Earlier this year, one of the Islamic State’s so-called “provinces” in Derna, Libya advertised the opening of a police headquarters and a sharia court. The move was intended to demonstrate the group’s dominance over the city.
But images posted online in the past 24 hours purportedly show the building under the control of the Islamic State’s jihadist rivals in the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), a coalition of several groups. The picture on the right, for example, was posted on the Libya Observer’s Facebook page with a note saying the MSC had “gained control” of the headquarters.
And, according to multiple reports, this symbol of the Islamic State’s governance efforts is not the only ground the group has lost in the past few days. According to the Libya Observer, the organization has lost “several of its headquarters.” The Libya Herald reports that the MSC is believed to be in “control” of “most” of Derna.
The Islamic State’s assassination of Nasir Atiyah al Akar, a prominent al Qaeda-linked jihadist in the MSC, set off this new round of fighting last week. And it is a battle Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men risk losing. A few of the Islamic State’s key leaders in Derna have been reportedly killed or captured, but the details remain murky.
While initial accounts suggest that the Islamic State is losing the fight, it is too early to declare a victor. There is an ebb and flow to such battles, and the group has struck back by unleashing its signature suicide bombers in the heart of the city.
Still, early indications suggest the fighting has not gone the “caliphate’s” way.
The MSC alliance and the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB), which is one of the key groups in the MSC, are assaulting Islamic State positions throughout the city.
In addition to the police building, the MSC has released a statement claiming that the Islamic State’s fighters have been cleared out of the Bab-Tobruk neighborhood in Derna. The MSC says the neighborhood was a “stronghold” for the Islamic State.
The MSC’s statement, which was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, highlights the different approaches being taken by the rivals. Whereas the Islamic State’s “province” claims to be the only true authority, representing a top-down totalitarian state, the MSC positions itself as the guardian of the people.
“Our fight in the past [was] against those who rule with other than what Allah descended, [and] was to raise the word of Islam,” the MSC’s statement reads, according to SITE’s translation. Today, the group fights against the “Kharijites,” meaning extremists (a reference to the Islamic State), and “to defend our city against any tyrannical aggression, whether from the supporters of [General Khalifa al] Haftar or from the supporters of [Abu Bakr] al Baghdadi or from whoever.”
The MSC calls on the Islamic State’s fighters to repent and submit themselves to a sharia court for judgment, appealing for help from the “parents of the young boys from among those mischief-doers.” The MSC “will – by the grace of Allah – assist them and re-discipline them with the manner of the straight path.”
The MSC does not want its fighters to seek revenge, ordering its men to stay out of the Islamic State fighters’ homes, “for they have women, children, and those who have no guilt.”
In a separate statement, the MSC calls on foreigners to disown the Islamic State and join its ranks. The message is clearly aimed at the significant contingent of foreign fighters in Derna who have fueled the Islamic State’s growth in the city.
Various reports say that protests against the Islamic State were held in Derna after Friday prayers this past week. Some unconfirmed accounts say that the Islamic State opened fire on the protesters.
Meanwhile, Islamists and others throughout Libya have voiced their support for the MSC.