Islamist Militant Groups in Post-Qadhafi Libya

Feb 20, 2013

In July 2012, Libya held its first national elections since the fall of Mu`ammar Qadhafi. The Libyan people, however, appeared to buck the trend of the Arab Spring by not electing an Islamist[1] parliament. Although Islamists are present in the newly-elected General National Congress, they are just one force among many competing in the political arena.[2] While Islamists have not succeeded in dominating Libya’s nascent political scene, they have come to represent an ever growing and influential force on the ground. A number of Islamist groups and currents have emerged in the post-Qadhafi era, including those at the extreme end of the spectrum that have taken advantage of central authority weakness by asserting power in their own local areas. This is particularly the case in the east of the country, which has traditionally been associated with Islamist activism.

Given the murky and chaotic nature of Libya’s transition, which has prompted the mushrooming of local power brokers, it is difficult to distinguish between many of the Islamist militant groups and brigades. While some groups, such as the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade or the February 17 Brigade, are operating, nominally at least, within the official structures of the state, others, such as Ansar al-Shari`a,[3] are functioning independently. Despite the fact that the state attempted to dissolve these independent militant brigades following the public protests that erupted in response to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, these groups continue to operate and impose their authority in their communities. This poses particular challenges for Libya as it moves through the transition process.

This article examines the nature of some of the Islamist militant groups active in the east of Libya, including Ansar al-Shari`a, as well as their relationship with the state. It argues that while these militant groups are largely working within the confines of the state, this cooperation could quickly turn to confrontation if the formation of the constitution does not develop the way that they expect.

“By Night We Are Benghazistan”
The growing influence of Islamist militant elements has prompted particular concern among local residents in the east. On December 28, 2012, Benghazi residents staged another demonstration calling for the dissolution of the Islamist militias in the city, holding banners that declared, “By day we are Benghazi, by night we are Benghazistan.”[4]

Authorities suspect that Islamist militant groups are behind the deadly string of night attacks and assassinations that have rocked the east in recent months. The near weekly bombings and assassinations have been aimed almost exclusively at members of the security forces, many of whom defected from Qadhafi’s regime at the time of the revolution.[5] This includes figures such as the former director of Benghazi security, Colonel Faraj Mohammed al-Drissi, who was killed on November 21, 2012.[6] Given the nature of the targets, it is widely assumed that the attacks are the work of Islamist militant forces seeking revenge for the suppression they experienced at the hands of the former regime.

Despite the ongoing violence, the official bodies of the state have been slow to react or to bring the guilty parties to justice. They did, however, arrest Majdi Zwai (also known as Majdi Dhub), a member of the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, on charges of having assassinated al-Drissi.[7] In December 2012, the Shabab Libya channel reported that Zwai had confessed not only to al-Drissi’s killing, but to the killings of other officials.[8] He also reportedly implicated a number of key Islamist militants operating in the region in the assassinations.[9] On December 16, 2012, however, a group of armed gunmen, believed to be from the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, attacked the police station that held Majdi Zwai.[10] Zwai was freed after a three hour gun battle that left four policemen dead.[11]

There is a strong feeling in the east that the central authorities, as well as the Islamist-dominated local authorities, are engaged in a cover-up and are pandering to militant elements.[12] Such suggestions may be exaggerated. The central authorities remain weak and unable to properly project authority. Despite the repeated efforts to bolster the national army, the government and the General National Congress remain largely at the mercy of the militias. This fact was highlighted following the attack on the Ain Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January 2013, when in its rush to secure its borders and energy facilities, the government had to enlist the help of the secular-oriented Zintan militia in the west of the country.[13]

Yet although the ruling authorities may be unable to stem the violence in the east, there is also a reticence on their part to challenge Islamist elements in any substantive or sustained way. Unlike in neighboring countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, where the Arab Spring revolutions were largely peaceful, Islamist militant elements in Libya have a legitimacy born out of the position that they played in the struggle. Islamist militants comprising former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and other radical movements, as well as jihadists who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, played key roles in the effort to bring down the Qadhafi regime. It was these elements, rather than the country’s new political elite, who made sacrifices to effect change. As a result, these militant elements (like all Libya’s revolutionaries) are imbued with an aura that gives them a special status and autonomy.

Moreover, these militant elements have proved crucial in providing security in the post-Qadhafi era. Given the power vacuum that accompanied the fall of the former regime, the central authorities have had little choice but to rely on Islamist brigades and units to help keep the peace in certain regions, particularly in the east where the national army has a limited presence. This includes not only those brigades that come under the rubric of the official security structure, but also those that are operating independently. It was notable, for example, that following the attempted dissolution of all Islamist militant brigades in September 2012, staff at the Jala’a Hospital in Benghazi demanded that Ansar al-Shari`a be permitted to continue operating as their security force.[14] One doctor at the hospital told journalists that security provided by Ansar al-Shari`a was better than what was currently available.[15]

Charitable Works
In addition to the role they played in the revolution, Islamist militant groups have become part of the fabric of Libyan society in other ways as well.

Unlike groups such as al-Qa`ida, many of these radicals are not necessarily regarded as completely alien or antithetical to the local culture. As the Washington Post recently observed, “Ansar al-Shari`a is edging back into society, and many of Benghazi’s residents now say they want it here.”[16] Indeed, Libyan government spokesman Essam al-Zubeir explained, “The people attacked Ansar al-Sharia a few months ago because they were angry. But now they’re asking them to come back because there is no police and no real military…Until the country is able to rebuild the police and military, the people prefer to be protected by their own people.”[17]

Furthermore, while some of these groups have indulged in the destruction of a number of Sufi shrines as well as cemeteries in the name of eliminating any sign of polytheism, they have so far largely refrained from takfir, the practice of excommunicating fellow Muslims. Rather, these groups have responded to the changing political environment by trying to demonstrate their usefulness to society and to spread their rigid ideas through charitable works.[18] There are elements still engaged in jihad, and these groups clearly reject democracy as an ungodly and Western concept, yet for the most part they are demonstrating a willingness to work with the state rather than against it, at least at this time.

This is particularly the case with Ansar al-Shari`a,[19] which in line with the recent teachings of Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti, the Mauritanian preacher who serves as a spiritual reference for many extremists, has been focusing its efforts on charitable works. Much in the style of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar al-Shari`a members now provide social services such as welfare support, cleaning and repairing roads, and handing out alms during Ramadan.[20] Ansar al-Shari`a has come out into the open and is taking advantage of the lack of security to assert its authority in the Hay Shabia (popular neighborhoods) in the country’s eastern cities. It was even reported in January 2013 that Ansar al-Shari`a had established its own “security gate” at Quwarsha at the western entrance to Benghazi, which, according to the group’s leader, Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, was erected not only to assist with security, but also to carry out health checks on citizens to ensure that disease was not being brought into the city.[21]

Part of the reason for this shift away from jihad and toward public works is related to the upcoming battle for the constitution. While there is a broad consensus in Libya that Shari`a will be the primary source of legislation, there are strong differences of opinion over the extent to which Islamic law should be implemented. There are some Libyans, including supporters of the country’s more liberal political currents, who want Shari`a to be one source of legislation, but who are against it being implemented in its fullest sense.[22] The Islamist militant groups, on the other hand, are pushing for Shari`a to be instituted in the constitution in its entirety. At a meeting in October 2012, for example, hundreds of supporters of Ansar al-Shari`a and other radical currents came together at the Ansar Mosque in Benghazi to establish the Islamic Assembly for Shari`a, an organization aimed at “activating the rule of Allah so it becomes a visible presence in the country.”[23]

As Libyan Islamist scholar Salim al-Sheikhi described, the Islamist militant groups are not waging war against the state but instead are waiting to see how the constitution develops.[24] For al-Sheikhi, the call by these militants for the full implementation of Shari`a is “a just demand because they are the ones who led a large part of the fighting. We don’t need to treat them with less loyalty.”[25]

Yet if developments do not proceed the way that the Islamist militant groups expect, and if Shari`a is not implemented in full, then these elements may take violent action to alter the course of events. They may decide to declare jihad against the state to replace what they deem to be a Westernized political system with an Islamic one. Given the power that these groups have been able to amass since the toppling of the former regime, such an outcome could prove disastrous for the new Libya and its transition to a functioning democratic state.

Sympathy Within the State
The development of Libya’s legal framework could become even more complicated given that the official religious establishment, as well as certain elements within the state, shares with the militants the same uncompromising view of the constitution. The influential Dar al-Ifta (Fatwa House), the highest religious authority in Libya, issued a statement at the end of November 2012 stipulating that not only should Shari`a be the source of legislation, but that any ruling that goes against Shari`a should be considered “null and void.”[26] The statement also declared that the article in the constitution dealing with Shari`a is not something that can be put to the people in a referendum because the ruling of Allah stands above that of the people.[27] Likewise, in December, Ghaith al-Fakhry, the deputy to Libya’s grand mufti, Shaykh Sadeq al-Ghariani, declared, “The Libyan state should stand on two pillars: the constitution that establishes Allah’s rule and the just ruler who will apply the constitution.”[28]

Therefore, the views of the official religious establishment on the constitution are close to those of the Islamist militant groups. The religious establishment has displayed a strong degree of sympathy for these militant elements, even lobbying the government on their behalf. At the government’s first formal cabinet meeting held in November 2012, al-Ghariani urged Libya’s new rulers to bring Islamist militants into the fold by acceding to their demands. The mufti declared that Libya did not possess “any groups that we should be scared of,” adding that “if we can give them what they want, such as the application of Shari`a law, but if we can do it by degrees, [then] we can bring them to our side…We should bring them to our side with good words and promises that we will do what they want, but in stages.”[29] Similarly, al-Ghariani issued a fatwa against participating in the Benghazi protests in December 2012 that called for the dissolution of the country’s Islamist militant groups.[30]

In fact, January 2013 saw a major union of parts of the establishment and militant groups in the east. On January 4-5, the local Benghazi council, the Libyan Association for Mosque Speakers and Preachers, and the Warriors’ Affairs Committee organized a special security conference for the east.[31] Local security bodies such as the Benghazi Security Directorate and the Benghazi intelligence services attended the meeting, as well as the various brigades that come under the interior and defense ministries, including those with an Islamist orientation. A number of militant brigades also attended, including Ansar al-Shari`a and the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade. The participants issued a statement at the end of the conference, which declared that the implementation of Shari`a was not up for debate and that the grand mufti was above criticism.[32] Even more controversially and in an indication of the extent to which the establishment in the east is sympathetic to the militant brigades, the statement also called for an official investigation into those who had organized the “Save Benghazi Friday” protests against the Islamist militant brigades.[33]

Conclusion
Libya’s Islamist militant groups are not operating in a vacuum. They have become an integral part of the new Libya and have a key stake in the country’s future. Although Libya did not elect an Islamist-dominated government, these militant forces comprise a crucial component of the complex array of forces and powerbrokers that are dominating on the ground in post-Qadhafi Libya. Such elements have always been part and parcel of Libya, however repressed they may have been, and it is little surprise that they are exercising their strength now that the Qadhafi regime is gone.

While these elements appear to be largely working with rather than against the state, their power and legitimacy is such that if they feel their demands are not being met—especially in regard to the formation of the new constitution—they will become a serious force for instability in the longer term.

Alison Pargeter is a Middle East and North Africa analyst who specializes in political Islamist movements. Her books include: Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qadhafi (2012), The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (2010), and The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (2008). She is also a Senior Research Associate at Menas Associates, a global consultancy firm.

[1] The term “Islamist” refers to those who engage in political activism articulated through an Islamic discourse. This does not necessarily mean those who espouse violence.

[2] The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, for example, secured a significant presence in the congress and is now part of the recently appointed government.

[3] Ansar al-Shari`a (Partisans of Shari`a) has emerged as a significant force in eastern Libya since the toppling of the former regime. It is more of a group or current than a specific militia or brigade, and it has “branches” in both Benghazi and Derna. Like its counterparts in Tunisia and Yemen, its adherents follow an extremist ideology. Although the Libyan group insists it is not linked to al-Qa`ida, its leader in Benghazi, Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, has expressed his approval of al-Qa`ida’s strategy as well as statements issued by Ayman al-Zawahiri. See “Meeting Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi of Libyan Ansar al-Sharia,” BBC, September 18, 2012.

[4] Libya Focus, January 2013. This demonstration was a follow-up to the “Save Benghazi Friday” protests held after the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in September 2012.

[5] In the week of January 10-17, 2013, for example, two policemen were killed in two separate bomb attacks in Benghazi and there was also an attempted assassination against the Italian consul-general in the city, Guido de Sanctis. See “Curfew Mulled for Benghazi,” Libya Herald, January 17, 2013.

[6] Kareem Fahim, “Security Chief in Benghazi Assassinated, Libyan Says,” New York Times, November 21, 2012.

[7] The Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade is one of the largest Islamist brigades in the east and is believed to number around 1,000 members. It is named after a young engineer, Rafallah al-Sahati, who was killed by the regime on March 19, 2011, during what is known as the battle of Quwarsha in the west of Benghazi. The brigade is based in the Hawari neighborhood of Benghazi and is led by prominent Islamist Ismail al-Salabi. The brigade comes under the authority of the Libyan Defense Ministry. Its headquarters was stormed by protestors after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in September 2012. See Ibrahim Majbari and Dominique Soguel, “Islamists Flee as Angry Libyans Storm Benghazi Compound,” Agence France-Presse, September 22, 2012; “Rafallah Sahati, the Martyr Swore that Qadhafi’s Army Would Never Enter Benghazi,” New Quryna, March 19, 2012.

[8] “An Armed Attack on a Police Station to Free ‘Al-Dhub,’” Libya al-Jadidah, December 17, 2012.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] On December 28, 2012, for example, protesters accused the authorities and the local council of being engaged in a cover-up. See Libya Focus, January 2013.

[13] “Libya Reinforces Border, Oilfields After Algeria Attack,” Reuters, January 23, 2013.

[14] “Benghazi Hospital Staff Want Ansar al-Sharia Back,” Libya Herald, October 4, 2012.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Islamist Militia Edging Back into Benghazi,” Washington Post, February 17, 2013.

[17] Ibid.

[18] For example, providing welfare support and maintaining public infrastructure.

[19] For a profile of Ansar al-Shari`a, see footnote 3.

[20] “Ansar Shari`a: The Forms of al-Qa`ida’s Response to Democratic Transformation in the Arab World,” al-Hayat, January 3, 2013.

[21] “Ansar al-Shari`a is Setting Up a Laboratory at the Quwarsha Gate,” Press Solidarity, January 20, 2013.

[22] This assessment is based on the author’s personal observations.

[23] “Ansar al-Shari`a in Libya: Putting Weapons Aside in Favor of Political Involvement,” Libya al-Mostakbal, October 14, 2012.

[24] “Religious Affairs in Libya,” al-Jazira, December 18, 2012.

[25]  Ibid.

[26] “Libya Dar al-Ifta Council Issues Statement at the End of its Second Meeting,” Libya al-Mostakbal, November 25, 2012.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Libya’s Mufti: The New Libyan Constitution Must Apply Shari`a Rulings,” al-Watan al-Libyeea, December 22, 2012.

[29] “Government Signals New Era of Transparency as First Formal Cabinet Meeting Opened to the Press,” Libya Herald, November 21, 2012.

[30] “Ghariani Says Libya Faces ‘Many Challenges,’” Libya Herald, December 30, 2012.

[31] “The Final Statement of the Revolutionary Brigades and Security Bodies Conference in Benghazi,” al-Manara, January 6, 2013.

[32]  Ibid.

[33]  Ibid.