Could Libya’s 4 x 4 daredevils drive out the Islamic State?
Every Friday after prayers the young men of Misrata take their 4x4s up on to the sand dunes and roar around in a maniacal performance of dare-devil recklessness – 13-year-olds drive, their older brothers cheering them on as they perform screeching turns, sand billowing up from the tyres.
The evening I was there, two boys in lemon yellow jeeps were trying to outdo each other, lurching along at perilous angles, then wrangling the steering wheel to plunge at speed down on to the beach. It was a miracle that no-one flipped over.
We perched our car on the top of the dunes and watched. There were no other women present: this was a purely male ritual. It’s partly lingering defiance – under Gadaffi only government officials were allowed 4x4s. The 2011 revolution has brought Misrata’s wealthy youth the freedom to rev their engines and let rip.
Photo credit (and all photographs beneath): Thom Walker
It’s also a way of letting off steam – some of the young men were militia fighters on a weekend break from manning checkpoints and fighting rival militia. And it’s partly just something to do. There are no cinemas or theatres or clubs or bowling alleys or shopping malls in Misrata. Boys and girls aren’t allowed to meet outside the confines of family (in the week I’ve spent here the only other woman I’ve seen is a French reporter). No wonder they’re bored.
Misrata fought bravely in the revolution, holding out against a seven week siege by Gadaffi’s forces. You see young men with missing limbs all over town. Everyone you meet lost a brother or a cousin. They believe that their sacrifice gave them the right to dictate the post revolutionary order – other towns disagreed, and that’s one reason Libya has two rival governments fighting for power.
Until recently, Misrata – a port city, made wealthy from trade – was a relative haven in an otherwise turbulent country, partly because everyone knows everyone. But in the last fortnight Islamic State militants have carried out two suicide bombings in Misrata, the most recent at the Dafniya checkpoint on the main road from Tripoli. The culprit was a young Tunisian man in a black Hyundai Sante Fe 4×4. I asked a guard who survived the blast whether he knew immediately that this vehicle was trouble.
“No,” he said. “Most young men from Misrata don’t like to stop at the checkpoint so I thought he was just one of those.”
While interviewing a bystander, I heard a commotion to my right – a short man with a scraggy beard had been taking pictures of us. As the police man-handled him away, a youth walking with a crutch pulled a pistol out the inner pocket of his tracksuit trousers. “He is not from Misrata!” he said. “Who knows what he might do to you?”
I thanked him for his concern and suggested he put down his weapon. “We will fight them!” he said. “No-one can come here and do that and get away with it.”
The suicide bombings are giving Misratans pause. Until recently most saw their biggest enemy as Libya’s elected but impotent government, which they had pushed out of the capital and forced to set up shop in the eastern town of Tobruk. The Misratans allied themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood and what they regarded as moderate Islamists to form a rival administration, based in the capital.
But now the Islamic State is posing a direct threat to Misrata. It controls Sirte, 250 kilometres to the east. In recent days Misratan brigades have pulled back from positions where they had been fighting the jihadis. IS promptly seized the airport at Sirte and started moving south towards the desert town of Jufra. Some Misratans maintain that fighting their political enemies is still the priority, but others say IS is the common enemy that Gadaffi used to be.
What was the revolution for? It’s a question Libyans I know ask themselves all the time. They ousted the Brother Leader and got anarchy instead. The Islamic State is using that chaos to extend its reach across the country.
What chance the testosterone-fuelled boys of Misrata will stop churning up the sand in their show-off vehicles, and unite with their fellow revolutionaries from 2011 to fight an enemy even more dangerous than Gadaffi?