The Rise and Mysterious Fall of Militant Islamist Movements in Libya

Wolfram Lacher

The Rise and Fall of Militant Islamists in Libya, 2011–2020

After the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, a flourishing landscape of militant Islamist groups developed in Libya. In one city after another, such groups burst into the open, took over security functions and forged alliances with other militias amidst escalating power struggles. Radical splinter groups developed into powerful Libyan offshoots of the Islamic State and made Sirte the capital of its “Tripolitania province” in 2015.

At the time, it seemed as if jihadist groups in Libya were destined for a promising future. However, just as quickly as they had spread, militant Islamists disappeared from Libya’s landscape of actors. Armed groups on both sides of the Libyan power struggle drove IS out of the cities. Former allies soon distanced themselves from less radical Islamist groups, which found themselves increasingly isolated and rapidly losing influence.

Militant Islamists no longer play a role among the forces that have dominated Libyan politics since the war for Tripoli ended in June 2020. The spread of militant Islamism in Libya had some deep roots. A considerable number of Libyans had travelled to Afghanistan to fight from the end of the 1980s.

In the 1990s, some of them founded the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which fought repeated battles with the Gaddafi regime from 1995 to 1998 before its members were either imprisoned or fled abroad. After the US invasion of Iraq, Libyans made up a disproportionate share of the foreign fighters there. Many of them came from only a few Libyan cities, some of which had already been LIFG strongholds.

Even then, a jihadist subculture had developed in a few Libyan cities. During the first civil war (2011), militant Islamists were part of the revolutionary forces. They did not form their own jihadist groups, but fought side by side with non-Islamist revolutionaries. With the fall of Gaddafi, they not only became victors, but also established solid relationships with other revolutionaries.

After the revolutionaries’ victory, former LIFG leaders and militant Islamists without affiliation became members of parliament and deputy defence or interior ministers. Others set up armed groups that obtained official status and access to state funds. In this respect, Islamist actors were no different from other former revolutionaries.

Although the former LIFG leaders were now often vilified as “al-Qaeda” or “terrorists” by their political opponents, there was no evidence that they continued to pursue a jihadist agenda. Instead, they founded parties and dedicated themselves to building a state according to their ideas of Islamic principles – which were basically in line with the conservative social consensus in Libya.

At the same time, the militant Islamist spectrum began to differentiate itself. Jihadists who were ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda founded groups under the name Ansar al-Sharia in several cities in 2012.

These and other groups channelled recruits from Libya and other North African countries to Syria, where they joined the Nusra Front and later the Islamic State. In Benghazi and Darna, the murder of former army officers and intelligence officers became increasingly frequent.

Although these cases were never solved and presumably had various contexts, suspicion fell on Ansar al-Sharia and other jihadists, who were particularly active in those cities. However, Ansar al-Sharia retained a remarkable degree of social acceptance, for example by providing security for Benghazi’s main hospital or campaigning against drug use.

The second civil war (2014–2015) gave militant Islamists an enormous boost. In Benghazi, former revolutionaries formed an alliance with Ansar al-Sharia to fight against the armed groups led by the renegade officer Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s opponents in western Libya, above all the armed groups of Misrata, supported the alliance with Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi politically, in the media and logistically. Local branches of the Islamic State were formed in Benghazi and Darna.

They benefited from the fact that Haftar’s opponents initially did not fight them, as they did not want to open two fronts simultaneously. For similar reasons, the Islamic State succeeded in bringing Sirte under its control: The city lay between the frontlines, and neither Misrata’s armed groups nor their opponents to the east of Sirte wanted to devote valuable resources to occupying it. IS was therefore able to operate and recruit openly. Many of Haftar’s opponents minimised the IS problem and also played down the danger posed by extremists in their own camp.

Haftar’s opponents initially did not fight the Islamic State – until it became too great a threat.

The turning point came when IS finally became too great a threat. In September 2015, former revolutionaries in Darna – including militant Islamists – declared war on the IS offshoot there. This confrontation ended in April 2016 with the defeat and flight of the remaining IS fighters. In Sabratha, where IS had not openly appeared but was increasingly committing murders and kidnappings, local armed groups used a US airstrike in February 2016 to drive IS out of the city, amidst battles lasting several days.

IS’s attempts to expand from Sirte – by far the group’s largest presence in Libya – towards Misrata triggered a major offensive by Misratan armed groups in May 2016. In December 2016, they captured the last streets in Sirte where IS was still holding out. These confrontations made it impossible for Haftar’s opponents to continue to trivialise the danger posed by extremists.

The result was an extensive distancing from militant Islamists.8 The IS presence in Benghazi ended when its fighters fled the city in January 2017, by which time Ansar al-Sharia had effectively ceased to exist as an organisation. Other opponents of Haftar in Benghazi continued to fight until their defeat in December 2017. Many IS members who had escaped from the cities into the desert of central and southern Libya fell victim to American airstrikes.

The last eastern Libyan city outside Haftar’s control was Darna. As in Benghazi, not all his opponents in Darna were militant Islamists – but the latter formed the committed core, which was only defeated in February 2019 after an almost year-long battle. This meant that both the Islamic State and several other militant Islamist groups had been militarily defeated. Foreign analysts, however, continued to stress the potential danger of renewed jihadist mobilisation.

Libya remained politically divided, and violence and repression by Haftar’s forces and other militias did not create lasting security, but instead a breeding ground for new radicalisation. When Haftar attacked Tripoli in April 2019, triggering a third civil war, many well-informed observers warned that the conflict – like the one in Benghazi – would give a new impetus to jihadist mobilisation. But this did not happen.

Militant Islamists played no role in the fourteen-month war. Individual fighters may have had links to militant Islamist groups in earlier phases of the conflict, but now they were fighting in militias that rejected Islamist ideology. The leaders of these organisations ensured that figures who were – often wrongly – labelled as extremists were kept away from their units.

Even after Haftar’s defeat and the end of the war over Tripoli, militant Islamists were unable to regain any significant influence. Perhaps most surprisingly, there were hardly any signs of continued underground mobilisation, no splinter groups that remained wedded to the armed struggle for an Islamic state according to their own ideas. Militant Islamism appeared to have been defeated not only militarily, but also ideologically and morally – at least for the time being.


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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