Libyans living under ISIS rule in Sirte have described public executions, kidnappings, and floggings carried out at the hands of the militants as they work toward building another stronghold in the Middle East.
As western countries ramp up strikes against the group’s de-facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) sees Libya as a potential back-up option at which to base its operations.
ISIS’ influence in Sirte has been growing over the past year, as it has evolved into what The New York Times described as an “actively managed colony” of the central group.
ISIS now has an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 fighters in Libya, and it has been able to seize territory, establish “media points” to distribute its propaganda, and set up Sharia courts to enforce its strict version of Islamic law.
Human Rights Watch recently interviewed 45 residents of Sirte who talked about how the city transformed after ISIS took over. All names used are pseudonyms.
Ahlam, 30, told HRW that “life in Sirte is unbearable.”
“Everyone is living in fear. They are killing innocent people,” Ahlam said. “There are no groceries, the hospital has no doctors or nurses, there is no medicine. … There are spies on every street. Most people have left but we are trapped. We don’t have enough money to leave.”
Here are some of the major changes ISIS has implemented in Sirte, according to HRW’s report:
- Morality police: “Hisba” authorities, similar to those found in Raqqa, are now patrolling the streets of Sirte. They have been known to threaten, fine, or beat people for smoking, listening to music, or allowing their wives and sisters to walk around uncovered in the head-to-toe black coverings that are mandatory for every woman living in ISIS territory. The morality police also force males to attend mosque for prayer and religious education classes.
- Strict laws: ISIS has distributed a “Charter for the City” that lays out the laws under ISIS. From the HRW report: “The charter outlaws ‘all taboos’ including selling or consuming drugs and alcohol, and smoking. It ‘encourages’ residents to pray ‘all together, and on time’ in local mosques. It rejects gatherings, political parties, and flags or insignia, and says polytheistic or pagan shrines must be razed. The document orders women to cover themselves in ‘loose robes and veil,’ to spend their time ‘settling in the home … refraining from leaving unless necessary.’ All public funds belong to ISIS, the document says.”
- Public executions: ISIS has carried out public beheadings and “crucifixions,” which consist of the militants hanging corpses in orange jumpsuits from scaffolding. ISIS uses loudspeakers to call residents to watch these executions in Sirte’s central square.
- Kidnappings: Masked men have reportedly been “snatching men from their beds in the night,” according to the report.
- Schools: Sirte University has not conducted classes since late last year. ISIS reportedly banned history and law classes and tried to segregate male and female students. The group is also attempting to control primary and secondary schools to teach young students Islamic law.
- Stores: ISIS has reportedly closed lingerie shops and stores that sell Western clothing.
- Government and infrastructure: ISIS has “taken over Sirte’s port, air base, main power station and radio station, along with all local government offices and finances,” according to the report. The group has also set up three prisons, closed down banks, and established call centres so that it can control residents’ communication with the outside world.
- Military training for children: ISIS has conscripted fighters as young as 16 years old. The group is also training children younger than 16 in suicide bombing, booby trapping, and weapons.
The Libyans who talked to HRW described the despair Sirte residents are living with.
Ali, who has left the city, noted to HRW that the final stage of the 2011 revolution against ousted Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi was in Sirte, the deceased leader’s hometown.
“We were filled with hope,” Ali said. “Then step by step, Daesh took over. Now we feel we are cursed.”
ISIS killings have made residents afraid to venture outside.
“I do not leave my house except to go to the mosque: house to mosque, mosque to house,” Salem, a former government employee, told HRW. “I keep my head down. I would stay in Misrata but I can’t afford the rents here. Everyone wants to leave Sirte if they can find a way.”
Residents have described horrifying kidnappings and executions of people ISIS perceives as enemies or suspects of being spies.
Another man identified by the pseudonym “Ali” told HRW about his relative, who was kidnapped and publicly executed by ISIS for being a “spy.”
“He disappeared for three months,” Ali said. “Then on January 16 , they shot him dead. The man who shot him was Tunisian and was in a wheelchair. They shot him in public and then they crucified him for three days in Zaafran Square.”
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