Jihadists preside over witchcraft trials, crucifixions and beheadings in former Gaddafi stronghold
Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30
Sitting in the shabby parlour of his temporary home, Haaji Mohammed can barely bring himself to watch the Isil video playing on his mobile phone. The film was made just last month - yet the horrific scenes it shows could be from 500 years ago.
Kneeling before a masked executioner are two men in orange jumpsuits, charged under a statute that drags even the medieval barbarity of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) to new depths. The pair are accused of "sorcery", and just as in witchcraft trials of old, justice is swift, brutal and dispensed to the sound of a baying mob.
As the executioner beheads them with a four-foot scimitar, a crowd of men and boys scream "Allahu Akhbar", jostling each other for a closer look.
Mr Mohammed is less keen. "I know that man personally," he says, pointing to the older of the two defendants, whom he names as Said Jabr. "He is not a witch, he is just an alternative healer who does homeopathy and acupuncture. He was wrongly accused."
That Isil's self-appointed morality police can be as careless as they are callous will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen their countless execution videos from Iraq and Syria.
Yet this latest broadcast was shot not in the Isil strongholds of Raqqa or Mosul but the terror group's new "caliphate" in Libya, where it now controls the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's home city of Sirte, just 550km south of Italy.
Stuffed with civic vanity buildings erected in Gaddafi's honour, Sirte's grandiose skyline was all but flattened in the 2011 revolution, when rebel groups from nearby Misrata vowed to teach the tyrant's stronghold a lesson. Now the tables have been turned, as the city's humiliated Gaddafi remnants join forces with Isil in revenge.
Mr Mohammed, a Sirte elder, was forced to flee six months ago. Along with some 5,000 other Sirte residents, he now lives in the nearby city of Misrata. Yet as the fate of Mr Jabr shows, anything is better than staying put.
Formed by a vanguard of just a few dozen fighters a year ago, Isil's Sirte chapter is now believed to be up to 3,000-strong, imposing a regime of beheadings and crucifixions.
As with the ex-Ba'athists who now back Isil, it matters not a jot to the Gaddafi loyalists that their own secular brand of thuggery has little common cause with Isil's religious version.
"There is a saying these days in Sirte: 'Better to live in the hellfire of Isil than the heaven of Misrata'," said Jamal al Misteri, (30) a Misratan rebel fighter.
Such is the fear of that "hellfire" consuming the whole country that Britain has offered 1,000 troops to a 5,000-strong Italian force to help Libya's fledgling security forces take Isil on, though they would be confined to training roles. However, while few would doubt the ex-Libyan rebels' combat prowess, there are no "government" forces for Western troops to mentor.
Instead, for two years, the country has been in a low-level civil war between two rival administrations, whose main achievement has been to distract each other enough for Isil to get a foothold.
Following a landmark peace deal signed last month after exhaustive UN-backed talks, the two factions are attempting to form a unity government.
Diplomats fear, though, that even the mortal threat of Isil may not be enough to make them pull together: when the country's new UN-backed prime minister, Faiz Serraj, visited the scene of an Isil truck bombing two weeks ago, some locals booed him.
Meanwhile, the chaos and discontent that Isil has exploited so deftly in Sirte remains across the country.
Western embassies have withdrawn from Tripoli because of fears of kidnappings and terrorist attack.
Many of the city's young ex-revolutionaries are now struck with a sense of despair, wondering why their reward for toppling one of the world's most feared dictators is merely to face another psychopathic force in the form of Isil.
"Blood has become like smoke," said "Ahmed" (23) puffing on a joint and slugging from a bottle of Chivas Regal one night. "I used to be upset when I saw people killed, now it means nothing."
Misrata is relatively unified by Libyan standards, its people having been through a collective baptism of fire in 2011 when Gaddafi's forces subjected them to a savage six-month siege. But after emerging from that coastal Stalingrad with a reputation for having some of the best urban fighters in Libya, it appears to have met its match in Isil-controlled Sirte.
After initial successes, a senior military figure says, the fighting went into areas where the risk of civilian casualties was too high. Other Misratan fighters, though, say they were simply outgunned.
"Fighting Gaddafi's people during the war was hard enough, but these Isil people are even fiercer," said Mr Mohammed's nephew Osama, who at one point was burying five comrades a day, including one of Mr Mohammed's sons.
"We have never seen anything like it."
Misratan commanders say a major offensive is being planned against Isil in Sirte, and that Western help will be welcome, as long as it is discreet.
Meanwhile, Osama and his surviving comrades are laying the groundwork by sending spies into Sirte to gather intelligence.
Two have already been caught and killed, and three others are missing, but the risks are deemed worth it - if only to see the return of Libya's green, black and red revolutionary flag, which still flutters proudly all over the rest of the country.
"Isil's people only want their own black flag on display," said Osama. "So they have set up special dustbins where the Libyan flag can be dumped."
In a country where so many died to see it unfurled five years ago, there is perhaps no greater insult - and no greater expression of Isil's new confidence. (© Daily Telegraph, London)