By Lisa Watanabe
This study looks at several types of key Islamist actors. Among the political Islamists, it examines mainstream Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, who have gone the furthest in terms of accepting democratic norms and principles, and are the most pragmatic with regards to the application of sharia law.
Post-jihadis (LIFG/LIMC Veterans)
National Vectors of Influence
A number of brigades formed or led by LIFG/LIMC veterans have retained influence on the ground in several areas across the country following the uprising. This includes the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, which, along with a number of other brigades, controls much of the capital.
In the East, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade maintains considerable influence in Derna, engaging in smuggling activities. It was also reported to have trained would-be foreign fighters for the Syrian conflict.
Belhadj remains a prominent political figure and still wields influence in Tripoli as a result of his former connections to the TMC. Although he now presents himself as a business man – his political career not having been very successful – many Libyans say that he is influential behind the scenes, pulling the strings with LIFG/LIMC veterans. He is also well-respected by the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as in other Islamist circles.
The civil war has also enabled Ismail Al-Sallabi to increase his influence in the East as one of the most powerful commanders in the BRSC and the BDB. While the BRSC and its constituent parts have been decimated in clashes with the LNA, there is no doubt that fighters in the East continue to support the brigades that make up the BRSC.
Ali Al-Sallabi is also an associate of GNA Defence Minister Colonel Mahdi Al-Barghathi.
In theory, he would be well-positioned to play a role in any future Libyan army. However, his links to jihadi actors and the decline of both the BRSC could work against this.
The profiles of former LIFG/LIMC members, notably Ismail Al-Sallabi and Belhadj, have also been boosted through control of various media outlets. The BRSC has several media outlets of its own, including Al-Saraya Media Centre, which it uses to publicize its activities and also to diffuse its agenda, and Bushra Media Establishment, a pro-BRSC online media group, which also became that of the BDB. Belhadj, in turn, has his own TV channel, Nada TV, which has been used to promote the operations of the BRSC and the BDB. It also re-diffuses reports featured by the Al-Saraya Media Centre.
International Vectors of Influence
The successes of LIFG/LIMC militants during the uprising were not only attributed to the movement’s ability to adapt its message and image to the changed national context, but also to the movement’s relations with Qatar.
The military roles of LIFG/LIMC veterans, which translated into political influence for some, was aided by arms supplies and other forms of support from Qatar. As commander of the 17th February Martyrs Brigade, Ismail Al-Sallabi is believed to have received aid and arms from Qatar, channeled, as noted earlier, through Al-Sallabi’s brother, Ali, who was at that time of the uprising based in Doha.
When Ismail Al-Sallabi formed the Raffalah Al-Sahati Brigade, this support is thought to have continued in the form of funding and arms.
Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, when led by Belhadj, received infantry training from Qatari Special Operations Forces in the Nafusa Mountain area, where it was based during the uprising.
Qatari Special Operations Forces were even reported to have been on the ground during the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade’s assault on Qaddaf’s fortress, the Bab al-Azizya Compound.
Qatar’s support for Belhadj also appears to have continued beyond the uprising. The TMC, which Belhadj led following the death of Qaddafi, is also reported to have received funds from Qatar. Following Belhadj’s resignation from the TMC, Qatari support for him could have continued.
His Al-Watan party is notably rumoured to receive Qatari financial support. However, his perceived links to Qatar may be a liability for any future political ambitions he may have.
Salafi Parties (Al-Watan and Al-Umma Al-Wasat)
Background and Objectives
As indicated, those LIFG/LIMC veterans, who entered the political arena following the fall of the Qaddafi regime, fractured into two main political parties, one more moderate than the other.
Former LIFG/LIMC leader, Belhadj, as mentioned, resigned from the TMC in order to run in the parliamentary elections in 2012 as a candidate for the party that he had formed, Al-Watan.
The latter is comprised of a wide range of figures, some of which are not Islamist. Among its members are business people, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and more liberal-leaning Libyans, who had been implicated in civil society activities during the course of the uprising.
Reflective of its diverse composition, Al-Watan presents itself as a broad based political party with an Islamic reference. As such, it claims to accept the civic nature of the state and does not seek to make sharia law the basis of legislation.
The other, more ideologically conservative, party to emerge in 2012 was Al-Umma Al-Wasat. The latter was founded by Al-Saadi, one of Belhadj’s deputies and former head of the LIFG’s religious committee. A significant number of LIFG/LIMC veterans followed Al-Saadi and joined his party, resulting in the party being dubbed the “LIFG political wing” in local media.
Among them were Al-Sharif, another of Belhadj’s deputies, Al-Qaid, senior member of the LIFG and brother of the high-level Al-Qaeda militant Abu Yahya Alibi, and Al-Dhuwadi.
In line with its more conservative agenda, Al-Umma Al-Wasat seeks to establish sharia law in Libya. Consequently, it does not accept the idea of a civic state.
On the national stage, Al-Watan has links to several prominent actors, including former Muslim Brotherhood member and leader of the Hisb Al-Watan (formerly the National Gathering and not to be confused with Belhadj’s Al-Watan party), Ali Al-Sallabi.
Belhadj and Ali Al-Sallabi formed particularly close ties when the latter assisted in securing the release of Belhadj and other LIFG members from prison in the mid-2000s. During the uprising, this relationship would prove crucial to Belhadj’s military role, especially during the capture of Tripoli by rebel forces.
Other key figures in the party are also known to have links to Ali Al-Sallabi, including Ismail Gritli, an Al-Jazeera journalist, who returned to Libya from the UK in 2002 and co-authored a book with him.
Al-Watan’s composition and ideological orientation has also led the party to find common cause with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are present in Al-Watan and with which the latter allied during the Libyan civil war as part of the Libya Dawn coalition.
As part of this coalition, Al-Watan could rely on the support of the Muslim Brotherhood-tied Libya Shield forces, which include the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, which Behadj once commanded.
Not surprisingly, Al-Umma Al-Wasat has ties with more conservative figures in Libya’s political and religious spheres. As a member of the GNC, Al-Qaid was afforded ample opportunity to forge ties with other conservative members within the body, especially independent Salafi-leaning GNC deputies within his Loyalty to the Martyrs Blood bloc.
This parliamentary bloc was itself allied with the JCP. The party’s leader, Al-Saadi, is also allied with the JCP. The party’s leader, Al-Saadi, is also allegedly connected to Sadiq Al-Ghariani, an influential cleric within Libya’s religious sphere, who was appointed Libya’s first director of Dar Al-Ifta and is reported to have links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Watan is reported to maintain close relations with Qatar and is even alleged to be financed by Qatar. Al-Saadi and his Al-Umma Al-Wasat party may also have had similar links. Al-Saadi’s name appears on a terror list issued by the HoR following the publication of the Arab states’ terror black list of Qatari or Qatari-allied individuals, which is suggestive of potential links to Qatar.
National Vectors of Influence
During the 2012 parliamentary elections, which allowed political parties to run in conjunction with independent candidates, both Al-Watan and Al-Umma Al-Wasat faired extremely badly. Al-Watan suffered a stunning defeat. It failed to win any seats in the GNC, even Belhadj, who was a high profile figure, failed to win a seat in his constituency of Tripoli’s 13th district.
The poor performance of the party may have been due to Belhadj’s connections to Ali Al-Sallabi, and the perception that the party was under the influence of Qatar. Al-Umma Al-Wasat did slightly better, winning one seat, which was allocated to Al-Qaid, who used his position well.
During his time in the GNC, Al-Qaid was leader of the Salafi-oriented Loyalty to the Martyrs Blood bloc. This bloc was able, in alliance with the JCP, to wield considerable influence in the GNC. In addition, Al-Qaid was head of the GNC’s National Security Committee.
International Vectors of Influence
During the 2012 elections, Belhadj and his Al-Watan party received a great deal of attention in the international press. El-Watan’s support for the UN-led political process, in which it has participated, has also led to a more positive international image than that of Al-Umma Al-Wasat, which has been a staunch opponent of reconciliation.
To be continued
Lisa Watanabe – Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Studies, Institute of Security Studies, Zurich. Specializes in the issues of North Africa and the European Mediterranean.