Adherents of a Salafi school, the Madkhalis, are gaining prominence on both sides of Libya’s divide, causing concerns about puritanical agendas imposed through military and religious institutions.
Negotiators should ensure that rebuilt security forces are politically neutral and secure the Madkhalis’ pledge to respect pluralism.
While Madkhalis are embedded in a number of smaller armed groups across western Libya, notably in Sabratha, Surman and Zawiya, as well as in many of the Counter-Crime Units (Mukafahat al-Jareema, usually part of the police under the interior ministry) in various towns, the most significant force in which Madkhalis play a pronounced role is the Special Deterrence Force (Quwat al-Radaa al-Khaasa, commonly known as Radaa).
The unit, led by Abdel Rauf Kara, is nominally under the interior ministry’s authority (although it functions autonomously in practice) and is one of the largest security formations in the capital.
Radaa’s Tripoli headquarters is located in Mitiga airport, but it operates smaller units elsewhere and has ambitions to open more branches nationwide.
Radaa largely presents itself as a policing force conducting operations against criminals, including human traffickers, arms smugglers, drug dealers and kidnappers.
It also focuses heavily on counter-terrorism, detaining suspected ISIS and al-Qaeda members in its prison in the Mitiga complex where religious indoctrination takes place.
Many senior figures and foot soldiers within Radaa are dedicated Madkhalis, with some known to be particularly hardline and a few explicitly identified as students of Hafala. But Radaa also includes professional non-ideological security officers from the Qadhafi era, many of whom have enlisted since 2015.
Radaa’s leader, Kara, is not Madkhali himself, but he is ultra-conservative (for instance, he does not meet with women) and follows Salafi dress codes.
Religious scholars suggest he follows another quietist Salafi school of thought known as Albani, which predates Madkhalism. High-ranking officers with Radaa forcefully deny that the group has any ideological outlook.
As a senior officer put it following clashes in Tripoli in September 2018 (which some Radaa opponents cast explicitly as an effort to expel “ideological militias”):
What is Madkhalism anyway? It is a sheikh in the Gulf who issues legal opinions. It is an exaggeration to think that such a man has the ability to mobilise forces in Libya.
We are not a militia; we are a force under the interior ministry. We are all officers with military ranking, including Kara who is a major.
There are signs, however, that the Madkhali current within Radaa is getting stronger, with some former members and associates complaining the force has become too ideologically driven.
Prominent figures from Libya’s Sufi community have accused Radaa personnel of participating in attacks on Sufi mosques and shrines in Tripoli.
Radaa officers also arrested clerics and officials from the Tripoli-based Dar al-Iftaa (the state body that issues fatwas) and the General Authority of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, who are opposed to the Madkhali current.
Radaa’s pursuit of individuals linked to the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council and Benghazi Defence Brigades in Tripoli coincided with Madkhali’s messaging about the need to deter groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or the Tripoli Grand Mufti, al-Sadeq al-Ghariyani.
Tensions between Tripoli’s armed Madkhalis and Ghariyani’s circle – many of whom were already anxious over Madkhali control of a number of the city’s mosques – escalated in late 2016 when Nader al-Omrani, a prominent member of Ghariyani’s Dar al-Iftaa who had publicly criticised the Madkhalis, disappeared following a series of tit-for-tat abductions.
A member of the committee established by the Tripoli-based government to investigate the case said: “Omrani, a respected and influential scholar, was a challenge to the Madkhalis. Unlike many others, he was not afraid to criticise them openly, whether in the mosque or on TV”.
The following month, a video surfaced showing a man claiming to be Omrani’s assassin (Omrani’s body was never recovered), who alleged that the Crime Fighting Apparatus, a sub-unit of Radaa known to have a strong Madkhali element, had killed him.
“We wanted to kill the sheikh because he presented an ideology different from Salafi scholars and clerics, especially that of Rabee al-Madkhali”, the man said, adding that he had acted on orders of prominent Egyptian Madkhali preacher Muhammad Said Raslan.
On his satellite television channel, Ghariyani condemned the alleged killing and denounced Madkhalism as a manifestation of Saudi interference in Libya: “We want the Saudi Madkhali ideology to take its hands off the Libyan crisis.
We know that the Madkhalis here in Libya are the ones who killed Omrani, because he is moderate in Islam and they are radicals”.
The Tripoli-based General Authority of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs subsequently barred eleven Madkhali imams from preaching in mosques in the city and banned religious literature linked to Madkhali and Raslan.
Perceptions that the Madkhali current is growing stronger within Radaa and in Tripoli more generally has fed clashes between Radaa and other armed groups, particularly those from the Tajoura neighbourhood close to Radaa’s Meitiga base.
Esa Mansour, a member of an armed group from Tajoura known as the 33rd Brigade that attacked Radaa’s headquarters in January 2018, said:
They are no different from Islamic State. They take inspiration from a foreign ideology and this is unacceptable to us. They target Sufis and Ibadis.
They are against elections, whereas we want a civil democratic state. If this emirate of Radaa is still around in a year, you will see a war against them.
Radaa officials say their opponents, who have staged attacks on their base in Mitiga, are interested only in releasing detainees they are holding in their prison, claiming, “Their problem is with the terrorists we hold here.
We have about 500 ISIS members. We consider these terrorists, while they consider them revolutionaries [thuwwar]”.
When armed clashes erupted in Tripoli in late August 2018, drawing in Radaa and other forces aligned with the Government of National Accord, there were reports of coordination between Radaa’s Madkhali elements and their fellow Madkhalis in other western towns, including Surman and Sabratha.
Some of the claims underpinning these reports appear exaggerated, pointing to a tendency among those vying with Radaa for power to highlight its Madkhali component as a scarecrow when convenient.
Concerns over increasing Madkhali influence within the machinery of the state have also grown within institutions that use Radaa forces for security.
Some supporters of the armed groups fighting Radaa and its allies in August and September 2018 framed their offensive as partly aimed at pushing back against Madkhali influence in the city and western Libya in general, suggesting that they see this anti-Madkhali approach as having broad appeal. But the clashes also appeared to rally some Madkhali elements in Tripoli.
Heavily armed gunmen wearing masks posted a video on social media announcing themselves as the “Tripoli Protection Force” and declaring the launch of “Operation Badr” against what they described as “apostate criminals and Kharijites” – language similar to that used by Madkhalis fighting for Haftar in eastern Libya.
Anti-Madkhali factions in western Libya accuse the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and its Presidency Council, both headed by Faiez Serraj, of supporting and empowering Madkhali-aligned security forces ever since the GNA established itself in Tripoli in early 2016.
Such backing increased and became more explicit in May 2018, when the Presidency Council approved Decree No. 555, which renamed Radaa as the Deterrence Unit for the Fight against Organised Crime and Terrorism (Jihaz al-Radaa li-Mukafaha al-Jarima al-Munazzama wa al-Irhab) and granted it a nationwide remit.
This decree gave Radaa sweeping new powers, including of arrest, detention and surveillance. After Libyan and international actors, including human rights groups, raised concerns, Serraj sent the decree to the interior ministry for review, but it appears to have been implemented in its original form.
A Misrata politician, expressing a common fear that the informal power of Madkhali militias is undermining institutions, said:
Serraj and [Central Bank of Libya governor Seddik] al-Kebir enjoy Kara’s protection, but in the long term this is dangerous because he [Kara] is against the state and the nation.
The arrangement the government has with Kara undermines the judiciary system and plays with the political system. Kara considers Serraj as working for them and under their orders. This is flawed and dangerous. Radaa is a cancer feeding off the failure of the state.
Concerns over increasing Madkhali influence within the machinery of the state have also grown within institutions that use Radaa forces for security. A senior official in one such institution said:
We initially saw a lot of good in them. They appeared disciplined, a potent security force that could deliver. But we are increasingly uneasy.
We have become suspicious of the hardline ideological element within Radaa and how much they have managed to get inside the system. They are dangerous in that sense. But the question is what are the alternatives? If we don’t deal with them, what happens?
continues in Part 5