The Rise and Mysterious Fall of Militant Islamist Movements in Libya

Wolfram Lacher

What are militant Islamists?

When searching for an appropriate explanation, it is first necessary to define the object of the analysis: militant Islamist movements. We are not simply looking at terrorism: the latter is one tactic among others that militant Islamist movements can potentially use – depending on the balance of power they find themselves in with their opponents.

The terms “extremism” and “radicalisation” also do not necessarily apply, because extremism is always relative: extreme in comparison to socially accepted ideas. The literature on radicalisation is mainly concerned with individuals, tight circles or small underground groups that isolate themselves from society.

The few existing studies of the decline of militant Islamist groups explicitly concentrate on terrorist groups. They emphasise military dynamics and aspects resulting from the strict isolation of these organisations from the societies that surrounded them.

In contrast, Libya’s militant Islamists developed largely openly in the first few years after 2011 and enjoyed considerable social acceptance. This is not the only reason why it makes sense to view them as social movements.

Social movement theory has long been applied to both violent and civilian Islamist groups; it also provides part of the conceptual toolkit for understanding the Libyan case. This includes the importance of political opportunity structures, access to resources that enable mobilisation, and the varying resonance of narratives and frames.

Analyses of Islamist movements fall into two camps when it comes to categorising them: those that emphasise the differences between various tendencies and those that group all Islamists together.

Social scientists in the first camp seek to differentiate between violent Islamists and moderate, civilian movements. They usually use the term “jihadism” for the former and “Islamism” or “political Islam” for the latter. In the second camp, authoritarian governments from the Persian Gulf to North Africa use “Islamists” and “terrorists” as interchangeable terms for all their political opponents.

In Western public discourse, right-wing social scientists and scholars of Islam also adopt this generalisation, and in countries such as Germany, the media and the authorities increasingly use “Islamist” as a synonym for “terrorist”.

There is no need to explain here that this equivalency is fundamentally wrong, regardless of whether it is based on political motivation or ignorance.

The term “jihadism” is ill-suited to adequately describing Libyan realities.

The term “militant Islamism,” as used in this study, distinguishes itself from both camps. Militant Islamism can be defined as violent mobilisation that is based on an Islamic idiom and pursues the declared aim of reshaping the political and social order. This definition is explicitly broader than the category of jihadism – a term that is itself rather controversial.

The use of “jihadism” generally assumes that this denotes a clearly defined doctrinal school – which, however, turns out to be incorrect on closer inspection. The Libyan context alone offers several examples of how ambivalent the term “jihadism” is: after all, the fight against Italian colonisation entered collective memory as a jihad and was mythologised as such by Gaddafi.

In the post-Gaddafi era, the supposed anti-Islamist Haftar and so-called Madkhalists in the ranks of his forces also called for jihad. And yet, the Madkhalists are reactionary Salafists whose doctrine above all emphasises absolute obedience to the ruler and is actually regarded by Islamic scholars as quietist, and hence incompatible with Salafist jihadism.

Due to their explicitly reactionary agenda, they do not fall under the definition of “militant Islamism,” whose period of decline in Libya was also that of the Madkhalists’ expansion. The fact that this study examines not only Salafist jihadist groups, but militant Islamism more broadly, is also due to Libyan realities. The country’s Salafist jihadist groups cannot be separated from other Islamist movements as easily as those who prefer to emphasise differences and nuances would suggest.

As this study shows, jihadist groups gained their initial strength not least from their many links with Islamists who were more flexible in their approach to ideology. Moreover, moderate, civilian Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood were evidently exposed to much the same dynamics as the militant forces, since the decline encompassed the entire Islamist spectrum. This also speaks in favour of not limiting the analysis to groups that were ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.


This study identifies mechanisms at work in the expansion and decline of militant Islamist mobilisation as seen in Libya between 2011 and 2020. These mechanisms partly follow prevailing approaches, but go beyond them. They were developed from recurring patterns that the author discerned from 39 interviews. The interviewees included former leaders, members and allies of militant Islamist groups as well as other actors and observers who closely followed the rise and decline of such groups in their social environment.

The majority of these interviews were conducted in Libya and Istanbul in 2022–2023. By that time, militant Islamists were no longer relevant actors in the conflict. This enabled conversations that were generally more open and less characterised by politically motivated distortion than was the case when the groups in question were active. This is another reason why it can be advantageous to examine Islamist mobilisation after it has subsided.

Where the interviewees tended towards ex post facto rationalisation, the author was able to compare their assessments with his own, which he gained from discussions with the same groups of actors in the years following 2011 – at a time when militant Islamist groups were rapidly growing.


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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