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.
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While Madkhali influence is concentrated in Tripoli and Benghazi, it has also expanded into other cities, towns and villages, including in peripheral areas.
addition to the Madkhalis studded within Counter-Crime Units and other official security forces, distinctly Madkhali armed groups play key roles in several towns, including Sirte, Kufra and Sabratha (where the heavily Madkhali al-Wadi Brigade, which has ties with Haftar’s LNA, gained ascendance following clashes between rival groups in September 2017).
“The Madkhalis are everywhere in Libya to one degree or another and they recruit each other”, observed a Tripoli academic.
Qadhafi’s hometown of Sirte had a Madkhali presence before the 2011 uprising that ran several mosques and Quran memorisation centres.
In August 2015, Khalid bin Rajab al-Ferjani, a prominent local preacher, was killed by ISIS after he publicly criticised the group as it took control of the city.
His assassination triggered an attempted popular uprising, which ISIS brutally quashed. Several of those who fled Sirte, including Ferjani’s brother, later formed the 604th Infantry Battalion with the support of fellow Madkhalis in other groups, including Radaa in Tripoli.
The 604th Battalion joined the Misrata-led alliance known as al-Bunyan al-Marsous formed to drive ISIS from Sirte, but its distinctly ideological character drew Madkhali fighters from across western Libya.
Many within the al-Bunyan al-Marsous coalition were wary of the 604th Battalion for the same reason. The 604th Battalion remains an important player in Sirte today, where it is presenting itself – like Radaa in Tripoli – as a policing force, and has also opened new mosques and religious schools.
Madkhali influence likewise has grown in the south-eastern oasis town of Kufra, which has seen recurrent fighting since 2011 between Arabs of the Zwaya tribe (dominant in the area) and the Tebu minority (whose homeland ranges across southern Libya and northern Chad).
Subul al-Salam, a local Madkhali armed group affiliated with the LNA, appears to have bridged that divide and contains within its ranks both Zwaya and Tebu fighters – an example of how Salafi ideology can trump tribal and ethnic loyalties. Subul al-Salam also has links with Madkhalis in Radaa in Tripoli.
In December 2017, members of Subul al-Salam were accused of desecrating the funerary shrine of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanussi, a key figure in the Sanussi Sufi religious order, the most important in Libya, which was headquartered in Kufra in late 19th century.
Vehicles used in the attack reportedly featured LNA insignia, mimicking other Madkhali raids on Sufi mosques and shrines elsewhere in Libya.
Residents blamed the prominent Madkhali preacher Hafala for inciting the attack.
Hafala, who is usually based between Tripoli and Surman in western Libya, had visited Kufra to give a series of lectures, during which he railed against democracy, civil society and Sufism.
The desecration of the Senussi shrine was denounced by the Government of National Accord and the Dar al-Iftaa, which claimed “[Madkhalis] are being sent to Libya by Saudi Arabia in order to destabilise the country and abort the revolution”.
The nature of the relationship between Madkhalis based in the east and their ideological brethren in western Libya is difficult to ascertain, particularly as there is no national-level governmental structure or unified army and police forces; many groups cluster around charismatic local preachers or militia leaders, even if they share a common loyalty to Madkhali and his disciples.
At present, the Madkhali-dominated armed groups – while aligned with opposing factions, whether the Government of National Accord or the LNA and the Bayda-based government in the east – have avoided conflict with each other, possibly a strategy aimed at ensuring they can continue to expand influence across the country.
According to the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, they have been exchanging information on individuals suspected of affiliation with terrorist organisations.
Anxiety over the growing reach of Madkhali-Salafism has elevated tensions in several cities and towns, sometimes resulting in armed confrontations between Madkhali-dominated factions and their opponents.
A senior GNA security official said: We have already seen some [tensions] but there is a bigger clash coming. In the east, it will be between the Madkhalis and the military personnel [under Haftar’s command] who earlier joined forces with them because they had a common cause. In the west, it is likely to be a reaction from wider society against their agenda.
As Haftar’s forces converge on Tripoli, the question is whether the Madkhali component of Radaa will switch sides to join their Madkhali brethren within the LNA.
Unified, they will constitute an even more powerful group, especially if Haftar prevails over his enemies in Tripoli and sets about rebuilding the country’s security apparatus.
Key to the Libyan debate about the rise of Madkhalis is the question of how the current may evolve, with the present environment in Libya possibly encouraging ambitions well beyond the ideology’s ostensibly quietist roots.
This prospect alarms several senior figures within Libya’s wider security sector, with some considering Madkhali-Salafism a key challenge to the country’s stabilisation, both now and in the future. A former senior official in the transitional government put in place after the fall of the Qadhafi regime said:
It is the pernicious nature of the Madkhalis that is most concerning. Not only are they deeply involved in the security sector, but they also have a strong grip on the country’s religious space in terms of widespread control of mosques and other institutions.
The Madkhalis’ success in gaining such power and influence within the security, religious and social spheres in a relatively short period of time shows they are unlike any other current we have seen since 2011. That and the lack of clarity about their long-term goals should worry us.
This reflects wider concern about the socio-cultural changes Madkhalis have sought to bring about, particularly in eastern Libya, through their control of formal institutions and campaigns of intimidation.
The political divide that emerged in mid-2014 resulted in competing governments in east and west Libya, a rupture that persists despite the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the establishment of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
One consequence of this divide has been the creation of a number of parallel state institutions based in eastern Libya duplicating those affiliated with the Tripoli-based government.
For Madkhalis, control of religious institutions has been a priority, particularly as the western Libyan official religious establishment was dominated (at least until late 2018) by their ideological rivals.
That the Dar al-Iftaa in Tripoli is headed by Ghariyani, who is close to several non-Madkhali revolutionary groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, is one important point of contention.
When rival governments emerged in 2014, the eastern government established its own General Authority of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs (commonly known as the Awqaf) and under it a Supreme Fatwa Committee. These were counterparts to the Awqaf and Dar al-Iftaa in Tripoli.
Over time, as links developed between Haftar and the Madkhalis, individuals close to the movement were propelled to key posts in these institutions, giving them unprecedented influence within mosques and religious institutions, including local branches of the ministry of religious endowments across eastern Libya. As a Benghazi resident put it:
In Benghazi they control all the mosques now, and Rabee al-Madkhali’s literature is everywhere to the exclusion of work by other scholars, particularly those they disagree with.
In their sermons they denounce the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists but also Sufis, secularists, liberals and the whole idea of democracy and pluralism.
The Madkhalis appear to have the upper hand in their turf war to control religious institutions in Tripoli since late 2018.
While Ghariyani, whose often belligerent rhetoric and ultra-conservative views on gender segregation have proved controversial, remains head of Dar al-Iftaa, his allies among armed groups are in retreat and he spends most of his time outside Libya, albeit maintaining a profile through his satellite television channel, al-Tanasuh, and social media.
Even before Ghariyani’s influence began to wane, Madkhalis had been steadily gaining control of a large number of the capital’s mosques, a former senior religious official said, adding that many regional branches of the Tripoli-based Awqaf are also under their control in towns where they have a strong presence.
He added: “I would say a majority of Tripoli’s mosques are now under Madkhali influence. Their growing influence is a problem because they believe in only one way. They don’t accept many of our traditional ways in Libya, and this creates dangerous tensions”.
In late 2018, the Madkhalis scored a major victory when they persuaded Faiez Serraj, head of the Tripoli-based GNA, to appoint Mohamed Abbani, a preacher widely considered sympathetic to the Madkhali current, as head of the Tripoli-based Awqaf, replacing Abbas Ghadi, who was close to Ghariyani.
Serraj reportedly was forced to bow to Madkhali pressure when they threatened to retaliate after the Tripoli Awqaf authorised Sufi communities to hold public celebrations marking the mawlid, a popular holiday commemorating the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, in November 2018.
Madkhalis oppose Sufi mawlid celebrations, considering them un-Islamic.
Following his appointment, Abbani issued permits to several Madkhali preachers, allowing them to deliver sermons and engage in other religious activities across the country.
Abbani has also sought to replace the heads of Awqaf branches across western Libya with Madkhalis, but his efforts have been opposed in a number of towns, including Misrata, where tensions between Madkhalis and armed groups of a more revolutionary bent have grown.
continues in Part 6