Assessing Al-Qa`ida’s Presence in the New Libya

Mar 22, 2012

A year after Libyans rose up against Colonel Mu`ammar Qadhafi, Western governments and observers continue to watch the security situation in that country with trepidation, concerned with instability in the wake of Qadhafi’s ouster but also watchful for a possible spread of al-Qa`ida in the sparsely populated, oil-rich country.

This article provides an overview of the history of Libyans in jihadist organizations (including al-Qa`ida), an assessment of al-Qa`ida and affiliated media activities following the Libyan uprising, an analysis of available evidence of a potential al-Qa`ida presence in Libya, and an evaluation of the possible role the group could occupy in a new Libya.

The LIFG and Al-Qa`ida
Soon after fighting erupted in Libya, analysts pointed to the longstanding interest of al-Qa`ida in Libya and the key role played by Libyans (especially former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group combatants, such as Abu Layth al-Libi and Abu Yahya al-Libi) in the organization. Others referenced the Sinjar Records that were recovered in 2007 that showed Libyans comprising the second-to-highest[1] concentration of foreign fighters to enter Iraq to fight U.S. and other coalition forces.[2]

Although the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) traveled in similar ideological circles as al-Qa`ida, it did not appear to condone the group’s broader strategy of targeting the West. The LIFG’s central leadership never publicly supported Usama bin Ladin’s vision of global jihad. Although the LIFG was in Sudan and Afghanistan at the same time as al-Qa`ida, the LIFG was training to topple the Qadhafi regime. During the 1990s, the limited attempts the LIFG made to reach out to regional extremist groups such as the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) ended in disaster; LIFG members were arrested in Algeria after attempts to link up with militants, and a group of the LIFG’s most hardened and experienced fighters disappeared after a trip to the country, leading many to believe that the GIA killed them.[3]

As Noman Benotman, a former member of the LIFG’s shura council, stated in a 2005 interview: “The LIFG has always been wholly focused on Libya. Our ultimate objective was the creation of an Islamic state in Libya.”[4] Furthermore, the LIFG never congratulated al-Qa`ida on attacks they conducted such as the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, the USS Cole bombings, or even the 9/11 attacks. Rather, the LIFG only commented on the U.S. retaliation in Sudan and Afghanistan for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings.[5] Moreover, LIFG leaders reportedly broke with Bin Ladin in a 2000 meeting in Kandahar, cautioning the latter against staging a large-scale attack against the United States.[6]

Just after the 9/11 attacks, Shaykh Hasan Qa‘id (Abu Yunis al-Sahrawi), better known today as Abu Yahya al-Libi, penned a fatwa against the United States.[7] Al-Libi, still a member of the LIFG at the time, argued that it was legitimate to attack the United States in Afghanistan. Yet when Abu Yahya, along with Abu Layth al-Libi, “officially” joined al-Qa`ida in 2006, the senior leadership of the LIFG refused to endorse what al-Qa`ida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri called a merger between the groups, indicating that Abu Layth, Abu Yahya, and others joined in an individual capacity.[8]

Turning to Iraq, many have pointed to the high number of Libyans involved in that recent conflict as proof of LIFG involvement with al-Qa`ida. The LIFG condemned the United States for its occupation of Iraq and agreed with the stance that the fight against the United States was a “defensive jihad.”[9] The Sinjar documents showed that a disproportionately high number of Libyans passed through or were involved with al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) networks. There is little hard evidence, however, about how many Iraq veterans survived their fight to return to Libya, nor how many were actually members of the LIFG to begin with.

It is thus possible that not all Libyans who went to Iraq—or those who would eventually return—were infected by al-Qa`ida’s particular brand of radicalism, although some may still have picked up military skills that would be used against their home governments upon their return from Iraq.

Unfortunately, a lack of available information limits investigation beyond anecdotal analysis of the impact of the war in Iraq on foreign fighters who eventually returned home, including those who would take part in the Libyan revolution.

AQ/AQIM Messaging and Online Jihadist Support for the Revolution
Prior to the anti-Qadhafi uprising, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) had not released any statements focusing specifically on Libya.[10] Four statements issued following the outbreak of violence warned Libyans not to trust NATO, appealed to Libyans to become involved in jihadist activities, and called for the creation of an Islamic state and the establishment of Shari`a. Yet the group was vague on how to enact such change, and AQIM has not put forth specific objectives or an agenda for Libya.

AQIM has also made it a point to emphasize, praise, and congratulate Libyans for overthrowing Mu`ammar Qadhafi. The organization’s statements repeatedly referred to Libyans as the “descendants” and “grandsons” of the anti-colonial leader `Umar al-Mukhtar, attempting to link the organization to Libyan nationalist narratives.[11] Yet the group did not produce any Libyans to deliver these messages, unlike al-Qa`ida central, whose messages on Libya featured Abu Yahya al-Libi as well as Attiyatullah al-Libi, revealed for the first time in March 2011 to have been from the Libyan city of Misrata.[12]

In March 2011, both Attiyatullah and Abu Yahya issued statements “congratulating” Libyans on shaking off Qadhafi’s rule, focusing on the primacy of instituting Shari`a as the sole source of legislation in the new Libya, and warning against the potential that the United States or Libyans with links to Qadhafi’s regime could usurp the rebels’ victory. Attiyatullah, however, called for reconciliation if possible with those who “made mistakes and wrong choices in the previous era.”

In December 2011, however, Abu Yahya’s message was more forthcoming on specific suggestions to Libyans, including recommendations for:  the “formation of a board…to oversee the realization of the revolution’s demands”; a call for rebels not to give up their weapons; an invitation for Islamic scholars to form an independent committee that would have a direct role in formulating Libya’s constitution; and the severing of any ties the rebels had with Western governments. Indeed, this statement is one of the more substantive points made by an al-Qa`ida central senior leader regarding the Arab Spring. Despite passing mention from other leaders such as al-Zawahiri, it seems that al-Qa`ida central left Libyan messaging to the group’s Libyans, although it is not known who within al-Qa`ida actually formulated the group’s messaging on Libya.

Whispers of Jihad
The first indications that jihadists might be benefiting from the unrest in Libya came not long after violence broke out, as regional leaders and press reports suggested that AQIM had gained weapons from abandoned Libyan stocks, including surface-to-air missiles.[13] Others suggested that the group had forged connections with Libya’s rebels, and that AQIM or al-Qa`ida central might seek to implant itself in Libya.[14]

Meanwhile, many questioned whether the once-imprisoned LIFG leaders who renounced al-Qa`ida in 2009 would hold to their past positions now that they were free and some commanding anti-Qadhafi fighters.[15] Of particular concern were leaders such as the eastern city of Darnah’s Abdel-Hakim al-Hasadi and Sufyan bin Qumu. Al-Hasadi personally recruited fighters to go to Iraq and was accused briefly in February 2012 of having established an “Islamic emirate” in the city of Darnah, which produced nearly half the recorded Libyan fighters who traveled to Iraq.[16] Both Hasadi and Bin Qumu are said to have trained anti-Qadhafi fighters in Darnah, although Bin Qumu’s role in the town’s militias, especially the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, is in dispute.[17]

This concern grew as former  LIFG leader Abdelhakim Belhadj, who was once in U.S. custody, emerged at the head of Tripoli’s Military Council, a powerful militia that played a key role in seizing Qadhafi’s compound in August 2011.[18]

In November, AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar confirmed that the group had benefited from the Libyan uprising, using the ensuing chaos as a chance to acquire weapons.[19] In the same interview, however, Belmokhtar explicitly denied that AQIM had played a direct role in the fighting against Qadhafi, although he did call on Libyan rebels to refuse attempts to have them give up their arms.[20]

Finally, just before the new year, two reports came out that reinforced fears that al-Qa`ida had begun to move back to Libya in force. In the Guardian, Jason Burke reported that at least two senior al-Qa`ida figures as well as a group of “North Africans” had made their way from Afghanistan to Libya, although some were arrested along the way.[21] CNN’s Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank reported days afterward that al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sent a senior Libyan al-Qa`ida member who once lived in Britain, “AA,” to Libya, and that between May and December 2011 he had recruited around 200 fighters in eastern Libya.[22]

Hints of an al-Qa`ida presence or sympathy in Libya have also made it to the internet. Posters on popular jihadist forums such as Shamukh al-Islam have provided what could be anecdotal evidence of sympathy for al-Qa`ida in Libya. These forums have featured some videos and pictures purportedly showing Libyan jihadists. There have been multiple rallies in Tripoli that showcased a caravan of cars as well as individuals holding flags resembling those used by AQI.[23] A similar flag was raised over a Benghazi courthouse in October 2011, and other photos have emerged on forums and in media sources showing the flags in various cities and towns.[24]

Forum members also posted a picture of an alleged jihadist compound in Benghazi, which featured a message spray painted on an outside wall in Arabic that said “written by Qa`idat al-Jihad in the Islamic Maghrib.” Late last year, on November 27, forum members posted pictures and a description of an event in Tripoli that announced the creation of a new Libyan jihadist media outlet, Himam (Endeavor) Media Foundation.

Jihadists and the Revolution
While the role of former LIFG members and fighters with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in combating Qadhafi is without doubt,[25] little is known about what these veteran fighters actually think; after all, the LIFG’s own complicated history with al-Qa`ida[26] shows the diversity of jihadist thought in the country. As one expert who spent significant time reporting from Libya, Barak Barfi, told one of the authors, “The jihadist camp was split [after NATO’s intervention in March 2011]. Once NATO entered the conflict, some jihadists withdrew from the battlefield, declaring they would refuse to fight with infidels…Other jihadists continued to fight, under the auspices of brigades from Darnah and the February 17 units.”[27]

Barfi added that, in his view, the LIFG leadership’s 2009 renunciation of al-Qa`ida’s violent agenda was “genuine, and not merely a ploy to win release from prison” and that he and others saw little evidence of foreign fighters entering Libya to fight on the side of the rebels.[28] In September 2011, an anonymous American official said that officials believed some foreign fighters had entered the country, but that the numbers were “in the dozens” and not more widespread, as in Iraq.[29]

Moreover, while the possibility of al-Qa`ida recruiting locally in places such as Darnah is a real and troubling risk, this information is linked (at least in the open source) to a single source, and has not been publicly confirmed elsewhere. It is also not known how potential al-Qa`ida recruits are being trained in Libya, and even if they will attempt to operate in Libya. The country suffers from multiple rivalries among heavily armed militias[30] and internal sectarian and ethnic divides[31] that could make life difficult for a fledgling jihadist movement.

Additionally, the fighters within Libya may receive little help from regional sympathizers. While Benotman and James Brandon, citing intelligence sources, say as many as 40 Libyans joined AQIM in recent years,[32] other specialists put the number considerably lower.[33]

This is not to downplay the possibility of jihadist expansion in Libya. Both al-Qa`ida and the LIFG have histories of clandestine organization in troubled areas,[34] and the limited public evidence of an al-Qa`ida presence in Libya does not necessarily indicate that it is not there. Furthermore, even if elements sharing al-Qa`ida’s radical views are few in Libya today, this may well change. Belhadj complained to scholar Omar Ashour in 2010 that many young Libyan militants do not respect the former LIFG leadership, and could break from the group, leaving them prey to more extreme elements within the jihadist community.[35]

Regardless of whether jihadist violence takes root in Libya, unrest appears to be spreading far beyond the country’s borders. Regular clashes have also taken place between Algerian and Tunisian security forces and arms smugglers, as well as extremists; Algerian security forces say that they arrested 214 traffickers in the south and east of the country in 2011,[36] including 87 Libyans they said were linked to terrorist groups (although this information is only sourced to the Algerian government).[37] Also according to Algerian forces, 13 fighters, including a Libyan, were killed in a confrontation in Tebessa in early January.[38] In Tunisia, authorities in February closed the major border crossing with Libya in an attempt to stem weapons flows,[39] and a little over a week later Tunisian authorities said they disrupted a “terrorist organization” that included members trained in Libya.[40]

In December, Le Figaro reported that a key commander for Abdelhakim Belhadj, Abdel-Mehdi al-Harati, was leading a detachment of Libyan fighters supporting Syrian rebels along the border with Turkey.[41] This may rekindle bad memories of the kind of “jihadist international” that formed and spread throughout Europe and the Middle East after the Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, although it is interesting that Belhadj, the cause of so much anxiety during the Libyan revolution, appears to be sending his fighters and a key commander elsewhere instead of concentrating on securing his gains in Libya.

Conclusion
Since the uprising against Qadhafi began in February 2011, Libya has become a source of attention for jihadists and grave concern among regional and Western leaders. There are clear signs of jihadist efforts to infiltrate Libya, and even signs of some possible success for al-Qa`ida in establishing a limited presence in Libya. Security officials must be vigilant for signs of support for al-Qa`ida among Libyan militias and further expansion of the group’s reach, especially evidence of training and indoctrination of Libyans by al-Qa`ida-linked figures.

It appears that AQIM in particular has chosen to profit from the Libyan unrest by seizing weapons, but have remained ensconced in safe havens in northern Mali and Algeria. The same cannot be definitively said for other al-Qa`ida-linked figures, who are accustomed to operating clandestinely when setting up funding and operational networks and may be doing the same in Libya. Given al-Qa`ida’s expressed interest in the country and the key role Libyan militants have historically played in the organization, this concern cannot be easily dismissed.

For the moment, though, armed jihadists—especially those sharing al-Qa`ida’s extreme ideology—do not appear to be in a position to contest the fragile Libyan state. Ultimately, while there are more than the “flickers” of al-Qa`ida in Libya first suggested by NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis in March 2011,[42] there is not enough information to determine if the group has the means, or even the desire, to set up a durable presence in the country—especially when Western governments and special forces are keeping a keen eye on Libya, and opposing armed militias remain ready to protect their own power and influence.

Andrew Lebovich is an Associate Senior Analyst at the Navanti Group, and a former Policy Analyst with the New America Foundation. Aaron Y. Zelin is a researcher in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University and maintains the website Jihadology.net. They co-edit the blog Al-Wasat. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and may not reflect the views of their employers or clients.

 

* Correction: This text was modified at 1:31 PM on March 22, 2012 as it incorrectly identified Abdelhakim Belhadj and Abdel-Hakim al-Hasadi as having spent time at Guantanamo Bay.

 

[1] Although Libyans formed the largest contingent of fighters per capita, Saudis still formed the largest overall group of foreign fighters. Additionally, the Sinjar Records do not represent the total number of foreign fighters in Iraq, but rather a selection of approximately 600 foreign fighters.

[2] Noman Benotman and James Brandon, “Briefing Paper: The Jihadist Threat in Libya,” Quilliam Foundation, March 24, 2011; Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, “The Enemies of our Enemy: Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebels,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2011.

[3] Camille Tawil, Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists (London: Saqi Books, 2010), p. 135.

[4] Mahan Abedin, “From Mujahid to Activist: An Interview with a Libyan Veteran of the Afghan Jihad,” Spotlight on Terror 3:2 (2005). Since giving this interview, Benotman has been a frequent media presence on the LIFG and jihadist issues, and helped negotiate a deal that allowed imprisoned LIFG leaders to go free in return for renouncing al-Qa`ida’s global jihadist agenda.

[5] “Statement #14: Regarding the American Aggression against Sudan and Afghanistan,” Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, August 25, 1998.

[6] Camille Tawil, “The Changing Face of the Jihadist Movement in Libya,” Terrorism Monitor 7:1 (2009); Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “The Unraveling: The Jihadist Revolt Against Bin Laden,” New Republic, June 11, 2008.

[7] Shaykh Hasan Qa‘id (Abu Yunis al-Sahrawi), “Fatwa About the American Crusader Attacks on Afghanistan,” September 23, 2001.

[8] It should be noted that the senior leadership of LIFG was imprisoned in Libya at the time, and it was not until the following year that the leadership began a dialogue with the Libyan regime, a dialogue that would ultimately lead to the group’s “revisions.” For a discussion of this process, see Camille Tawil, “What Next for the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group after Rebuff from the Libyan Regime?” Terrorism Monitor 7:24 (2009).

[9] “Statement #21: Regarding the Occupation of Iraq,” Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, April 11, 2003.

[10] Aaron Y. Zelin, “Is al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib Gaining Influence in Libya?” al-Wasat, November 1, 2011.

[11] For AQIM’s messages related to the Libyan uprising, see “Support and Backing for the [Libyan] Revolution of our Family, the Free, Descendants of ‘Umar al-Mukhtar,” al-Andalus Media, February 24, 2011; Abu Mus`ab `Abd al-Wadud (Abdelmalek Droukdel), “Support for the Free, Descendants of ‘Umar al-Mukhtar,” al-Andalus Media, March 18, 2011; Abu Mus`ab `Abd al-Wadud (Abdelmalek Droukdel), “Congratulations on the Victory of the Descendants of ‘Umar al-Mukhtar,” al-Andalus Media, October 2, 2011; Shaykh al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi, “Open Letter to the Muslims in Libya,” al-Andalus Media, October 27, 2011; Shaykh Abu Uyyan ‘Asim, “Khutbah ‘Id al ‘Adha For The Year 1432 H,” al-Andalus Media, November 18, 2011.

[12] Christopher Anzalone, “Al-Qaeda Loses its ‘Renaissance Man,’” Foreign Policy, September 9, 2011. For the statements, see Abu Yahya al-Libi: “To Our People in Libya,” al-Sahab, March 12, 2011; ‘Atiyyatullah Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman, “Tribute To Our People in Libya,” al-Sahab, March 18, 2011; Abu Yahya al-Libi: “What is Intended For Libya?” al-Sahab, December 5, 2011.

[13] Lauranne Prozenvano, “Liaisons dangereuses entre Aqmi et les insurgés libyens,” Jeune Afrique, March 30, 2011.

[14] Benotman and Brandon.

[15] Alison Pargeter, “Are Islamist Extremists Fighting Among Libya’s Rebels?” CTC Sentinel 4:4 (2011).

[16] “Al-Qaeda Sets Up ‘Islamic Emirate’ in Eastern Libya,” Agence France-Presse, February 23, 2011.

[17] Charles Levinson, “Ex-Mujahedeen Help Lead Libyan Rebels,” Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011; Rod Nordland and Scott Shane, “Libyan, Once a Detainee, is Now a U.S. Ally of Sorts,” New York Times, April 24, 2011.

[18] Omar Ashour, “Ex-Jihadists in the New Libya,” Foreign Policy, August 29, 2011; Omar Ashour, “Fears Over Islamists Within Libyan Rebel Ranks,” BBC, August 31, 2011; Nic Robertson, “Former Jihadist at the Heart of Libya’s Revolution,” CNN, September 5, 2011.

[19] Aboul Maaly, “Entretien exclusif avec Khaled Abou Al-Abass, alias ‘Belouar,’” al-Akhbar, November 9, 2011.

[20] For detailed analysis of this interview, see Andrew Lebovich, “AQIM’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar Speaks Out,” al-Wasat, November 21, 2011. AQIM has not provided evidence of acquiring weapons, although a number of Western government and other figures have confirmed AQIM’s acquisition of missiles and other advanced weaponry. See Olivia Lang, “Fears Over Libya’s Missing Missiles,” BBC, September 8, 2011. Also see for instance Ben Wedeman and Ingrid Formanek, “Missiles Looted from Tripoli Arms Warehouse,” CNN, September 7, 2011; Régis Soubrouillard, “Trafic d’armes: La Libye, un arsenal à ciel ouvert,” Marianne, October 14, 2011; Isabelle Laserre, “Des armes de Kadhafi récupérées par Aqmi au Sahel,” Le Figaro, July 1, 2011; Ursula Soares, “Accrochage au nord d’Arlit, au Niger: la piste d’Aqmi se précise,” Radio France International, June 15, 2011; Bradley Klapper and Kimberly Dozier, “U.S.: Libyan Chemical, Nuclear Material Secure,” Associated Press, August 26, 2011.

[21] Jason Burke, “Al-Qaida Leadership Almost Wiped out in Pakistan, British Officials Believe,” Guardian, December 25, 2011.

[22] Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, “Source: Al Qaeda Leader Sends Veteran Jihadists to Establish Presence in Libya,” CNN, December 30, 2011.

[23] Aaron Y. Zelin, “On Flags, Islamic History, and al-Qa’ida,” al-Wasat, November 6, 2011.

[24] Ibid. Also see William McCants, “Black Flag,” Foreign Policy, November 7, 2011.

[25] Personal interview, Camille Tawil, December 7, 2011.

[26] Omar Ashour, “Post-Jihadism: Libya and the Global Transformations of Armed Islamist Movements,” Terrorism and Political Violence 23:3 (2011).

[27] Personal interview, Barak Barfi, December 20, 2011.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Chris Lawrence, “Libya the New Terrorist Haven?” CNN, September 14, 2011.

[30] Clashes occur regularly in Tripoli and elsewhere. For a thorough discussion of the problems posed by rival militias and large-scale opposition movements, see Alastair Macdonald and Oliver Holmes, “Libya – Divided it Stands,” Reuters, December 16, 2011; Patrick Haimzadeh, “Libya Still Under Arms,” Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2011; “Holding Libya Together: Security Challenges After Qaddafi,” International Crisis Group, December 14, 2011.

[31] Steve Sotloff, “In Libya, a Fundamentalist War Against Moderate Islam Takes Shape,” Time Magazine, January 18, 2012.

[32] Benotman and Brandon.

[33] Personal interview, former European counterterrorism analyst, February 2011.

[34] Ashour, “Post-Jihadism.”

[35] Omar Ashour, “Ex-Jihadists in the New Libya,” Foreign Policy, August 29, 2011.

[36] Chawki Amari, “Sahel: le traffic d’armes se porte bien, merci,” Slate Afrique, January 20, 2012.

[37] Walid Ramzi, “Algeria Thwarts Arms Smuggling Attempt,” Magharebia, January 16, 2012.

[38] “Des hommes armés connectés à AQMI captures à illizi et à l’Est,” Le Courrier d’Algérie, January 9, 2011.

[39] “La Tunisie s’inquiète d’un traffic d’armes libyennes sur son territoire,” Radio France International, February 5, 2012.

[40] Tarek Amara, “Tunisia Says it Cracks Islamist ‘Terrorist’ Unit,” Reuters, February 13, 2012.

[41] Edith Bouvier, “Des Libyens épaulent les insurgés syriens,” Le Figaro, December 23, 2012.

[42] Adam Entous, Keith Johnson, and Charles Levinson, “Amid Libya Rebels, ‘Flickers’ of al Qaeda,” Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2011.