Jungles and mountains, rivers of underground water that burst into the valleys, an excellent location and fertile soil irrigated by fresh water are geographic characteristics that turned into a curse on the city. Nature made the Libyan eastern city of Derna, which is near the Egyptian border, an immunized castle that is qualified for life on its own. Nature lured jihadists and extremist groups to take the city as their headquarters more than two decades ago. They received the returnees from Afghanistan who were trying to spread their beliefs timidly.
Former Leader Muammar Qadhafi’s regime has always tried to eradicate the hiding jihadists, until power was transferred to Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam, who wanted to prove his regime would be different even with enemies of the past. He reconciled with all political prisoners as well as extremists who came from Guantanamo in 2010. New faces of terrorists appeared in the city.
They became heroes when they confronted Qadhafi’s strikes against the Libyan uprising which broke out on 17 February 2011, giving them growing power. They wreaked havoc in the city and imposed their own rules on the residents. Their power growed even more after Egyptian escapees arrived into Libya after the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Cairo on 30 June, 2013. Their main shelter was in Derna. Some headed to the cities of Sirte and Benghazi.
Then, the US-led airstrikes began against the terrorist Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. Those who survived the attacks fled to Derna, drawing features of the terrorist group’s ghost on Egypt’s western borders, which made like-minded groups there support IS and turn Derna into an emirate under its control.
In a city where getting a piece of information is a daunting task, Al-Masry Al-Youm was able to get to know how Derna turned into an IS emirate through secret Egyptian reports and eyewitnesses from the city.
Upon the eruption of the Libyan revolution on 17 February, Derna became a safe haven for extremist groups in Libya, who took different names, after working for years in secret under Al-Qaeda's flag during the Qadhafi era. After Derna came under the rule of these groups, the groups did not want to declare Derna as an emirate in the hope that Benghazi would join. Over the past two years, the armed groups tried to include Benghazi and declare them as an Islamic emirate. However, the Libyan national army confronted the groups’ attempts in Benghazi, which made Derna groups declare it as an Islamic emirate that supports IS.
Speaking to Al-Masry Al-Youm, an eyewitness from Derna said that allegiance was pledged to a caliph called Abu Habeeb Saudi once Derna groups swore allegiance to IS. Saudi is the head of the legislation association. He is believed to be from Saudi Arabia, but some say he is Yemeni. He is in charge of the legitimate court in the emirate. His predecessor was an Egyptian, but he disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
IS had called on Derna residents to gather at the city’s biggest mosque called Al-Sahaba. It demanded from the ruling groups in Derna to repent for what they called as ‘blasphemous principles.’
A procession of SUVs hoisting black flags, which are called the caliphate flags with 'Islamic police' written, and carrying armed men, escorted the call for IS allegiance. Residents saw the step as sort of threatening and a show of force.
Regarding life in the city, eyewitness mentioned that only the city residents could get in or out. However, getting out became very hard, as the neighboring areas now fear Derna residents and do not welcome them, especially after the frequent suicide operations that took place recently against whoever criticized or opposed the armed groups. Strangers living in other Libyan cities could hardly enter Derna or get out alive.
The terrorist rulers were keen on separating between genders in Omar Al-Mokhtar University in Derna. A wall was constructed inside the university and words were written on it to identify areas allocated for female students. Islamic police and Islamic local guard were installed to tighten the grip on the city.
“Only the city residents have the right to food and drink, however, they fear accusations of treason, blasphemy or being brought to trial,” the witness said.
The legitimate court in Derna controls the city. It is presidedby the city ruler. Trials as well as repentance take place there. Repentance means to repent about working with the government, including jobs at the ministries interior and defense, the judiciary and others as well as the general commissioner for scouts, which is a volunteer-based youth movement that aims at development and beautification of the city. All of the civil society groups and anyone unconvinced with their thoughts were considered infidels.
Islam Youth Shura Council recently celebrated the 'repentance' of a citizen who left his work at the traffic department and issued a statement about this. In August, the court sentenced an Egyptian to death for killing a Libyan citizen. He was executed by firing squad in the city square. The court also ordered lashing smokers and drinkers.
Two months ago, residents found a dead body of an Egyptian woman. She was said to be a spy sent by the Egyptian intelligence to Derna.
Establishing the women Islamic center last week was another thing the groups worked. A statement introduced it as an educational, cultural and social center where Islamic and worldly sciences are taught. It targets correcting the wrong beliefs and doctrine.
“Three major groups control Derna including Bu Salim, Islam Youth Shura Council and Ansar Al-Sharia organization, as well as other smaller groups,” said Malek Al-Sharif, a journalist and a political analyst specialized in armed groups affairs in Derna and Benghazi. “There are simple differences between these groups. Ansar Al-Sharia follows Al-Qaeda and is headed by Sufian bin Qammo in Derna, former driver of Osama bin Laden. The Islam Youth Shura Council follows the ideology of the Syrian Nusra Front.”
“Bu Salim Brigade group is headed by Salem Derby. The group carries out terrorist operations. It differs from Ansar Al-Sharia as the latter declares responsibility for all of the assassinations it carries out without shame,” he added.
Concerning allegiance of Derna to IS, Sharif said, “I witnesses the announcement of allegiance, which was to IS ideas not the organization as IS does not exist in Libya. Fighters from IS in Syria recently returned with its ideology, so no IS exists in Libya, just individuals believing in its ideas.”
About Egyptians in Derna, Sharif said, “I was able to access Derna and live there for some time. God enabled me recently to get out alive. I am sure that the Free Egyptian Army does not exist. However, Egyptians in Derna joined the armed groups there. Some of them are leaders working under Libyan leaders like bin Qammo and bin Derby. Some of them formed Egyptian groups which included Libyans like the captive Aheikh Omar bin Abdel Rahman group, formed by an Egyptian called Mohamed from Mansoura and Ummat Mohamed group, an Egyptian-Libyan group."
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm