Hundreds of fanatical Islamic State terrorists are on their way to Europe posing as migrants after being driven out of their Libyan stronghold by British-backed forces, The Mail learnt on Sunday.
As the Libyan troops and jihadis fought a running battle in the port city of Sirte yesterday, we uncovered disturbing evidence that IS fighters are fleeing the onslaught and shaving off their beards and hair to blend in with refugees on their exodus across the Mediterranean.
Last night, the Libyan Brigades, secretly supported by elite troops from the British Special Boat Service, told me they were days away from regaining Sirte, which has been in IS hands for 18 months.
The jihadis briefly regained control of the city's port area yesterday after a fierce firefight with naval vessels – while other Libyan troops advanced into the city centre, coming under sniper fire.
Libyan officer Colonel Mohamed El-Gasri told me: 'We have taken casualties but so have the militants.We need to secure the port to prevent any escape by sea.'
He said intelligence gleaned with the help of British and US Special Forces showed that families holed up in their homes may be supporting and harbouring IS.
'Sirte was Muammar Gaddafi's home town and there is still fierce allegiance to him and opposition to our forces, who killed him,' he said.
'We have been appealing for weeks for people to get out and, while tens of thousands have left, there are others who chose to stay.
'This is not going to be easy, but we feel confident the city will be ours within days.'
In recent weeks, while some jihadis escaped into the desert, coastguard patrols have witnessed others heading for the people-smuggling route further west to join the boats sailing for Sicily and Italy.
We were told how they had dramatically changed their appearance to slip in unnoticed among refugees, and senior officers in the pro-government Libyan Brigades showed us photographs of clean-shaven IS members captured in Sirte.
In a deserted school in the suburb of Wadi Jarif, more than 100 IS fighters had been hiding during fierce fighting against the government forces before making a hasty exit. On the bathroom floors and in wash-basins, the evidence of their frantic deception was clear, in the form of clumps of dark facial hair.
Col El-Gasri told me: 'They have been cutting their long hair and shaving their beards. We know they work closely with people-smugglers and are joining the boats crossing the Mediterranean.'
IS gunmen took control of Sirte – birthplace of former Libyan leader Gaddafi – early last year, sending shockwaves through Europe, given the city's proximity to Sicily, the Italian mainland and Malta.
Ever since, its citizens have endured the iron rule of the fanatics, with frequent floggings and executions.
The tide turned this spring when the Libyan Brigades, backed by the SBS and other Western special forces, began to push back the militants. Now the battle in Sirte appears to be entering its final days.
The British forces have a direct line to the commander of this current operation, Bashir Al-Gardy.
He told me: 'There are about 25 special forces here, British and American. They have all the technology, the drones and the missiles, and they are helping.I asked them this morning to locate a tank inside Sirte which was hidden, and firing at my men. It's a good arrangement but we need a lot more.'
He said his men were so loyal that they once drove a truckload of jihadi bodies to his office. He showed me pictures of the grisly haul, saying fondly: 'Look what my men brought for me.'
The Libyans say they are virtually powerless to stop the escaping jihadis as their appeal for more help from Western governments in the shape of equipment has fallen on deaf ears
. Despite promises, the Libyans say they have received no protective clothing, night-vision equipment or specialist training.
While David Cameron has announced training for coastguard patrol crews, and a British warship is to be sent to Libyan waters once a UN Security Council resolution is in place, no help has arrived for Libyan naval forces in the Med.
'These are the most dangerous terrorists in the world today, and they are on the Mediterranean coast with the stated aim of carrying out atrocities in Europe,' said Col El-Gasri. 'We cannot beat them alone.'
Colonel Reda Essa, the head of the coastguard in Misrata, about 150 miles west of Sirte, told me: 'Until now we could not hold them back.
'We have two tugboats and six Zodiac inflatables to patrol 350 miles of the Mediterranean.
'I welded anti-aircraft guns and an old Katyusha rocket-launcher on the back of the tugboats myself with members of my crew. It has not been enough to stop IS.'
The militants, who have made an estimated £225 million from the people-trafficking trade in the past year alone, have vowed to 'conquer Rome' and security analysts have warned of the ease with which they can reach European shores.
Tens of thousands of migrants – mostly sub-Saharan Africans seeking a better life and Syrians fleeing conflict – are teeming through Libya and on to fishing boats and rubber dinghies at the smuggling hubs of Zuwarah and Sabratha, further west along the coast from Tripoli.
From there it is only 275 nautical miles to Sicily, 215 miles to Malta and just 160 miles to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Col Essa said: 'We have done daily and nightly patrols in the Gulf of Sirte and seen many fishing trawlers leaving. It has been impossible, from a mile and a half away, to know if these are fishermen or IS fighters. Last Sunday we had a breakthrough because we had information from inside Sirte that a very large group was gathering on the beach in the middle of the night. They were preparing trawlers and dinghies. We opened fire and dispersed them.
'But the next day they drove a tank to a hilltop overlooking the port, installed a rocket-launcher next to it, and left them there as a warning not to come closer.'
Travelling up the coastal highway from Misrata to Sirte last week, I witnessed convoys of Mad Max-style vehicles with improvised gun mountings and teenage drivers. They looked identical to those seen during the 2011 revolution which, backed by RAF and other Western air power, toppled Gaddafi.
Today the Misrata fighters, once considered the most ferocious of the anti-Gaddafi rebels, lead the new, better-disciplined Libyan Brigades – but their equipment is primitive.
Out in the endless desert, where herds of camels were the only other sign of life on a bleak horizon, an army of youths, some wounded, handled weapons which look to be relics from the Second World War. Rusting debris from bombed vehicles is left cautiously at the side of the road where IS has strewn thousands of landmines and booby traps.
Deserted homesteads, long abandoned by families fleeing the conflict which once brought IS within a terrifying 30 miles of Misrata city, are now makeshift camps for the military.
Exhausted troops arrive in dozens of convoys to carry provisions back to their camps. In Misrata, the wives and sisters of the fighters cook in nine communal kitchens to provide home-baked meals for their men. They are trucked daily to the frontline with personal notes in each parcel, sending love and support.
The fighters are proud young men, abandoning university studies and careers to spend years of their youth camping out in the heat and dust of the desert, manning gun emplacements in a desperate attempt to dislodge the militants at the heart of the anarchy in their country.
Salah Zaywawi, 24, the eldest of five children, said he had no choice. 'My parents know it and I know it,' he said. 'However long this takes, we have to kick out the Islamic State and get our country right again. It's already taken five years out of my life and the lives of all my friends.'
A few days ago he tried to dislodge a bullet stuck in his machine-gun, using a screwdriver.
'Some British soldiers came over and told me to get out of the way,' he said. 'They sorted it out in less than a minute. We see them all the time with us on the frontline, big guys with blond beards, wearing combats and trying to blend in with us. But they never talk, just watch.'
On the highway to Sirte is a field hospital in a disused hangar. Dr Haytham Ellibidy said: 'The Islamic State militants make their own bombs, and use mind-games to fool our troops.
'I saw a bomb-disposal expert carefully dismantle a landmine only to be blown to bits by another hidden underneath.
'The injuries are devastating.'
Accompanying me to the outskirts of Sirte, Col El-Gasri talked of his 19-year-old son fighting on the frontline there. 'I don't want him to be a martyr – we see too many of those,' he said.
'But I'm proud of him. He sleeps on the ground, sometimes under a vehicle, and there are snakes and scorpions around. He was badly bitten by a scorpion and we brought him home delirious.
'He thought the IS fighters were getting ready to kill him. He recovered and went back to the front. That's how we beat Gaddafi five years ago; it's how we plan to beat Islamic State.'