Are Islamist Extremists Fighting Among Libya’s Rebels?

Apr 01, 2011

As the crisis in Libya continues, the international media and some Western policymakers have speculated about the dangers of an al-Qa`ida presence in the country. Stark warnings have been issued about the West’s support for opposition forces that include some militants who fought against Western forces in Iraq. No less forceful on this topic has been the Mu`ammar Qadhafi regime itself, which since the crisis started has been at pains to dismiss the uprising as the work of al-Qa`ida. The regime went as far as to claim that an Islamic emirate had been established in the eastern city of Derna that was run by former associates of Usama bin Ladin.

Such allegations on the part of the regime are clearly propaganda efforts aimed at scaring not only the international community, but also those in western Libya about what might come next if Qadhafi is overthrown.[1] Indeed, the uprisings in the east were non-ideological in nature. Like the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, they drew a broad cross-section of the population united by a shared desire to oust a dictator who has ruled them with an iron fist for the past four decades.[2] Moreover, the rebels’ Interim Transitional National Council’s (ITNC) “Vision for the Future of Libya” that was issued on March 29 promotes a civil liberal democratic state.[3]

Nevertheless, this concern should not be disregarded completely. Eastern Libya has traditionally been the primary center of the country’s Islamist opposition currents and where cells of young Islamist militants are located. It is also where scores of young Libyan men left to join the jihad in Iraq. Given that the regime is still struggling for survival and that Libya looks unlikely to return to any sort of normality soon, the issue of Islamism in a future Libyan scenario cannot be dismissed. A more sober and nuanced look at the various Islamist forces operating in the east, however, demonstrates that the picture is far less black and white than it first might appear.

The Militants
Libya’s Islamist scene currently comprises a mixed group of actors. Given the Qadhafi regime’s complete intolerance to any form of political activity outside of that sanctioned by the state, the country’s Islamists have been in no position in recent years to organize themselves into structured movements or groups.[4] The bulk of those associated with Islamic extremism in Libya are former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a movement that was established in the camps of Afghanistan in 1990 that sought to overthrow the “Pharaoh Qadhafi.” The group was discovered by the regime in 1995 and was subsequently crushed, forcing those members who escaped capture to flee, turning the LIFG primarily into a movement in exile. In 2007, however, Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam entered into a regime-supported dialogue with the leadership of the LIFG who were in prison in Tripoli. After protracted negotiations, the LIFG agreed to renounce violence, and in August 2009 they issued a set of revisions in which they declared that it was not legitimate to take up arms against the state. In return, they were freed from prison in a series of mass clemencies, the last of which occurred just two days before the current uprising and included some key figures such as the LIFG’s first amir, Muftah Mabrouk al-Wadi as well as the brother of senior al-Qa`ida operative Abu Yahya al-Libi, Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid. Most of these freed prisoners, who numbered more than 400, returned to their homes in the east.

This deradicalization initiative was in part a publicity stunt, aimed at bolstering Saif al-Islam’s credibility in the West, as well as in eastern Libya. The prisoners, for example, were not simply released once they agreed to renounce violence, but instead the regime insisted the group issue a high-profile set of doctrinal revisions that were widely publicized in the region and beyond. The regime put enormous pressure on the prisoners to agree to the revisions. It brought the families of some LIFG members into the prison as a means of persuading them, and the government also used bribery, offering to provide their families with cars and other perks if they signed up to the revisions.[5] Saif al-Islam made the most of the publicity opportunities after the releases, inviting foreign journalists to Libya to cover the issue and more importantly bringing Salafist shaykhs, such as Shaykh Salman al-Awda, to Libya where they, along with the LIFG leadership, publicly lauded the revisions. Despite the publicity aspect, it does appear that the majority of prisoners were convinced about the ideological shift taken by the LIFG’s leadership.[6] Many had spent long harsh years in prison; having had time to mature, they came to the conclusion that violence was not the way forward. As such, the regime successfully neutralized what was left of the movement.

It is not yet clear whether these former LIFG prisoners are once again operating as a group on the side of the rebels. There is little evidence to suggest that this is the case. Some LIFG elements have, however, established their own new movement. Two days before the Libyan protests began, a group of former LIFG members based mainly in the United Kingdom announced that they had established the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change. The group, whose politburo remains in London, has made it abundantly clear that it wishes to participate in the political process and there is every possibility that it will do so once the situation inside the country develops. The degree to which this group has shifted its ideological agenda was demonstrated by a statement issued in February where it called for foreign intervention to help remove Qadhafi from power, despite the fact that it was “aware of the sensitivity of this call and the desire of our people not to see any foreign interference on Libyan soil.”[7] It is not yet clear whether the group has any following inside Libya itself. If it does, it is clear that those involved are seeking to assert themselves politically rather than militarily.

On an individual basis, it is a certainty that some former LIFG members are fighting with the rebels. One former LIFG fighter, Khalid al-Tagdi, was killed on March 2 in Brega while fighting against regime forces.[8] Similarly, in mid-April, another senior LIFG military commander, Abdelmonem Mukhtar, known as Ourwa, was killed after he was ambushed by Qadhafi forces on the road between Ajdabiya and Brega. Mukhtar had been imprisoned in Iran until the end of 2010 and returned to Libya when the uprisings began where he was made commander of the 160-strong Omar al-Mukhtar rebel battalion.

Given the dearth of well-trained personnel and the amateur nature of the rebel forces, individuals with combat experience are clearly a precious asset to the opposition. These former LIFG elements are fighting alongside other rebels and have shown no indication to separate themselves or to try to claim the revolution as their own. As Anis Sharif, a member of the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change’s politburo, rightly observed, “it is the revolution of the Libyan people. It is not the revolution of political parties, or organisations, or Islamists or fundamentalists.”[9] It seems that these former militants are aware that what they had dreamed of for so many years, namely rising up against the regime, was ultimately achieved by ordinary Libyans who, like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, had no ideological affiliation.[10]

There is also the concern that released LIFG members could be planning to resume extremist militancy in the future. Certain elements within the Libyan security services who were largely hostile to the deradicalization initiative were anxious that some of those released would create trouble.[11] In fact, according to sources in Tripoli, there were indications that a handful had resorted to their old ways following their release.[12] While the revision process was led by the LIFG, there were elements from other militant groups, such as the Islamic Martyrs Brigade, making it impossible to ascertain how many released militants truly believed in renouncing violence. Were they simply coerced into agreeing with the revisions to secure their release from prison? Moreover, as late as June 2010 there were still hardcore elements in the Abu Slim prison who rejected the revisions. The regime was still trying to convince them, using a carrot and stick approach and regularly bringing released LIFG leaders back into the prison, to continue the dialogue.[13] It is not clear whether any of these individuals were freed in the regime’s final tranche of releases that it sanctioned just prior to the uprising in a desperate attempt to placate the east. It seems, however, that these more militant elements are not yet acting as any organized group and as such their influence remains limited for the time being.

Jihad in Iraq and Jihad in Libya
Many observers have correctly pointed to the fact that young Libyans have made up a disproportionately high number of recruits to the Iraqi jihad.[14] It is true that Libyans, predominantly from the east, have been willing to sacrifice themselves in Iraq. This should not be confused, however, with membership of or even support for the transnational aims and aspirations of al-Qa`ida. Going to fight against an occupying force in a Muslim land is very different from supporting Bin Ladin’s global ambitions or even taking up arms against one’s own government. Even more “moderate” Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are also explicit that fighting to defend a Muslim land when it is under attack from foreign forces is a religious duty. In fact, there is widespread feeling across the Arab world that fighting against occupying troops in a Muslim country is a legitimate cause. It is for this reason that the Libyan state media always described the insurgency in Iraq as the “resistance” and regularly lauded U.S. military casualties. One cannot conclude that all the young men in Libya who fought in Iraq were motivated by al-Qa`ida or shared its desire to target the “far enemy.” Indeed, some may simply have ended up being recruited by al-Qa`ida once in Iraq.

It is also true that elements with links to al-Qa`ida may have helped facilitate networks sending young men to Iraq. The current rebel military coordinator in Derna, Abdelkarim al-Hasadi, for example, has openly admitted that he recruited 25 young men in Derna to join the Iraqi jihad, some of whom are now fighting on the front lines in Ajdabiya.[15] Al-Hasadi, a history teacher, had fought in Afghanistan but was captured by U.S. forces in 2002 and handed over to Libya where he continued to be monitored by the security services. He was imprisoned twice, once following a shoot-out with the regime where he was detained from 2004-2007 and again in 2008 for 45 days for “conspiring to overthrow the regime.” Nevertheless, al-Hasadi, who was a senior member of the LIFG, maintains that he was always against the attacks of 9/11 and, like so many militants in Afghanistan at the time, rejected the attack. He declared, “I am with fighting people on the battlefield, not with killing civilians in any place.”[16] This approach is entirely consistent with that taken by the LIFG.

In fact, it should be remembered that the LIFG always had a specifically nationalist agenda. Aside from a small rump group in the tribal areas of Pakistan led by Abu Laith al-Libi (who was killed in January 2008) that allied itself with al-Qa`ida when the rest of the group entered into dialogue with the regime, the LIFG was never comfortable with Bin Ladin’s more globalized agenda and always focused its efforts on toppling Qadhafi. During a series of meetings in April and May 2000, the LIFG asked Bin Ladin to stop using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks against the United States and tried to convince him that he should not violate the laws or policies of the Taliban, under whose protection they were all living, by launching attacks that risked bringing retribution.[17] Despite assertions by Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2007 that the LIFG had joined al-Qa`ida’s ranks, the group never joined Bin Ladin’s organization, preferring to give loyalty to Mullah Omar of the Taliban.[18] As former LIFG veteran Noman Benotman declared, “We refused right from the beginning to be absorbed into this group because that would make us lose our ability to move freely and independently in Libya.”[19] As such, the LIFG has always clung to its independence and nationalist agenda.

A Role for Al-Qa`ida?
Of course, there are likely to be individual militant elements or small groups of militants in Libya who are open to the terrorist ideology of al-Qa`ida. The regime was anxious about the presence of such elements. Sources in Tripoli argue that one reason why the Qadhafi regime was so keen to enter into dialogue with the LIFG was because it was becoming increasingly concerned about the younger generation in the east in particular, some of whom appeared to be adopting more militant ideas (although not necessarily those of al-Qa`ida).[20] While it was engaging in dialogue with the LIFG, the regime continued to arrest and imprison young Libyans suspected of militancy.[21]

There have also been reports during the past few years of a handful of Libyans who have traveled to Algeria to train with al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), although these reports are unconfirmed. AQIM has sought to capitalize on the situation in Libya. If websites purporting to be AQIM are to be believed, its leader Abu Mus`ab `Abd al-Wadud has called for jihad in Libya not only against Qadhafi, but also against the West, especially the United States “as the foreign military intervention is a new crusader war.”[22] Yet at this stage in the battle such comments are clearly out of tune with the feeling inside Libya and are more likely to alienate rather than attract young Libyans, including those of a militant bent. Similarly, other jihadist elements have misread the situation and the degree to which Libyans of all persuasions are united in the fight against Qadhafi. One jihadist forum declared this month that Libyan jihadists should choose an amir and distinguish themselves from the “people of al-Jahiliya (pre-Islamic ignorance) and the worshippers of democracy” by fighting under a clear Islamic banner.[23] It advised them to “acquire and store weapons in safe places that are only known to people you trust and who are on the straight path. Never hand over your weapons to anyone from the People’s Committees or Military Committees or Civilians Committees (bodies set up by the opposition).”[24] Given the desperate situation of those on the front lines, such advice is likely unwelcome. So far, there has been no indication of any desire by Libyan Islamist militants to separate themselves from the other rebel forces, and they are subsumed in the greater struggle against the Qadhafi regime.

Future Challenges
It is difficult to predict whether more militant elements will assert themselves in Libya in the longer term. Much will depend on how the situation develops on the ground. This is particularly true in relation to the international community’s role. Islamist elements in Libya are uneasy about foreign military intervention although they seem to accept it, viewing it as a necessary evil. This would change, however, if foreign ground troops are deployed. The presence of foreign forces on Libyan soil would give those with a more militant agenda a focus, and they may try to turn their attention to fighting against a foreign presence. As Abdelkarim al-Hasadi declared, “We don’t want the West to come to us. We need weapons and to impose a no-fly zone so military forces will be balanced. If there are foreign forces on Libyan soil we will fight them before we will fight Qadhafi.”[25] Although the LIFG was explicit in the revisions that it was wrong to take up arms against the state, there was no condemnation of fighting jihad against a foreign invader on Muslim soil. A Western presence would likely create sufficient discontent among the population into which these elements could tap. Moreover, it would likely attract militants from other parts of the world who would see it as their duty to protect Libyans from “crusader forces.”

Furthermore, if the current stalemate drags on, which looks increasingly likely, or if the transition process post-Qadhafi results in chaos, then it is possible that militant forces could try to organize and assert themselves in their own local areas. These forces would have a popular base of support given that they have some sympathy in the east. They will, however, be up against far more influential players such as tribal shaykhs who carry more weight, particularly in the east, which has remained far more tribal in nature than the west. The danger could be if certain tribes, feeling that they have not been properly compensated in the post-Qadhafi era, choose to ally themselves with militant elements, although this appears to be an unlikely prospect.

These militants would also have to compete with other Islamist players. Non-violent Salafist currents have been quietly growing in Libya, especially among the youth, as they have elsewhere in the region. It is likely that free from the restrictions of the Qadhafi regime, such currents will expand and flourish. In addition, there is another group that has emerged in the east that is likely to be far more significant than the jihadist elements. This group comprises a handful of Islamic scholars led by Dr. Ali al-Salabi, who was brought in by Saif al-Islam to negotiate the LIFG prisoner dialogue. Other members include Shaykh Salim Abdelsalam al-Sheikhi, who returned to Libya from the United Kingdom during the uprisings, and Shaykh Ismail Mohamed al-Kraetly as well as other members of the traditional religious establishment in Libya who have been getting bolder in their challenges to the regime in recent months. This group broadly follows the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, although the exact nature of its links to the movement is not clear.

While this group initially declared that supporting the Western military intervention was “tantamount to treason,” it has publicly given its support to the ITNC and its political vision for a civil state. It has, however, been overtly critical of the council in the Arab media and more importantly it has issued its own alternative political vision that is more explicit than that of the ITNC about the role of Islam in the state. The document, the National Charter Project, declares, “People are the source of authority. The state’s religion is Islam and the principle of Islamic Sharia is the source of its legislation.”[26] Crucially, the document also calls for a decentralized Libya. While this group currently has a limited following, these scholars are already well respected and as such they have the potential to become a stronger force in the east in particular. The shaykhs’ more explicit call for a state based upon Islamic law is likely to go down well with some parts of the population.

Nevertheless, the power of these Islamist forces should not be exaggerated. Despite the conservative and religious nature of the east, the revolution is non-ideological in nature. While there may be some public sympathy for these Islamist figures, there appears to be limited public appetite for an Islamist alternative. As such, although militant groups may try to make their presence felt and may find space in which to operate, particularly if the international military intervention escalates, their role should not be overstated.

Alison Pargeter is a Middle East and North Africa analyst who also specializes in issues related to political Islam and radicalization. She has conducted numerous research projects on these topics and has published widely on these issues. Her books include The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (I.B. Tauris and Pennsylvania University Press, 2008) and The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (Saqi, 2010).

[1] There has always been a distinct sense of regional identity in Libya. It was only united as a single country at the time of independence in 1951. The division has traditionally been between the main population centers in the west (Tripolitania) and the east (Cyrenaica). The west has a reputation of being more cosmopolitan and open than its eastern counterpart, while the east is known as a bastion of conservatism. The east has also tended to look eastwards to Egypt, not least because many of the tribes there spread across into Egypt’s western deserts.

[2] The protests comprised a cross-section of the Libyan public and included professionals and ordinary Libyans, particularly drawn from the youth.

[3] For more details, see the ITNC website at http://ntclibya.org/english/libya/.

[4] This is particularly true following the crackdowns at the end of the mid-1990s when the regime crushed an Islamist rebellion.

[5] Personal interview, Libyan human rights activist, Tripoli, Libya, June 2010.

[6] Personal interview, senior LIFG member released from prison, Tripoli, Libya, June 2010.

[7] “Libya: Islamists Call on Air Force to Bomb Gaddafi,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 23, 2011.

[8] Noman Benotman and James Brandon, “Briefing Paper: The Jihadist Threat in Libya,” Quilliam Foundation, March 24, 2011.

[9] “Libyan Islamist to Al-Sharq al-Awsat: The Libyan People’s Revolution is not that of political parties or organisations or fundamentalists,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 21, 2011.

[10] This was evidenced by the slogans of those demonstrating, which simply called for an end to the Qadhafi regime.

[11] Personal interview, Libyan human rights activist, Tripoli, Libya, June 2010.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Personal interview, senior LIFG member released from prison, Tripoli, Libya, June 2010.

[14] Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al-Qaida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008)

[15]  “Noi ribelli, islamici e tolleranti,” Il Sole 24 Ore, March 22, 2011.

[16] See www.al-watan.com/viewnews.aspx?d=20110321&cat=report2&pge=3.

[17] Camille Tawille, Al-Qa’ida wa Akhawatia (London: Saqi Books, 2007).

[18] For details on this dispute, see Alison Pargeter, “LIFG Revisions Unlikely to Reduce Jihadist Violence,” CTC Sentinel 2:10 (2009).

[19] Tawille.

[20] Personal interview, Libyan human rights activist, Tripoli, Libya, June 2010.

[21] Ibid.

[22] For details, see www.benbadis.org/vb/showthread.php?s=b3cc5692c833943cc3c2fc3b634cb2f0&p=18976#post18976.

[23] For details, see www.bahrainarabia.com/showthread.php?p=186585.

[24] Ibid.

[25] For details, see www.al-watan.com/viewnews.aspx?d=20110321&cat=report2&pge=3.

[26] For details, see www.libya-alyoum.com/news/index.php?id=21&textid=3654.