By Aaron Y. Zelin
This new study offers a deeper understanding of the foreign-fighter phenomenon, its evolution, and its potential trajectories.
Over the past seven years of revolution and civil war, Libya has experienced a massive influx of foreign fighters.
The History of Foreign Fighters in Libya
In the early stages of the Libyan revolution, certain individuals and dual nationals who had grown up in countries such as Britain, Ireland, Canada, and the United States joined the fight against the regime of Qadhafi for either nationalist or other reasons.
Yet, as the fight continued and especially following Qadhafi’s death, the vast majority of foreign fighters could be identified with jihadist ideology.
THE LIBYAN REVOLUTION
Before a base can be established for foreign fighters, local jihadist networks must create a space that allows such fighters to prosper. Therefore, while the first U.S. reports of foreign fighters trickling into Libya occurred in September 2011, 10 jihadist sources had revealed the arrival of so-called Libyan mujahedin a full six months earlier, in March 2011, to fight the Qadhafi regime.
Additionally, early on within nearby countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, and Tunisia, individuals began joining groups to train and eventually fight in Libya, illustrating the comparatively regional composition of the first foreign fighters.
Wolfram Lacher suggests that while the revolutionary brigades that overthrew Qadhafi were mainly nationalist in character, a number of jihadists fought alongside them. These individuals fell within three generations:
(1) former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who had rejected the ideological revisions established by the group in 2009;
(2) Libyans who served as foreign fighters at the height of the Iraq war; and
(3) newcomers to jihadism who had gained exposure to the ideology online and through the prior two jihadist generations, following the start of the Libyan revolution.
Indeed, the ecumenical nature of the revolutionary fighting forces provided space for the jihadists, who were highly motivated, to establish themselves.
Moreover, the shared exuberance of overthrowing the regime resulted in shortsightedness among more nationalist forces, which failed to marginalize the jihadists. This, in turn, provided the space for these jihadist actors to recruit foreign fighters and eventually form their own organizations following Qadhafi’s death.
For example, former LIFG members helped found or became key figures in a number of insurgent forces – including Katibat Shuhada Abu Salim, Katibat Umar al-Mukhtar, Haras al-Watani, Katibat Rafallah al-Sahati, and Katibat al-Nur- that would eventually develop ties with ASL, the dominant jihadist group in Libya prior to the Islamic State’s rise in spring 2014.
Here, al-Qaeda saw an opportunity, as mentioned by senior leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman al-Libi in a letter addressed to Osama bin Laden on May 5, 2011: “Brothers from the Libyan [Islamic] Fighting Group and others are out of jail. There has been an active jihadist Islamic renaissance under way in Eastern Libya (Benghazi, Darnah, Bayda, and that area) for some time, just waiting for this kind of opportunity.
We think that the brothers’ activities, their names, and their ‘recordings’ will start to show up soon.” Moreover, many within the exiled LIFG families who had relocated to Manchester, England, returned to Libya to serve in these groups.
Among the younger generation, most had never even visited Libya, imbuing their “return” with a sense of foreignness. 18 Bilal Bettamer, a young Libyan activist now working to promote national reconciliation, believes 60–70 percent of these more hard-line groups were largely fortified by Libyan expatriates, especially those based in the northeastern coastal city of Darnah.
Furthermore, comparatively mainstream factions such as the February 17 Brigade looked the other way as ASL grew in late 2011 and early 2012. Indeed, in June 2014, this brigade eventually joined the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, an ASL umbrella, as part of a push to rebrand and protect itself against the offensive, known as Operation Karama, pursued by the anti-Islamist Gen. Khalifa Haftar against militants in Benghazi.
This case illustrates how, over time, a jihadist group like ASL could gain leverage over other factions when given the chance to prosper.
ASL, which formally announced its creation in December 2011 in Darnah and February 2012 in Benghazi, would serve as the infrastructure that enabled foreign fighting to flourish within Libya. ASL thus became a conduit for foreign fighter training, external operations training, logistics, and facilitation, eventually developing ties with Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Syrian jihad.
THE AST/ASL NEXUS
Among the immediate consequences of civil war in Libya was the safe haven the country implicitly offered for various Tunisian jihadist activities. Once in Libya, Tunisians would either fight there, smuggle weapons back to Tunisia, or undergo training before attempting an attack in Tunisia or joining the fight in Syria.
In establishing their relationship, AST and ASL used both overt and covert methods, the former in relation to dawa and social service programs and the latter for insurgent activities.
AST, in particular, would also use its overt dawa activities for cover. For example, the first dawa-type activity organized by AST was its assistance to refugees on the Tunisia-Libya border in March 2011.
When posting about these activities on its official Facebook page, AST included photographs of its members erecting temporary housing, supplying tents, and providing food and medical care to refugees once they crossed the border. Unbeknownst to the refugees, according to the International Crisis Group, AST used this opportunity to buy and sell military equipment in their preaching tents at the refugee camp.
These weapons were mainly sold by former Qadhafi-regime loyalists. A so-called democratization process exacerbated the growth in weapons smuggling. After the fall of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, jihadists were especially keen to exploit such opportunities.
Abu Bakr al-Hakim, an AST and later IS leader who was eventually killed in November 2016, explained the situation: “Libya was next to us and weapons were widespread there. So we went to Libya and established a training camp.
We would train brothers there and at the same time we would work to smuggle weapons into Tunisia.” These smuggling activities helped facilitate the relationship among AST members, Tunisian foreign fighters in Libya, and ASL. And AST-ASL ties would only deepen.
The Tunisian Ali bin al-Tahar bin al-Falih al-Awni al-Harzi, one of the key players in the ASL attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, belonged to AST.
Following his interrogation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in Tunis and subsequent release by Tunisian authorities, owing to alleged lack of evidence, AST published a video lauding Harzi’s freedom. (He would later become a leader with IS in Syria.)
The Egyptians also involved in this attack eventually retreated to their cell in Nasr City, Cairo, where they were either arrested or killed.
In June 2012, three months before the U.S. consulate strike, ASL attacks against Tunisian diplomatic facilities—one in Tripoli, two in Benghazi—were believed to have been responses to an art exhibition in La Marsa, a Tunis suburb, where Salafi-jihadists rioted to protest what they deemed un-Islamic art.
Further evidence of the close ASL-AST relationship emerged in a video leaked online in December 2016, showing AST leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (formal name: Saif Allah bin Hussein) in late 2014 praying over the dead body of ASL founder Muhammad al-Zahawi, in Benghazi.
Signs of Tunisians training in Libya emerged as early as spring 2012, when two Tunisians were detained in the Darnah region after completing military exercises with ASL in Benghazi.
Moreover, a number of Tunisian passports were seized in November 2013 from an ASL base in Benghazi. 32 Beyond Benghazi, ASL provided training in Darnah, Misratah, Hun, and Jabal al-Akhdar.
These same camps had hosted two Tunisian suicide bombers before their failed October 2013 attacks on the beach in Sousse (not to be confused with the successful mass shooting in June 2015) and at the Bourguiba mausoleum in Monastir.
A case study in a HuffPost article aptly illustrates the symbiosis between AST and ASL. The subject, “Mehdi,” comes from the poor Tunis neighborhood of Douar Hicher, a known hot spot for jihadist activism.
As a consequence of disappointed expectations following the Tunisian revolution—one of the leading reasons Tunisians have enlisted with jihadist groups either locally or abroad—Mehdi found purpose in joining AST and later ASL.
He noted: “I swear to God, percent of the people who join [jihadi groups], Tunisians, especially from my neighborhood, have nothing to do―and that is the worst.” In April 2012, after being recruited in his neighborhood by AST, he joined ASL and trained in Sirte, Libya, where he learned to shoot and practiced dismantling and assembling Kalashnikovs, among other tasks.
Although he earned $3,000 per month, far more than any job would pay him in Tunisia, he eventually returned home at his mother’s request. Mehdi’s experience and trajectory are not uncommon for the many Tunisians who have become foreign fighters in Libya.
AQIM IN LIBYA
Besides AST, another group to use Libya for training, fighting, and planning attacks is AQIM. In August 2012, a Library of Congress report argued that ASL was a front for AQIM within Libya; in retrospect, ASL and AST appear to have both been fronts for al-Qaeda activity following the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya.
The report identified Abu Anas al-Libi as the “builder of al Qaeda’s network in Libya” and referred to him as an intermediary between al-Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan and the group’s leaders on the ground in Libya.
This was further confirmed in the aforementioned letter written by Atiyah Abd al-Rahman al-Libi to Osama bin Laden, wherein Libi explains that “brother Anas al-Subi’i al-Libi [Abu Anas al-Libi] and others have sought permission to go to Libya … In short, I gave him permission to go to Libya.”
AQIM’s presence also provided connective tissue for its operations in Mali, whether through weapons smuggling, recruitment of foreign fighters, service as a safe base for fighters following France’s January 2013 Operation Serval intervention in northern Mali, or training and planning for terrorist attacks abroad.
The connection between ASL’s network in Benghazi and Darnah and AQIM’s in Mali was cemented no later than early 2012. In the run-up to Operation Serval, ASL sent a number of its members to assist AQIM and its auxiliary groups Jamaat at-Tawhid wal-Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Din. The roughly contemporaneous founding of Ansar al-Sharia in Mali could indicate another link.
Such a north-south mapping helps establish how AQIM and ASL, along with their foreign fighter contingents and other affiliates, could exploit parts of southern Libya for their benefit.
Still, the presence of jihadist groups is “a challenge in the south, but should not be overblown,” as Lacher notes. These groups, he continues, “have exploited the lack of southern governance for logistics and training.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr comment that “jihadist groups in southern Libya have focused on establishing training camps and supply lines rather than seizing and holding territory.”
This explains how AQIM and later IS could exploit the porous, vast desert territory without necessarily having large-scale local support, instead relying on strong organizational backing from foreigners or Libyans from the north.
Some local support did exist, though, such as through Tuareg whose territory overlaps southern Libya and northern Mali. These figures helped facilitate the movement of individuals across borders, especially following the French intervention.
For example, Brigade 315, which is based in the southern town of Awbari and protects part of the Libyan border, is led by Ahmad Omar al-Ansari, a former deputy commander of Ansar al-Din, AQIM’s ethnic Tuareg front group in Mali.
Western intelligence officials believe individuals such as the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar used this course to retreat northward in late 2012 to plan the attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas facility, launched five days after the start of Operation Serval.
Among Belmokhtar’s cadre to train in the Awbari region for the In Amenas attack, which killed thirty-seven hostages, were other Algerians, as well as Libyans and nationals of Mali, Tunisia, Egypt, France, Mauritania, and Morocco.
Moreover, Belmokhtar used southern Libya to plan simultaneous suicide truck bomb attacks for May 23, 2013, in Niger, which hit a French-owned uranium mine in Arlit and a military base 150 miles away in Agadez.
According to the UN Security Council, much of the training for those involved was facilitated by ASL. The earlier visit by a delegation of unidentified tribesman from Awbari, on March 19, 2013, to Benghazi is therefore not especially surprising. The purpose of this trip, according to ASL, was for the tribesman to acquaint themselves with the organization.
Another filament in the web of jihadist ties in North Africa and the Sahel thus becomes visible.
In addition to these networks, in late 2014, an Egyptian jihadist network supportive of al-Qaeda formed in Libya. Following the announcement that November of the Islamic State’s so-called Sinai Province, which was created from the group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a former ABM military commander, Hisham Ali Ashmawi (aka Abu Omar al-Muhajir al-Masri), left the group over his objections to aligning with IS.
In the aftermath of the province’s creation, Ashmawi fled to Darnah, where he established the al-Murabitun Brigade, which has since focused its attacks on the Nile Valley and Western Desert regions of Egypt.
Furthermore, according to IS sources, Ashmawi is linked to the Mujahedin Shura Council of Darnah and Its Suburbs, a pro-al-Qaeda group that the city’s ASL members joined after its formation in December 2014.
Despite the limited name recognition of Ashmawi and his group, al-Murabitun has conducted a number of high-profile attacks. Most notable was the June 2015 assassination of Egyptian public prosecutor Hisham Barakat via a car bomb.
More recently, in late October 2017, Ashmawi dispatched his deputy, Abu Hatim Imad al-Din Abd al-Hamid, to conduct an attack against Egyptian police in the Bahariya oasis in the Western Desert, killing at least sixteen. Interestingly the attack was claimed under the name Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI), instead of al-Murabitun, possibly indicating that al-Murabitun has progressed to a point where it can conduct more frequent attacks.
Egyptian officials believe that although JAI continues to get directives from Ashmawi and much of the logistics and facilitation occur in Libya, the group now has training camps in Egypt. Time will tell if this development represents a fresh threat to Egypt or something impermanent. Either way, the network led by Ashmawi represents an active Libya-based foreign player.
To be continued
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at The Washington Institute, where his research focuses on Sunni Arab jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria as well as trends in foreign fighting and online jihadism.