Libya Tribune

Adherents of a Salafi school, the Madkhalis, are gaining prominence on both sides of Libya’s divide, causing concerns about puritanical agendas imposed through military and religious institutions.

Negotiators should ensure that rebuilt security forces are politically neutral and secure the Madkhalis’ pledge to respect pluralism.

PART THREE

III. The Madkhalis’ Role in Armed Groups

The conflict that began in 2014 created new opportunities for Madkhalis to take up arms.

In Benghazi, aggrieved by the assassinations of a number of Salafis active in the security sector in 2013-2014 by unknown gunmen, they joined Operation Dignity, the coalition of military officers and local militias launched in May 2014 by Khalifa Haftar, a Qadhafi-era general who left the country and went into opposition in the 1980s, returning after 2011.

The rhetoric of Haftar’s campaign, casting his operation as a “war on terrorism” and describing the Muslim Brotherhood as “the main enemy”, chimed with their longstanding animosity toward the Brotherhood and other Islamists. 

From the outset, Haftar and his forces branded non-Islamist opponents and critics – including erstwhile allies and sometimes even foreign officials – as Brotherhood members or sympathisers, which meant his operation cast a wide net.

Fears that Haftar ultimately wanted to impose himself as military ruler, together with the outcome of the June 2014 parliamentary elections, which appeared to change the political tide in favour of his Operation Dignity, led a coalition of Islamist and non-Islamist armed groups hostile to Haftar and his allies to launch Operation Libya Dawn, routing Haftar-aligned militias from the capital.

This shift created a space in which Tripoli-based armed groups with Madkhalis in their ranks could expand.

Though many of their fellow Madkhalis in eastern Libya had joined Haftar at that time, those in Tripoli focused instead on building their influence inside institutions by joining some of the capital’s largest militias and coexisting – albeit uneasily – with other armed groups with which they were otherwise at odds, politically and doctrinally.

A. In the East

The assassination of several Salafis in Benghazi from mid-2013 to early 2014 – in particular the murder of Colonel Kamal Bazaza, a well-known imam who also worked in the Benghazi Security Directorate – coupled with longstanding animus toward the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists prompted the city’s Madkhalis to join Operation Dignity, Haftar’s anti-Islamist campaign, soon after it launched in May 2014.

Madkhali fighters were part of several units that participated in the campaign in Benghazi and its hinterland, including in the Saiqa special forces, but they also formed their own explicitly Salafi armed groups under the Operation Dignity umbrella.

While Haftar has tended to downplay their role, […] Madkhalis who enlisted in Haftar’s operation were commonly perceived to be the most dogged fighters.

Eastern Madkhali armed groups joined Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) from 2014 onward – since early 2018 with the explicit encouragement of Madkhali himself, who issued a fatwa supporting Haftar – and have become key to his fighting strength.

Empowered as a result, Madkhali theologians now dominate the eastern branch of the General Authority of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, the state body that administers mosques.

The General Authority’s Supreme Fatwa Committee has on occasion issued highly politicised religious rulings, including several related to the conflict, for example encouraging people to fight for the LNA against its enemies, whom it has depicted as “kharijites”.

The General Authority’s assertiveness in attempting to impose its ideological agenda has brought it into conflict with Abdullah al-Thinni, the head of the unrecognised government allied with Haftar and also based in eastern Libya.

In December 2018, Thinni attempted to curb the powers of the General Authority’s director, accusing him of importing foreign ideologies harmful to social cohesion and national security.

While Haftar has tended to downplay their role – because it clashes with his attempts to portray himself as the leader of professional and legitimate army while presenting Operation Dignity as “anti-Islamist” to Libyans and Arab allies but “secular” to Westerners – Madkhalis who enlisted in Haftar’s operation were commonly perceived to be the most dogged fighters.

Supporters in eastern Libya often describe them as the “backbone” of that offensive or “Haftar’s shock troops”. 

As a former Haftar adviser put it: “It was the Madkhalis who carried out the real fight for Haftar. They suffered huge casualties”. 

Another eastern Libyan figure noted that on some occasions the Madkhali fighters were deployed for operations that other fighters might not have joined for tribal reasons, saying:

The fact the Madkhalis are driven by ideology above tribal considerations meant they have been useful in situations where regular military officers who joined Haftar’s operation might be apprehensive due to tribal sensitivities”.

Foremost among eastern Madkhali groups were the Tawhid Battalion, founded in Benghazi in the early stages of Operation Dignity, and another group led by Ashraf Maiar commonly known as the Salafi Brigade.

Maiar was frequently photographed with Haftar and regularly received by Haftar’s allies at the House of Representatives in the eastern town of Tobruk.

In June 2017, the UN Panel of Experts on Libya noted that Salafi commanders in Haftar’s coalition had publicly called for the execution of “apostates”.

The Panel also reported testimonies concerning a “secret section” at Qarnada prison in Shahhat, in eastern Libya, supervised by two members of Tawhid, where torture and beatings allegedly took place.

Tawhid spawned affiliates in Ajdabiya and Bayda before Haftar issued a decree in February 2016 disbanding the battalion, after which its members joined other formations, including a new unit called the 210 Brigade, whose social media accounts recurrently feature tributes to Madkhali.

The decision to disband Tawhid came after Benghazi residents began to raise questions over its long-term objectives and associates, and especially its ultra-conservative ideology. 

As Haftar advanced in Benghazi from 2015 onwardMadkhalis took over mosques and religious institutions. Some residents even began calling them “another Ansar al-Sharia” – a reference to the Salafi-jihadist group that joined ranks with the anti-Haftar coalition known as the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. 

As one Benghazi resident put it: “We supported Haftar to get rid of Ansar and now we see these people empowered as a result. They are armed, they are hardline Salafi and they are trying to force their ideas on us. What is the difference between the two?”

Haftar’s decision to dismantle Tawhid also followed growing concern among key military figures within his coalition about the role of the Madkhalis and the need to dilute Salafi influence in the LNA in general.

Because of the way Haftar built his coalition from May 2014 onward, bringing together disgruntled army officers with tribal, Salafi or regional militias and armed civilian volunteers, the lines between regular and irregular fighters are often blurred.

Despite Tawhid’s disbanding, the Madkhalis maintained their influence within LNA circles, infiltrating several of the LNA’s regular units and the wider security infrastructure in Benghazi.

One such Madkhali-dominated unit within the LNA is the Tariq Ibn Ziyad brigade. It came to public attention in February 2017 after releasing a video of the execution of a suspected ISIS fighter from Benghazi.

In November 2017, a member of the brigade, Mohammed al-Fakri, was detained by other LNA members in Benghazi in connection with the apparent summary execution of 36 men in the LNA-controlled town of al-Abyar. 

According to local media reports, one of those killed, allegedly because he was Sufi, was a 71-year-old religious figure, Sheikh Muftah al-Bakoosh al-Werfalli. 

In March 2018, the brigade joined an operation Haftar launched in the Sebha region of southern Libya and participated in another offensive in southern Libya in January 2019, joining forces with local Madkhali-dominated armed groups. 

It also took part in the battle for Derna, where fighting continued until February 2019. In April 2019, Haftar’s forces, fortified by some Madkhali groups, moved on Tripoli with the apparent aim to subdue local militias, remove the UN-backed government and grab power.

The influence of the Madkhali current within the LNA was also evident in the visit to Libya in early 2017 of Osama al-Otaibi, a Madkhali preacher from Saudi Arabia, at the invitation of the LNA General Command.

Otaibi undertook a speaking tour across eastern Libya and was invited to visit Zintan by the LNA’s western region commander, Idris Madi. His plans to give lectures in Tobruk – the eastern town where the House of Representatives is based – prompted protests by the local mayor and other residents.

The Madkhali-dominated Supreme Fatwa Committee in eastern Libya has publicly asked the LNA General Command and its chief of staff to allow their troops to grow beards, which have always been banned in the Libyan military. 

It is notable how many members of the security apparatus in eastern Libya now sport the heavy beards with shaved moustaches favoured by Salafis. This has raised concerns over how much Madkhali ideology may have penetrated the LNA.

As an academic in Benghazi put it: “This shows the influence of the Madkhalis in the security sphere. Beards were unheard of before in the Libyan army or police but now the atmosphere encourages it”.

Madkhali’s approach has evolved into a more open embrace of Haftar, particularly after Haftar’s success in asserting his authority in eastern Libya. 

Madkhali has issued a number of fatwas relating to the Libyan conflict from Saudi Arabia; most of these revealed an agenda centred more on combating ideological enemies (especially Islamists) than on taking sides in the institutional conflict between the western and eastern authorities.

In February 2015, he issued a fatwa forbidding participation in the battle between Haftar’s troops and anti-Haftar forces based in western Libya, even as Salafis had joined Haftar’s coalition.

The following year, however, he issued another fatwa calling on all Salafis in Libya to counter the Benghazi Defence Brigades, an armed group formed by anti-Haftar military personnel and militiamen, including many Islamist veterans of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. 

The Benghazi Defence Brigades had the endorsement of the Tripoli-based Grand Mufti, al-Sadeq al-Ghariyani, who is a fierce critic of Madkhali and his followers.

In another fatwa published on his own website in July 2017, Madkhali again referred to Benghazi and called on Salafis to repel the “aggression” of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he describes as “more dangerous to the Salafis than the Jews and the Christians”. 

The 2016 fatwa was criticised by the Tripoli-based General Authority for Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, which accused Madkhali not only of incitement but also of misrepresenting the fighting in Benghazi. 

It was also denounced by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, which called on the Government of National Accord to raise what it described as “blatant interference that leads to infighting among Libyans” with Saudi authorities.

Madkhali’s approach has evolved into a more open embrace of Haftar, particularly after Haftar’s success in asserting his authority in eastern Libya.

In early 2018, Madkhali’s followers in Libya distributed an audio message in which their sheikh urged his supporters explicitly to unite behind Haftar. 

In turn, Haftar began to publicly defend the Madkhalis as his allies, insisting – in foreign media interviews at least – that they believe in the authority of the state and respect democratically elected bodies. 

Members of Haftar’s inner circle also play down the issue when diplomats and activists have raised concerns about Madkhali attitudes toward religious minorities and civil society. According to Fadel al-Deeb, Haftar’s political adviser:

We are in a phase in which anybody who wants to fight with the Libyan National Army is welcome. We cannot say no to the Salafis, nor to the Amazigh [Berbers, many of whom belong to the Ibadi sect of Islam which Madkhalis consider apostates] or anybody else.

As long as they respect military law and do not carry out religious preaching while in the army, they can join.

continue in part 4

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