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.
The De-radicalisation Process
Some years earlier, when the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was gradually opening a dialogue with the Gaddafi regime, a senior figure from the Brotherhood approached Akeel Hussin Akeel requesting that Ali Sallabi, a theologian and dissident close to the Brotherhood, be allowed return to Libya. Sallabi had spent much of the 1980s in Abu Salim prison during a period of repression that largely targeted the Brotherhood and the National Salvation Front.
He then went into exile, first in Saudi Arabia, then Sudan, Yemen and finally Qatar. Akeel was close to intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi (they are from the same tribe) and was able to start the process that led to Sallabi’s return.
“In 2004, Ali asked me what can we do to help the people in the prison”, recalled Akeel. “I went to Abdullah Senussi to raise the subject. He was supportive from the beginning”.
Sallabi had known several of the LIFG leaders from Saudi Arabia – which had been a transit point to Afghanistan for them – and Sudan. The Sallabi family had a history of opposition to the regime. Some of his relatives, including his brother Ismail, had been incarcerated in Abu Salim.
“There were five keys to how the LIFG revisions process started”, said Akeel. “Ali Sallabi opened the key with me, I opened the key with Abdullah Senussi, he opened the key with Saif and Saif opened the final key with his father. Without Senussi, none of this would have happened”.
The LIFG engagement with the regime began tentatively in late 2005, following some exploratory meetings and one-on-one conversations between regime officials and individual LIFG figures in which the regime proposed the idea of the LIFG putting down arms.
By early 2007, these six members of the Shura Council were involved in the talks which took on a more structured form the following year:
– Abdelhakim Belhaj (Abu Abdullah) – Emir (1995-2010)
– Sami al-Saadi (Abu al-Mundir) – Chief ideologue
– Khalid al-Sharif (Abu Hazim) – Deputy emir
– Mustafa Qanaifidh (Abu al-Zubair) – Head of the military committee; field commander
– Miftah al-Dawadi (Abd al-Ghaffar) – Former emir
– Abdulwahab al-Qaid (Abu Idris) – Field commander
Noman Benotman, the former LIFG member then based in London, was allowed to travel to Libya and consult with the imprisoned leadership. Benotman published an open letter to Ayman al-Zawahiri in late 2007, criticising al-Qaeda and calling for it to end all operations. Benotman’s relationship with his former associates was sometimes strained but he worked closely with Saif.
Early in the process, Sallabi encouraged the LIFG leaders to examine the experiences of armed groups in other countries including Egypt, Yemen and Algeria and see which lessons could be applied to the Libyan context.
A committee was formed which included the LIFG leadership, figures from the security apparatus and the Gaddafi Foundation. “It took time to generate confidence among them”, said Sallabi. “The next phase concerned psychological and emotional ‘release’, so that each party expressed its views and ideas and motives for the exit or motives for the use of counter-violence. The idea was that this would help calm all parties”.
As the process continued, the regime agreed to facilitate family visits to prison and pledged to improve conditions, including food and access to medical assistance, for the inmates.
There were sessions – according to Sallabi more than 60 – where LIFG leaders debated with regime officials for hours. “There were open intellectual conversations about everything:
Iraq, the U.S. occupation, Afghanistan, the Taliban, reform in Libya, the constitution, freedom of opinion and expression, state institutions, and even the issue of birth certificates for children born outside Libya were discussed”, said Sallabi.
The participants were allowed to meet in locations close to Abu Salim where they were provided with books – according to Sallabi more than 12,000 volumes – and other material to use as a foundation as they considered the revisions.
The literature included works of classical jurisprudence. There were also more contemporary texts, among them those produced by leaders of the Egyptian militant Islamic Group who underwent a reassessment of their doctrine after declaring a ceasefire in 1997, and key figures within the al-Jihad Group including Sayyid Imam al-Sharif – known as Dr Fadl – who was then questioning the ideology underpinning it.
Abdelhakim Belhaj has said he believes that literature represented a “guiding support” in the LIFG’s transition from armed opposition. But the process was painstaking.
“Drafting the revisions was not easy”, said Abdulwahab al-Qaid. “This was an ideology of more than 20 years that needed to be unpicked. It was not something you can do quickly or in a short brainstorming session”.
Key to the process was the ability of the imprisoned leadership to interact with their rank-and-file, both within Abu Salim jail and outside it.
“Our mindsets were already ripe for [the revisions] but our fears were two-fold: one that the regime was not serious; and two that that mindset was not shared by other fighters in the prison”, recalled Khalid Sharif. “We needed to be able to discuss, debate and explain”.
Elements within Libya’s internal security, which had been sceptical of the process from the outset, including its director Tuhami Khaled, believed such interactions and communications posed a security threat.
But their concerns were overruled when Saif and Abdullah Senussi, head of Military Intelligence, approved them, agreeing with the LIFG leadership and Ali Sallabi that any decision to abandon armed opposition to the regime had to be a collective one or at the very least based on ijma’ al-aghlabiya (consensus of the majority).
In 2007, a number of key LIFG members outside Libya, including three Shura Council members based in the UK, began participating through Sallabi. “We decided to support the process, but using pressure those who were in prison did not have”, said Abdulbaset Buhliqa, a Shura Council member who published a letter in al-Hayat newspaper in June 2009 under the pseudonym Abdullah Mansour. Using the title, “In defence of the Libyan Fighting Group in its new approach calling for reconciliation”, Buhliqa stressed the importance of “firm and sincere intention”.
The enduring scepticism of Libya’s internal security regarding the dialogue could also be seen in a disagreement in the latter stages of the process over whether the book produced by the LIFG outlining their revisions should be made public and when.
Some officials felt publication of the 417-page “Corrective Studies” might bolster the LIFG’s credentials both domestically and internationally by demonstrating their theological nous. Again, those concerns were overruled by Saif and Abdullah Senussi.
Another dispute arose regarding the timing of publication after the LIFG insisted that it happen only after the release of its leadership, partly as an “insurance policy”, as one member put it. However, the LIFG ultimately agreed to publication before the leadership was released; hence the much-publicised press conference in March 2010, in which Saif, flanked by Abdelhakim Belhaj, Sami al-Saadi and Khalid al-Sharif, announced their imminent release.
The Key Factors That Drove the Process
The Role of Leaders
In the years before the LIFG dialogue process began, officials from Libya’s internal security and religious establishment tried to replicate efforts in other countries such as Egypt whereby individual Islamist detainees were targeted for de-radicalisation or at least attempts to persuade them to abandon their opposition to the regime.
The decision to engage with individuals and not groups was partly to do with the wish not to legitimise a group through recognition. Results were piecemeal at best – a small number of prisoners were released – but the LIFG, by far the largest single jihadist group in Libya, and the most cohesive, was not affected.
The LIFG would have to be engaged with as a group as represented by the six Shura Council members who were in Abu Salim. “The regime saw the LIFG as the main problem because it was a group and a large group at that”, said Khalid al-Sharif. “They believed that once the LIFG problem was solved, the rest would follow”.
The role of the LIFG emir was key. “The revisions could not have happened without Abdelhakim Belhaj”, said Anis al-Sharif, a view shared by most of the LIFG from Shura Council level to rank-and-file. Belhaj had been emir of the LIFG since 1995, making him the longest serving emir in the group’s history.
He commanded respect among the LIFG cadre because he had overseen the group during its most difficult periods, but also because of his personal experience, including his rendition to Libya. He was also seen as a unifying figure within the LIFG and was perceived as less dogmatic than other senior figures.
“Belhai was more flexible”, recalled one regime official. “That made a big difference, given he was the emir”.
The role of Sami al-Saadi, the LIFG’s principal ideologue, was also key. He had written the group’s very first charter so the revisions were deeply personal for him.
The breadth of Saadi’s theological knowledge was crucial when it came to drafting a revisions document that could persuade any sceptical elements among the grassroots.
In this regard, the insistence of Belhaj and the other imprisoned leaders that they interact with the rank-and-file so that any decision to abandon armed opposition would have the support of as much of the grassroots as possible was another key variable.
One of the greatest challenges faced by the LIFG leadership during the revisions process was the declaration by bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri in November 2007 that the LIFG had joined al-Qaida.
The announcement came in two video clips produced by Al-Qaida’s propaganda arm, Al-Sahab. The first clip featured Zawahiri and the second Abu Laith al-Libi (born Ali Ammar al-Ruqayi), a founding member of the LIFG who had previously sat on its Shura Council.
According to several former LIFG leaders and members, Abu Laith was already considered to have distanced himself from the LIFG, though he was close to a rump faction mostly concentrated in the tribal areas of Pakistan which disapproved of the negotiations with the Gaddafi regime.
Furthermore, he was acting unilaterally in making the declaration and did not have the authority to act or issue statements in the name of the group. For these reasons, it failed to gain traction among the LIFG grassroots. It would, however, return to haunt the LIFG leadership in future when their political opponents in post-Gaddafi Libya used it against them.
Also critical to the dialogue process were those on the regime side who managed to overcome the objections of elements within the security apparatus, some of whose scepticism was rooted in personal experience of the campaign against the LIFG in eastern Libya in the 1990s. Saif al-Gaddafi was able to assuage his father’s reservations about the initiative and Abdullah Senussi helped build crucial support within the security services. “The relationship between Saif and Senussi was very important”, recalled Akeel Hussin Akeel.
Saif assigned Salah Abdulsalam from the Gaddafi Foundation to be his main interlocutor in the dialogue. Abdulsalam, who regularly briefed diplomats including from the U.S. embassy on the process, was generally respected by the LIFG leadership.
Ali Sallabi singled him out as one of the regime figures that contributed to the success of the dialogue. Sallabi also noted the constructive role of three Libyan intelligence officers:
Salah al-Meshri, Sabri Hleyla and Mohamed al-Kilani. “As men of the security apparatus, their approach is usually one of caution, suspicion, and overall securitisation of this file”, Sallabi said. “But they participated in the discussions and contributed to solving issues throughout the dialogue process, which was also a factor in its success”.
According to Sallabi, also of note was the role of Khalifa Arhoma, director of Abu Salim prison, who had developed good relations with the LIFG leadership. “The dialogue needed an appropriate environment and atmosphere for it to succeed [and] Colonel Arhoma was the one who created that”.
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