In late July, on a tree-lined avenue of villas in Sirte, the coastal home town of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Islamic State snipers pinned down a group of Libyan militiamen. It was early evening, a drawn-out time when the fighting usually starts to pick up. The figures of young men crouching or darting across the street with rocket-propelled grenades cast long shadows in the soft light. Amid the snap and rattle of automatic gunfire, the stereo from a nearby Toyota played an Islamic chant known as a nashid that seemed at once elegiac and fortifying...

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