It’s been five months since Derna threw in its lot with ISIL – an opportunistic move that attracted notoriety and gave the city radical street cred. It has finally got the world’s attention, after beheading the Egyptian Coptic Christians.
But why, in all of ungoverned, lawless, fractious Libya is Derna the Mediterranean outpost of ISIL?
Some suggest that it has had a long history of militancy, dating well back before the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Libya’s descent into chaos. The Washington Post says that the coastal city “was one of the biggest contributors to the ranks of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, once the Libyan faction of the mujahideen in Afghanistan combating the Soviet Union”.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group later morphed into a suspected Al Qaeda affiliate and sent fighters to battle the US occupation in Iraq. The Post quotes CNN’s factoid: “No town in the Middle East contributed more combatants per capita to Iraq than Darna.
After Gaddafi’s fall and Libya’s dreadful churning in a violent void, Derna continued to export hardline fighters to Islamist causes, traipsing in their hundreds to Syria, some to fight against President Bashar Al Assad’s forces and some to join ISIL.
Back in the city though, armed Islamist groups battled it out for control. In August 2014, the Shura Council for Islamic Youth appeared to have won through – or at least gained the oxygen of international publicity – by carrying out a public execution in a soccer stadium. Two months later, some members of this Council pledged fealty Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Whatever that means, it certainly draws the world’s attention.
In the rather magnificent way that this radical thugs are now going about things, the Council has declared a new emirate and reached into the distant past for a fabulous name. Barqa was the 7th century name of this part of eastern Libya after the Arab conquest of the former Roman province of Cyrenaica. (Who would’ve thought that hoodlums know history?)
So far, so plausible. What is extraordinary is the claim made by Noman Benotman to CNN that Derna “today looks identical to Raqqa, the [ISIL’s] headquarters town in Syria”.
He should know. He was once head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
If he’s right – and there’s no reason to think he isn’t – what does it mean that Raqqa and Derna are twin cities?