Since the fall of Qaddafi, the war-torn country’s militias have sought to contain extremism. But at what cost?
By Frederic Wehrey
This is not the attitude back in Tripoli, however. Here, a militia that passes for a counter-terrorism force is running an extensive re-indoctrination effort, rooted in Islamic scripture and jobs training.
The program is run from a prison on the northern end of Matiga International Airport, where hundreds of ISIS fighters or suspected fighters are kept, along with common criminals and individuals caught on the wrong side of Libya’s factional divide.
The prison is not controlled by the Libyan government but by a man named Abdelroauf Kara, the commander of the Special Deterrence Force, one of Tripoli’s most formidable armed groups. He has emerged as the city’s de facto counterterrorism czar.
Just shy of 40 years old with a gaze of severe remoteness, Kara met me in early 2016 a conference room in his fortified compound at the airport.
In an adjacent office, wispy young militiamen in lizard-stripe fatigues and Diadora trainers lounged on a couch watching a wide-screen TV. A box-fed machine gun rested on a bipod. Growing up in the nearby Tripoli neighborhood of Suq al-Jumaa, or “Friday Market,” Kara told me he worked as a metal artisan before the revolution.
He is also an adherent of Salafism, the literalist, conservative interpretation of Islam, and sports the ample beard and shaved mustache of a practicing Salafist. His rise as a militia boss is part of a nationwide trend of Salafists taking over Libya’s policing functions.
After the fall of Qaddafi, Kara founded a militia to ferret out ex-regime loyalists. Then, since the Libyan police had all but disappeared from the capital’s streets, he tackled the drug trade: With the collapse of Libyan border control after 2011, a torrent of illicit narcotics had flowed into the country from the south and west. All the while, Kara’s opponents feared the vast power he was accruing.
The arrival of ISIS in Libya proved a further boon to Kara’s authority. While the campaign against its stronghold in Sirte was chiefly a military one, the battle against the group in Tripoli demanded intelligence and police work, using surveillance, informants, and nighttime raids. And Kara’s militia was the closest thing to a security service.
Kara brought onto his payroll ex-intelligence officers from the Qaddafi era with a talent for interrogations. His militiamen raided suspected safe houses. Each new arrest led to more raids, he told me, after interrogations and the analysis of data from seized cell phones.
ISIS hit back, attacking Kara’s base and killing several of his men. Still, he insisted he was winning, and presented himself to Western powers as a counter-terrorism ally, especially after aligning himself with the weak United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.
Kara’s biggest coup came last year, when he arrested the brother of Salman Abedi, a 22-year old Briton born to Libyan parents who blew himself up in Manchester in May 2017, killing 22 people at a concert. Believing the brother to be an accomplice, British authorities have asked repeatedly for his extradition.
Yet Kara’s power has not gone uncontested: In mid-January, another Tripoli militia attacked Kara’s base, seeking the release of prisoners. A mix of personal, ideological, and political rivalries underpinned the assault, which left more than 20 dead and shut down the airport for days.
Despite such clashes, Kara has denied using the pretext of the Islamic State to go after opponents. And he has further refuted accusations leveled by the United Nations of abuses inside his prison, insisting he acted with justice and humanity. The proof, he told me, was his program of prisoner rehabilitation.
The morning after we met, I went to see this program, housed on Matiga airport near a half-finished soccer field. At 7:30 a.m. sharp, the prisoners jogged from their cells to breakfast, followed by classes on Islam.
Some of them, my escort told me, had come to the prison on the recommendation of their families, for alleged drug use or for an array of behavior problems. Then there were the jihadists. “The Islamic State guys need special treatment,” he said.
Seated on a plush carpet before a cleric, they hunched over Korans and pamphlets written by religious authorities in Saudi Arabia.
This dose of Salafist principles seemed to comprise the core of their counseling and treatment, though Kara said he addressed more worldly needs as well.
After lunch, the prisoners took vocational classes: cabinet making, computer literacy, house painting, and electrical repair. All of this would help them “rejoin society,” my escort said.
I walked through the hives of activity, past the whine of buzz saws and fumes of lacquer to a small cantina where some young men were frying hamburgers.
This is where I first met Ahmed. He’d been captured by Kara’s forces a few months earlier. When he made the pledge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Ahmed had hardly expected this. He’d wanted to join a project; the Islamic State’s recruiter spoke of a borderless state, where Muslims lived peaceably with one another, apart from the unbelievers.
He said he was well aware of its brutality, but that the recruiters marshaled an array of theological justifications. “They showed us verses from the Koran and the Prophet’s sayings,” he said. “You see? It’s all here.”
Now, the prison clerics tried each day to purge him of what he’d been told. Earlier, Kara had given me an illustration. “We tell the Islamic State guys, ‘Westerners in Libya who buy our oil are people protected by an ahd,” or Islamic covenant, he said. “They are not kuffar”— unbelievers.
Ahmed gave me an even simpler explanation. “I didn’t know the stories behind the sayings and the verses,” he said. “The Islamic State never told me the stories.”
In the end, it was local context that blocked the expansion of the Islamic State in Libya. Libyans had their own stories, and the terrorist group found it hard to graft its narrative onto the North African state.
Still, the paths to violence are varied and personal, often forged from narrow communities and peer groups. Common threads bind them: political and economic upheaval, foreign wars, and, especially, repression, corruption, and the absence of rule of law.
The latter afflictions bedevil Libya today, under the countless militias who rule with impunity across the country. With no effective Libyan government and no capable police or security services, the chiefs of these militias present themselves to outside powers as counter-terror partners, much in the same way they have done in countering migration to Europe.
The real challenge, then, is dealing with extremism in a way that does not empower these men at the expense of an inclusive, civic state.
The factors that pushed Ahmed and Fawzi toward militancy remain. And the cycle of mobilization may yet turn again.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.