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.
Motivations of the LIFG
Several LIFG leaders insist they considered dialogue with the Gaddafi regime only “after all other options were exhausted”. But the fallout from the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S. was also a key factor, given the dramatic consequences for their group.
The LIFG leadership realised that the so-called “war on terror” launched by the George W. Bush administration and pursued by the U.S. and its allies across the world meant not only the loss of Afghanistan as their “safe haven”; it also meant greater international scrutiny than before.
“After 9/11, we understood that the world had changed as had the possibility of continuing the same campaign against the Gaddafi regime. The rules of the game had changed”, recalled Anis al-Sharif. According to the LIFG leadership, they had repeatedly rebuffed bin Laden’s overtures and rejected offers to merge with al-Qaeda.
Despite the defeats it experienced in the late 1990s in Libya, the group remained focused on its sole objective of overthrowing Gaddafi. In a 2005 interview, Noman Benotman, a former LIFG member who left the organisation in 2001 but contributed to the revisions process through his interaction with Saif al-Gaddafi, stated: “The LIFG has always been wholly focused on Libya. Our ultimate objective was the creation of an Islamic state in Libya”.
While in Afghanistan, the LIFG leadership preferred to give their allegiance to their Taliban hosts. Sami al-Saadi gave a series of lectures in Afghanistan in which he advised other Arabs there to follow the law of the Taliban government rather than Bin Laden so long as they were living on their land.
LIFG leaders say they warned bin Laden that any attack launched on the U.S. from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan without the endorsement of Taliban leader Mullah Omar would be a violation of religious principles.
Benotman later recounted these discussions in media articles, including an open letter he wrote to bin Laden. When the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan began in late 2001, the LIFG ordered its cadre to leave the place they had known since the 1980s and where they had hoped to rebuild the group and train new recruits.
They had no choice but to disperse beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The LIFG’s post 9/11 flight from Afghanistan brought about the first contact between the group (or at least some of its rank-and-file and their families) and the Gaddafi regime.
This transpired through Saif al-Gaddafi’s NGO, the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. It coordinated with U.S. and Pakistani authorities to evacuate Libyan families from Afghanistan and repatriate them to Libya where they were assisted by the authorities.
According to Libyan scholar and Islamist Ali Sallabi, later the primary mediator in the LIFG dialogue process, this gesture had an impact on perceptions of the Gaddafi regime among some of the group’s rank-and-file.
Senior LIFG figures, however, including several of the group’s leaders, ended up in a number of countries including Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and China. Suspicion followed them.
“Before 9/11 only Gaddafi targeted us but after 9/11 we were targeted by the whole world because the regime capitalised on the attacks to paint everyone as al-Qaeda”, said Sami al-Saadi.
Gaddafi’s rapprochement with the West meant the LIFG was now under greater surveillance, including in the UK. Several members were detained there. The group was also hit by augmented global efforts to disrupt the financing of militant groups, giving it further incentive to change tactics.
In March 2004, the LIFG’s emir Abdelhakim Belhaj, who had settled first in Malaysia after leaving Afghanistan before moving to China, was rendered back to Libya, along with his wife.
It later transpired that their rendition, and that of Sami al-Saadi and his family from Hong Kong the same month, was coordinated by the CIA, British intelligence (MI6) and the Gaddafi regime.
Saadi noted that after his arrival in Tripoli, regime officials warned him there was no longer anywhere to hide. The head of external security, Musa Kusa, told him: “After September 11, I can pick up the phone and the CIA or MI6 would give us the latest information on you”.
Later in 2004, the U.S. State Department placed the LIFG on its list of terrorist groups. The UK followed suit the year after. The LIFG had already been included on the UN 1267 Committee Consolidated List of individuals and entities associated with al Qaida or the Taliban since October 2001.
Other senior LIFG members caught up in post 9/11 sweeps included Khalid al-Sharif who was arrested in Pakistan in April 2003 and transferred to the U.S.-run detention facilities in Afghanistan before he was rendered to Libya in 2005.
By the end of 2005, the majority of the LIFG’s historically most important figures – its emir Abdelhakim Belhaj; its religious ideologue Sami al-Saadi; two of its military commanders Khalid al-Sharif and Mustafa Qanaifidh; former emir Miftah al-Dawadi; and Abdulwahab al-Qaid – were in prison in Libya.
Having spent many years in jail already, the worldview of Dawadi, Qanaifidh and Qaid had been shaped by very different experiences to those of Belhaj, Saadi and Sharif. “I spent seven years in solitary confinement where I felt I was just getting ready to die. I had no contact with the outside world”, said Qaid, who was imprisoned from 1995 to 2010.
“Those outside could measure the regime’s behaviour from a distance but also see what was happening internationally in terms of shifting political and ideological currents”.
Ali Sallabi, who was the key mediator in the dialogue process, observed the same: “[They] were aware of the fundamental changes that took place in the global and regional arena and … such events affected their thinking and made them reassess their priorities”.
“It also gave them a newfound sense of developing ideas; unlike the people who had been in prison and had been cut off from the outside world since the 1990s. When these leaders interacted with their members inside the prison they were able to influence them. These dynamics helped them adopt the initiative”.
Although they approached it from varying perspectives borne out of starkly different personal experiences, all six men shared a sense that perhaps it was time to reassess the strategies and ideology that had underpinned the LIFG up to that point. “There were now several generations – older than me, the same age and younger – with me in the prison and that underscored for me the futility of armed struggle”, recalled Qaid.
With conditions at Abu Salim jail starting to improve after 2002 – though they deteriorated again in 2005 after tensions flared between inmates and guards – Qaid, Dawadi and Qanaifidh were able to sit together and debate what had gone wrong for the LIFG.
Television sets were later installed in the prison, opening up the world outside for those who had been incarcerated for years. Meanwhile, a conversation had already started between Belhaj and Saadi when they were both living in China in early 2004.
They discussed the mood among the scattered LIFG cadre and wondered if the group was ripe for some sort of transition. “China was the ‘fighter’s break’ as we say in Arabic. We had time to sit and reflect in a way that was impossible when we were constantly on the move and looking over our shoulder”, recalled Saadi. “That is where the root change in mentality began”.
Between their rendition to Libya and the beginning of the dialogue with the regime, Belhaj, Saadi and Sharif were held in solitary confinement in Tajoura prison on the outskirts of Tripoli for a number of years before being transferred to Abu Salim.
In Tajoura, all three were interrogated by Libyan authorities but also personnel from several foreign security services, and subjected to beatings and other forms of ill-treatment.
For Khalid al-Sharif, that period and the preceding two years he spent in U.S.-run detention facilities in Afghanistan, gave him a deeper appreciation of what longer-term LIFG prisoners in Libya had experienced. “There had been a slow realisation over several years
that armed opposition had only led to more suffering. The fact so many of our companions were between prison and death helped prompt our rethinking”.
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