By Mary Fitzgerald
Introduction: In Libya there are very few truly national actors. The vast majority are local players, some of whom are relevant at the national level while representing the interests of their region, or in most cases, their city.
Many important actors, particularly outside of the largest cities, also have tribal allegiances.
Since the summer of 2014, political power has been split between two rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk, with the latter having been recognised by the international community before the creation of the Presidency Council (PC) – the body that acts collectively as head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces – in December 2015.
Several types of actor scramble for power in today’s Libya: armed groups; “city-states”, particularly in western and southern Libya; and tribes, which are particularly relevant in eastern and southern Libya.
JIHADISTS IN LIBYA
Libya’s jihadist network can be divided along generational lines, starting with those who emerged in the 1980s. Many from that older generation fought against Soviet-backed forces in Afghanistan.
These veterans later created a number of groups in opposition to Muammar Gaddafi, the largest of which was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which is now defunct.
Several former LIFG figures, including its final leader, Abdelhakim Belhadj, played key roles in the 2011 uprising and went on to participate in the country’s democratic transition, forming political parties, running in elections, and serving as deputy ministers in government as in the case of Khaled Sherif at the Ministry of Defence.
This did not sit well with the second and third generation of jihadists – among the former were those who fought in Iraq after 2003, among the latter were those who fought in Syria after 2011 – who lean towards more radical ideologies and reject democracy as un-Islamic. The Libyans that have joined ISIS tend to come from the second and third generations.
Local returnees from Syria helped form Libya’s first ISIS affiliate in the eastern town of Derna in 2014. Many had fought as part of ISIS’s al-Battar unit in northern Syria before returning home to replicate the model with help from senior non-Libyan ISIS figures.
The leadership of ISIS in Libya has always been dominated by foreigners. Its leader earlier this year was Abd al-Qadir al-Najdi, whose name suggests Saudi origins. He replaced an Iraqi whom the US claims it killed in an airstrike in eastern Libya in 2015.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recognised the presence of ISIS in Libya in late 2014, declaring three wilayats or provinces: Barqa (eastern Libya), with Derna as its headquarters; Tarablus (Tripoli), with Sirte as its headquarters; and Fezzan (southwestern Libya).
ISIS was driven from its first headquarters in Derna in 2015 by a coalition of forces which included the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an umbrella group comprising fighters led by local jihadists including LIFG veterans, who joined with army personnel who had rejected Khalifa Haftar and his Operation Dignity campaign.
The same alliance later routed ISIS from its remaining redoubts on the outskirts of the town.
In early 2015, ISIS began to build its presence in Sirte, which was Gaddafi’s former hometown and one of the regime’s last hold-outs.
Prominent ISIS cleric Turki al-Binali and other senior figures visited Sirte as the group began to consolidate control.
It did so by reaching out to locals who felt aggrieved over the city’s marginalisation in post-Gaddafi Libya. However, the group met some resistance as a number of residents attempted an uprising, which was then brutally quashed.
ISIS tried to impose a system of governance on the city, using public executions to instill fear. Sirte became ISIS’ stronghold in Libya until May 2016 when a coalition of Misrata-dominated forces known as Bunyan al-Marsous (BAM) declared war on the affiliate there.
The BAM operation, which was accompanied by over 400 US air strikes on ISIS targets in and around Sirte, declared victory in early December.
ISIS also had a smaller presence on the outskirts of Sabratha, a coastal town in western Libya, until a combination of US airstrikes and attacks by local forces – including former jihadists from that first generation – managed to uproot the militants earlier this year.
In Benghazi, those fighting Haftar’s Operation Dignity include Libyan and foreign members of ISIS. Although Sirte was the group’s ostensible base, ISIS sleeper cells operate in Tripoli and other cities and towns in Libya.
While the Pentagon estimated there were over 6,000 ISIS fighters in Libya prior to the BAM operation, the UN and many Libyans believed that the actual number was much lower.
Many of these fighters fled Sirte before BAM forces entered the city. They then travelled in three directions: south-west towards Sebha, west towards Sabratha and south-east towards the border with Sudan.
Most foreign intelligence estimates hold that the group now has upwards of 600 fighters, mostly scattered across Libya’s south-west and central regions, with notable concentrations around Bani Walid and the area south of Sirte, including the Jufra hinterland.
US air strikes on ISIS targets in late 2017 followed increased activity by the group in Libya since the middle of the summer.
In August its Amaq news agency claimed that 21 LNA members had been killed or injured in a raid on an LNA checkpoint in the Jufra region. In October ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on the court house in Misrata, killing at least three.
Formed in 2012 by former revolutionary fighters calling for the immediate imposition of sharia law, Ansar al-Sharia’s first branch was set up in Benghazi, but affiliates also emerged in towns such as Derna, Sirte and Ajdabiya.
After being driven from these cities and towns or weakened by defections to other al-Qaeda-linked groups or ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia announced its dissolution in May 2017.
The UN put Ansar al-Sharia 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 groups mentioned also have a presence in Libya, both in the south and cen-tral/eastern regions, largely through Libyans who once worked with them elsewhere, particularly in Algeria, before returning home after Gaddafi was ousted.
Ansar al-Sharia ran training camps for foreign fighters, including a significant number of Tunisians, travelling to Syria, Iraq and Mali. Individuals associated with Ansar al-Sharia participated in the September 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
While they were, at the core, an armed group, Ansar al-Sharia adopted a strategy between 2012 and 2014 that focused on preaching and charitable work to build popular support and drive recruitment. As a result, it became the largest jihadist organisation in Libya, with its main branch being stationed in Benghazi.
In response to Haftar’s Operation Dignity, Ansar al-Sharia’s Benghazi unit merged with other militias to form the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) in summer 2014.
As ISIS tried to co-opt existing networks when attempting to expand in Libya from early 2015, tensions grew between it and Ansar al-Sharia (and by extension with the
latter’s associates in AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun) as they competed for members and territory. The rivalry between what remains of ISIS in Libya and al-Qaeda-associated groups is likely to define Libya’s jihadist milieu for some time.
Mary Fitzgerald – Mary Fitzgerald is the Irish Times award-winning foreign affairs correspondent. She is a journalist and researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya.
Source: A quick guide to Libya’s main players