The LNA’s ‘Operation Martyr’s Blood’ has had almost unprecedented success. The breakthrough was facilitated by capturing camps 36 & 319 on 21 February. These camps changed hands at least twice in two months. The last time the LNA was able to make such progress in eastern Benghazi, it was quickly stalled and lost momentum as it pushed towards the center of the city. The LNA seemingly used the delay in the UN political process to buy time before striking. During that time, the LNA accumulated weapons and consolidated its forces by minimizing political divisions among former soldiers of Gaddafi’s regime, pro-HoR LNA forces and Benghazi civilian volunteers.
There are also reports that the Islamist’s had attempted to institute a separation between the ‘politically legitimate’ forces fighting the LNA, such as the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), and the more ‘extremist’ elements represented by Ansar Al Sharia (AAS) and ISIS. This plan intended to allow the BRSC separate from ISIS and AAS, and for these BRSC forces to hold the southwestern districts of Benghazi. However, this strategy apparently caused a semi-collapse of the Islamist front in the city, with the militias losing a number of key commanders in the fighting with the LNA. The collapse of Islamist forces in Benghazi was evident in their internal communications and on social media accounts, as LNA gains exposed the fact that there had been no effective division between BRSC, AAS and ISIS forces on the ground, and that these divisions were mostly symbolic or virtual. The groups had been co-located, also sharing ammunition, supplies and plans.
In Ajdabiya on 21 February, the LNA declared the city completely ‘liberated’ from ISIS and other extremist militias in the city, after the offensive it launched on 12 December finally succeeded. The retaking of Ajdabiya by the LNA proved to be a critical point for the new offensive in Benghazi, as it cut the most important land supply routes to extremist forces in the city.
In Sabratha, the temporary ISIS takeover and its beheading of a dozen people shocked the city and nearby towns into action. ISIS cells had been provoked after the 19 February US airstrike on a safe house killed many of its members. Fighters loyal to Libya Dawn-affiliated Sabratha Municipal Council joined other fighters from Zawiyya, Ajilat, and Surman to counter ISIS. Political divisions were bypassed during the battle, as wounded fighters were transferred to Zintan (an anti-Libya Dawn stronghold), while militias from Wershefana (anti-Libya Dawn) opened up the coastal road between Tripoli and Zawiyya, which had previously been closed for months. The fighting in Sabratha, 25-28 February, resulted in the killing and capture of many ISIS members. Photographs appeared on social media sites showing a dead ISIS fighter, who very likely resembles Noureddine Chouchane, said to be the ISIS mastermind in Sabratha, and the prime target of the US airstrike.
Taher al-Gharabili, head of the Sabratha Military Council, told AP that ISIS “exploited a security vacuum” by deploying in the city center as the military was conducting raids elsewhere. He also estimated the number of ISIS fighters in city to be 150-200, but other local sources point to a higher figure, which included the surrounding areas.
Ongoing investigations of arrested ISIS members and high profile commanders detained by the Tripoli ‘Rada’ (SDF) force, are likely to reveal uncomfortable facts regarding the extent of the proliferation of ISIS in the western region, and their supporters in hardline ‘revolutionary’ brigades. One of these commanders is Saad Tagouri (AKA Abu Suleiman), the designated emir of Sabratha, who was dispatched from Sirte with two other militants.