By Jason Pack – edited by Rhiannon Smith
Six years after protests first erupted in February 2011 against the brutal and repressive rule of Qadhafi, Libya remains a country beset by deepening political fragmentation, bloody internecine conflict and accelerating economic decline.
The Islamic State (ISIS) capitalised on this instability and in late 2014 established a satellite branch in Libya, successfully seizing territory around the central coastal city of Sirte and expanding its influence across the country.
By December 2016, an anti-ISIS military campaign supported by US airstrikes and led by militias aligned with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) – Libya’s internationally recognised government established under the December 2015 Skhirat Libyan Political Agreement – had succeeded in driving ISIS out of Sirte. However, the group is far from defeated and ISIS fighters are regrouping in the vast deserts and remote communities of southern Libya.
Yet, while ISIS undoubtedly continues to pose a threat to security and stability in Libya, the group is neither the strongest nor the most dangerous jihadist group in Libya currently. Since those uprisings that culminated in Qadhafi’s violent death in October 2011, after 42 years in control, jihadist groups have grown in power and influence, often with funding from wealthy international backers.
Although they remain largely on the fringes of Libyan politics and society, jihadists of all colours and stripes can influence developments in Libya due to the transitory and almost fickle nature of the country’s political and military alliances, as well as and the increasing polarisation and instability of institutions at the level of central government.
These jihadist networks also pose a threat to security outside Libya, as demonstrated by the horrifying suicide bombing against a Manchester arena on 22 May that killed 22 people and injured many more.
The attack was claimed by ISIS and conducted by Salman Abedi, a British Libyan whose parents fled to the UK in the 1990s due to their connections to the al-Qaeda linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
Abedi visited Tripoli shortly before he carried out the attack, and although at the time of writing it remains unclear whether Abedi received direct training or support for his attack from ISIS cells in Libya, or from associates closer to home, his familial connections to Libyan jihadist networks are significant.4 It is therefore crucial to understand who these Libyan jihadists are, how they interact with other actors, and what influence they can exert.
The Origins of Jihadism in Libya
Under Qadhafi’s authoritarian rule, political parties were banned, public engagement was severely restricted and any opposition to the ‘brother leader’s’ highly personalised Jamahiriya (state of the masses) system of government was ruthlessly repressed.
In this depoliticised environment, the mosque often provided the only space for alternative political socialisation, and Islamism became the best tool with which to engage in political activism and opposition.
While many of those resisting Qadhafi during the four decades before the 2011 uprisings espoused non-violent political Islamism, there were others who sought to oppose the regime through violent struggle, including using connections to global jihadist networks.
Some Libyans travelled overseas to join jihadist groups, viewing jihad as a tool through which to transform local politics in Libya after their return.
This trend was most pronounced in Benghazi and Derna as a result of Qadhafi’s systematic marginalisation of these eastern cities. The country’s east had been the seat of power of King Idris al-Sanussi, the first ruler of an independent Libya, whom Qadhafi overthrew in a bloodless coup when he seized power in 1969.
Libyans were amongst the so-called Afghan Arabs, volunteer fighters who travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight with the Afghan mujahideen, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban, against the Soviet army.
Upon their return to Libya, these Libyan Afghan Arabs provided important connections to global extremist networks and constituted a driving force behind jihadist attempts to overthrow the Qadhafi regime from the 1990s onward.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was arguably the most influential of these Islamist opposition groups, and its ideological and operational legacy persists through inter-generational connections to jihadist networks within Libya and the Libyan diaspora.
Libyans continued to join the ranks of jihadist groups overseas, as shown in records from 2006 and 2007 of a strong Libyan contingent among fighters who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
AQI was the Iraqi Sunni al-Qaeda affiliate that was founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and later evolved into ISIS under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Because none of the jihadists’ attempts to overthrow Qhadhafi’s regime succeeded, the leaders of Libya’s three key Islamist movements – the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – agreed from 2006 onwards to abandon violent opposition to Qadhafi in return for their survival.
As a result, Islamist political actors and jihadist militias were initially slow to participate in the 2011 uprisings against Qadhafi. However, when they did join in, they drew upon their global networks to acquire the funds, arms, and experience they needed to carve out their own fiefdoms in Libya’s chaos.
Jihadists in Benghazi: BRSC and Ansar al-Sharia
Two of the most well armed and well organised Islamist militias that formed in eastern Libya during the 2011 uprisings were the 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade and the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade.
After the fall of Qadhafi, these militias were integrated into the Ministry of Defence’s Libya Shield Force under the Libya Shield 1 unit led by Wissam Bin Hamid. However, Libya Shield 1 was dissolved in 2013 after it was involved in killing 32 anti-militia protestors in Benghazi; its constituent parts, along with members of Ansar al-Sharia, formed the jihadist Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC).
Ansar al-Sharia is a jihadist group which was formed in Benghazi by former revolutionary fighters in 2012 and now has branches in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. The group has links with al-Qaeda and calls for the establishment of Shari’a (Islamic) law.
Ansar al-Sharia fighters were implicated in the September 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi which killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
Although the group advocated violence to achieve its aims, waging a campaign of assassinations, kidnappings and attacks against members of the former regime and their families in Benghazi, it also sought to increase its popular support through the provision of social services and charity and expanded into towns such as Derna, Ajdabiya and Sirte.
Ansar al-Sharia became the largest jihadist organisation in Libya and strengthened its links to neighbouring Tunisia by running training camps for Tunisian and other foreign fighters and facilitating their transport to active jihad fronts including Syria and Iraq.
The UN put Ansar al-Sharia on its al-Qaeda sanctions list in 2014, highlighting the group’s connections with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Mourabitoun (a splinter group from AQIM led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar), both North African jihadist groups with a presence in southern Libya.7.
Ansar al-Sharia was significantly weakened following the death of the group’s leader, Mohamed al-Zahawi, in January 2015, and the defection to ISIS of many of the group’s members, including notable figures such as Ansar al-Sharia’s spiritual leader Abu Abdullah al-Libi.
Furthermore, as ISIS expanded in Libya, tensions between the two jihadist groups grew as they competed for recruits, funding and territory. However, although Ansar al-Sharia and ISIS affiliates clashed in Derna and elsewhere, they have remained united in their fight against eastern strongman Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar and his anti-Islamist Operation Dignity campaign in Benghazi, which was launched in early 2014.
Nevertheless, in recent months Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces have gained the upper hand in Benghazi, retaking the Ganfuda neighbourhood from the BRSC and bombarding the last remaining jihadist enclaves in the centre of the city.
Ansar al-Sharia’s declaration on 27 May 2017 that it had formally dissolved itself highlights the extent of the setbacks suffered by the group.
Jihadists in Derna: DMSC and ISIS
During the 1980s and 1990s, many of the Libyan jihadists travelling to fight in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas came from the small eastern city of Derna. Later the city renewed its distinction, supplying a new generation of Libyan jihadists to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq in the 2000s and then with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In 2012, fighters from Derna created the al-Battar Brigade, which eventually pledged allegiance to ISIS and fights to this day in both Iraq and Syria.
As a city, Derna was marginalised under Qadhafi and remained politically isolated following the 2011 uprisings. The prominent role of Libyan jihadists in Derna meant that, by 2012, jihadist groups occupied the local governance and mediation roles that elected local councils played elsewhere in Libya.
A lack of security prevented voting from taking place there during the 2012 and 2014 parliamentary elections or duringand the Constitution Drafting elections in 2014, while secular courts were suspended and gender segregation was enforced in schools, universities and offices.
Throughout this period, various Islamist and jihadist groups battled between themselves for control of the city. Key players included al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups such as Abu Saleem Martyr’s Brigade (named after the infamous 1996 Abu Saleem prison massacre in which over one thousand mainly Islamist inmates are believed to have been killed by the Qadhafi regime) as well as an Ansar al-Sharia branch led by former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Sufian bin Qumu and the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC), which in June 2014 formally pledged its allegiance to ISIS.
In November 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader or ‘Emir’ of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, declared the establishment of an official Islamic State ‘province’ or wilaya in eastern Libya, centred on Derna.
The IYSC and its ISIS-aligned allies then succeeded in consolidating control over strategic areas of the city and imposing ISIS’s strict and brutal social codes.
Many of Derna’s al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist groups refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS in part because it was a group imposed from outside Libya and in part because of ideological and strategic differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Libya.
ISIS wanted to focus on top-down state-building and expanding its territory, while al-Qaeda was more concerned with resolving local socio-political grievances churned up by the 2011 uprisings.
Although Derna’s powerful Islamist groups had already enforced strict interpretations of Shari’a law prior to the establishment of ISIS in the city, ISIS’s rule brought a new level of violence, cruelty and intolerance and resulted in practices which were alien to Libyan society such as the marriage of child brides to foreign fighters and the sanctioning of public executions, beheadings and even crucifixions.
In December 2014, jihadist militias opposed to IYSC and ISIS joined together to form the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) coalition and sought to limit the groups’ growing power in the city.
The DMSC also spearheaded efforts against Khalifa Haftar, whose Operation Dignity forces have been leading an offensive against Islamist groups in Benghazi and Derna since May 2014.
Tensions between the DMSC and ISIS boiled over in June 2015 when ISIS killed Salim Derbi and Nasir Attiyah al-Akar, two top DMSC commanders.
After this, the DMSC was able to harness widespread local anger against the group to evict ISIS from the centre of Derna, before completely driving ISIS affiliates from the outskirts of the city in April 2016. Since then, the DMSC was has been engaged in sporadic fighting with Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces as the latter seek to drive all jihadist groups out of eastern Libya.
Following the Manchester attack on 22 May and a subsequent ISIS attack against Coptic Christians in Egypt that killed at least 26 people, the Egyptian air force launched several airstrikes against DMSC positions, in coordination with the LNA.
The DMSC is primarily focused on securing Derna from the LNA, and given ISIS no longer has a presence in Derna, it is likely that the airstrikes are an opportunistic attempt by Egypt to be seen ‘doing something’ while also supporting its ally Haftar.
Jason Pack – Founder, and Libya-Analysis, President
Rhiannon Smith – Libya Analysis, Managing Director