By Virginie Collombier

This paper attempts to make sense of the ‘Political’ and ‘Quietist’ Salafis currents’ relationships with ‘politics’ and state institutions in times of turmoil.



While exclusively Salafi fighting units such as the Tawhid Battalion were formed, integrated within the LNA and armed, Salafi elements were also spread across the LNA’s forces.

Salafi figures like Ashraf al-Mayar, a famous revolutionary brigade commander in 2011, joined the elite ‘Saiqa’ Brigade of the LNA.

Salafi groups also fought with various neighbourhood ‘protection forces’ or LNA ‘support forces’ in Benghazi.

As a result of Operation Dignity, Madkhali Salafis started to play a more visible role on the ground, both in the fighting on Haftar’s side and at the neighbourhood level.

As in Tripoli, they framed their engagement as support for the authorities in place, essentially through the provision of order and security to residents.

Because Haftar’s military intervention was welcomed by important sectors of the population in the east of the country, this would contribute to increasing their legitimacy.

However, the participation by Madkhali armed groups and figures in Operation Dignity meant that they were directly involved in the violent competition that opposed Haftar and his LNA to the broad sphere of Islamist and revolutionary groups.

Despite the fact that Dignity was presented as an operation aimed at restoring order, it was also a conflict which was political in nature. Their participation in this conflict therefore clearly contradicted the Madkhali Salafis’ ‘apolitical’ claim.

As a matter of fact, the changing political context between 2014 and 2019 required both political and Madkhali Salafis to translate doctrine into practice on important issues such as the question of political engagement and the use of violence.

Both currents demonstrated a capacity to adapt to new circumstances, which highlighted their political nature. However, in a context of intensifying violence and division of state institutions, this had a major impact on the public perception of the two currents, and on their popular legitimacy.

The political context from 2016 onwards proved more favourable for ‘Madkhali’ Salafis than for ‘political’ Salafis.

Despite the signing of the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) under international sponsorship in December 2015, Libya’s institutions were not reunified and the conflict between the two rival coalitions led by Seraj and the Presidential Council of the GNA (PC-GNA) on the one hand and Haftar and his LNA on the other did not end.

Instead, the rival power centres that had emerged over the previous two years in western and eastern Libya were consolidated, and alliances were partly reconfigured on both sides.

This was particularly the case in Tripoli, where the PC-GNA taking up residence in the capital in March 2016 required some arrangements with local armed groups to provide the new political authorities with security.

The Madkhali-leaning SDF led by Abdulraouf Kara was one of a small number of groups that chose to back the PC-GNA. Their affiliation with the PC-GNA meant that their actions could be framed as supporting the new internationally recognised government.

However, the decision was clearly political in nature: many constituencies in western Libya opposed the LPA and the PC-GNA, including some of the key armed groups based in Tripoli, many of which still supported the Salvation government.

The arrival of the PC-GNA in the capital in March 2016 caused military confrontations between rival factions, eventually triggering major transformations in the political and military landscape in Tripoli. Support from the Madkhali Salafi-influenced SDF proved determinant in allowing the PC-GNA to start working in the capital.

By March 2017, the SDF and the other armed groups supporting the new government had gradually pushed their rivals out of the capital. These included the armed groups linked to former LIFG leaders, which were forced to leave the city and in many cases the country out of fear for their security.

Despite the key role they played in allowing the PC-GNA to prevail over its local opponents, Madkhali Salafis continued to present themselves as ‘apolitical’ and emphasised the aspects of their activities that were aimed at maintaining or restoring order at the local level.

In this way, they gradually reinforced their image as key partners of a political authority seeking to exert control on the ground. In so doing, they also expanded their access to state institutions, yet still without seeking prominent political positions. They focused instead on the fields of security and justice.

In particular, they continued to work on ensuring security and order for residents at the local level, using their interventions to further build links with state institutions, particularly the Ministry of the Interior. Their work on organised crime helped them increase their links with the prosecutor general’s office in the Ministry of Justice.

They also intervened on issues related to bank supervision and cash distribution, the issuing of passports and logistics related to the hajj pilgrimage. In contrast to their past behaviour, however, Madkhali Salafis started translating their growing influence on the state religious institutions, this time with a focus on the top positions rather than only the grassroots.

As a result, tensions increased between the Madkhali current and Dar al-Ifta’, which was still under the leadership of Sheikh al-Gharyani and strongly influenced by the political Salafi current.

Madkhali-influenced armed groups such as the SDF started using force to arrest preachers and religious figures linked to Dar al-Ifta’. Things escalated in late 2016 with the disappearance and killing of Sheikh Nader al-Omrani, a prominent figure in Dar al-Ifta’ who had publicly criticised Salafi Madkhalis).

The head of the General Authority for Endowments and Islamic Affairs (‘awqaf), Abbas al-Gadi, also became the object of violent criticism and mounting pressure from the Madkhali current.

Considered a close ally of Grand Mufti al-Gharyani, al-Gadi was accused of not owing his position to his religious credentials but to his acquaintances in the political Islam current.

Conflict ultimately escalated around his management of the hajj pilgrimage and the Madkhali Salafis managed to have him removed from his position by the PC-GNA. His replacement, Sheikh Muhammad al-Abbani, was a well-known figure in the Madkhali sphere (Pargeter 2020).

This signalled a major departure from the way Madkhali Salafis in western Libya had so far dealt with state religious institutions, and despite the popularity of some of these moves the perceived increasing influence of the SDF on the political authorities in Tripoli started to meet some pushback, as it pointed to the limits of the Madkhali Salafis’ ‘apolitical’ discourse.

Things had evolved in a similar direction, although earlier, in eastern Libya, as a result of the key role played by Madkhali Salafis and the armed groups under their influence in support of Haftar.

As in western Libya, Madkhali Salafis in the east of the country framed their actions as support for the authorities in place in the field of security and order, but refrained from seeking official political positions.

Things significantly differed in the religious sphere, where they had exerted direct and extensive influence on state institutions at the top and local levels since 2014.

Their participation in Operation Dignity since 2014 had provided them with opportunities to access resources and become more organised.

When the Interim Government established in the eastern city of al-Bayda created a General Authority of Endowments and Islamic Affairs parallel to the Tripoli-based one in 2014, Madkhali Salafis were granted key positions in the new institution.

This allowed them to directly confront their competitors in the religious field and therefore to acquire a degree of power in shaping policies.

This was particularly the case in the field of piety and morality, where their influence started to become more visible in 2015-2016, leading to regular incidents in which intellectuals, women and civil society in general were targeted.

Madkhali Salafi brigades and elements also remained important in the LNA fighting force and continued to be used in major military operations.

This was notably the case of the Tareq Ibn Ziyad Brigade, which was successively involved in the offensive against the eastern city of Derna in May 2018, in the military deployment in the south-west in January-February 2019 and in the central city of Sirte in 2020, often raising strong criticism as to how their members behaved on the ground in the face of the civilian population.

As in western Libya, the growing influence of Madkhali Salafis in the public sphere and on society gradually met some popular resistance. For instance, controversial LNA decisions influenced by the Madkhali Salafi current, such as restrictions on women travelling without a male relative, were reversed in 2017 as a result of broad opposition in society.

Tensions also arose with the Prime Minister of the Interim Government himself in December 2018, as he accused the General Authority for Endowments and Islamic Affairs of creating divisions in society and importing foreign ideologies into Libya.


Political and security developments in Libya between 2011 and 2019 forced ‘political’ and ‘Madkhali’ Salafis to clarify their stances and behaviours regarding how to relate to ‘politics,’ political authority and the state in a context of crisis.

Countering the idea of a fault line between supposedly ‘political’ and ‘apolitical’ Salafis, analysis of how the two currents related to political authority during that period has shed light on the fact that both groups pursued objectives that can be described as ‘political,’ in the sense that they aimed to gain and increase their influence on state institutions.

However, the strategies employed by the two groups between 2011-2019 differed profoundly, seemingly pointing at major differences in the very nature of the two currents’ political projects.

While both ‘political’ and ‘Madkhali’ Salafis aimed to increase their power and influence on state institutions after 2011, they did so by following different paths.

One key distinguishing feature was the choice between a ‘top-down’ – in the case of former LIFG political Salafis – and a ‘bottom-up’ approach – in the case of Madkhali Salafis.

This difference seems to a large extent to be grounded in an assessment made by the actors concerning the resources available to them and therefore of their capabilities at different points in Libya’s transition and conflict. This difference in approach also stemmed from a different vision of politics and of the determinants of political influence.

For former LIFG figures and political Salafis, engagement with state institutions essentially took the form of direct participation in institutional politics and in competition with other political groups over formal top-level political positions, while their interaction with society in general remained limited.

Their objective appeared to be to gain control over what they conceived as the key levers of power and authority, while failing to devise strategies to influence the social order or social rules.

This meant that the continuing political influence of political Salafis mostly depended on their capacity to maintain the balance of forces with rival political actors in their favour.

When they failed to do so, as first happened partially in 2014 when Libya’s institutions became divided, and then in 2016- 2017 when they lost control over Tripoli, they were rapidly excluded from the political game and lost most of their influence on Libya’s state institutions after 2011.

Only in the case of a significant change in the balance of power among political groups and actors could they hope to regain their influence on Libya’s state institutions. This is precisely what happened after the resumption of large-scale military conflict in 2020 and Haftar’s attack on Tripoli.

In contrast, the Madkhali Salafi current rejected participation in institutional politics on ideological grounds, engaging instead with state institutions through direct interaction and cooperation at the grassroots level, with a particular focus on security, justice and the enforcement of a certain moral order.

Beyond their ideological stance, this to some extent reflected a lack of adequate resources to engage in the competition for institutional positions.

Only when the context became more favourable to them – which happened at different times in western and eastern Libya – did Libya’s Madkhali Salafis start to seek top-level positions in the state religious institutions.

However, they never sought to control political institutions, privileging instead exerting influence from outside, even when the evolving contexts in both western and eastern Libya may have allowed them to do so.

Madkhali Salafis gave priority to providing security and enforcing ‘moral order’ as a way to gain legitimacy and consolidate their influence and control over political authorities and the state, but also society in general.

The grassroots bottom-up approach they adopted, coupled with the moral and religious authority that they acquired through their control of state religious institutions, resulted in a much deeper entrenchment in society and reflected a direct attempt to transform the social order and social rules, including by using force when deemed necessary.

shows that the question of whether or not to use violence did not represent a key differentiating element between Salafi currents – political, quietist Madkhali or even jihadi.

Instead, it was on the questions of when violence is to be considered legitimate or acceptable, and against whom, that Libyan Salafis seemed to divide.

In a conflict environment like Libya, where the control and construction of the state is prevalently contested by armed actors, ‘political’ and ‘Madkhali’ Salafis alike demonstrated that they could use violence when deemed necessary to achieve their political objectives.

However, the two approaches had a different focus: while violence for political Salafis ended up being conceived as a tool against political rivals and to gain control over state institutions, violence by Madkhali Salafis not only targeted political rivals but also society in general.

This underlines the absence of major difference between political and Madkhali Salafis in terms of political pragmatism and means of action.

It also raises important questions regarding the validity of the claim that support from Madkhali Salafis can be mobilised by Libya’s political authorities and external actors alike without it having significant consequences for Libya’s future political life and society.


Virginie Collombier, Middle East Directions Programme European University Institute. She has been a Research Fellow at the European University Institute of Florence, Italy (EUI) since September 2013. Her main research interests are in social and political dynamics in Libya, with a focus on processes of mediation and reconciliation; the political economy of conflicts; security issues.





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