Benghazi in CrisisView film
FERAS KILANI, Correspondent: I was very scared. This area is full of explosives, snipers, everything. So the only way to survive, to be safe there, is to keep your eyes open and looking in all directions. Not just for us, even for the fighters there, it was very scary.
NARRATOR: Benghazi, Libya. Reporter Feras Kilani has gained rare access to Libyan forces fighting for control of the city against ISIS and other extremist groups.
FERAS KILANI: In the last year, ISIS managed to take whole districts inside Benghazi, in the center of Benghazi. And now ISIS is the most important power in these districts.
NARRATOR: Feras has been here many times since the revolution in 2011.
DEMONSTRATORS: Libya! Libya! Libya! Libya!
NARRATOR: Back then, celebrations in Benghazi marked the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. But the armed groups that defeated the Libyan dictator, with the help of NATO and the United States, soon turned on each other, and the country descended into chaos.
Then in 2012, Islamist militants in Benghazi launched an attack on the U.S. consulate, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three colleagues.
FERAS KILANI: When the American ambassador was killed in the consulate attack, it was the moment where everyone recognized that the Islamists are in charge of everything in Benghazi.
NARRATOR: Two years later, ISIS emerged in Libya. Since then, the U.S. military estimates that the group has doubled in size to as many as 6,000, recruiting fighters from abroad and other local Islamist groups. Libya is now their biggest base outside Syria and Iraq.
Feras is now in Benghazi to see how the fight against ISIS is intensifying.
FERAS KILANI: This is the last point we can reach here in Sabri district in Benghazi. These buildings in front of us are secured by the Libyan army, but behind this line, ISIS is still in charge of all of the area.
NARRATOR: Feras is with a powerful militia which calls itself the Benghazi Anti-Terrorism Unit. It’s led by 38 year-old Faraj Quaim. His militia is one of many battling ISIS in the city.
FARAJ QUAIM, Militia Leader: [through interpreter] We use this building to observe the enemy. It’s full of our fighters. We’ve lost more than five men here. This is the front line. If you look over there, the enemy is less than 400 meters away. These are the brave men on the front lines.
NARRATOR: The militia is fighting a key battle for Sabri district, a central part of the city near Benghazi’s port. ISIS’s dominance in this area gives it access to a supply route by sea to the other parts of coastal Libya which it controls.
FERAS KILANI: If you look at the Libyan coast, we’re talking about 2,000 kilometers, the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean. At least 200 kilometers of it is under ISIS control.
NARRATOR: ISIS and other Islamist militants deploy snipers near Benghazi’s port and have deeply entrenched positions.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] From this position here, we’re facing the snipers.
FERAS KILANI: [subtitles] Can we see them from here?
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Yes, you can see them. They usually come to this street.
NARRATOR: The fighters say they are poorly equipped. There is currently a U.N. ban on arms sales to Libya.
FIGHTER: [through interpreter] Egypt gave us a small quantity of weapons, but it’s nothing compared to what ISIS has. Is it because they don’t believe ISIS exists in Libya? I swear to God, look at them. They’re right in front of you. On your way here, someone shot at you. A sniper on the look-out, he doesn’t care. All that matters to him is to shoot and kill.
NARRATOR: Commander Faraj says the lack of weapons makes defeating ISIS much harder.
FARAJ QUAIM: [through interpreter] My soldiers are sacrificing themselves. Look at their weapons. They don’t have enough ammunition.
FERAS KILANI: [subtitles] What’s the reason?
FARAJ QUAIM: [through interpreter] The main reason is the lack of resources in the hands of the Libyan army, the ministries, and the units manning the front lines.
NARRATOR: Libya’s political situation is chaotic. There are rival governments, and military forces are divided along tribal and political lines.
ISIS has taken advantage of that, and over the last year gained territory. At one point, hundreds of soldiers withdrew from the front line in a bitter dispute with the influential head of the Libyan army, General Khalifa Haftar.
General Haftar has been attempting to bring all the militias fighting ISIS under his command, but many want to remain independent and accuse the general of trying to become Libya’s next dictator, a charge he denies.
Gen. KHALIFA HAFTAR: [through interpreter] I don’t deal with matters in the Qaddafi way. He didn’t pass on his methods to me. We’re here to reassure and work for the people. We want stability for them.
FERAS KILANI: [subtitles] Do you have any political ambitions?
Gen. KHALIFA HAFTAR: [through interpreter] A person who doesn’t have any ambition is not a normal person. To live a true life, you have to be ambitious.
NARRATOR: Many of the militia leaders remain suspicious of the general, and Commander Faraj says the Libyan army doesn’t supply his forces.
Feras asks the commander about the problems between the local militias and the Libyan Army.
FERAS KILANI: [subtitles] To what extent would you expect this to influence the outcome of the battle for Benghazi?
FARAJ QUAIM: [through interpreter] What got us to this stage is the political bickering, differences between local leaders, the army leadership and the state leadership. The army leadership is not supposed to get involved in politics.
FERAS KILANI: It’s one of the most important reasons the army couldn’t finish the Islamists in Benghazi. It’s because of this conflict inside the army’s coalition. It’s impossible to defeat ISIS within this situation.
NARRATOR: Commander Faraj’s militia heads into an area taken by ISIS last year. Suddenly, there is an explosion nearby. It’s a bomb dropped by a Libyan air force jet targeting ISIS positions. It falls dangerously close. Because the militia and the Libyan military don’t coordinate with each other, they’re sometimes in each other’s line of fire.
FERAS KILANI: The air force has some kind of targets, and they send fighter jets to strike them, but they don’t know who’s on the ground.
NARRATOR: That night, the soldiers set up camp near the front line. They failed to gain any ground during the day.
FERAS KILANI: [subtitles] If the situation carries on here, how will your men cope?
TAWFIQ AL ABDALI, Militia Leader: [through interpreter] Their morale is low because we’re not advancing. Those not physically injured have been impacted mentally. This tough situation has left some of my men very distressed. One of my men survived an air strike, but he’s badly traumatized.
NARRATOR: It’s not just the fight against ISIS that is taking its toll. The divisions with the military are becoming more deadly. The fighters say that the Libyan air force recently bombed their position, mistaking them for ISIS. Six of them were killed. This fighter says he survived and shows his scars.
Despite the obstacles, the men vow to continue the fight.
TAWFIQ AL ABDALI: [through interpreter] My men are determined to liberate all of Benghazi. We want to free this district so we can move on to the next one. If there was more support and unity between the forces, we’d have advanced by now.
NARRATOR: The battle for Benghazi has now been going on for over 18 months. More than 100,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting in the center of the city.
FERAS KILANI: Benghazi suffered a lot from bombs. It’s difficult for those people who live on the front lines. They are desperate.
NARRATOR: Some of the displaced now live in this abandoned school. Jamal Warfali says he and his family fled their home in 2014.
FERAS KILANI: Do you think your house is still standing?
FATHER: The house is in the thick of it. Obviously it’s been hit.
MOTHER: The front of the house collapsed. I was told the furniture has been stolen. Everything has gone. Everything is replaceable. It’s not a problem. It’s all right. The most important thing is for calm to be restored and for people to come together again, God willing.
FATHER: Why did you leave?
DAUGHTER: Because of the fighting.
FERAS: Who has taken your house?
DAUGHTER: Islamic State.
MOTHER: What do they do?
DAUGHTER: They kill the kids. They kill the militants, kidnap the men.
NARRATOR: Many schools in the heart of Benghazi have been closed due to the fighting, but this is one of a few that has reopened. It’s a dangerous journey to classes for the students.
Feras meets the head teacher, Fauzia Mukhtar Abeid, at the only safe entrance to the school.
FAUZIA MUKHTAR ABEID, Head Teacher: The entrance—
FERAS KILANI: Is still near the front line?
FAUZIA MUKHTAR ABEID: Yes, still near the front line, the other door. But this one is safer. And the students live in this area.
FERAS KILANI: And despite all these conditions, the parents, they’re still keen to send their kids?
FAUZIA MUKHTAR ABEID: Yes. Yes. hey want to study. They don’t want to lose this year, just like the year before.
NARRATOR: There are currently 200 children in classes here. As well as regular lessons, a social worker speaks to the students.
FATIMA ABUHAJAR, Social Worker: [subtitles] I came here to create a warm atmosphere. I’m trying to get them to forget what’s going on. I give them beautiful books to lift their spirits.
FERAS KILANI: I remember I was in one of the classrooms, and you can hear the fighting just a few hundred meters away from us, and none of the kids or the teacher noticed this. It tells a lot how they get this kind of normal feeling in such places after a year-and-a-half.
[subtitles] There’s another bang. Does this not impact them psychologically?
FATIMA ABUHAJAR: [subtitles] There’s definitely a psychological impact on the students— not just here but all over the area.
NARRATOR: Back at his headquarters, militia leader Faraj Quaim is preparing the next operation against ISIS. Commander Faraj says that they need all the help they can get.
FARAJ QUAIM: [through interpreter] ISIS is more advanced than us, whether in the field or in their agility. They move around in smart ways. If stability is not restored in Libya, none of the neighboring countries will be stable, from Egypt to Tunisia and from Italy to the whole of Europe.
NARRATOR: In recent weeks, forces under the banner of the Libyan National Army have dislodged ISIS from a number of Benghazi’s neighborhoods. Some residents are tentatively returning despite the ongoing fighting.
FERAS KILANI: It’s going to be very hard to defeat ISIS in the future. I think Libya might be within months, or one or two years, one of the nightmares for the West.
NARRATOR: The United States and NATO are now developing plans to once again intervene in Libya and help the military and the militias unite. But ISIS is continuing to recruit new fighters, and its black flag still flies over parts of the center of the city.