sirte

I'm originally from Sirte. I was self-employed but I left the city with my family on 17 July last year, some time after the arrival of IS.

I was of course also scared for my family. We still have relatives and friends inside the city. We now live in Misrata.

When we escaped, they left people alone to come and go as they please. I'm hearing from friends people can still leave if they wish to.

We're also hearing that medicines at hospitals are almost non-existent. Food is available, but via 'war profiteers'. As far as we know, there's no petrol left.

They must have taken the city with the help of pro-Gaddafi people. The pro-Gaddafi lot came in initially under the pretext of kicking out the Misrata fighters from Sirte. There's no way these foreign IS fighters would have known their way around the city without help from locals. The city is tribal and loyalties are divided.

They started crucifying people at entrance to the city two months into their rule. Their "crime" was being spies for "Libya Dawn" fighters. The location of the crucifixion is at the entrance to the city.

I saw at least one myself being crucified. Later, I heard and read about 17 more, including my friend Sharaf Aldeen and his brother (the salafi cleric) sheikh Meftah Abu Sittah. Both were killed then crucified.

Sharia law in Sirte

Billboards instructing women how to dress according to Sharia were erected in Sirte in July 2015. The poster reads:

Instructions on wearing the hijab according to Sharia

1. It must be thick and not revealing

2. It must be loose (not tight)

3. It must cover all the body

4. It must not be attractive

5. It must not resemble the clothes of unbelievers or men

6. It must not be decorative and eye-catching

7. It must not be perfumed.

Image copyright Getty Images

'Khaled' - oil facility worker

I'm originally from Ras Lanuf and have studied at university in Sirte.

I'm now in Sidra (174km east of Sirte) where I work and where Daesh are trying to take over the oil port but the Petroleum Facilities Guards have so far repelled their advances. Their last major attempt was on 4 January. They set off a car bomb at the gate just outside the port where the guards where stationed.

At least seven guards and several IS members were killed. IS later went round us at Sidra to make their way to Ras Lanuf, 15km away. They took over a military area between Ras Lanuf and the industrial zone.

Daesh attacks have never stopped. They know they don't have the resources to overpower the oil port. So they're resorting to hit and run tactics, including setting fuel containers on fire. Their very last attack was on Saturday (30 January).

We're not living in a state of full war, yet it's not completely peaceful. People are trying to live some sort of normal life. That's why schools have reopened after they were closed at the start of January.

I was in Sirte myself in late December. I still have friends there. Communication is hard because lines have been cut. Those who left went out through the west of the city towards Misrata.

The route is open and safe that way. Eastwards towards the Sidra oil port, for example, is dangerous as there's still clashes. I know local fighters from Ras Lanuf are preparing a counter attack on Sirte.

Islamic State in Libya

Image copyright Copernicus Sentinel-2/ESA
Image caption Islamic State fighters have carried out hit and run attacks on oil depots near Ras Lanuf, along the coast from Sirte

Libya was thrown into chaos after Nato-backed forces overthrew its long-serving ruler, Gaddafi in 2011.

Elections were held in 2014, but those who held power in Tripoli refused to give it up, another rival faction set up its own parliament elsewhere and other armed groups have been fighting for control of cities and what remains of the country's infrastructure.

The Islamic State group is estimated to have no more than 2,000 to 3,000 fighters across the country, according to a United Nations report published in December 2015. Their fighters are mainly split between Derna and Sirte - with around 1,500 of them in Sirte - where they have taken control of the state-run radio station and broadcast speeches by IS religious leaders.

The Head of Intelligence in nearby Misrata, Ismail Shukri, says most of the IS fighters are foreign. Although the majority are from Tunisia, he says senior IS figures from Iraq and Syria are also taking refuge in Libya.

Media captionHead of Misrata Intelligence says most of the so-called Islamic State fighters in Libya are from Tunisia, Iraq and Syria

IS numbers in the capital, Tripoli, are believed to be marginal - with only 12 to 24 operating as a cell in the city, the report suggests. However, they have been able to carry out high-level attacks, including a strike on the Corinthia Hotel in January 2015, which left eight people dead, and an assault on a prison inside Tripoli's Mitiga airbase in September.

IS militants having been trying to push eastwards from Sirte and have carried out a number of attacks on the oil facilities at Sidra and Ras Lanuf since the start of January 2016.

Image caption Islamic State is one a number of groups fighting for control of different parts of Libya

Produced by Dominic Bailey and Abdirahim Saeed

Some of the images used in this article showing life in Sirte were first published on social media by the local affiliate of the Islamic State group. While the images correspond with reports provided by local residents, their authenticity could not be verified.

Satellite images: Landsat and Copernicus Sentinel-2/ESA

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