Post-Qadhafi Libya has been defined by chaos, division and disintegration. With the once-strong center in tatters, the country has fragmented into an array of militias, towns, tribes and regions, all competing to dominate the new order.
The Militant Scene: A Mishmash of Islamisms
Libya’s jihadist scene has also been characterized by division and failure. Since 2011, there has been no overarching current or group able to embody a sense of any cohesive Islamist project capable of transcending Libya’s uncompromising geography, complex social fabric and regional divisions.
Even the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had once been able to articulate a national mission and aspiration, could not come together once the lid of repression was lifted.
Indeed, from the outset, the militant Islamist arena was a muddle of ill-defined groups and forces comprising LIFG and Al-Qa’ida remnants, as well as other jihadists, many of whom were freed from the notorious Abu Slim prison in 2011.
These forces were unable to unite under a single ideological banner and became locked in the local, linked more to neighbourhoods, towns, or to their own revolutionary brigades that had risen up against the regime than to any overarching Islamist project.
The jihadist scene was splintered from the start, characterized by local commanders and forces that had no social base and whose primary goal was to seize control.
Indeed, once the Qadhafi regime fell, these hardline Islamist forces moved quickly, like their non-Islamist counterparts, to impose themselves on their own neighborhoods and areas, relying on revolutionary legitimacy, which in the new Libya had come to trump all else.
Yet they did so as individual brigades or militias rather than in the name of any Islamist movement. This mosaic of forces created a confused picture, with Islamist brigades jostling up against each other and against other forces, as they sought to take control and to fight over the spoils.
Within this ruptured environment, personality came to override the Islamist project. Islamist commanders such as Wissam Ben Hamid, Ziyad Balam, Ahmed Majberi and Ismail Salabi came to prominence in the east, while the likes of Hadia Shaban, Ahmed Ali Attir, Abdulraouf Kara and Haitham Al-Tajouri rose in the west.
These figures represented a broad range of ideological stances, from militant jihadist, to moderate, to Salafist.
Many of these forces may have had a hardline Islamist outlook, but they were keen to be part of the new state. Although this eagerness was related partly to accessing state funds, it was also because these brigades viewed themselves as the custodians of the new Libya and believed it their duty to take the revolution to its end.
As Islamist, Ahmed Majberi, the head of the Zintan Martyrs’ Brigade in Benghazi explained, “We are part of the state. We wanted to bring the whole regime down, not just the family of Qadhafi…I want to complete the task that my brothers died for.”
Regardless of their personal ideological outlook, these commanders saw themselves as revolutionaries first and foremost, tasked with purging the country of the vestiges of the past.
Yet even when they were given semi-legal status in the form of the Libya Shield Brigades and the Supreme Security Committees (SSCs), which answered nominally to the Ministries of Defence and Interior respectively, they remained fragmented.
They joined these forces as individual brigades and militias, retaining their own identities and independence, with their own command structures, and in some instances, their own shura councils. They also continued to act on whim, embroiling themselves in in-fighting and turf wars, as they sought to outmanoeuvre each other in the pursuit of control and access to financial gain.
As such, these groups defied any single label, representing a mishmash of Islamist and revolutionary elements for whom ideology often appeared to be little more than a garb.
From Ansar Al-Sharia to the BRSC
Against this backdrop, a number of more puritanical groups that had a more explicit ideological agenda came to the fore, primarily in the east of Libya, a region traditionally associated with Islamist militancy. These groups first came under the spotlight in June 2012 when, in a major show of force, they gathered in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square in support of implementing Sharia.
This gathering comprised a dizzying array of brigades who had pulled together in the words of one participant to, “terrorise those who don’t want the rule of Allah’s Sharia.” This was the first real manifestation of a purist current who called for Hakimiya (God’s rule on earth) and who differed from the more revolutionary-minded Islamist forces that were willing to work with the authorities.
The most prominent of these forces was Ansar Al-Sharia (AAS), which differentiated itself by its association with a wider transnational movement and by its efforts to create a social base through engaging in charitable work.
However, even AAS proved itself bound by geography and unable to expand beyond a handful of localities.
The group was focused in certain neighbourhoods of the city, unable to break into the tribal crescent that formed Greater Benghazi.
AAS – Derna was led by Sofiane Bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, and was located in the Bu Masefer forest outside of Derna. Despite Qumu’s assertion that the location was a way for the group to protect the town’s power plant, it is more likely that the group was forced to locate itself outside of the town because of the presence of the far stronger Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade, led by ex-LIFG veteran, Salim Al-Derbi.
AAS also established a branch in Sirte in July 2013, vowing to ensure that Sharia was “employed in everything. There were also seeds of branches in a handful of small towns.
However, AAS never succeeded in getting any real foothold in the capital or in expanding beyond these localities. Despite Al-Zahawi’s attempts to rebrand the group under a single umbrella, AAS-Libya, following accusations of its involvement in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in September 2012, there is little to suggest that there was any serious organisational linkage or co-ordination between these branches.
Furthermore, while the group certainly admired Al-Qa’ida, there was little to indicate either that there was any formal link to the Al-Qa’ida movement. Rather, like the other jihadist forces and brigades, these AAS branches operated more as independent groups that orbited around their own leaders.
However, the launch in May 2014 of Hafter’s Operation Dignity Campaign, designed to eliminate Islamist elements of all hues from Benghazi, was to redraw the lines of the militant scene in the east. Faced with such a ferocious foe, various Islamist forces, including AAS, bandied together to form the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) which vowed to defeat Hafter.
Yet while these forces may have been willing to fight alongside each other, the differences between them were too deep to be smoothed over even in the face of a common enemy.
In fact, the launch of Operation Dignity triggered further divisions inside some Islamist forces.
A split emerged inside Brigade 319, for example, between hard line elements including Salim Al-Nabbous, who sought to fight against Hafter and those of a more Salafist inclination, led by Admin Al-Tawerghi, who preferred to remain neutral.
When the Al-Tawerghi faction refused to hand over the brigade’s weapons and ammunition, the Al-Nabbous faction, in conjunction with some elements from AAS, launched a bloody attack against brigade’s Bu Atni camp, killing 14 members of the Al-Tawerghi group, including Al-Tawerghi himself, who was tortured and beheaded.
As for the BRSC, this coalition was always a marriage of convenience comprising forces with varying stances and viewpoints. As Ahmed Hassan Meshiti, a member of the BRSC, remarked, “Every one of us had his own position. Our ideology is not the same.” Similarly, Al-Aradi observed of the BRSC, “These brigades all fought the forces that were around Hafter but they were not clear about their stance towards the state, nor were they united around one vision. Some of them were revolutionaries, committed to the legitimacy of the state, and they were rejecting carrying weapons against it. Other brigades and leaders were closer to the idea of IS and Al-Qa’ida and some of them were raising the flags of these two organisations and adopted their slogans.”
Thus, while the BRSC certainly contained plenty of violent extremist elements, the whole alliance cannot be tarred with the same brush. Rather, it represented an opportunistic coming together of Islamist-leaning forces who sought to prevent Benghazi from slipping out of their hands.
They were ultimately unsuccessful, however, and in 2017, Hafter, with the help of Salafist Madkhalist and tribal forces, defeated the BRSC, marking the end of the presence of these groups in Benghazi and in the east more widely.
Similar groups that had spawned in Derna and Ajdabiya were also put down and despite a number of attempted comebacks, such as the Defend Benghazi Brigades, a loose collection of BRSC remnants which briefly succeeded in seizing the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider from Hafter in March 2017, the group disbanded three months later.
Around the same time, Ansar Al-Sharia, which had been devastated by Hafter’s campaign, also announced its dissolution.
Hafter succeeded, therefore, in putting the nail in the jihadists’ coffin in eastern Libya at least. Yet in so doing, he also opened the door for the Salafist current, which under his patronage has been able to expand and impose itself in the areas under his control.
In return for military support, with Salafist fighters making up some of the LNA’s most potent brigades, Hafter afforded the Salafists control over the religious space in the east.
Salafist Madkhalists have used the eastern Awqaf, for example, to pursue their ideological agenda, with the Supreme Fatwa Committee issuing edicts against women travelling unaccompanied, mixed gender gatherings and demonstrations.
Yet while these Salafists may have played a major role, including in assisting Hafter to extend his power into other towns and regions, they are far from united and are as disparate a force as everything else in Libya.
Alison Pargeter – Senior Visiting Associate, Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London.