This is a Sunday Telegraph piece from somewhere outside the Isis-held city of Sirte in Libya, just as pro-government forces were beginning their assault in May 2016. It was also my very last as a Telegraph staffer – flew home and got made redundant the very day after! Photos by the great Narciso Contreras – probably the only Mexican photographer working in Libya, I suspect.
WHEN a desert storm is raging, the new frontline against Isil in Libya could not feel more like a no man’s land.
Camped at a crossroads at the hamlet of Abugrein, some 3,000 Westernbacked fighters man defences on a road that leads to Muammar Gaddafi’s home city of Sirte, which fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) last year. As the storm peaked on Friday, it was hard enough for them to even see their enemy, never mind fight them.
“This kind of weather makes us feel very vulnerable as we can’t see where the Isil fighters are,” said field commander Mohammed al Afayda, 40, as he stood next to a line of pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machines guns, bazookas and multiple rocket launchers. “They can use these storms to move around as they like and attack us all of a sudden.”
Most of the Libyan gunmen massed for the assault on Sirte are fighters from nearby Misrata who learnt their combat skills during the revolution against Gaddafi in 2011. Indeed, for many of them, the road into Sirte is familiar territory. The city was the scene of Gaddafi’s last stand, when he was found hiding in a culvert and killed on the spot.
Yet that victory five years ago also laid the seeds of the new battle ahead. Humiliated at their defeat, those in Sirte who had prospered under Gaddafi later welcomed in foreign fighters from Isil, allowing the group complete control by early last year. Gaddafi’s showpiece city is now home to anything up to 6,000 Isil fighters, making it the group’s main outpost outside Syria and Iraq, and a possible launchpad for attacks on Europe.
With a UN-backed government of national unity taking up power in Tripoli last month after two years of deadlock, the fight to retake Sirte is fi-nally on, with world leaders agreeing to lift Libya’s longstanding arms embargo at a meeting in Vienna last Monday. Their hope is that removing Isil from Sirte will help Libya get back on its feet again, paving the way also for action against the people-smugglers who operate there with impunity.
However, if the opening skirmishes are anything to go by, it is also likely to be a considerably tougher scrap than the last battle for Sirte five years ago.
Back then, Mr al Afayda and his comrades were up mainly against Gaddafi mercenaries, who, like ordinary soldiers, would retreat or quit altogether if the going got too tough. The same cannot be said of their latest adversaries, for whom dying in battle is all part of the job. “These guys all wear suicide belts, and they march at us without retreating or caring if they get hit,” said Captain Mufta Fadil, 54, a grey-haired army veteran wearing sandals under his military fatigues.
In the fortnight since the operation to besiege Sirte began in earnest, Isil have used such “martyrs” to deadly effect, deploying car bombers to hurtle down the dual carriageway towards the Misratan frontlines.
On Wednesday, Isil inflicted its biggest casualties yet, with a huge truck bomb covered with makeshift armour plating. It withstood even a hail of fire from a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun, and when it blew up it caused a towerblock-sized fireball. Some 26 Misratan fighters were killed, and dozens more injured were sent to the field hospital further down the road.
Such attacks are as simple as they are effective – and in the view of the Misratan commanders, they could be stopped in equally simple fashion by anti-tank weapons.
However, despite the pledges of Western aid in the fight against Isil in Sirte, no such weapons have been forthcoming. That is a bitter issue for men like Colonel Mahmoud Isqal, a senior commander of forces at Abugrein. He pointed out that while the West has only lifted the arms embargo now, he and his men have been manning the frontlines about Abugrein for more than a year, during which they have lost some 200 men. “My men are well trained troops, but they are angry with the West,” he said. “For a year and a half we have been talking about weapons, asking for weapons, special operations training, logistics and medical help, but we get none of it. This is the whole world’s problem and we are being left alone to face it.”
British and American special forces had been in to help, but “not much”, and only to provide occasional pieces of intelligence. His own spies in Sirte, by contrast, had provided vast amounts of intelligence to the West, but “nobody had acted on it with airstrikes”.
His fighters had not been given nonlethal help such as night goggles – supplied by Britain to Syrian rebel groups – or a field hospital. “If we’d proper help, we could have defeated Isil in Sirte when they were just a few hundred men.”
The response of Western diplomats – as ever – is that these matters are complicated and take time, and that once the new government establishes its authority over Libya’s myriad militias, more weapons help will come. Yet the longer the delay, the more the new government will lose credibility with the very people it needs to win over.
Meanwhile, the two sides prod each other’s defences up and down the desert road. Before retreating, Isil also sows landmines. Several Misratan fighters have been killed, and clearing reclaimed turf is a slow process.
Isil also blends in with the civilian population for defence, as shown by the bullet-ridden Isil truck by the roadside. It looked like a civilian vehicle, yet inside the cabin, which was stained with dried blood, the Telegraph saw Isil logos plastered all over the windscreen. At the Misratan frontlines, it would have been hard to tell whether the oncoming vehicle was a suicide bomber or a family of refugees fleeing Sirte.
Mr al Afayda expects many more such car bombs. Recently, he says, his men discovered a warehouse full of them. “There were scores there, all ready to go,” he said. “One was packed full of rockets in the back as well – the explosion it would have made would have been huge.”