By Mary Fitzgerald
This research paper shows that Libyan media outlets – particularly television channels, by far the most popular and influential medium – have played a significant role in the civil conflict since 2014.
Terrorist groups in Libya
To understand how media outlets have reported on terrorism in Libya – and how the “terrorist” label has been used as a smear by political and armed factions there – a survey of designated terrorist groups operating in Libya is required. Since 2011, a range of jihadist groups, from the Islamic State group (IS) to al-Qaeda-linked groups and other Salafi-jihadi currents, have had a presence in Libya.
Some have been wholly or predominantly indigenous and rooted in particular local contexts while others – particularly IS affiliates – have included a significant number of foreigners, at both leadership and rank and file level.
For the purpose of this paper, the word “terrorist” applies to only those groups that have been designated as such by the UN.
Libya’s jihadist sphere can be divided along three generations. The oldest generation comprises many who fought against Soviet-backed forces in Afghanistan. These veterans later created a number of groups in opposition to Gaddafi, the largest of which was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
Some former members of the LIFG left to join al-Qaeda but the group’s leadership refused any affiliation with al-Qaeda and insisted their objective was solely overthrowing Gaddafi.
The LIFG was considered defunct prior to the 2011 uprising. The second and third generation of jihadists – the former including those who fought in Iraq after 2003, the latter including those who fought in Syria after 2011 – tilt towards more radical ideologies.
The Libyans that have joined IS tend to come from these younger generations.
Islamic State (IS) in Libya
In 2014, Libya’s first IS affiliate was established in the eastern town of Derna by locals who had returned from Syria. The Derna branch was formed with help from senior non-Libyan IS figures.
IS was expelled from Derna in 2015 by a coalition of forces which included the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), an umbrella group comprising fighters including veterans of the former LIFG. The DMSC joined with anti-Haftar military personnel to successfully force IS from the town.
In early 2015, IS began to build a presence in Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown. It consolidated control of the town by engaging with residents who felt aggrieved over the city’s marginalisation in post-Gaddafi Libya. Sirte became IS’ stronghold in Libya until late 2016 when a coalition of Misrata-dominated forces known as Bunyan al-Marsous (BAM) routed the affiliate there.
In Benghazi, as Haftar’s operation continued, those fighting his forces began to include Libyan and foreign members of IS. Today, IS no longer holds territory in Libya. According to most intelligence estimates, there are fewer than 1,000 IS members in the country, mostly dispersed across its south-west and central regions.
Though now much weakened, the group retains the capacity to carry out attacks, mostly on military checkpoints.
Ansar al-Sharia and other alQaeda affiliates in Libya
Formed in 2012 by a small core of former anti-Gaddafi fighters, Ansar al-Sharia’s first branch was established in Benghazi, but affiliates also emerged in towns such as Derna, Sirte and Ajdabiya.
The UN put Ansar alSharia on its al-Qaeda sanctions list in 2014, describing it as a group associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Mourabitoun. Both AQIM and al-Mourabitoun have a presence in Libya, particularly in the south.
Individuals associated with Ansar al-Sharia participated in the September 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi. At its core an armed group, Ansar al-Sharia developed a strategy between 2012 and 2014, centred on preaching and charitable work to build popular support and drive recruitment.
In response to Haftar’s armed campaign, Ansar alSharia’s Benghazi unit merged with other militias to form the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) in the summer of 2014. Between 2014 and 2017, most of Ansar al-Sharia’s leaders were killed in fighting with Haftar’s forces in Benghazi, where the group had been strongest.
Many of its rank and file in Benghazi and other towns subsequently defected to other al-Qaeda-linked groups or to IS. Thus, weakened and routed from the cities and towns where it once had a presence, Ansar al-Sharia announced its dissolution in May 2017.
The challenge of language
The language of media reporting on terrorism has long been contested, particularly in conflict environments where belligerents brand their opponents as terrorists even if they have not been designated as such.
BBC editorial guidelines, often used as a reference by other media outlets and independent journalists, advise BBC journalists not to use the term “terrorist” without attribution, noting that “terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements… The word “terrorist” itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding.”
If Libyan media limited their use of the word “terrorist” – or “irhabi” in Arabic – to groups that are designated by the UN as such, the term would only be applied to IS, AQIM and other al-Qaeda affiliates, including the now dissolved Ansar al-Sharia.
Instead, the word has been weaponised by partisan Libyan media outlets and individual commentators, whether on television discussion programmes or social media. The wide use of the word to denigrate, defame or insult has often had consequences, including detention or violent attack, for those targeted.
The term has also been frequently employed opportunistically to justify the use of force against political or military opponents rather than members of designated groups.
Since Haftar launched his first operation in May 2014, targeting rival armed groups including Islamist militias in Benghazi while also violently attacking the Tripoli-based parliament, known as the General National Congress, he and his political and media allies have used the term as a key part of their narrative to gain popular support for their actions.
In doing so, they not only exploited the legacy of Gaddafi-era propaganda, but built on it. Libya Awalan, a TV channel owned by businessman Hassan Tatanaki, then a key supporter of Haftar’s campaign, proved critical in painting all opponents of the operation as terrorists in 2014.
“[Media] plays a very big part for us, just as much as the military side,” Tatanaki said in August that year. “I was quite surprised how influential media is — it’s scary. You can swing people’s opinions left to right at a whim.”
The fact that decades of Gaddafi’s propaganda had resulted in many Libyans conflating Islamists of all stripes as terrorists played in their favour, as he said: Libyans perceive the Muslim Brotherhood and any Islamist group as being al-Qaeda or ISIS or whatever; that is what Qaddafi’s brainwashing did… They don’t see the Islamic movement as a social or political movement; they see it as a terrorist movement already.
That helps our cause. That is what we are relying on. While some of the groups Haftar fought in eastern Libya had ties to IS and al-Qaeda, he continued to use the “terrorist” narrative to explain and justify his offensive to capture Tripoli from the UN-recognised government in April 2019 even as senior UN officials said it looked more like a coup.
In early 2020, pro-Haftar media outlets used the “terrorist” label to refer to Syrian mercenaries sent by Turkey in support of the counteroffensive against Haftar.
In a 2019 report on social media and conflict in Libya, PeaceTech Lab detailed how respondents from focus groups had indicated that supporters of Haftar and his forces use the term “irhabiyeen” often against “anyone who is not a supporter or who is critical of their actions.”
It noted that people may be labelled as such “based on their actions, religious or political beliefs, or appearance—particularly more conservative appearances associated with strict adherents of Islam.”
Given the particular nature of Libya’s media landscape and the echo chamber link between social media and more traditional forms like broadcast and print, such use of language tends to loop between the various media, feeding and entrenching particular narratives within the popular imagination.
Mary Fitzgerald is a researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya. She has worked on Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014. She has conducted research on Libya for the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) among others. She has written extensively on Libya’s Islamist milieu. Her work has appeared in the Economist, Foreign Policy, the New Yorker and the Guardian. She has consulted for a number of international organisations working in Libya including in the development and conflict mediation spheres.
International Centre for Counter- Terrorism