A Snapshot of the Islamic State’s Libyan Stronghold

The eastern Libyan city of Derna has been in the news a lot lately. Last October it became the first place outside of Syria and Iraq to fall under the control of the Islamic State (IS). More recently, on Feb. 16, the Egyptian and Libyan air forces conducted airstrikes against IS targets in the city ...

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The eastern Libyan city of Derna has been in the news a lot lately. Last October it became the first place outside of Syria and Iraq to fall under the control of the Islamic State (IS). More recently, on Feb. 16, the Egyptian and Libyan air forces conducted airstrikes against IS targets in the city in response to the group’s beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptians, which shocked the world. Several days later, IS militants retaliated with deadly suicide bombings in the nearby town of al-Qubbah, killing at least 45 civilians.

Because IS forces are in control in Derna, it’s hard to get a picture of what’s going on there. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to find out as much I can. I’ve been meeting with people who have been to the town recently, and I’ve been in touch with others who are still there. In the process I’ve tried to sample as many different views as possible, including those that are partly or wholly supportive of the Islamists. Here’s what I’ve found out.

Over the past few months, Derna has developed into a typical example of a city under IS rule. The new IS administration has worked to set up its own police force and courts and to transform the education system. Boys and girls are segregated at school, and subjects such as science and philosophy have been banned from the curriculum. The new rulers have also outlawed cigarette shops, and anyone caught smoking will be fined or otherwise punished. IS fighters have carried out public lashings and executions as they seek to implement a strict penal code. Perhaps most disturbing of all, members of the group have taken over the homes of families that have fled, a measure clearly aimed at intimidating residents into staying. The group has also attended to the more mundane elements of governance, implementing a tax of 1.5 dinars per square meter in the city’s main market area, according to residents from Derna I spoke with.

It’s no surprise that Derna was the place that ended up becoming Libya’s first IS affiliate. The city has suffered social, economic, and political neglect for many decades. In the 1990s, it became a stronghold of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadi organization that aimed to overthrow the Qaddafi regime by force. Qaddafi responded by placing the city under siege, and once his forces gained control, they conducted brutal house-to-house searches for jihadis, further alienating the population. The city, once a major cultural center, endured systematic abuse and neglect. The lack of social and economic investment led to high unemployment rates and a widespread sense of injustice among the young. Those who governed the city after the 2011 revolution failed to address its long-standing problems.

These persisting social ills have fueled Derna’s susceptibility to extremism. Islamist militias have operated in the city for years, but IS-linked groups really only began to register a significant presence starting last summer. IS fighters gradually gained the upper hand over the other major Islamist militia in the area, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, and steadily asserted their control over the local government, culminating in the announcement of fealty to the Islamic State last fall. IS in Derna includes a large contingent of Libyan jihadis who have returned from Syria and Iraq, though some reports claim that at least 5,000 foreign fighters have also joined the group. (In the photo, a motorcade belonging to members of Derna’s Islamic Youth Council, which has pledged allegiance to IS, drive along a road in Derna.)

It should be clear that overcoming IS rule will thus need to go well beyond a military solution by addressing the long-standing grievances of the population. A corresponding political strategy would use a range of policies to address decades of underdevelopment and create better economic opportunities for the young. In addition, reviving the city’s legacy as a center of culture could help to counter the appeal of violent jihadi ideology.

As things stand now, the people of Derna have no representatives in either the internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk or in the Constituent Assembly in Bayda, which is still working, despite the civil war, to draft a new constitution for the country. The reason for this is that the Islamist extremists who have been in control have succeeded in preventing elections from taking place since 2012. As a result, the people of Derna have been deprived of any chance to participate in the debates over the future of their city. They seem to have lost their voice amid Libya’s chaos and instability.

Libyans seem to be of two minds about the best way to respond to the rise of the Islamic State. On the one hand, some want to see swift and decisive military action against IS in order to prevent the group from continuing to exploit the institutional and security vacuum in Derna. An air force colonel who found himself compelled to flee Derna for Tobruk told me the city’s only hope is a military intervention like the one staged by Qaddafi in the 1990s, when he bombed the Libyan Islamic Fighting group out of the city and into exile. While others in Derna I spoke to agree that some sort of military operation against extremist groups in the city will have to take place, they also raised concerns about an ill-devised military solution.

They’re right to express caution. Bombing in a tightly packed city with decrepit houses and infrastructure is likely to render it virtually uninhabitable. Without a comprehensive plan to house and provide for the city’s eighty thousand people, the result will be a humanitarian catastrophe — and an even more fertile recruiting ground for IS. An activist from the city told me that any strategy that doesn’t take the population’s concerns into account is almost sure to result in disaster, and could backfire by creating even bigger problems in the future.

A local journalist from Derna also warned against ill-advised plans to take back the city by force. “Derna suffered at the hands of the Qaddafi regime,” he told me. “Every house in the city was searched in the 1990s by Qaddafi’s security apparatus and the military. It’s crucial that commanders who lead the operation against IS are carefully picked to avoid aggravating historical sensitivities.” He’s absolutely right about that. Otherwise, groups like IS will have a perfect chance to further exploit old grievances.

It’s equally important to note that deciding to stay in the city, as many Derna residents have done, should not be equated with support for the Islamic State. As Libyans well know, opting to leave one’s home under the current circumstances in the country can lead to grim consequences; the internally displaced live miserable lives. According to the Derna activist, local residents are waiting for an official announcement of an upcoming military operation to leave the city. “People in Derna are extremely worried by statements on TV from the air force chief, who is claiming that those deciding to stay in Derna are sympathetic to terrorist groups,” he said.

In truth, many locals — even many local Islamists — are no friends of IS. The Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, made up mostly of local fighters, has refused to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, even though (like so many other Islamist militias) they’re also opponents of Operation Dignity, the anti-Islamist military campaign led by General Khalifa Haftar. Salem Darbi, the head of Abu Salim Martyrs brigade, traveled to al-Qubbah to pay respects to the families of around 45 people killed by the suicide bombings that rocked the town on Feb. 20. Darbi apparently sought to convince people in the town that he didn’t agree with mass killings carried out by IS militants. This was a remarkably open expression of opposition to the tactics and actions of the Islamic State — additional evidence that not all Islamist militias in Libya are automatically on the side of groups like the Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia. It is just such divisions of opinion that offer important openings for a possible political strategy.

A military campaign to retake the city from the Islamic State will work only if the concerns of its residents are taken into account. IS has been making use of the city’s long history of neglect to recruit young people who see no other prospects for their future. The longer Derna’s problems are left unaddressed, the more intractable the terrorism problem in this part of Libya will get.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer

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