Libya's jihadist challenge to last beyond Sirte defeat

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Libyan forces battle Islamic State fighters in Sirte

SIRTE, Libya, Aug 18 (Reuters) - The grand ambitions scrawled on a wall near the Libyan city of Sirte's Mediterranean sea front look fanciful now: "Islamic State's naval port, the departure point for Rome, with God's permission."

Beaten back by local forces over three months and by U.S. air strikes since Aug. 1, Islamic State is on the verge of losing the city where it exerted absolute control since last year, its most important base outside Syria and Iraq.

But while defeat in Sirte will be a critical blow, it will not be the end of Libya's jihadist threat. Some militants were able to flee Sirte before it was encircled and are likely to try to reactivate elsewhere in Libya, officials and fighters say.

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Islamic State's last stand in Sirte, Libya
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Islamic State's last stand in Sirte, Libya
Smoke rises during a battle between Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government and Islamic State fighters in neighborhood Number Two in Sirte, Libya August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government fire a shell at Islamic State fighters' positions in Sirte, Libya August 15, 2016. Picture taken August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government looks through a pair of binoculars during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya August 15, 2016. Picture taken August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Fighters of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government hold their weapons as they patrol during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya August 15, 2016. Picture taken August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government receive ammunitions for their tank during a battle with Islamic State fighters in neighborhood Number Two in Sirte, Libya August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Fighters of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government hold their weapons as they patrol during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya August 15, 2016. Picture taken August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Fighters ride a pickup truck as smoke rises during a battle with Islamic State fighters in neighborhood Number Two in Sirte, Libya August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government holds his weapon as he patrols during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya August 15, 2016. Picture taken August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Fighters of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government rest during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya August 15, 2016. Picture taken August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government fire an artillery cannon at Islamic State fighters' positions in Sirte, Libya August 15, 2016. Picture taken August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
A wounded fighter from Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government, who was injured during a battle with Islamic State fighters, receives treatment in a field hospital in Sirte, Libya August 16, 2016. Picture taken August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
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Militants may link up with existing cells and armed factions already operating in other regions, as the divisions that fueled extremism in Libya persist and even risk worsening as a result of the Sirte campaign.

Officials give few details on fighters detained or killed in the battle for Sirte, saying they find it hard to trace militants who use different identities and that resources to track and intercept fugitives are scarce.

But according to Mohamed Gnaidy, a military intelligence official in Misrata, a western Libyan city, about a dozen militant commanders and hundreds of more junior fighters may have slipped away.

"Important leaders escaped from Sirte," he said. "We think there are some in the desert and that they will try to regroup and continue with the same ideology."

SEE ALSO: What the Islamic State leaves behind in abandoned strongholds
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That does not mean Islamic State will resurface openly in another Libyan town, Gnaidy and other officials said. But the group could stage revenge attacks or wage an insurgency, operating sleeper cells in urban areas and forging new alliances in the vast open spaces of the south.

"One of the few things we know for sure is that Islamic State cannot continue acting like a state actor as it has in the past," said Marco Arnaboldi, a researcher of political Islam specializing on Libya.

Sirte, the home town of toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the last big city to fall in the 2011 uprising that overthrew him, sits in the center of Libya's coast, midway between areas controlled since 2014 by rival governments in the east and west.

Islamic State seized control of Sirte a year and a half ago as warring factions battled each other across the country.

Much of the group's Libyan force, which according to most estimates prior to the battle in Sirte numbered between 2,000 and 5,000, was based in the port city. At one stage Western officials even suggested Sirte could become a fallback option for the militants under pressure in Syria and Iraq.

But Libya's Islamic State branch, already ousted from its initial base in the eastern city of Derna, has found it hard to win support, raise revenue, and retain territory.

In January, Sirte-based militants pushed eastwards from the 250 km (155 mile) coastal strip under its control, attacking but not holding major oil terminals. In May, they surged on settlements and checkpoints to the west, provoking a counter attack from Misrata to start the campaign for Sirte.

Get a glimpse at what life is like under Islamic State rule:
Life Under Islamic State

CITY BATTLEFIELD

Sirte is now a battlefield, its otherwise deserted central neighborhoods the scene of sporadic sniper exchanges, artillery fire, and house-to-house fighting.

On days of heavy clashes, dozens on both sides have been reported killed. No accurate numbers exist for Islamic State deaths, but casualties among the Misrata-led brigades testify to the enemy's force, with more than 350 killed and 1,500 wounded.

That toll prompted a request for U.S. air strikes, giving fresh impetus to an advance slowed by car bombs, highly trained snipers, and a wide range of improvised explosive devices.

Libyan officials now fear such deadly tactics could be used elsewhere, including in the capital Tripoli and other cities in western Libya where Islamic State previously carried out attacks.

"Now they are trapped and it's easy to defeat them, but after they're defeated they'll definitely take revenge," said Fathi Bashagha, a security official who coordinates between Misrata-based forces and the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

In the far west, Islamic State could attempt to rebuild around Sabratha, an area used as a training and support hub by Tunisian militants before dozens were killed in a U.S. air strike in February and in later clashes with local forces.

According to a U.N. report published last month, some fighters crossed back to Tunisia following the strike; others found refuge in Sabratha itself or at the foot of the Nafusa mountains to the south. Islamic State "still operates in the region stretching between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, especially in rural areas," the report said.

Within Libya, officials say fugitive fighters from Sirte probably fled south, potentially reinforcing links between Islamic State and militant groups present in the Sahel, including Nigeria's Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Mourabitoun and Ansar Eddine.

Hassan Kara, a field commander in Sirte, said senior Islamic State commanders had "fled the battlefield very early on," and that residents in Libya's southwest had reported militants fleeing through the desert towards Niger.

Arnaboldi, the researcher, said he thought reports of escapes from Sirte may be exaggerated. Fighters who managed to leave told him this was only possible for a short period at the start of the battle.

Last month's U.N. report said Islamic State efforts to infiltrate smuggling networks in Libya's southwest had largely failed. But in the southeast the group "struck a deal with Arab armed groups around Al Kufra to protect its convoys," establishing a "small operational presence" in the area.

Related: Tunisia faces challenges from ISIS:

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Tunisia faces challenges from Islamic State
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Tunisia faces challenges from Islamic State
A minaret, that was damaged during fighting between Islamic State jihadists and government forces, is seen in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Household items lie on the ground at a house that was squatted by Islamic State jihadists and damaged during fighting with government forces in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People stand where their neighbour Abdel Atti Abdelkabir, a policeman, was killed by Islamic State jihadists in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A Tunisian security forces tank is seen through a car window at Dhiba by the Tunisian and Libyan border crossing, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A house which was damaged during fighting with government forces stands in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A road sign shows the direction of Libya near the border crossing at Dhiba, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The father and son of Abdel Atti Abdelkabir, a policeman who was killed by Islamic State jihadists, pose for a picture in Ben Guerdane, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A municipal worker adds the finishing touches in Martyr's Square to a memorial to those recently killed by Islamic State's fighters in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Hamid Ishi stands in his house, which was squatted by Islamic State jihadists and damaged during fighting with government forces, in Ben Guerdane, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People are seen at a Radio Web studio during training at a youth centre in Ben Guerdane, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man who's brother,Tarak Slimi, is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, shows how the family managed to board up a door after it was damaged during a police raid in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Fethiya Charni holds a photograph and the passport of her son Tarak Slimi, who is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, at her house in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Fethiya Charni, weeps as she holds a photograph and the passport of her son Tarak Slimi, who is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, at her house in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mohamed Slimi, whose son Tarak Slimi is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, sits at his house in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Photographs of Rahma (L), the wife of Noureddine Chouchane, a jihadist who was killed during a U.S strike in Libya, and her sister Gofran (R), are seen in a newspaper in Tunis, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Yarusi Kadi, 21 (C), an unemployed graduate, smiles as he poses for a photograph with his grandmother at his house in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman walks past a truck loaded with containers in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman sits outside her house, which was damaged in fighting between Islamic State jihadists and government forces, in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Yahya, father of Bechar Zongya, gestures during an interview with Reuters journalists in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A sign is seen at the edge of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People inspect a burnt room inside their house, which was damaged by fighting between Islamic State jihadists and government forces in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Men play soccer at a pitch in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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HAFTAR QUESTION

In the northeast, the spillover from Sirte could fuel a conflict between forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a powerful commander who rejects the government in Tripoli, and loose alliances of fighters that include Islamists loyal to Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia.

Some militants from eastern Libya may have returned to their home region from Sirte. The Misrata brigades that approached Sirte from the west did not manage to seal off routes out of the city to the east until June.

"We heard Daesh (Islamic State) were escaping from this side so we moved to close it off," said Ahmed Grayma, a field commander from a Misrata group called Brigade 166 now located on the eastern front.

Haftar's forces have been battling Islamists in the eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna. Though Haftar loyalists have secured large areas in Benghazi, air strikes, bombings and clashes continue in some neighborhoods.

Milad Zway, a spokesman for Haftar's special forces, told Reuters Islamic State had sleeper cells across the east, including in Ajdabiya, close to oil terminals, and Bayda, where the eastern government is located.

Zway said Islamic State and other anti-Haftar militants were "two sides of the same coin." Haftar's opponents say he exaggerates the role of Islamic State among his foes, and many are former anti-Gaddafi rebels with no ties to the militants.

The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which nominally commands the Misrata-led brigades, will get a boost from victory in Sirte, but its bid to create unified security forces and end the conflict has faltered.

While the political divides endure, Libya's factions "could make further use of violent extremist networks in the ongoing political struggle," the U.N. report said.

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