Assessing the Revisions of the Libyan Islamic Group (LIFG)
By Mary Fitzgerald & Emadeddin Badi
This paper is part of a project that aims to fill a major gap in policy making: the failure to integrate lessons learnt and best practices from the field of transitional justice in relation to conflict resolution strategies with two kinds of unconventional armed actors.
From Nucleus to Fully-Fledged Group
Between 1990 and 1995, the nucleus that had formed in Afghanistan and Pakistan began to expand as the leadership built an organisation that was clandestine and paramilitary in nature.
In the first years, the LIFG was able to recruit from the large community of battle-hardened Libyans – estimated at up to 1,000 – who were living in Afghanistan and in Pakistani border towns like Peshawar.
In 1993, the leadership of the fledgling LIFG moved to Sudan, where the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir welcomed a range of foreign opposition groups and figures, many of whom had gained experience in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden.
Other Libyans who relocated to Sudan included a number who would later become senior figures in al-Qaeda. The circles intermingled but the LIFG as a group remained separate, and most of its members left Sudan in the late 1990s after Gaddafi pressured Khartoum.
In 1998, bin Laden announced the formation of his “International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders”. However, according to LIFG leaders and other non-Libyan militants, the LIFG refused to be part of it, insisting theirs was a Libyan battle only.
Former LIFG leaders and rank-and-file members assert that their agenda was always nationalist and focused on ousting Gaddafi. The group did, however, make an ill-fated foray into the early stages of the Algerian civil war that began in 1991, funnelling trained fighters from Afghanistan.
It proved disastrous as the Libyans fell out with their Algerian counterparts over strategy and tactics. The LIFG later published two communiqués criticising the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) for killing civilians and “deviating from the principles of jihad as well as those of the Sharia”.
A number of LIFG figures cite lessons from the experience in Algeria – where a number of LIFG fighters were killed by their erstwhile allies – as key to their later rethinking of armed action.
While the LIFG regarded itself first and foremost as a Libyan opposition group rooted in a Salafi-jihadist ideology, it did on occasion express solidarity with radical Islamists elsewhere.
The writings of Sami al-Saadi, particularly his earlier work (which by his own admission was more radical), were cited by prominent figures within the wider jihadist sphere, including the influential Jordanian ideologue Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
The LIFG published communiqués on conflicts outside Libya, including in Palestine, and criticised what it called American aggression in Sudan and Afghanistan following the U.S. retaliatory attacks there after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings by al-Qaeda.
It condemned the U.S. for its 2003 invasion of Iraq and described the fight against the American occupation as “defensive jihad”. Although the LIFG swam in similar ideological waters to al-Qaeda, it did not condone the group’s broader strategy of targeting the West.
Although one former LIFG member Abu Anas al-Libi was implicated in the planning of the blasts in Kenya and Tanzania, the group never publicly congratulated al-Qaeda on the bombings or other attacks such as the USS Cole bombings and the 11 September 2001 attacks.
According to the testimony of several former LIFG leaders, during 2000 – when many of them were again living in Afghanistan – they met with bin Laden to request that he stop using the country as a base from which to plan attacks against Western targets, arguing that he risked endangering their Taliban hosts, as subsequently happened with the U.S. bombing campaign in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
A small circle of Libyans around Abu Laith al-Libi (who was killed in 2008 in the tribal areas of Pakistan) did ally itself with al-Qaeda, but this was a splinter move.
Despite claims by al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Laith al-Libi in 2007 that the LIFG had joined its ranks, the group never joined bin Laden’s organisation – a Shura Council decision on the matter in 2000 was unanimous, according to several who were present – due to ideological differences but also to the belief that it would undermine their ability to pursue their primary goal of toppling Gaddafi.
Emergence in Libya
Although the LIFG had been operating secretly in Libya between 1990 and 1995 – mostly building a clandestine network capable of taking on the Gaddafi regime militarily – it only declared its existence in late 1995 following clashes in Benghazi.
That summer, the LIFG commander for eastern Libya, Saad al-Ferjani, oversaw an audacious and ultimately successful operation to release an LIFG member who was being treated in a Benghazi hospital after he had been captured by security forces.
Subsequent security sweeps across the city and its hinterland resulted in a number of armed confrontations between LIFG cadre and regime forces.
The Gaddafi regime realised it had a new opponent and in October the LIFG announced itself with its first communique, in which it claimed responsibility for the clashes of the previous four months. Abdelhakim Belhaj, from Tripoli, became emir, a position he held for the remainder of the group’s existence.
“The regime’s security apparatus discovered that it was not just facing small Islamist groups as before, but rather a large organisational network (like an octopus) that was present across Libya”, recalled Anis al-Sharif, an LIFG member from Derna who later issued communiques for the group from his home in London. “The regime also discovered the presence of LIFG leadership outside the country”.
Over the next three years, the LIFG tried to prove itself with several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Gaddafi. The closest they came was in November 1996 when an LIFG operative hurled a grenade at Gaddafi during his visit to the desert town of Brak.
“We saw the regime as a triangle. Kill Gaddafi and the whole regime will fall. The strategy was to target Gaddafi, people close to him and his security forces. We never targeted civilians”, recalled one Shura Council member who joined in 1995.
In recounting their history, former members of the LIFG make a point of noting that they did not seek to target civilians or foreigners nor did they carry out bombings in public areas like jihadist groups in other countries such as Algeria and Egypt at the time.
In a 2010 report, Amnesty International noted that Saif al-Gaddafi claimed there had been civilian casualties during the LIFG insurgency of the 1990s, but he provided no statistics.
Amnesty added that, according to its best knowledge, the LIFG did not target civilians. The group conducted a campaign targeting security forces across eastern Libya but concentrated particularly around the town of Derna – home to several prominent LIFG members and other veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and the rugged Green Mountains area between it and Benghazi.
In March 1996, several dozen Islamist detainees who had escaped from al-Kuwaifiya prison near Benghazi fled into the Green Mountains pursued by security forces who then came under attack by LIFG guerrillas.
In June, LIFG fighters killed eight policemen at a training centre near Derna. In July, the government carried out massive arrests throughout the country and launched a major air and ground assault on LIFG mountain bases.
Fierce fighting between the LIFG and regime forces in a remote valley west of Derna only ended when the LIFG found itself under aerial bombardment and facing thousands of soldiers deployed by Tripoli.
The LIFG was forced to withdraw after sustaining heavy casualties. The following year, Fathi bin Sulaiman (alias Abu Abdulrahman al-Hattab), a founding member of the LIFG and a key commander in the group, was killed in a confrontation with regime forces in the Green Mountains where LIFG fighters were hiding out, sometimes in caves. Several others from the LIFG cadre were rounded up and jailed.
Throughout this time, the LIFG failed to assassinate Gaddafi and suffered major losses. Its leaders also wrestled with the fact it was unable to gain the same level of popular legitimacy that other groups elsewhere had, such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) during the initial stages of the Algerian civil war.
In that case, the GIA was seen as an avenging force against a regime that had denied the population the Islamist government it had voted for.
There was no such galvanising moment for the LIFG in the Libyan context: revelations regarding the Abu Salim prison massacre, for example, did not emerge until years after it took place.
In June 1996, security officers at the high security Abu Salim prison killed some 1,200 inmates, many of them Islamists, after a revolt over poor conditions.
The first public acknowledgement of the incident came only in April 2004, when Gaddafi publicly stated that killings (in an unspecified number) had taken place in Abu Salim.
Furthermore, regime tactics in the mid-late 1990s, such as cutting electricity and water supplies to towns suspected of harbouring LIFG members and rounding up scores of alleged sympathisers, helped undermine the group’s local support network.
Within a few years of the LIFG going public, the Gaddafi regime had all but routed the group. Many of the LIFG cadre who had not been killed or jailed fled Libya. Some sought asylum in the UK, where many other Arab dissidents and veterans of the Afghan war were based, as well as in other European countries. Others moved to Istanbul. But a larger number returned to Afghanistan, one of the few places where Libyans lacking proper documentation could settle.
Mary Fitzgerald is a researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya. She has reported on and researched Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014. She has conducted research and consulted on Libya for a number of international organisations working in Libya including in the areas of conflict mediation, local governance, civil society and youth empowerment. Her reporting on Libya has appeared in many prominent publications.
Emadeddin Badi is a Libyan independent consultant and researcher that specializes in governance, post-conflict stabilization, hybrid security structures and peacebuilding. Emad worked on multiple research and policy-oriented projects with various institutions. He has conducted regular field research in North Africa, primarily on avenues for reform of Libya’s security institutions, war economies, hybrid security and cross-border crime. Emad is currently a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Middle East Program at the Atlantic Council.
Institute for Integrated Transitions