The Rise and Mysterious Fall of Militant Islamist Movements in Libya

Wolfram Lacher

∎ Prevailing approaches to understanding Islamist mobilisation struggle to explain why militant Islamist movements in Libya initially spread rapidly after 2011 and then disappeared almost overnight. Their decline poses a puzzle for conventional analyses.

∎ Tactical choices, such as the search for protection or allies, fuelled both the rise and fall of militant Islamists. The tactical options that were in fact considered by conflict actors were also determined by social factors, such as relationships of trust they maintained and the social acceptance they enjoyed.

∎ The short-lived flourishing of militant Islamist movements can be understood as a fashion, among other things. Protagonists sought to socially demarcate themselves or to conform by superficially adopting Islamist rhetoric and aesthetics and then discarding them again.

∎ Analysing the dramatic decline of militant Islamist movements helps to understand the full range of motivations fuelling their rise. Social recognition has so far been overlooked as a motivation for armed mobilisation.

∎ The Libyan case shows that labels such as “Islamists” and “jihadists” need to be treated with extreme caution, particularly in the context of ongoing conflicts. External actors should first recognise that conflict parties deliberately misuse such categories, and second they should develop a precise understanding of the social environment in which militant Islamist movements operate.

Issues and Conclusions

Where Have All the Jihadists Gone? The Rise and Mysterious Fall of Militant Islamist Movements in Libya As in other Arab Spring countries, militant Islamist movements flourished in Libya in the first few years following the fall of the regime.

After Muammar al-Gaddafi’s rule ended in 2011, they were popular among many young Libyans and they benefited from an escalation in violent conflicts, which made them allies of other armed groups. But from 2016 onwards, these movements dramatically lost importance and appeal – as occurred in other regional countries at around the same time.

There were obvious reasons for this: first and foremost the military defeats of militant Islamist groups and the demonisation of all Islamists by Libyan and regional media. Nevertheless, the sudden fall of militant Islamists in Libya is puzzling.

It is difficult to reconcile with the two leading explanations for jihadist mobilisation. One school of thought emphasises the role of ideological radicalisation in the spread of militant Islamist groups. It sees this radicalisation as the reason for the tenacity of such groups – a tenacity they apparently lacked in Libya. Moreover, the question arises as to why Islamist ideology suddenly lost its appeal. Another approach stresses that militant Islamists benefit from conflicts and grievances, which help them to gain followers who pursue non-ideological objectives.

In Libya, however, political divisions and armed conflicts persisted after 2016, even while militant Islamists became increasingly irrelevant. When a third civil war erupted in 2019, it was widely expected that this would lead to a renewed mobilisation of jihadist groups.

Nothing of the sort happened.

This study explores the question of how to explain the abrupt change of fortune of militant Islamists in Libya – and what it teaches us about the driving forces behind Islamist mobilisation. The approach chosen here is based on interviews with members and allies of militant Islamist groups, as well as with actors who observed these groups in their immediate social environment. Recurring patterns in these interviews reveal three types of mechanisms at work in the rise and fall of militant Islamist movements in Libya.

First, there are tactical considerations. Actors joined militant Islamists, entered into alliances with them, or distanced themselves from them in order to react to conflict dynamics – for example, to counter an immediate threat. This aspect is widely recognized in prevailing approaches to jihadist mobilisation.

Second, which tactical choices were plausible depended, among other things, on the social embeddedness of actors and on what was socially acceptable. Militant Islamists benefited from a dense network of trust relations with former revolutionaries dating back to their joint struggle in 2011.

As a result, jihadists were able to mobilise openly in the first few years after 2011 and to become allies of their former brothers in arms in 2014. Confrontations between former revolutionaries and the Islamic State (IS) in 2016 shattered their trust in actors across the militant Islamist spectrum; old friendships broke apart. When the third civil war broke out in 2019, a renewed tactical alliance with militant Islamists was no longer an option, not only from a realpolitik perspective, but also because social ties with them had been severed.

Third, however, the rise of militant Islamists from 2011 onwards was also fuelled by the superficial appropriation of Islamist aesthetics and rhetoric by actors who wanted to stand out or conform. The abrupt disappearance of militant Islamist movements was also driven by this interplay of demarcation and imitation. In post-Gaddafi Libya, revolutionary Islamism was not least a fashion, jihadism an ephemeral youth culture.

The pivotal experience of the fight against IS undoubtedly provided an important impetus for the habitus associated with Islamism to go out of fashion, and for other models for gaining social status to take its place.

What requires explanation, however, is the rapidity with which this impulse spread through parts of society that had previously had little fear of contact with militant Islamists. Processes of imitation and the self-reinforcing weight of conformism can help to account for this.

The third mechanism in particular, which analyses militant Islamism in post-Gaddafi Libya as a fashion, sets this research paper apart from many previous studies on Islamist mobilisation. Studies on militant Islamist groups have predominantly focussed on their expansion and much less on their decline. This is understandable, since these groups are primarily perceived as a security problem and attract attention above all when they are involved in escalating conflicts. However, the excessive focus on mobilisation has favoured analytical approaches that cannot adequately explain an evolution such as that which took place in Libya – and the Libyan case is by no means alone.

Broadening the perspective to include the decline of militant Islamist movements produces a different picture of both their rise and their fall. Such an analytical approach also makes it more straightforward to grasp the full diversity of motivations of those who joined militant Islamist groups or made pacts with them. It helps to reveal how categories such as “Islamists” and “jihadists” were often problematic when such labels were politically relevant.

The protagonists of Libya’s power struggles were well aware of the demonising effect of these terms and deliberately used them in an inflationary manner. Foreign observers often adopted this practice because they did not know the designated actors and their social environment from personal experience. This study shows how diverse the motivations and the extent of ideological commitment were among those who were subsumed under the broad term “militant Islamist


Dr Wolfram Lacher is Senior Associate in the Africa and Middle East Research Division at SWP.


SWP Research Paper (June 2024) – German Institute for International and Security Affairs

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