The Rise and Mysterious Fall of Militant Islamist Movements in Libya

Wolfram Lacher

Who were the Islamists?

Part of the answer to the question of how to explain the sudden disappearance of Libya’s militant Islamists is that many supposed Islamists never actually were as such. After 2011, numerous political actors and media in Libya and the wider region used “Islamist” as a stigmatic term.

Political opponents were branded as Islamists in order to discredit them. It was commonplace to label someone a Muslim Brother or to slander them as an al-Qaeda member without any basis. International media, diplomats and analysts often adopted such categorising.

Numerous articles stated, for example, that the paramilitary Libya Shield Forces were close to the Muslim Brotherhood or that Misrata’s armed groups were Islamist – both of which were simply false.

This misrepresentation repeated from one article to the next became widely accepted fact. The struggle over the conflict’s narratives that drove this dynamic was particularly virulent during the second civil war in 2014–2015.

In the 2019–2020 war over Tripoli, pro-Haftar propagandists once again tried to stigmatise their opponents as Islamists and terrorists. Since Haftar’s defeat, there has been much less recourse to such propaganda, thereby strengthening the impression that the influence of Islamists in Libya has greatly diminished. In fact, however, this influence had previously been excessively inflated.

Nevertheless, this development only partially explains why militant Islamists were in the spotlight until 2016 and have almost completely disappeared from it since 2020. In addition to fabrications and often inaccurate reporting, there has also been an actual rise and fall in militant Islamist movements.

What requires explanation, then, is why many actors maintained close ties with militant Islamists in the first few years after 2011, which in turn made it easier for their opponents to brand them Islamists as well, before increasingly distancing themselves from Islamists from 2015 onwards.

Analyses of Militant Islamist Mobilisation – and the Libyan Puzzle

Over the past two decades, both social science research and policy-oriented analysis has dealt extensively with the question of how and why militant Islamist movements spread. By contrast, how to explain their decline has rarely been the subject of investigation. And yet whether or not explanations for militant Islamism are valid should also be examined in terms of whether they can account for its decline. Prevailing approaches to explaining militant Islamist mobilisation differ primarily in how they assess the role of ideology as compared to other drivers of mobilisation.

Simplistic positions, which either declare ideology to be the most important factor or reject it altogether, no longer dominate the academic debate. Another theoretical divide is also gradually being overcome: between the tendency to dismiss ideology as merely an instrument in the hands of elites and the assumption that members of ideologically defined groups are ‘true believers’ whose actions are guided by their beliefs.

A number of studies show that ideology can fulfil these two functions and more within the same organisation. Among politicians and security authorities, however, the vague concept of radicalisation is still very popular, and is often associated with a strong focus on ideology.

Nuanced academic approaches, on the other hand, view the internalisation of extremist ideology as one aspect of radicalisation processes that are often driven more by social isolation and violent confrontation. Nevertheless, it is widely assumed that ideological socialisation and indoctrination make militant Islamist groups particularly tough and resilient.

The very category of a “jihadist group” implies that this is a sui generis actor whose peculiarity lies in the particularly important role of ideology. Some detect an “extremist’s advantage” in using ideology to strengthen trust between members of an armed group and thus also its fighting power.

Fewer analysts note that the proportion of hardened ideologues varies considerably from one group to the next. Conventional wisdom would therefore suggest that ideology gives militant Islamists in Libya cohesion, making them an extraordinarily tenacious political and military force. The sudden decline of militant Islamist groups then raises the question of what role ideology actually played in these groups.

This is relevant beyond the case of Libya. During the same period, the formerly flourishing jihadist movement in neighbouring Tunisia also rapidly lost popularity. The other analytical school also reaches the limits of its explanatory power with the Libyan case: the school that focuses on non-ideological drivers of jihadist mobilisation.

Over the past two decades, it has been common among social scientists, think tanks and non-governmental organisations to see the recruitment and mobilisation successes of jihadist groups primarily as a symptom of fundamental political and social grievances. Arbitrary repression by authoritarian regimes radicalises opposition groups – for example in prisons where young people who have been unjustly arrested are imprisoned together with committed ideologues.

Policy-oriented analyses of jihadist groups as parties to civil wars often emphasise that the rise of these groups can be explained by tactical alliances or by the search for protection against state security forces and their foreign supporters.23 They stress that the counterterrorism campaign of the USA and allied states after 2001 proved extremely counterproductive due to the civilian harm it caused; indeed, it provided jihadists with a “recruitment bonanza”. In the states of the Sahel, identity-based persecution drove entire population groups into the arms of jihadists.

Socio-economic grievances and resentment of economic orders that are perceived as unjust, as well as financial incentives, are also cited as important factors in joining jihadist groups. Accordingly, the fight against these groups primarily requires tackling the fundamental drivers of conflicts as well as building a fairer, more effective state.

There is extensive empirical evidence of links between the perception of arbitrary or collective threats and successful recruitment by jihadist groups. This does not detract from the fact that certain conditions can reverse such correlations, for example if the state’s capacity for repression is so strong that even massive injustice does not encourage militant mobilisation, but rather inhibits it.

And yet, developments in Libya suggest that such explanations ignore important aspects. After all, Libya’s militant Islamists underwent rapid expansion in the first two years after the fall of Gaddafi, when the conflicts had not yet escalated, but when Islamists were no longer subject to repression either.

Above all, however, conflicts continued to rage in Libya in the years after 2016, even as militant Islamist movements grew increasingly marginalised as actors in these conflicts. Contrary to general expectations, the latter also applied to the war over Tripoli in 2019.

And Libya is not an isolated case: in conflicts such as in Somalia or Iraq, jihadists gained importance at times when they offered themselves as allies to other actors and lost this importance once again when they became a threat to their allies. Both ideology and conflict dynamics therefore provide insufficient explanations for the decline of militant Islamist movements in Libya.


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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