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 Islamic State (IS) came to a similarly sticky end, although it was defeated by a coalition of forces led by Misrata rather than by Hafter. Despite IS’ presence attracting much media attention, the group’s experience in Libya was limited and its power and reach often exaggerated.
While IS certainly had its moment, the group proved unable to survive in the fragmented and highly competitive Islamist arena. Even at the height of its prowess, it failed to get any real grip beyond Sirte and the surrounding area, and was always a poor and flawed imitation of the group in Iraq.
Its presence in Libya was always small, and the group took many months to make its first real conquest. From its first public appearance in Derna in October 2014, when a group of youth declared their allegiance to the khalifa, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, it took until February 2015 for it to take Nawfaliya, a small town with a reputation for Islamist militancy even during the time of Qadhafi, and until May 2015 to take Sirte, its first and only sizable territorial conquest in Libya.
Sirte’s fall to the group was no coincidence. Sirte was Qadhafi’s birthplace, home to his tribe—the Qadhadhfa—and as such, resisted the 2011 revolution until the bitter end. Thus, while other towns in Libya were taken over by revolutionary forces that had sprung up from within, Sirte fell into the hands of outside forces who defeated the town.
These forces, many of whom were from Misrata, which had traditionally had an antagonistic relationship to Sirte, ransacked the town, unleashing their revenge, prompting thousands of terrified residents to flee.
Once the dust settled, the victors left Sirte in the hands of the newly created, Sirte Revolutionaries Brigade, which comprised mainly veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq jihads, as well as former Abu Slim prisoners.
Although some members of this force came from Sirte, the brigade was strongly associated with Misrata, many of its cadres having been trained by the Al-Farouq Brigade, a Misratan force known for its militant Islamist outlook.
Although there were a handful of other forces present in Sirte, including tribal forces, it was the Sirte Revolutionaries Brigade that went on to form the Sirte SSC, which had huge support from the hawkish Misrata Military Council. It was these same forces that went on, with the support of the Al-Farouq Brigade, to establish the Sirte branch of AAS in 2013. The commander of AAS in Sirte was Ahmed Ali Attir, a Misratan who had been one of the founders of the Al-Farouq Brigade.
As such, AAS was able to entrench itself in the town, taking advantage of the fact that Sirte’s social fabric had been shattered. The main tribes associated with the former regime, including the Qadhadhfa, the Werfella and the Awlad Suleiman, all of which were present in the town —had already opted out of the scene, having declared from the outset of the revolution their refusal to engage with the post-2011 order.
In addition, there was no competing Islamist-revolutionary force from the town that could oppose the AAS takeover. That is not to suggest they had no competition whatsoever. In July 2013, for example, the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, led by former army officer, Saleh Bu Haliqa from Benghazi, tried to check their progress and succeeded in killing Al-Attir in August 2013. However, forces in Misrata quickly rallied round, sending fighters to Sirte to kick Bu Haliqa out.
The combination of strong Misratan backing and the fact that the country’s new authorities had turned their backs on the town, dismissing it as a remnant of the old regime, meant that these AAS militants had more or less free rein.
By the time IS came along, therefore, the environment was already ripe for the group to seed itself. Many AAS members in Sirte gave their allegiance to IS in 2015 in what was a change of brand more than a takeover.
However, IS’ arrival in Sirte was not supported by all of AAS, and triggered yet another fracturing within the Islamist camp. Some AAS members, including Amar Said and Khalifa Barq, refused to join IS, opting to go to Benghazi to join the fight against Hafter instead.
The same had occurred in Nawfaliya, where the Emir of AAS, Gaydan Al-Nawfali, refused to join the group, choosing to station his forces in an animal feed warehouse outside the town.
Even among these more extreme elements, therefore, IS’ allure was not sufficient to be able to unite the extremist strand. While IS may have attracted some youth from other towns, as well as contingents of foreign extremist elements, its appeal was not universal.
Indeed, despite Benghazi being home to some of the most diehard of militants, IS was only able to attract a handful of adherents in the city. While it managed to attract some support in Derna, it was easily outnumbered and chased out by other militant elements, led by the Abu Slim Martyrs’ Brigade, which was far more locally rooted in the town. In Sabratha, meanwhile, it remained little more than a small cell that never made any real impact.
Despite the chaos and lawlessness of post-Qadhafi Libya, therefore, the group’s reach remained limited and bound by several factors including the country’s geography, and the crowded and highly competitive Islamist scene that contained groups that were far more embedded in the local map.
In addition, in contrast to IS in Iraq, IS in Libya could not play on sectarian dynamics, nor did it serve as a magnet for former regime personnel. Despite reports in some media outlets that tribes or notables from tribes linked to the former regime gave their allegiance to IS, there is no concrete evidence to suggest this is the case.
Had these tribes backed IS in any serious fashion, the group would not have been dislodged so easily.
As such, once Misrata launched its campaign to take control of Sirte, the group’s days were numbered. With the assistance of US air strikes, Bunyan Al-Marsous, a coalition of brigades from Misrata, which included Islamist oriented forces, succeeded in dislodging IS and taking over the town, killing and arresting many of its leaders and personnel.
Since its defeat in Sirte, what was left of the group has struggled to make its presence felt. IS remnants are accused of having perpetrated a number of hit and run attacks in desert areas such as in May 2017, when IS fighters attacked the Lodd Agricultural Project, south of Sirte, and October 2018, when they launched an attack against the remote desert town of Al-Fuqaha in Al-Jufra.
Most recently, a suicide bomb detonated at a checkpoint in Sebha in an attack claimed by IS. However, it is difficult to gauge how many of these attacks were actually the responsibility of IS, given that in the chaotic and contested environment, it has benefitted both sides in Libya’s conflict to tag their opponents with the IS label.
While it may still have elements operating in the southern deserts, these elements have failed to exploit the vast ungoverned spaces in any visible or tangible way.
As such, the group’s future would appear to be doomed. Indeed, in light of the difficulties IS had in installing itself in Libya when the group was at its peak and conditions almost ideal, it seems unlikely that it will re-emerge in any meaningful form.
Warnings of its being positioned to “grow even stronger in civil war conditions,” and of its being able to mount a “large scale resurgence,” are probably exaggerated. This does not mean that there aren’t still extremist elements in Libya that aspire to the kind of uncompromising ideology espoused by IS. However, Libya ultimately proved hostile to the group that was unable to nest itself in an overcrowded militant scene dominated by personalities and fiefdoms.
With IS routed in Sirte and the BRSC and its counterparts in Derna and Ajdabiya chased out of the east, western Libya has become the main centre of what is left of Libya’s Islamist scene.
Yet this scene is no less chaotic.
Ever since Qadhafi’s toppling, western Libya has been bursting to the seams with armed groups of differing hues, each beholden to their particular commanders or areas.
Although many of these forces pulled together under the banner of Operation Libya Dawn, this coalition struggled to hold itself together, its components endlessly embroiled in turf wars in the struggle to dominate and to reap the benefits of controlling official bodies, buildings and financial flows.
These cleavages became even more pronounced in 2016 with the arrival of the internationally-backed GNA, when a number of forces in Tripoli, led mainly by Salafist-Madkhalist commanders, positioned themselves, for opportunistic reasons, as the new executive’s security providers.
A split developed between those forces, which included the Special Deterrent Force and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, which had put themselves nominally under the command of GNA’s Interior Ministry, and those more hawkish Islamist forces who looked to Libya’s ultraorthodox Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadiq Al-Gharianni.
This latter group rejected the GNA altogether, viewing it as an imperialist imposition that served what they considered to be the counter revolutionary forces of the east. They also considered Salafist Madkhalist forces to be serving as a vector for Saudi Arabian influence, although the extent of Saudi support for these elements remains unclear.
While this division was by no means clear cut, and while there were other forces present in the west that fell into neither camp, competition between these two main trends intensified at the end of 2016, when GNA-allied forces began arresting and imprisoning elements from the BSRC, which was backed by Al-Gharianni and his supporters.
More explosively, in October 2016, elements from the Special Deterrent Force were accused of kidnapping and killing Sheikh Nadir Al-Omrani, Al-Gharianni’s deputy in the Dar Al-Ifta. Fearing a backlash from the pro-Gharianni camp, GNA-aligned forces launched what they described as a “pre-emptive strike” on their militant opponents, attacking various hardline militias and pushing them out of the capital.
Although these hardline forces lay low for a while, they returned to the scene en masse in April 2019, when Hafter launched his assault on Tripoli. At this time, the GNA hastily cobbled together the “Volcano of Anger” coalition, bringing in all forces regardless of ideological orientation to help repel the attack.
Despite their differences with the GNA, these militant factions saw in this campaign the opportunity to stage a comeback while presenting themselves as steadfast revolutionaries who could ride in and save the day.
Hafter’s attack, therefore, galvanized a broad array of revolutionary and Islamist groups, including Salafists, jihadists, and those of a more moderate outlook, who put their differences to one side to defend the capital. They presented a formidable force.
As Wehrey and Badi rightly observe, “Haftar’s rationale in the assault ignored the fact that a dizzying array of Tripolitanian militias has vested political and economic incentives to defend, in contrast to the security vacuum in the south and to the tribal demography of the east, where Haftar was more successful.”
Yet it was not through revolutionary ardour alone that Hafter was pushed back out of Tripoli a little over a year later. Hafter’s defeat was in no small part down to the intervention of Turkey, which provided significant military assistance to the GNA, including sending large contingents of Syrian mercenaries to assist in the fight.
These mercenary forces, who were mainly Syrian Turkmen, and who had been trained by Turkey in northern Syria, were shipped over to Libya in large contingents on the promise of pay, healthcare provision and the possibility of Turkish nationality, as well as the threat of being kicked out of the Syrian National Army.
Through these forces, Ankara hoped to rebalance the military equation and to offset the advantage afforded to Hafter through the support he was receiving from Egypt, the UAE and Russia, including Wagner Group mercenaries. Indeed, Libya’s conflict has been fuelled by the relentless intervention of external powers on both sides, who have aggravated and prolonged the chaos.
Although many forces in the west, including those of a non-Islamist bent, welcomed Turkish military involvement, it was the Islamist and more ardent revolutionary forces that had pushed particularly hard for such intervention.
That the Islamists should have looked to Turkey at this time was expected. Turkey, which had sided with Operation Libya Dawn in 2014, had already become a key magnet for Libyan Islamists of all hues.
It not only served as a place of refuge, opening its doors to those fleeing the east, as well as those who had come to feel increasingly uncomfortable in the west following the GNA’s arrival, including Al-Gharianni himself, it became a new ideological center around which Libyan Islamists revolved.
It was natural therefore that in late 2019, when thanks to the backing of his UAE, Egyptian and Russian sponsors, Hafter looked set to pulverise forces in the west, Islamist forces and political personalities pressurized the GNA into accepting Turkey’s offer of large-scale military assistance.
The head of the Higher State Council, Khalid Al-Mishri, a former leading member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, intimated at this time that the head of the Presidency Council, Fayez Serraj could find himself and his government brought down if he did not accept Turkish military help.
Al-Gharianni, meanwhile, lashed out at the GNA for having dallied over accepting Turkish assistance, issuing a fatwa ruling that Turkish military bases in Libya were halal (religiously permitted) as well as legally acceptable. Under such pressure and with Hafter looking poised to take over, the GNA had little choice but to comply.
While Turkey’s entry into the conflict turned the tide of the war in the GNA’s favor, its ongoing presence in the country has also had an impact. Indeed, the Turkish presence appears to have had somewhat of a stabilizing influence on the unwieldy array of forces in western Libya. There has been a notable reduction in intra-militia fighting since its arrival, and Tripoli looks to be more stable than it has done for a while.
This does not mean that there aren’t still tensions or low-level clashes that erupt from time to time. The ongoing squabble over who controls the Awqaf that is being played out between Salafist Madkhalist currents and those of a more political Islamist bent is a case in point.
However, Ankara seems to have brought some semblance of order, temporarily at least. Yet while Turkey may have helped these forces put some of their differences to one side, they are no closer to becoming any kind of cohesive force or movement.
Despite the efforts by successive governments to turn them into professional security forces, they remain as unwieldy as ever. While there are still Islamist leaning forces in control of particular neighborhoods and towns, these forces are still more focused on what they can gain rather than imposing any particular ideological agenda.
As such, the Islamists of varying shades have been subsumed by the wider chaos, leaving an Islamist scene that is diffuse, diluted and more elusive than ever.
Qadhafi’s toppling opened the door to a wide array of Islamist factions and forces who came to the fore after more than 40 years of repression.
The chaos that engulfed the country at this time, as well as the absence of any proper centralized authority, the ready availability of weapons, and the complete marginalization of those linked to the former regime, looked on the surface to offer an ideal environment for militant Islamist groups to flourish.
Yet while Islamist forces, including jihadist elements, certainly proliferated, they never succeeded in forging any unified or coherent ideological force that could extend beyond the local.
Yet the Islamists were not alone in their failure to create a movement with national reach or appeal. There has never been any truly organic national movement established in Libya, whose three regions were bolted together at independence in 1951.
Libya’s monarchy was always a creature of the east, and while Qadhafi’s 1969 coup may have attracted support, his revolutionary Jamahiriyah was imposed by brute force. Since his demise, there has been nothing akin to any national movement able to extend across the country as a whole.
Attempts at forging political parties have been pitiful, while regional, local and tribal identities remain as potent as ever. The recent adoption of a political system based on allocation, with posts in the recently appointed Government of National Unity (GNU) doled out by region and chosen to appease various towns, tribes and personalities, is evidence of such.
It is little surprise, therefore, that Libyan Islamism remains characterized by division and discord. While Islamist elements will continue to represent an important component in the national picture, they will remain as fragmented as everything else in the country.
Alison Pargeter – Senior Visiting Associate, Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London.