Assessing the Revisions of the Libyan Islamic Group (LIFG)
By Mary Fitzgerald & Emadeddin Badi
This paper is part of a project that aims to fill a major gap in policy making: the failure to integrate lessons learnt and best practices from the field of transitional justice in relation to conflict resolution strategies with two kinds of unconventional armed actors.
In August 2009, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – a Salafi-jihadist organisation formed by Libyan veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which posed what was once considered the most serious threat to Gaddafi – published a set of revisions declaring the end of their armed campaign against the Gaddafi regime.
The 417-page document, “Corrective Studies in the Concepts of Jihad, Accountability and the Judgment of People”, was the culmination not only of several years of internal debate within the group but also of dialogue between the leadership of the LIFG (which negotiated from prison and thus had a strong self-interest in using the dialogue as an opportunity to regain its freedom) and the Libyan authorities.
The revisions process took place during a decade when some within the Libyan regime – chiefly Gaddafi’s son Saif – began tentatively incorporating elements of transitional justice in order to address legacy issues, including the Abu Selim prison massacre.
This took place against broader ad hoc efforts to reform the Libyan state as part of its process of re-engaging with the international community, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom.
While the process that led to these revisions was very much a product of the Libyan context and the LIFG’s specific evolution as a group, the treatise that resulted – drawing on a range of references from key Islamic texts to denounce extremism and the use of violence to instigate change – held relevance beyond Libya.
The doctrinal arguments developed by the LIFG signatories echoed and built on those made by Egypt’s Islamic Group and al-Jihad Organisation during their de-radicalisation process earlier that decade.
A number of prominent Islamic scholars – including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania – publicly endorsed the LIFG’s revisions document, thus giving a wider audience to their theological and ideological repudiation of violence against one’s own rulers.
Authorities in Algeria and Mauritania incorporated the LIFG text into their own prison de-radicalisation programmes.
After overcoming scepticism within the wider security apparatus, Saif al-Gaddafi drove the de-radicalisation process on the regime side and heavily publicised its outcomes in order to bolster his own reformist credentials.
In return for their renunciation of armed opposition to the Gaddafi regime, LIFG prisoners and other inmates who signed up to the treatise (even if they were not members of the LIFG) were freed from jail in a series of mass releases, the final of which took place two days before 17 February 2011 – the date Libyans who supported the uprising that ousted Gaddafi that year say their revolution began.
The LIFG, though then considered defunct, subsequently emerged under a different name to participate in the uprising, with several figures, including Abdelhakim Belhaj, the man who last held the title emir (or leader) of the group, playing key roles that year and during the post-Gaddafi period.
Sceptics of the revisions process point to the participation of the former LIFG leadership in the 2011 uprising to argue that their engagement with the process was “more transactional than transformative”.
However, the fact they embraced a democratic transition for post-Gaddafi Libya – founding political parties, running for election and serving in key posts in transitional governments – suggests they had moved beyond their jihadist past.
Although several former LIFG leaders maintained links with armed groups (as did other political players and factions scrambling for influence in the post-2011 period), their participation in democratic politics not only served to distance themselves from the country’s jihadist milieu but also drew criticism from the younger militants that inhabited it.
In brief, the revisions process marked a major juncture in the LIFG’s history. This paper shows that while the resulting recantations were to a significant degree a product of circumstance in that the group’s leaders were negotiating while imprisoned, they were already on a path that would lead them to abandon the jihadist worldview they had adopted as young men.
In agreeing to end their jihad they were not, however, agreeing they would stop being opponents of the regime.
The paper begins with a background section that: discusses the Libyan and international context when the LIFG first organised itself; traces the group’s history from its emergence to when negotiations with the Gaddafi regime began; and outlines state responses to the LIFG before negotiations were considered, including military repression and detention practices.
The following section details how a negotiated deal was initially approached, exploring the motivations of both the LIFG leadership and the Gaddafi regime. The next section discusses the de-radicalisation process itself, examining the five factors that proved key: (a) the role of leaders;
(b) the role of mediators;
(c) the dynamic between the imprisoned LIFG leadership and those outside;
(d) trust building between the LIFG and the Gaddafi regime; and
(e) the use of incentives.
It also explores how much notions of transitional justice informed the process and were understood by participants. Thereafter, the paper includes a section that examines the content of the LIFG revisions and the impact they had on the wider jihadist milieu outside Libya.
This is followed by a concluding section that analyses the role played by the former LIFG during the uprising that ousted Gaddafi in 2011 and in the transitional period that followed.
The paper is based primarily on fieldwork and in-depth interviews with several of the main actors in the LIFG de-radicalisation process, including most of the signatories of the revisions document and a number of Gaddafi regime officials.
Interviews were also conducted with mid-level and rank-and-file members of the former LIFG, as well as other non-aligned Libyan Islamists who were imprisoned with them.
Former jihadists of other nationalities were interviewed on how the LIFG revisions process and treatise influenced militant currents beyond the Libyan context.
The paper also draws on interviews with sources who participated in the 2011 uprising and prominent figures from the period that followed, including officials from several transitional governments.
Cumulatively, the interviewed sources provide a unique, first-hand and historical perspective on events that remain highly contested in the country.
In that regard, this account seeks to inform the discourse surrounding this under-researched area of Libya’s past while linking it to its present.
The Politics of the LIFG “Angry Young Men”
The nucleus of what was to become the LIFG was initially comprised of young Libyans, most of whom were in their 20s. They were veterans of the wars in Afghanistan that followed the Soviet invasion and occupation of that country.
Most of those who later became part of the LIFG’s consultative Shura Council were already opposed to the Gaddafi regime before they left Libya to join the anti-Soviet forces referred to broadly as “the mujahideen” in Afghanistan. Some of those from Tripoli had already started organising as students.
Indeed, several traced their initial radicalisation to witnessing the suppression of student protests in Libya in the 1970s and 1980s. In a number of cases, student dissidents were publicly hanged on campuses in the capital, Tripoli, and in Benghazi, Libya’s second city.
“Very early on, we considered armed struggle against the regime and developed our thinking on that basis”, recalled Abdelhakim Belhaj, who later became leader of the LIFG.
“We were not leftists or communists and the only thing that brought us together was the mosque. We were what you could call ‘religiously conservative’ and had a common goal: toppling the regime. We had very scarce resources and showed our opposition mainly through graffiti on walls or small pamphlets we distributed covertly.
After that, the jihad in Afghanistan was the second phase. The tight security grip of the regime in Libya was a ‘push factor’ that created an environment that one could not stay in. We did not have the space to move, let alone speak or express our opposition through any action. The pull factor was the Afghan cause (jihad) itself”.
The Libyans started to loosely organise themselves in the Pakistani city of Peshawar as of the late 1980s, drawing on the large number of Libyans already in Afghanistan and Pakistan who, having gained battlefield experience against the Soviets and their Afghan allies, now wanted to turn their attention to “pharaoh” Gaddafi.
“We were young, angry and excitable. We went for armed struggle against the regime because we felt all the other doors were closed”, said Khalid al-Sharif, who later became deputy leader of the LIFG. “We had already seen how Gaddafi had dealt with more peaceful forms of opposition”.
The Libyans were influenced by jihadist groups including the Egyptian al-Jihad group, which had a strong presence in Peshawar, and others then being formed by other veterans of the wars in Afghanistan.
Sami al-Saadi, scion of a prominent Tripoli family and the group’s chief ideologue, outlined the nascent group’s ideology in an internal manifesto he authored.
With his central premise that armed confrontation (jihad) was an individual obligation (fard ‘ain) for every Muslim, as opposed to a collective or communal obligation (fard kifaya), Saadi argued that there were five key justifications for this stance: (a) invasions by “infidels”; (b) the “apostasy” of Muslim rulers; (c) the military dominance and control of “apostate” rulers; (d) the absence of the Caliphate; and (e) the mistreatment of imprisoned Muslim dissidents.
Despite this, a number of senior LIFG figures have said they believed, in hindsight, that it was a mistake to name the group as they did – Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah – with the explicit reference to fighting.
“In my view, we could have chosen a better name”, said Miftah al-Dawadi, who later served as the LIFG’s emir, in 2012. “We could have been the ‘Islamic Front for Change’ or something like that because the term muqatilah, or fighters, is so easily associated with terrorism by people in different parts of the world”.
In 2019, Khalid al-Sharif expressed similar regrets but acknowledged the name was a product of its time. “The environment and experience in Afghanistan pushed us towards certain trends”. Al-Saadi concurred: “Maybe other groups were more clever than us and realised that the word muqatilah would ultimately be restrictive. It did not reflect the holistic goals we had in the long term”.
The group adopted an organisational structure that comprised an emir or leader, a Shura Council, and a number of committees subordinate to the Shura Council, including a sharia committee tasked with religious guidance, a military committee, a media committee and an economic committee tasked with overseeing the LIFG’s financing.
As the highest executive element of the LIFG, the Shura Council was responsible for all key decisions that were made through majority vote. The group designed a military structure for its activities in Libya in which they divided the country into three zones of operations: east, west and south.
Mary Fitzgerald is a researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya. She has reported on and researched Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014. She has conducted research and consulted on Libya for a number of international organisations working in Libya including in the areas of conflict mediation, local governance, civil society and youth empowerment. Her reporting on Libya has appeared in many prominent publications.
Emadeddin Badi is a Libyan independent consultant and researcher that specializes in governance, post-conflict stabilization, hybrid security structures and peacebuilding. Emad worked on multiple research and policy-oriented projects with various institutions. He has conducted regular field research in North Africa, primarily on avenues for reform of Libya’s security institutions, war economies, hybrid security and cross-border crime. Emad is currently a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Middle East Program at the Atlantic Council.
Institute for Integrated Transitions