Skip to main content

IS kidnapping migrants at gunpoint to fight in Libya

By abducting migrants and dominating Libya's human trafficking routes, IS is bulking up its presence with foreign fighters
A lone border guard stands in the vast Libyan desert where militants and smugglers are gaining ground (MEE / Tom Westcott)

TUNIS - The Islamic State group (IS) in Libya is boosting its numbers by people-smuggling new recruits across Libya’s porous southern borders and kidnapping migrant workers, Middle East Eye has learnt.

According to military sources as well as a former IS recruit, IS has been busy boosting numbers in Libya by kidnapping migrant workers at gunpoint and forcing them to train to be fighters or suicide bombers.

This has allowed them to swell their ranks quickly, with US intelligence assessments in February saying IS now had an estimated 6,000 fighters in Libya, more than double what was previously thought.

Nigerian plumber Abdul, 35, told MEE that during the two months he spent working in Libya’s second city of Benghazi, many migrant workers disappeared. After being abducted himself and forced to join IS, he now believes the missing labourers were also taken by the militants.

“They didn’t take the boats to Europe, those disappeared people,” he said. "We called their phones and someone answered with an Arabic slang phrase used for when someone has died, and told us not to call again.”

Abdul’s terrifying ordeal began when he was forcibly taken by masked militants in Benghazi last year, bundled into a van with other workers and driven several hours outside the city.

“When they let us out, we were in the desert and there were heads on the sand and a lot of blood. These other people had been killed before we got there,” he said.

Abdul said that he and two Sudanese workers who were also Muslim were forced to prove their Islamic faith by reciting verses from the Qu'ran. But two other kidnapped workers from Ghana were killed after admitting they were Christian.

“They cut their necks, right then and there in front of my eyes, and then they cut their heads completely off,” he said. “Since that moment, I am not a human being anymore. I cannot forget what I saw that day.”

The three men were taken to a farm where they were interrogated, then prepped for what lay ahead. “They told us: ‘You’re going to work for us. We are fighting for Allah but this is jihad and if you die, you will go to heaven.’

“I agreed because I had no choice,” said Abdul who managed to flee and is now living in another Libyan town.

Abdul said tough military-style training started within days. Along with around 30 other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, he was taught how to shoot and forced to run through the desert carrying heavy equipment.

“It was very tough,” he said. “They gave us stripped-down AK47 guns and we had three minutes to assemble and load the gun, and start shooting at targets.” 

He said most of the recruits he trained alongside were from Sudan. “IS prefer Muslims who can speak Arabic so they like the Sudanese,” he said. “Some of them, like me, had been kidnapped in Benghazi but a lot of them seemed really into the training. For me, it was just going through the motions, as I was always thinking about how to escape.”

The new recruits were asked to sign a contract and offered a starting salary of $2,500 per month, with the promise that the money would be sent to their families if they were killed. “The Sudanese signed the paper but I said I didn’t want to. I told them I had been to school and was educated and could do different things other than jihad,” he said.

After several weeks of training, Abdul was told he was going on his first mission. His superiors would not listen to him when he said he didn’t want to kill people, but one of the trainers left the door ajar and Abdul and two of his fellow trainees decided to make a run for it back out into Libya’s vast desert where they were eventually able to flag down a lorry driver and return north.

Smuggling in supporters

Security officials in Libya’s south claim that the country’s lack of border control has also allowed IS to recruit people abroad and bring them into Libya with impunity, saying the largest number of militants enter the country from Sudan.

“Some migrants are not planning to work here in Libya or go to Europe on the boats, but are heading to Sirte to join IS,” Special Forces soldier Ibrahim Barka Issa told MEE.

Having worked undercover in countries bordering Libya’s south to assess the migrant situation, he said the biggest threat was from Sudan, where both radicalised nationals and refugees from Syria and Afghanistan were crossing.

“There are no visa requirements for Syrians entering Sudan and the Sudanese government pushes them towards the border, encouraging them to cross into Libya,” Issa said. “They include criminals, Islamists and terrorist elements.” 

Libyan border control says they are massively underfunded and overstretched (MEE / Tom Wescott)

A former resident of the town of Sirte, under IS control for over a year, claimed that only around 800 members of IS in the region were Libyan, with the rest being foreign fighters.

“Even before they [IS] took control of the city, we could recognise IS people through their appearance, because some of them dressed in Afghani-style clothes,” he said. “And when they took over the town, we could tell many were not Libyans by the way they spoke Arabic.” 

A large number of IS militants who have staged suicide attacks in Libya, including on a luxury Tripoli hotel last year and on oil facilities in central Libya in January this year, were young Sudanese and Tunisian men.

IS’s ability to pull in foreign fighters from as far afield as America and Australia to fight in Iraq and Syria has been well documented, but in Libya smuggling in new IS recruits has become a lucrative business for traffickers.

“The average price of smuggling someone into Libya is $400 per person but from Sudan it is now $1,000. Extremists pay a lot of money to bring people in secretly,” Issa said. “We know some smugglers who used to work the main Niger-Libya route have recently switched to the Sudanese route because they can make more money.” 

IS has worked with smugglers to build a network of connections in the south, with new recruits and adherents being handed over in the middle of the desert, he said, explaining that this made it very hard to monitor numbers. He said that although security forces working in south Libya knew who many of the smugglers were, they lacked financial and material support to try and stop the operations. 

Lawless southern border

In Libya’s southernmost town of Qatrun, 300 km from the Libya-Niger border, the local head of the Department for Combatting Illegal Immigration, Moulia Touri Saleh, explained that operations to stop people smuggling had virtually stopped in the desert.

“We try to do our duty here, but it has become a dangerous job because so many people are armed,” he said. “Before 2011, all the borders were controlled but now it is impossible. The staff here want to work, but they can’t work with nothing. We need logistical equipment and financial support to be able to do our jobs.”

Issa said he had reported to both Libya’s rival governments about the migrant situation but neither had provided any meaningful response. “We went to the Tobruk government and asked for support specifically to control the border area with Sudan and they gave us just two vehicles,” he said. “Both governments promised us money but we have received nothing."

As the politicians continue to squabble and Libya’s financial situation worsens by the day, IS continues to grow, spreading fear and uncertainty in Libya and beyond.

Abdul said that, while he is free, he lives in constant fear of being captured by IS again, admitting his anxiety often prevents him from going out to look for work. 

“At times I have entered mosques here in Libya to ask Allah to make my death fast and easy. Now, I think about leaving here and try to shut out what I saw in the desert that day - how those men just cut off the heads of other men, like they were chopping vegetables, like it was nothing,” he said. “When I have enough money, I will take the boat to Italy. I have survived so much already, maybe I will also survive crossing the sea.”

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.