By Frederic Wehrey
Libya’s worsening political conflict has pushed the country to the brink of civil war and could complicate ongoing efforts to combat extremist groups.
Testimony on March 29, 2017
U.S. House Subcommittee on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence
Chairman King, Ranking Member Rice, Committee members, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you today about the extremist threat from North Africa.
At the intersection of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, the countries of North Africa and the Maghreb comprise a vitally important region that casts a long shadow on surrounding areas and, especially, on the security of the Mediterranean basin.
The extremist challenge from this region is especially dire given the numbers of fighters who went to Iraq and Syria to fight with the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda and who are now returning.
But beyond the threat of returning jihadists, it is the weakness of states in the region that presents the most significant and long-term driver of extremism. Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, most states in the region are now significantly weaker, unable to meet the basic demands of their citizens, and facing mounting economic pressures in an era of sustained low oil prices.
Beset by fraying social contracts, the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring, and diminished opportunities for employment, some youth of the region have fallen prey to the appeal of jihad peddled by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
The jihadists’ critiques of state-led corruption and the abuses of the judiciary and police have also resonated strongly; heavy-handed government policies have often fueled the very radicalism they purport to quash. Added to this are broad swathes of ungoverned land and porous borders, where extremists have established logistical hubs and training camps, often negotiating access with marginalized tribal communities or co-opting existing smuggling networks.
Finally, a key enabler of jihadism is state collapse and the outbreak of open armed conflict. Anywhere there is an established insurgency or civil war, we can expect the emergence of transnational jihadists who insert themselves among and within the warring parties and often recruit combatants to their ranks through superior funding, ideological motivation, and firepower.
I will focus my remarks on Libya, a failed state that embodies a witches’ brew of these afflictions and that poses the most immediate extremist challenge. Despite the successful Libyan-led campaign against the ISIS stronghold in Sirte, along with other successes by different Libyan armed groups against ISIS pockets in the west and east, the country remains at risk.
Scattered ISIS members are regrouping and al-Qaeda affiliated fighters who defected to ISIS are now returning back to al-Qaeda-linked groups, more experienced and battle-hardened. Vast portions of its southern deserts remain a thoroughfare for the movement of fighters and arms to the Sahel and beyond.
But more importantly, Libya’s worsening political conflict, fueled in part by regional meddling and a contest for oil resources, has pushed it to the brink of civil war. This disastrous outcome would provide yet another opening for ISIS, al-Qaeda, or some new permutation to arise.
To prevent such a scenario, Mr. Chairman, it is important the United States, working in tandem with the Europeans and regional states, redouble its diplomatic efforts to find a durable and inclusive political solution to Libya’s conflict. At the same time, it should be ready to assist on a broad array of functions, to include the rebuilding the security sector, diversifying Libya’s economy, advancing the rule of law, and supporting civil society.
Any near term counterterrorism (CT) actions inside Libya should reinforce the longer-term goals of political unity and inclusive governance, and great care should be taken to ensure that CT engagement does not inadvertently worsen factional conflict by privileging one group over another.
My remarks draw from visits to Libya over last two years to areas of conflict marked by a jihadist presence: Sirte, Benghazi, Sabratha, Tripoli, and southern Libya.
HOW JIHADISM GREW IN LIBYA
Libya has a longstanding tradition of jihadism stretching back to the Qadhafi era that saw waves of volunteers going to Afghanistan and then Iraq, where some developed ties to al-Qaeda and what would later become al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and ISIS.
These migrations belie the popular notion that Qadhafi kept a lid on extremism: to the contrary, economic neglect and repression at home helped fuel radicalization among certain neighborhoods and communities, whose participation in jihad on foreign battlefields was in some sense a transference of their frustrations against the regime.
In 2011 and 2012, scores of Libyan youths went to Syria and Iraq, some of whom returned to establish the nucleus of the Islamic State in the eastern city of Derna, displacing existing Islamist armed groups. From there, the group spread to the city of Sirte, in the oil-rich center of Libya and established cells in Sabratha to the west, Tripoli, as well as attaching itself to existing Islamist and jihadist combatants in Benghazi. It then set about implementing the draconian style of governance it had practiced in Raqqa and Mosul, assaulting oil facilities to hasten the demise of the state, and attacking the facilities of police and militias who posed a threat.
The Islamic State’s leadership soon directed foreign aspirates to proceed directly to its North African outpost rather than Syria and Iraq. Foreigners played a crucial role in its expansion in Libya, especially jihadists from Tunisia (some of whom arrived to train for subsequent attacks against their homeland), the Mahreb and the Sahel, and military and governance advisors from Iraq and the Gulf.
It is important to note two dynamics about the rise of ISIS in Libya that have strong implications for the future of jihadism in Libya.
First, Islamist and jihadist communities after the 2011 revolution engaged in a series of fierce debates about strategies and priorities, to include whether to affiliate themselves with the post-Qadhafi state and to participate in elections, and whether and when to use violence.
Developments in neighboring states, namely the closing of political space and military-led crackdown on political Islamists in Egypt, strongly influenced the outcomes of those debates in favor of more anti-state and radical actors. At home, a number of developments swayed the debate as well. The most important of these was the outbreak of open armed conflict in Libya in 2014 between the so-called Dawn and Dignity camp, abetted by opposing blocs of regional states (Turkey and Qatar for the former; Egypt, the UAE, and Jordan for the latter) provided further space for the rise of radical jihadists, especially the Islamic State, to expand. For nearly two years, the two opposing Dawn and Dignity factions were more focused on fighting each other than on dealing with the extremist menace that gathered in their midst.
Second, the Islamic State in Libya won support among communities and tribes that had been politically marginalized in the post-Qadhafi political order or threatened by local rivals. This was especially apparent in Sirte, a city that had suffered after the revolution because of its affiliation with the Qadhafi regime. Here, members of historically loyalist tribes, the Warfalla and Qadhadhafa, welcomed the Islamic State as a form of self-protection against abuses from the neighboring city of Misrata, which had assaulted Sirte at the end of the revolution and exacted revenge against it inhabitants. Similarly, some local Islamist militias in Benghazi cooperated with the Islamic State on the battlefield because they faced a shared enemy, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of General Khalifa Hifter.
Finally, jihadists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups based in the Sahel have exploited weak governance and dire economic conditions in Tuerag tribal areas of southern Libya for logistics and training.
Their fighters draw upon a long history of local knowledge stretching back to Sahelian insurgencies of the 1990s and Algeria’s civil war. After the revolution, these groups established links with local armed groups and jihadists in the north, particularly the northeast in Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabiya. Ansar al-Sharia trained fighters loyal to the seasoned Algerian jihadist Mukhtar Belmokhtar, prior to their January 2013 attack on the Tiguentourine gas facility in Amenas, Algeria.
Local sympathizers and collaborators in southwestern Libya have facilitated some of this transnational presence and movement. That said, the Tuaregs’ political and communal opponents in Libya have often exaggerated the depth and scope of extremist penetration, particularly in town of Ubari and farther west.
The jihadist presence is mostly logistical and the result of weak administrative and police control in the south, rather than widespread support. Where jihadi relationships exist with local armed groups and smugglers, it is often transactional, resulting from a shared interest in keeping borders uncontrolled. Aside from this presence, the penetration of radical ideology into Libyan Tuareg communities or into the south’s social fabric more broadly is minimal.
Taken in sum, these three dynamics underscore the fact that the radical jihadist current in Libya is neither constant nor immutable. It ebbs or expands according to the local economic and political conditions, government capacity, and conflict in the country. This is why American engagement with a broad range of tools is so important in denying jihadists the chance to remerge.
To be continued in PART TWO
Frederic Wehrey – Senior Fellow – Middle East Program. Wehrey specializes in post-conflict transitions, armed groups, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.