U.S.-Backed Militias in Libya Claim to Retake ISIS Stronghold of Surt

CAIRO — Pro-government Libyan militias backed by American air power said Wednesday that they had seized the Islamic State’s last stronghold in the country, in the seaside city of Surt.

If confirmed, the capture would be a severe blow to the militant organization’s expansion into North Africa, and extend the string of territorial retreats it has suffered this year in Syria and Iraq.

Militia announcements quoted by Libyan news agencies and television outlets said the militia fighters were still hunting remnants of the Islamic State forces hiding in residential neighborhoods in Surt.

But the militias claimed to have taken the heavily fortified Ouagadougou Center, which the Islamic State had used as its headquarters.

In a statement broadcast on Misurata TV, a station based in the nearby city of Misurata, Mohamed al-Ghassri, a spokesman for the attacking militia force, said that the Ouagadougou Center and a nearby hospital had been captured.

Al-Ahrar TV, a Libyan broadcaster, posted on its Twitter account photos of what appeared to be triumphal fighters outside the center posing with their flag.

The center was heavily fortified, with underground bunkers and fortifications dating from the era of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime leader of Libya overthrown nearly five years ago.

The Islamic State’s loss of Surt would signify the culmination of a summer-long offensive by militias from Misurata, under the auspices of the Government of National Accord, the Tripoli-based authority backed by the United Nations.

It comes against the backdrop of other military setbacks for the Islamic State, which once held wide areas of Syria and Iraq but has been forced to relinquish territory in recent months. Iraqi forces retook control of the city of Falluja from the Islamic State in June. The Syrian Army, backed by Russia, expelled the Islamic State from the ancient city of Palmyra in March. Syrian insurgents and Kurdish militias, including some American-backed factions, have been squeezing Islamic State positions in northeast Syria near Raqqa, the organization’s headquarters.

Over the last 10 days, the militias fighting the Islamic State in Libya have been supported by heavy American airstrikes, using drones based in Jordan. The United States Africa Command has reported 28 airstrikes from the beginning of that campaign, Aug. 1, to Monday.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had held Surt for the past year. Its occupation of the city represented the organization’s most brazen expansion from its power bases in Iraq and Syria.
Libyan forces during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Surt, Libya, last month. Credit Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

While the American military did not specify exactly where its airstrikes had been aimed, it is believed that they were concentrated in and around Surt. The militias’ offensive against the Islamic State had reduced the area they controlled from 150 miles of coastline to the area immediately around the city.

The birthplace of Colonel Qaddafi, Surt is also where the Libyan dictator was killed by antigovernment militia fighters in 2011.

Officials at the Pentagon said they could not confirm that the Islamic State’s headquarters in Surt had fallen, but one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military rules, said he had no reports suggesting the militia claims were untrue.

Libya’s hodgepodge of militias, answering to three different factions claiming to control the country, have often been prone to exaggerated claims.

Pro-militia factions also reported that a Libyan Air Force warplane had been shot down by Islamic State fighters in Surt on Wednesday.

The territory seized by the Islamic State in Libya had been considered the most important of the group’s overseas wilayats, or provinces.

As early as October 2014, extremists in the Libyan city of Darnah pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and a month later, the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, named Libya as one of the group’s official provinces.

That province was eventually centered in Surt, which became the axis of the Islamic State’s power in Libya.

The organization sought to give its Libya province the trappings of a state, modeled after the one it was trying to run in Iraq and Syria. Early on, senior Islamic State members arrived by boat to help administer the territory, creating a degree of connective tissue that has mostly been lacking in other areas the group has seized.

The Islamic State set up offices mirroring those in Syria, including a media office, which put out content tailored to a Libyan audience, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The production techniques used in execution videos produced in Libya were so similar to ones emerging from Syria that some experts theorized that the Islamic State must have dispatched a cameraman from Syria to Libya to achieve that congruence.

The latest developments in Surt came as the Government of National Accord has been struggling with other resilient threats to Libya’s frail stability. Fears have risen that militias in eastern Libya that have refused to recognize the government could attack the Zueitina oil export terminal, where Libya petroleum officials hope to resume disrupted shipments.

The governments of France, Britain, Spain, Germany and the United States on Wednesday issued a statement expressing “concern at reports of increasing tension” near Zueitina and supporting the government’s efforts to “resolve the disruptions to Libya’s energy exports.”