The lethal blast at a checkpoint near Misrata in the early hours of Sunday morning was aided by the element of surprise. The suicide bomber drove his car packed with explosives from the opposite direction to expected attacks – the east, where Isis has its stronghold in the city of Sirte.
The jihadist at the wheel turned slowly on to the highway from a narrow country road before accelerating quickly as he approached his target. The 4x4 he was driving detonated on impact, tearing lumps off the checkpoint in Dafniya on the western approach to the coastal city of Misrata, and gouging a crater in the road. Six militia guards were killed instantly: five others were severely wounded.
More casualties were avoided because the attack took place just after 4am, when the normally busy route into one of Libya’s few functioning ports was relatively quiet.
Nevertheless, Sunday’s attack was the latest in a series of Isis suicide bombings across the country over recent months and underscores the steadily growing reach of the jihadist group within Libya. It came just three days after Isis overran the airport in Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s former home city, which it now controls entirely. The jihadists then proclaimed that they would continue their advance: on Saturday, elders in the nearby small town of Harawah decided to surrender in order to avoid a threatened assault.
Misrata has experienced five checkpoint attacks in the last eight weeks, causing seven deaths and 25 injuries. There have also been attacks in Tripoli and in the eastern cities of Benghazi and Quba, leaving around 50 dead. Gunmen claiming adherence to Isis stormed the five-star Corinthia Hotel in the capital four months ago killing 10; three more were killed in a blast at its Tajoura district two weeks ago. Dozens of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians, abducted by the Islamist group, have been beheaded.
Isis has seized control of the eastern city of Darnah as well as Sirte further west. In the south, Touareg and Toubou tribal paramilitaries control territories adjacent to the Niger and Chad borders and have clashed with each other. Two rival governments, one in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk, are engaged in civil war, with Egyptian and UAE warplanes taking part in air strikes in support of the latter.
There was also an international dimension to the Dafniya bombing. The Tripoli-based Libya Dawn government claimed that the bomber was a Tunisian national, with the nom de guerre Abu Wahid al-Tunsi, who had recently entered Libya. The Tunisians have previously charged that Islamists carrying out attacks in their country, including one at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in which 22 people, mainly European tourists, were killed, had received training in Libya.
In a further twist, the Tripoli government maintains that Isis in Libya is the creation of former Gaddafi loyalists, just as some Isis commanders in Iraq and Syria were previously followers of Saddam Hussein. Foreigners, including Tunisians, Algerians and Sudanese are being recruited for the group, it is claimed, by agent provocateurs of General Khalifa Haftar, an army general who has launched a campaign against Libya Dawn.
The Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghweil, of the Tripoli government, declared after visiting the scene of the bombing in Dafniya: “This is the work of Gaddafi people. They want to create instability to sabotage the revolution. This is happening on the ground and we also see this with Haftar carrying out bombing from the air, killing civilians.”
One militia fighter, who survived the Dafniya bombing, said: “It was a big SUV. It was coming too slowly, which was suspicious that time of the night, and then it suddenly picked up speed. We thought we saw a face; it was of a young guy. Then there was this huge noise and a big flash.”
Idris Wassim Abu-Bakr, a Libya Dawn officer, said: “We have been told that the driver was a Tunisian, a mercenary. The Tunisians complain that Libyans have been carrying out attacks in their country; here we see that it is in fact foreigners who are coming to attack Libya. These suicide attacks are cowardly. Sadly they cause much suffering.”
Isis has, however, made strategic gains in Sirte, taking over the airport which has been for dual civil and military use. No aircraft were present when the base was taken, according to Libya Dawn commanders.
Isis has published photographs to prove it also now controls the hub of the “ Great Man-Made River”, the water supply network devised by Gaddafi. Its 1,700 miles of underground pipes, the largest such network in the world, were started a quarter of a century ago to supply fresh water to Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte and its capture raised fears that the extremists may try to contaminate the supply.
The jihadists captured armoured cars and tanks along with the waterway’s control point. The Libya Dawn force which had been battling them, Brigade 166, has withdrawn from the front line and is said to be planning a counter-offensive. Some commanders are advocating dialogue with rival militias, such as one based in Zintan, to form a united front against Isis.
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