The Libyan city crucial to Khalifa Haftar's counter-terror battle
New car bomb attacks in Derna raise spectre of a prolonged battle against extremists in the eastern city
A double car bombing against a unit belonging to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army early on Sunday has raised the spectre of a prolonged battle against extremism in Derna, the eastern city crucial to his counter-terror efforts and a population centre that his forces had appeared to have brought under control.
In June last year, General Haftar declared the city fully liberated from local fighters that he has accused of being allied with Al Qaeda. But the latest attack, despite no immediate claim of responsibility, shows the security threat is far from finished.
The city of around 100,000 people, situated on the emerald waters of the Mediterranean, has played host to fighters sympathetic to Al Qaeda, an ISIS occupation and one of Egypt’s most wanted militants.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive on the city in 2016 to liberate the city from ISIS, which conducted summary executions, crucifixions and beheadings in the city. Once ISIS was removed, it sought to remove a coalition of groups known as the “Derna Protection Force” it says are “terrorists” with links to Al Qaeda.
It also provided the most Libyan fighters for Al Qaeda in Iraq during that country’s war from 2003 onwards. Out of 112 Libyan fighters named and 606 documented in 2007, 52 were shown to come from the eastern city, representing 46 per cent of the total recorded Libyan Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq at the time.
But the city has also served as a hub for some of the most hardened militants from across North Africa.
Last week, Field Marshal Haftar handed Hisham El Ashmawi back to Egypt after he was captured in the longtime bastion of militancy in October last year. After his 2011 dismissal from the Egyptian special forces, Ashmawi joined militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, setting up an Al Qaeda affiliate, then siding with ISIS, before turning back to Al Qaeda in 2015.
He then made Libya his home and Egypt holds his Al Mourabitoun group responsible for several attacks in the Western Desert, near the Libyan border. The attacks include a 2017 ambush that killed nearly 30 Christian pilgrims travelling to a remote monastery, an attack on a military checkpoint that killed more than two dozen troops.
Ashmawi is also thought to be behind an attempted assassination of Egypt's then-Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim.
He was eventually found in Derna. But in the city, where militancy has been allowed to fester since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, civilians have been trapped between Field Marshal Haftar’s forces and the local fighters, bearing the brunt of the battle to defeat extremism in the city.
Reliable information from the city is difficult to obtain, and casualty and displacement figures from the battles it has experienced in recent years are hard to come by. What is obvious is that the battle for security in the city, one in full LNA control for the past year, is not over.
The lasting impact of the city’s historic extremist sympathies and its harbouring of notorious militants remains unclear, but what is for sure is that Field Marshal Haftar and his forces will continue to face insurgent tactics in a problematic corner of Libya, one they thought had been solved, for the foreseeable future.
Published: June 2, 2019 04:00 PM