ABU GREIN, Libya — A howling wind filled the air with sand, enveloping the small desert outpost. Shivering from the January cold, a skinny, bedraggled man in mismatched desert camouflage fatigues, a scarf wrapped around his face, took a deep breath and stepped forward. He tightened his grip on his AK-47 as the car pulled up to the checkpoint. Without a helmet or bulletproof vest, he warily approached, asking for identification papers, searching for weapons and checking the trunk. This time there was nothing inside, save for some rope and a few empty burlap sacks, likely to be filled with wheat or barley for the drive back. He relaxed, and waited for the next car to arrive.
Just a few years ago, the land around this outpost, 180 miles southeast of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, was a nature reserve where the deposed leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his entourage would come for retreats, hunting for wild game. The spacious villas that housed them are dotted around, now empty, looted for their gaudy fixtures and fittings. Inhabitants of a nearby village have mostly fled. Once a sleepy patch of desert, Abu Grein has now become the front line against the Libyan branch of ISIS, a gathering force now threatening to demolish what’s left of the country.