Libya Tribune

By Lisa Watanabe

This study looks at several types of key Islamist actors. Among the political Islamists, it examines mainstream Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, who have gone the furthest in terms of accepting democratic norms and principles, and are the most pragmatic with regards to the application of sharia law.

PART FOUR

Post-jihadis (LIFG/LIMC Veterans)

Background and Objectives

The LIFG has its roots in a clandestine jihadist movement led by Emir Awatha Al-Zuwawi that was formed in the 1980s. After it was discovered by the Qaddafi regime in 1989, many of its members fled the country to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, including key leaders, such as Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the overall leader of the group, and his deputy, Saami Al-Saadi.

There, its militants, including Belhadj, developed relations with their Al-Qaeda counterparts, though the movement itself is not thought to have been officially allied with Al-Qaeda. Indeed, its objectives were primarily national, rather than transnational. Some of the Libyan “Afghans”, as they became known, returned to Libya and officially establishing the LIFG in 1990. Its aim was the removal of Qaddafi through violent means and the establishment of sharia law in Libya.

The LIFG initially operated clandestinely. However, it was discovered by the authorities in 1995, which forced it to publically declare its existence. This had disastrous consequences for the group. A brutal crackdown by the regime followed, which resulted in the LIFG waging a three-year insurgency in eastern Libya, where the group’s support base was strongest. 38 Open conflict with the regime reduced the group’s domestic capacity considerably.

A number of the group’s leaders including Al-Saadi and Belhadj fled abroad, though they were eventually extradited to Libya, with the help of US and the UK. Those leaders who remained in the country, were imprisoned.

In prison, LIFG leaders formed a tight-knit group. They gradually began to rethink the group’s strategy. This process of reflection coincided with an amnesty initiative launched by Qaddafi’s reformist son, Saif Qaddafi, facilitated by the former Brotherhood member and Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Ali Al-Sallabi, who acted as intermediary between imprisoned LIFG leaders and the regime.

This dialogue process led members of the group’s shura council to issue a document in 2009 in which the group publicly renounced armed jihad against the regime. As a result, a number of LIFG members, including Belhadj, Al-Saadi and another of Belhadj’s deputies, Khalid Al-Sharif, were released from prison.

The reconciliation process helped the group to present itself as a credible opposition force at a time when political reform seemed possible in Libya, due to Saif Al-Qaddafi’s reformist agenda. Abroad, it gave exiled LIFG members greater room to organize. However, not all LIFG members embraced reconciliation with the regime.

LIFG militants in the UK and Switzerland, who had by the mid-2000s become fairly independent from the LIFG leadership in Libya, continued to oppose the Qaddafi regime.

In 2009, they formed the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC), which rejected reconciliation with the regime. Although LIFG leaders in Libya distanced themselves from the LIMC during the reconciliation process, this would change once the uprising began in 2011. LIFG members based in Libya and associated with Belhadj, decided to accept the non-reconciliatory stance of the LIMC and to support the uprising against Qaddafi.

Against the backdrop of potentially momentous change, the LIFG reincarnated itself as the LIMC. The latter elected a shura council comprised of most of the LIFG shura council members, including Belhadj, Al-Saadi, Al-Sharif, as well as Abdul Wahhab Al-Qaid, Abdel Basit Abu Hliqa and Miftah Al-Dhuwadi.

While the LIFG had been opposed to democracy throughout most of its existence, the LIMC shura council expressed support for the democratic process. The group’s apparent moderation appeared to be informed by the conviction that Islamism and democracy were not necessarily incompatible and, moreover, that democratic mechanisms could serve the objectives of Islamists, as appeared to be demonstrated by the AKP’s experience in Turkey.

Those LIFG/LIMC members, who fought against forces loyal to Qaddafi, brought with them considerable paramilitary experience. Indeed, some would play a significant military role during the uprising. Belhadj became commander of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, which was one of the first brigades to form during the uprising and played an important role in the liberation of Tripoli.

In eastern Libya, Abu Hliqa and several of his associates formed the Umar Al-Mukhtar Battalion, comprised of defectors from the Libyan army and LIFG/LIMC members. The Umar Al-Mukhtar Battalion joined the powerful, eastern-based 17th February Martyrs Brigade, which was itself led by Ismail Al-Sallabi, senior figure in the LIFG/LIMC and brother of Ali Al-Sallabi.

Former LIFG member, Abdul Hakim Al-Hasidi, formed the Derna Brigade, which was later renamed the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade. However, the fall of the regime caused LIFG/LIMC to fragment. Some LIFG/LIMC veterans retained military roles.

A number of the brigades commanded by LIFG/LIMC members continued to play an important role in Libya’s fractured security sector, making their commanders influential figures in the country. Other more radical former LIFG/LIMC members among the brigade leaders, such as Al-Hasidi, joined the jihadi Salafi current.

A number of leading LIFG/LIMC figures entered the political arena, securing roles in NTC executive committees. Al-Sharif was appointed deputy defence minister in two of the interim governments of the NTC. Sadiq Al-Ghaithi Al-Ubaidi, a former LIFG prisoner, was also made a deputy defence minister and Al-Dhuwadi became deputy minister for the martyrs and the missing. Under the second interim government headed by Ali Zeidan, Abu Hliqa was made deputy interior minister.

When the first parliamentary elections were held in 2012, several LIFG/LIMC veterans participated in the electoral process. Belhadj left the TMC that year in order to run as a candidate for the party that he founded, Al-Watan, though the party failed to win any seats. Al-Saadi founded his own party, Al-Umma Al-Wasat, which a number of former LIFG/LIMC leaders joined, including Al-Sharif, Al-Dhuwadl and Al-Qaid. Al-Qaid was allocated Al- Umma Al-Wasat’s only seat in the GNC, which he used to good effect.

National Alliances

In the GNC, Al-Qaid led the Salafist-leaning Loyalty to the Martyrs Blood bloc, which was allied in the governing body with the JCP, and continued to be allied with it within the context of the civil war as part of the Libya Dawn coalition.

Following the collapse of the Dawn coalition and the establishment of the UN political process, Belhadj’s Al-Watan party now supports the GNA, along with its allies the Muslim Brotherhood and the JCP, while Al-Saadi’s Al-Umma Al-Wasat rejects national reconciliation.

Against the backdrop of the civil war, brigades comprising LIFG/LIMC veterans formed alliances with armed groups that comprised Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar Al-Sharia members. Following the uprising, Ismail Al-Sallabi had formed a new group with some members of the 17th February Martyrs Brigade, called the Raffalah Al-Sahati Brigade.

When the civil war broke out in mid 2014, the Raffalah Al-Sahati Brigade, as mentioned in the previous section on the Muslim Brotherhood, came together with the Muslim Brotherhood-allied 17th February Martyrs Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia to form the umbrella group the BRSC to counter Haftar’s LNA in the East.

The BRSC counted among its commanders several high profile figures from both the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar Al-Sharia, including Wissam ben Hamid (now deceased), a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ali Al-Zahawi, Ansar Al-Sharia’s now deceased leader.

The BRSC’s links to Ansar Al-Sharia were further reinforced though its close ties to the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), which was formed in June 2016 to oppose the LNA in the eastern city of Benghazi. 48 Given the fluid nature of Libya’s armed groupings, a number of BDB commanders are also commanders within the BRSC, including Ismail Al-Sallabi, who was a commander in the BRSC, Ahmad Al-Tajuri, who was a BRSC commander in West Benghazi, and Faraj Shiku, commander in the BRSC’s 17th February Martyrs Brigade.

Through their membership of the BDB these commanders are associates figures with ties to Ansar Al-Sharia, including Ahmed Al-Shaltani, now deceased, but once a leading figure in Ansar Al-Sharia. LIFG/LIMC veterans also have links to Ansar Al-Sharia through the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade.

Sufyan bin Qumu, a former LIFG/LIMC member, who was a member of the Brigade and an associate of Osama bin Laden in Sudan, is also reported to have been a leader in Ansar Al-Sharia, for example. The exact nature of the relationship between Belhadj and AST is ultimately lacking.

Ties to transnational jihadi groups, such as Al-Qaeda, also appear to exist. Abdul Basit Azuz, who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, spent several decades in the UK before relocating to the Pakistani-Afghan border area in the late 2000s, is reported to have been associated with the LIFG/LIMC influenced Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade.

He was allegedly sent by Ayman Al-Zawahiri to Libya in order to help Al-Qaeda gain a foothold in the country following the death of Qaddafi. The BRSC, in which Ismail Al-Sallabi was a commander, also contains Al-Qaeda-linked individuals, such as Mohammed Ali, who was convicted in Jordan of plotting suicide attacks in the name of Al-Qaeda against the airport in Amman in 2007.

In addition, the BDB, of which Ismail Al-Sallabi is also a commander, is allegedly backed by Al-Qaeda. The precise nature of BDB’s connection to Al-Qaeda remains unclear, though. While both the BRSC and BDB have apparent links to Al-Qaeda, this does not seem to preclude cooperation with fighters loyal to IS.

The BRSC has fought alongside Islamic State (IS) against the LNA in Benghazi and the BDB has cooperated with IS militants during an operation against the LNA in late June 2016. Indicative of such collaboration, senior member of the BDB, Ahmed Bakir, was arrested by the Misrata Counter Terrorism Unit for cooperation with IS.

International Alliances

Several LIFG/LIMC veterans have ties to a number of countries. Qatar, in particular, appears to have been an especially important organizational hub for the movement during the uprising. Qatari authorities seem to have developed relations with BRSC commander Ismail Al-Sallabi.

The latter is believed to have been associated with Ghanim Al-Kubais, head of the Qatari intelligence. Qatar also fostered links to Belhadj. In addition to ties to Qatar, Belhadj is also thought to have significant linkages to Turkey.

In 2013, he was reported to have reached out to the AKP to seek assistance with laundering money looted during the overthrow of Qaddafi and in gaining refuge in Turkey.

While there is no evidence to suggest that the AKP provided such assistance, Belhadj does now divide his time between Libya and Turkey. He has significant financial and real estate investments in Turkey, allegedly made possible thanks to the looted money.

As well as their links to various countries, former members of the LIFG/LIMC have also been accused of having ties to jihadi groups in other countries, notably in Tunisia. Belhadj was accused in 2013 of having been implicated in the murder of two leftist politician in Tunisia, which the Tunisian government claimed were carried out by the Salafi organization Ansar Al-Sharia Tunisia (AST).

In addition, Belhadj was accused of having sheltered AST leader, Abu Iyad Al-Tunisi, in Libya following the assassinations. He is also alleged to have trained AST militants in Libya. However, Belhadj has denied involvement in the murders, as well as any connections to AST. Proof of the exact nature of the relationship between Belhadj and AST is ultimately lacking.

Ties to transnational jihadi groups, such as Al-Qaeda, also appear to exist. Abdul Basit Azuz, who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, spent several decades in the UK before relocating to the Pakistani-Afghan border area in the late 2000s, is reported to have been associated with the LIFG/LIMC influenced Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade.

He was allegedly sent by Ayman Al-Zawahiri to Libya in order to help Al-Qaeda gain a foothold in the country following the death of Qaddafi.

The BRSC, in which Ismail Al-Sallabi was a commander, also contains Al-Qaeda-linked individuals, such as Mohammed Ali, who was convicted in Jordan of plotting suicide attacks in the name of Al-Qaeda against the airport in Amman in 2007.

In addition, the BDB, of which Ismail Al-Sallabi is also a commander, is allegedly backed by Al-Qaeda. The precise nature of BDB’s connection to Al-Qaeda remains unclear, though.

While both the BRSC and BDB have apparent links to Al-Qaeda, this does not seem to preclude cooperation with fighters loyal to IS. The BRSC has fought alongside Islamic State (IS) against the LNA in Benghazi and the BDB has cooperated with IS militants during an operation against the LNA in late June 2016.

Indicative of such collaboration, senior member of the BDB, Ahmed Bakir, was arrested by the Misrata Counter Terrorism Unit for cooperation with IS.

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To be continued

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Lisa Watanabe – Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Studies, Institute of Security Studies, Zurich. Specializes in the issues of North Africa and the European Mediterranean.

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