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.
The Role of Mediators
Given the mutual suspicion and distrust between the LIFG leadership and the Gaddafi regime, the dialogue process that led to the group’s revisions was likely to succeed or fail depending on the mediator.
It had to be someone who had the trust of the LIFG leadership but also good relations with Saif al-Gaddafi. Ali Sallabi, from a Benghazi family known to oppose the regime, had spent almost a decade in Abu Salim prison before leaving Libya in the late 1980s.
After a short stint in Afghanistan, where he met some of those who later formed the LIFG, he studied in Saudi Arabia – his fellow students included Libyans who went on to join the LIFG. He then lived in Sudan (at the same time the LIFG core was based there) and Yemen before settling in Qatar.
He had known several of the LIFG leaders for more than two decades. The bonds between them, rooted in their similar histories of opposition and exile, meant there was a high level of trust.
Sallabi, who was close to the Muslim Brotherhood, had returned to Libya as the rapprochement between the Brotherhood and the regime developed. After gaining the trust of Saif and other regime officials, Sallabi became a board member of the Gaddafi Foundation and was appointed “Islamic advisor” to the committee formed by Saif al-Gaddafi to develop a reformist constitution as part of his Libya al-Ghad program.
Sallabi’s personal relationships with both the LIFG leaders – he often referred to them, particularly Belhaj and Saadi, as friends – and senior regime officials proved key, as did his theological background which commanded respect from the LIFG cohort engaged in the revisions process.
Sallabi has argued that a key reason for the success of the dialogue was its Islamic/Islamist framework and the Gaddafi regime’s acceptance and recognition of that. ‘‘Imagine”, he said, ‘‘if the state did not recognise the Islamic reference (marji ‘iyya) of this dialogue … the whole effort would have been futile”.
The Inside/Outside Prison Dynamic of the LIFG
Ali Sallabi was also able to open channels with prominent LIFG figures outside Libya – particularly the UK, its main base, where three other Shura Council members lived – in order to include them in the process.
That correspondence began in 2007 and included LIFG figures whom Sallabi had studied with in Saudi Arabia such as Abdulbaset Buhliqa and Ismail Kamoka. Sallabi also acted as an interlocutor with media as the revisions process developed.
The LIFG made tactical use of the media at certain points during the process, publishing open letters in Arab media – al-Hayat was a favourite – in order to get their perspective across, particularly at times of strain in the dialogue.
The engagement with the LIFG outside prison drew in members from several different countries apart from the UK, including Switzerland, Turkey, Morocco, Iran, and South Africa.
There was concern among the overseas cohort that the imprisoned leaders were vulnerable because they were incarcerated. Initial scepticism and opposition to the process stemmed from the fact many within the grassroots had no faith in the regime.
“For many, changing the name and tactics of the group was one thing – and it had already been discussed internally since the late 1990s – but accommodation with the regime was something else”, recalled another member then based in the UK.
“We outside made it clear that we would not give the regime a green light for nothing. There was a fear that the regime wanted to take everything and not give anything. We were tougher in our demands; it was a way to negotiate because we knew those inside were restricted because they were in prison”.
Reflecting this, the LIFG overseas continued to recruit up to late 2008 and early 2009. “Some of us were expecting a split”, said Buhliqa. “We were aware of the Irish experience in 1998 (where dissident republicans who rejected Sinn Fein’s and the IRA’s endorsement of the Belfast Agreement ending the conflict formed their own splinter groups). If we had just 50 people who rejected it, they could cause a big problem”.
Eventually, the approximately 30 LIFG members living in the UK decided to back the process. They included not only Shura Council members but also twelve individuals once subject to British government “control orders” restricting their movement and communications because they were deemed to pose a threat to national security.
Senior figures met with British intelligence in 2007 to inform them of their positions on the dialogue. A year later, the UK announced the designation of three prominent LIFG members including Buhliqa. “We suspected the impetus for this came from the Gaddafi regime and may have been a negotiating tactic for the process back in Libya”, Buhliqa recalled.
“It seemed their strategy was to go hard on the people who were outside Libya and softer with those inside prison because they were under their control”.
Nevertheless, a number of LIFG members based in the UK had their control orders dropped after the dialogue process gathered momentum in Tripoli; several more had orders dropped against them after the revisions were published.
British security services distributed copies of the revisions to these latter individuals because of their lack of access to the internet.
Trust Building Between the LIFG and the Regime
Breaking down the high level of suspicion between the LIFG leadership and the Gaddafi regime took time.
Although a certain degree of trust was forged in order for the process to continue as it did, for the LIFG leaders the question of how much the regime could really be trusted always remained, even after the release of Abdulhakin Belhaj, Khalid al-Sharif and Sami al-Saadi in March 2010.
Qaid and Dawadi were not released until 2011 which, for some of the LIFG cadre, confirmed their suspicions that the regime would not act in good faith. “If we hadn’t had these trust issues, the process would have taken months, not years”, said Khalid al-Sharif. “We always had a question in the back our minds whether the regime wanted this to be a true dialogue with benefits for both sides or just something to benefit them as a PR stunt”.
For Sami al-Saadi, having lost relatives in the Abu Salim prison massacre, the trust issue was particularly acute. “At one of the early meetings, we asked them, how can we trust you?” he recalled. “Sabri Hleyla (one of the three senior intelligence officers involved in the process) replied, ‘There’s only our word to trust’”.
During the preliminary stages of the dialogue process, a number of confidence-building measures were taken. Visits from relatives were permitted and detainees were allowed to sit alone with their families.
Efforts were made to improve conditions in the prison, particularly in terms of better food and medical assistance, but also to allow for more interaction between inmates.
Regular sessions took place with regime officials to discuss issues of contention, including what had happened in Iraq and Afghanistan but also domestic matters such as the question of reforming the Libyan state, preparing a constitution and freedom of speech.
According to Ali Sallabi, it was important that the root causes behind the detainees’ decision to take up arms against the Gaddafi regime were addressed given that most of the LIFG cadre insisted they had done so only because there were no other ways to express criticism of the regime.
The first objective of these discussions was to secure agreement from the detainees that they would abandon their violent opposition to the regime; the second was that they would condemn the use of armed insurgency against the regime.
Sallabi believed that “bonds were built” between the various participants in the dialogue – the detainees, the security officials and clerics like himself – which allowed a “synchronicity” that fostered an ultimately successful outcome.
But there were points in the process when relations became strained between the LIFG leadership and their regime interlocutors, at times threatening a complete breakdown.
Sami al-Saadi recalls one meeting in 2009 when Salah Abdulsalam of the Gaddafi Foundation presented a document for them to sign. The text lauded the Gaddafi regime and also included a declaration of loyalty to it. The LIFG leaders present refused to sign.
Miftah al-Dawadi said, “I’ve been in prison for almost twenty years, I have no problem staying here for another twenty but I won’t go against what I consider a basic principle”.
The Role of Incentives
When the dialogue process began, the LIFG as a group was at the weakest point in its history. Given this, and the fact that its leadership was mostly imprisoned, the primary challenge for the LIFG was how to negotiate an agreement with a still-hated regime while ensuring a minimum loss of face.
The incentives the Gaddafi regime could offer, the most important of which was the promise of release, were therefore key. However, the episode in early 2009 in which LIFG leaders refused to sign a statement declaring their loyalty to the regime shows there were lines they were not prepared to cross.
In January 2010, Noman Benotman referred to this at an event in London: “The [revisions] were not just written because they wanted to be released from prison – they had been offered (and rejected) this opportunity before”.
Yet the dialogue continued, driven largely by the prospect of release from prison. This also helped persuade sceptics within the LIFG grassroots overseas. “There were many debates and some hardliners were against the dialogue and revisions in theory.
But they decided to go along with it for the sake of securing releases for those incarcerated”, recalled Anis al-Sharif. “The feeling was, let’s give it a chance if it will end the misery of our people in prison”.
In the meantime, there were incremental and immediate inducements – including the mentioned improvements in prison conditions – aimed at strengthening the hand of the LIFG leadership so they could win over their co-imprisoned rank-and-file to the idea of dialogue and eventually renunciation of armed opposition.
To a large extent, this approach was inspired by the Egyptian process in the case of the imprisoned Islamic Group earlier that decade. But while the regime made use of such inducements, it also deployed threats. Sami al-Saadi recalled Tuhami Khaled, one of the dialogue sceptics within the security apparatus, saying: “It’s up to you. If you don’t do this, there are court cases”.
According to Khalid al-Sharif, “There was always in the background this sense of ‘if you don’t like it, we have a trial for you’”. In point of fact, several of the LIFG leaders were tried, convicted and sentenced between 2008 and 2009, long after the dialogue process had started.
For example, Abdelhakim Belhaj was tried and sentenced to death in 2008 for crimes against the state. Although he had a state-appointed lawyer, he was never given a chance to meet with him, there were no witnesses at the trial, and the only evidence taken into consideration was a report from Libyan security services.
The same year, Khalid al-Sharif was convicted of attempting to overthrow the regime, and sentenced to death by firing squad. In 2009, Sami al-Saadi was charged with 14 crimes, including attempting to overthrow the government and spreading ideology against Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution. He too was convicted and sentenced to death.
Apart from inducements offered during the years of dialogue in order to push the process forward, there were also those aimed at ensuring the reintegration of released prisoners went smoothly.
Officials at the Gaddafi Foundation, in particular, were keen to impress international interlocutors with an approach they sometimes portrayed as “transitional justice” – offering financial compensation, restitution of legal and property rights (the latter being of particular importance given how the regime often confiscated or demolished property as a means of social control) and assistance with finding employment and housing.
These officials of the Foundation – in comparison to those within the security apparatus – showed a better understanding of how Libya’s domestic reforms could be affected by the extent to which the former prisoners could be rehabilitated and reintegrated into Libyan society.
In March 2010, the regime released 214 LIFG members, suspects (some had been imprisoned due to association or blood ties with members of the LIFG or other groups) and other former militants.
Upon release, they were given an initial ‘‘loan’’ of 10,000 Libyan dinars to help them resettle, an amount described as “very handsome financial compensation” by one regime official involved in the process.
The Gaddafi Foundation remained in contact with those released through local administrative authorities (lajnaat al-shabiya) and the security services continued to monitor the former detainees to ensure they have “become citizens again and have peaceful ideas”.
They were nevertheless forbidden to take part in any activity considered political. Reintegration proved challenging in many cases. Former detainees suffered from delays in compensation payments or difficulties in finding employment.
When Khalid al-Sharif got a job at a construction company in Tripoli but was sacked just a month later, he believed it was due to pressure from security officials.
In other cases, former detainees attempted to return to their previous jobs but employers often refused to accept them, citing an earlier order from Libya’s internal security that anyone suspected of being a dissident be fired.
Symbolic incentives were another dimension under consideration as part of the reintegration process. For example, some officials – including Saif al-Gaddafi – expressed an intention to investigate past crimes of the regime, the Abu Salim prison massacre being the most prominent.
Eventually, compensation was offered to the families of the Abu Salim victims – which included a number of LIFG members – but a majority rejected it. At one point, Saif publicly stated he wanted to demolish the prison at Abu Salim or turn it into a civic facility.
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