TRIPOLI, Libya — “The fire is inside the airport!” a militiaman cried, as he fired an antiaircraft cannon on the back of a pickup truck toward the runway of Libya’s main international airport. “God is great, the flames are rising!”
“Intensify the shooting,” responded his commander, Salah Badi, an ultraconservative Islamist and former lawmaker from the coastal city of Misurata.
Captured on video by the proud attackers just one month ago, Mr. Badi’s assault on Libya’s main international airport has now drawn the country’s fractious militias, tribes and towns into a single national conflagration that threatens to become a prolonged civil war. Both sides see the fight as part of a larger regional struggle, fraught with the risks of a return to repressive authoritarianism or a slide toward Islamist extremism. Three years after the NATO-backed ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the violence threatens to turn Libya into a pocket of chaos destabilizing North Africa for years to come.
An Islamist fighter in Tripoli celebrated on Sunday after his faction of fighters captured the city’s international airport. Credit Mahmud Turkia/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Libya is already a haven for itinerant militants, and the conflict has now opened new opportunities for Ansar al-Shariah, the hard-line Islamist group involved in the assault on the American diplomatic Mission in Benghazi in 2012.
Those backing Mr. Badi say his attack was a pre-emptive blow against an imminent counterrevolution modeled on the military takeover in Egypt and backed by its conservative allies: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Their opponents, including the militias stocked with former Qaddafi soldiers that controlled the airport, say Mr. Badi was merely the spearhead of a hard-line Islamist onslaught resembling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and supported by the Islamist-friendly governments of Turkey and Qatar.
The ideological differences are blurry at best: both sides publicly profess a similar conservative but democratic vision. What is clear is that Libya is being torn apart by an escalating war among its patchwork of rival cities and tribes.
Expressions of Despair
In a broad series of interviews on a five-day trip across the chasm now dividing the country — from the mountain town of Zintan, through Tripoli to the coastal city of Misurata — many Libyans despaired of any resolution.
“We entered this tunnel and we can’t find our way out,” said Ibrahim Omar, a Zintani leader.
Towns and tribes across the country are choosing sides, in places flying the flags of rival factions, sometimes including the black banners of Islamist extremists.