By Tankut Oztas
Many observers in Libya are wary of the Madkhali groups, which are primarily advancing and prioritizing Saudi Arabia’s political and security interests.
A rogue warlord general, backed by countries like the UAE and France, has been attempting to gain control of Libya using a varied repertoire of methods, including military force and propaganda.
Particularly, in his war against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, warlord Khalifa Haftar has used false propaganda to exploit existing divisions.
Social media is one of the channels through which he disseminates information to drum up support for his campaigns to take over Tripoli, the capital city where the GNA is based.
While Haftar’s attempts to enter Tripoli have failed since first launching the offensive in April 2019, it was recently reported that his offensive was gaining momentum after his relative success in exploiting divisions in the coastal city of Sirte.
The situation in Sirte, which is in north-western Libya, is significant because it is known as a strategic location where Madkhali Salafists and the tribe of Qadhadhfa are present.
Previously, these groups resisted the forces loyal to Haftar, as they did against Daesh.
But, recently, it has been reported that they have switched sides and are now coordinating with Haftar to enable a swift takeover of the strategic city.
The Qadhadhfa is one of the branches of the Houara tribe and is renowned for being the tribe of Gaddafi.
During his era, Qadhadhfa thrived to become one of the most powerful and influential tribes in Libya.
Their influence is still felt in Sirte, and their alliances with Haftar’s forces have weakened the authority of the GNA in the city.
Moreover, the defection of the 604th Brigade, composed of Madkhali Salafi militias, is seen as a serious existential threat to the GNA.
This is due to the possibility of them encouraging other Salafi-influenced armed groups in Misrata — such as the anti-crime unit and the joint ops room — to join their ranks.
While some analysts suggest that the Madkhalis have always openly backed Haftar and that the GNA knew well of the high probability that they would sooner or later switch sides, others are suspicious.
To them, the decision of these groups to change sides now mainly signifies the increasing involvement of Saudi Arabia in the Libyan civil war.
It is a well-known fact that many of the Madkhali religious figures, Rabi’ al-Madkhali himself — the founder of the Madkhalism movement — included, are well connected to the political, economic, and intellectual circles in Saudi Arabia.
For instance, Joffe (2018) described Madkhalism as a “Trojan horse” for Saudi influence in Libya.
The Madkhalis are the followers of the above hard-line Saudi theologian Rabi’ al-Madkhali, who teaches an ultra-conservative version of Salafism that is fully co-opted by the Saudi state.
This cleric has been closely associated with the Saudi state throughout his career. He became the head of the Faculty of Hadith at one of the Kingdom’s premier government-funded institutions of religious thinking, the Islamic University of Medina.
He then became part of a movement of Salafi clerics known as “al-Jami” (led by the cleric Muhammad Amān al-Jāmī), only to later surpass his mentors and become a staunch advocate of the Al Saud monarchy.
The latter has returned the favor and have made him their primary conduit for assistance to the Salafi movements worldwide.
Seen in this light, it is hardly surprising that the Madkhali groups have been patronized and utilized by the Saudi establishment.
This is why many observers in Libya are wary of the Madkhali groups, which are primarily advancing and prioritizing Saudi Arabia’s political and security interests.
Riyadh’s clear backing of the Haftar-led offensive against Tripoli in early April 2019 has reinforced such fears.
In fact, several reports have revealed the role of the Saudis in the ongoing conflict in Libya.
The Tareq ben Ziyad Brigade, for instance, is a Madkhali-dominated unit that continues to play a significant role in Haftar’s army as it presses towards Tripoli.
Add to this Mahmoud al-Werfalli, the commander of Al-Saiqa Brigade and a notable figure among the Madkhali Salafists within the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA).
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Al-Werfalli in August 2017 on charges of extrajudicial executions that may amount to war crimes, in connection with the deaths of 33 people from June 3, 2016, to July 17, 2017.
Nevertheless, warlord Khalifa Haftar recently promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel and he continues to lead an elite force in his rag-tag army.
This is the first clear-cut case of the Madkhalis being used in military conflicts, equipped with the most advanced weaponry, and having military units under their control.
Hence, this is a concerning situation not just for Libya but for neighboring countries too.
For instance, during an interview for the report on the Madkhalis by the Crisis Group, an eastern government official stated that some Egyptian officials were concerned about the rising power and influence of the Madkhalis across the border in eastern Libya and how that may affect Egypt’s own Madkhalis.
The conflict between competing tribes and ideological groups in Libya has become increasingly complex since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.
The situation is being fueled even further by the states competing in the region, and it seems like the current situation is proving more and more counterproductive to all of the parties involved.
If we are to see Libya thriving again, we need to see all regional players working towards peace and a just society in Libya. Otherwise, the ongoing civil war will continue to send shockwaves throughout the region.
Tankut Oztas is a researcher at TRT World’s Research Centre and holds a PhD and MA in International Political Economy from King’s College London. His research focuses on politics of global security, geopolitical risks and transnational economic affairs. He specializes in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.