A Libyan court sentenced 17 former members of the Islamic State group to death, a statement from the country’s Tripoli-based top prosecutor said on Monday.
The death sentences were given out to those convicted of participating in the killing of 53 people in the western city of Sabratha and destruction of public property, according to the statement. Another 16 militants were given prison sentences, two of them for life. The court did not specify when the sentences would be carried out.
Libya remains split between two rival administrations after years of civil war. The divide between authorities in the capital of Tripoli and eastern Libya has led to widespread lawlessness. Militia groups have also accumulated vast wealth and power from kidnappings and their control over the country’s lucrative human trafficking trade.
The extremist group expanded its reach in Libya after the 2011 uprising that toppled and later killed longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi. IS militants first seized Darna in 2014 and then later Sirte and areas surrounding the city of Sabratha.
However, unlike Syria and Iraq, IS was unable to profit from chaos and take large swaths of Libya. Instead, the group was limited to only administrative pockets dotted across the oil-rich North African country, unable to gain supremacy over Libya’s numerous well-armed militia forces tightly bound by tribal loyalties.
Several IS training camps were located outside Sabratha. In early 2016, some 700 of its fighters, most of them Tunisian, were based in the area. In March 2016, affiliates of the group briefly took over the city’s security headquarters and beheaded 12 Libyan security officials before using the headless corpses to block nearby roads.
Sirte’s central Martyrs’ Square was transformed by IS into a stage for public extrajudicial killings — including beheadings by a sword — for a wide variety of offenses.
In April 2016, near the height of its power, the Libyan branch of the militant group had recruited around 6,000 fighters, U.S. military experts estimated.
IS was driven from its main stronghold, the coastal city of Sirte, in late 2016 and fled inland. However, the militants maintain a limited presence in small pockets of the country, including the areas surrounding Sabratha.
In February 2016, the United States carried out an airstrike on an IS training camp near Sabratha, killing at least 40 people, as part of its effort to eradicate Islamic State.