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.
A First Revision
All of these events formed the backdrop to a meeting of the LIFG Shura Council in Istanbul in 1998 in which future strategies were discussed. Some members argued that that their losses had been close to catastrophic but the Council did not move to suspend its operations in Libya.
“What we suffered in the 1990s was essentially a defeat but some were in denial”, recalled one member. Abdelhakim Belhaj says he considers 1999 the year “where we officially started what I would call the ‘revisions’ process … I personally proposed reassessing the strategy of using armed struggle against the regime in-country and its viability”.
Two years later, at another Shura Council meeting – this time in Kabul – the group decided to halt all military activities in Libya for three years, at which time that decision would be reviewed.
“We came to the conclusion that we could not continue as before”, recalled one Shura Council member who was present.
“The group was almost finished inside Libya. Our view was that, while we are freezing our operations there, if there is a chance to target Gaddafi and assassinate him, we will take it. Those of us outside Libya felt we needed to do more media work, highlight the repression of the Gaddafi regime, and put pressure that way”.
The LIFG continued to recruit, however, and those volunteers continued to go to Afghanistan for training at a camp named after Salah al-Magrabi, an LIFG member killed in Libya in 1995.
Overall, the LIFG insurgency throughout the 1990s left 165 Libyan officials dead and another 159 wounded. More than 170 LIFG members were killed, including al-Hattab and four other Shura Council members, not including those who perished in the Abu Salim massacre.
Overview of State Approaches to the LIFG Before Negotiations
The Gaddafi regime’s response to the challenge posed by the LIFG after it emerged in the 1990s was a predominantly military one.
The counter-insurgency campaign against the LIFG was conducted by military officers, special forces and other elements of the security apparatus; and notably, it included aerial bombardment of LIFG targets in eastern Libya in 1996.
The subsequent losses incurred by the LIFG were key to the initial rethinking of strategy among the group’s leadership. The Gaddafi regime’s military campaign was accompanied by various forms of repression including imprisonment and ill-treatment.
Even before the emergence of the LIFG, the Gaddafi regime had ruthlessly dealt with any opposition. Under the Libyan penal code, the death penalty could be imposed on “anyone who calls for the establishment of any association or party which is against the Revolution in purpose and means”.
Dissidents of various political leanings were arbitrarily arrested and held for years without charge in prisons and other detention facilities, and often for long periods in incommunicado detention. Torture of those in custody was widespread and systematic.
Family members of suspected regime opponents were harassed, threatened and often detained. Given the seriousness with which Gaddafi viewed the threat posed by the LIFG, such practices took on a particular ferocity when it came to the regime’s crackdown on the group. The corpses of dead LIFG members were paraded publicly.
The homes of families of LIFG members were demolished. Extended family members, friends, acquaintances and neighbours of LIFG suspects were monitored and subjected to intimidation and threats.
Several key LIFG figures – among them Shura Council members Miftah al-Dawadi and Abdulwahab al-Qaid, both of whom were later involved in the revisions process – were jailed during the 1990s. Both men spent years in solitary confinement.
The mass killings at Abu Salim prison in 1996 had an extra impact on the LIFG and the wider Islamist milieu. Several LIFG members and the relatives of others – including a brother of Sami al-Saadi – were among the dead.
“After the massacre, there was a sense something had to be done”, said Mohamed Busidra, a non-aligned Islamist detainee at Abu Salim who was close to LIFG prisoners, including Dawadi, with whom he shared a cell between 1996 and 2000.
But Qaid, who was injured by a bullet fragment on the day of the massacre, said it did not prompt him to consider engaging with the regime: “We knew the regime was brutal; thus while the scale of the massacre surprised me, it didn’t bring about a change in my mind. That came later for other reasons”.
Moving Toward Dialogue: Motivations of the Libyan Regime
While members of the LIFG had been engaging either in personal reflection or group debate regarding the feasibility of armed insurgency against the Gaddafi regime since the late 1990s, global shifts following the 11 September 2001 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which in turn contributed to a tentative opening up in Libya, helped set the stage for the revisions process.
In 2003, Libya’s international isolation came to an end when the UN lifted 11-year-old sanctions on the country and Gaddafi agreed to abandon all efforts to develop any chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
This boosted those considered reformists in Libya, including Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent, Saif. He focused on reconciling the regime with the country’s opposition currents, engaging with figures from the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – a process that led to the release of Brotherhood prisoners from Abu Salim and other detention centres – and the National Salvation Front, a group which had been involved in a number of coup attempts against Gaddafi.
“Saif came to the conclusion that unless a process of national reconciliation was ignited and the many elements opposed to his father’s regime are involved so they have some kind of participation and end hostilities, the desired reform would not be possible or meaningful”, recalled a former official who worked closely with the younger Gaddafi. “Thus he embarked on this process and became more convinced that it may well be even more useful once he had the support of Islamists”.
Prison conditions started to improve as the regime began allowing international human rights organisations into Libya. As such, the LIFG’s revisions process was part of a wider program of state reforms in Libya.
“There were those within the regime who realised that it had to sacrifice and compromise on some things to ensure it could continue”, said Akeel Hussin Akeel, a former higher education minister who proved key to initiating the dialogue with the LIFG.
After the United States rescinded Libya’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2006, the Gaddafi regime began presenting itself as an ally not only willing to cooperate with the international community on counter-terrorism but uniquely positioned to provide intelligence on militants.
Saif was keen to demonstrate his reformist credentials and present a Libyan success story when it came to de-radicalisation.
The Libyan regime was also worried about the emergence of a younger generation of militants, particularly in eastern Libya, who were drawn to a harder, more transnational, ideology than that espoused by the LIFG.
Many of them flocked to Iraq to join al-Qaeda-linked insurgent groups after the 2003 invasion. In July 2007, not long after tentative dialogue efforts between the LIFG leadership and the regime had begun, Libyan security forces disrupted a network in eastern Libya that was recruiting volunteers to fight in Algeria and Iraq and plotting bomb attacks against Libyan targets. More than 100 individuals were arrested.
Not everyone within the Gaddafi regime – particularly its security apparatus – was in favour of engaging in dialogue with the LIFG leadership.
As one senior official involved in the process recalled: “The security apparatus and revolutionary committees (paralegal bodies formed in the 1970s ostensibly to “protect the revolution” that underpinned Gaddafi’s rule) were not ready to accept it. However, security officials – after some resistance – realised they had to be involved in the process. The revolutionary committees were against it but had no real means to obstruct it”.
The backing of Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi’s long-time intelligence chief who favoured the idea of dialogue, was key to Saif’s push. “This meant that the process went ahead despite some reservations and it also received some qualified support from elements within the external security apparatus led by Abuzeid Dorda.”
“Saif was pinning great hopes on the success of the whole reconciliation process and insisted on it despite the obvious risks, the opposition from within the regime, and the lack of any guarantees that the Islamists would not resort to their old ways”.
Among those who endorsed the initiative, there was an acknowledgement that force alone would not resolve the challenge of homegrown militancy. Others grew to realise this as the dialogue continued. “There is no means to combat an ideology except through ideology”, declared Tuhami Khaled, a senior security official who had been sceptical of the revisions process, when it concluded in 2010.
Similarly, in a speech the same year, Saif al-Gaddafi expressed hope that the resulting treatise would help address any new militancy challenge: “I advise a lot of young people, before they get ready to blow up oil installations in Libya or think of kidnapping tourists in Libya, or to join armed groups in Algeria and Mali, I advise them to read this book, and I also convey a message to other Libyan brothers who are now fighting in the mountains of Algeria and in the Malian desert, and tell them that you are in the wrong place”.
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