The Rise and Mysterious Fall of Militant Islamist Movements in Libya

Wolfram Lacher

Social Mechanisms in the Rise and Fall of Militant Islamists

Many of the patterns that are emphasised by prevailing approaches to jihadist mobilisation are also visible in the spread of militant Islamist groups in Libya. Young men joined these groups, and other militias made pacts with them to defend themselves against threats from third parties or because they assumed that militant Islamists had the best military prospects.

Such mechanisms are summarised below as tactical logics of action. Tactical considerations can also help to explain the decline of militant Islamists – namely when such groups no longer had any chance of prevailing militarily and could no longer offer protection, and having connections to them became a vulnerability.

However, such tactical logics of action do not explain why militant Islamists in Libya expanded rapidly in the period 2012–2014, although they were not yet operating in the context of an open conflict at that time.

They also do not provide a sufficient answer to the question of why militant Islamists did not benefit from the outbreak of the war over Tripoli in 2019, as they did in the second civil war in 2014– 2015.

Two other social mechanisms offer complementary explanations. Firstly, their social embeddedness made it easier for militant Islamists to gain social acceptance through mutual trust, loyalty and consensual ideological discourse.

The decline of militant Islamist movements therefore also manifested itself as increasing social isolation, as a distancing of their former allies and followers, along with a shift in societal discourse.

A final mechanism – the search for social recognition – helps to understand how dynamically and rapidly such processes of association and dissociation can take place. Of relevance here is the dialectical relationship between the quest for distinction and for conformity.

Rise: Tactical logics of action

Tactical considerations propelled both the rise of militant Islamists and their fall. These include a spectrum of logics of action ranging from pure opportunism to tactical radicalisation and emotionally charged acts of revenge. It is often difficult to judge whether actors operated out of sober calculation or emotional affect; in many cases, both may have played a role.

What these logics of action have in common is that they reflect reactions to the conflict or expectations about its future course. One example of how difficult it is to separate different motivations is the tolerance of many actors for militant Islamists in the period 2011–2014.

As shown below, this tolerance was partly rooted in social proximity and loyalties that go back to the 2011 war. However, the question of whether actors felt threatened by militant Islamists – or whether their violence was rather directed against their political opponents – played an equally important role.

In Benghazi, many leaders of revolutionary groups considered themselves Islamists and displayed a certain lenience towards the murders in the city – at least some of which were certainly attributable to militant Islamists.

A leading figure in the Rafallah Sahati Brigade told the author in November 2012 that former intelligence officers had only themselves to blame if they fell victim to murders, as their mere presence threatened social peace.

According to him, the extremists responsible for some of the murders could be appeased by excluding former regime officials from political life. In Darna, the leaders of the most powerful armed group, the Abu Salim Brigade, had a similar perspective on the killings in their city.

In April 2014, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP) admitted that jihadists were probably responsible for some of the murders in Benghazi, but at the same time played down the danger posed by Ansar al-Sharia.

This forbearing attitude also explains why extremists who later joined Ansar al-Sharia or IS were sometimes able to operate under the guise of state institutions, such as the Supreme Security Committee, in the first few years after 2011 and thus gained access to state resources – such as in Sirte. It is obvious that such access to resources had to be conducive to mobilisation, as emphasised by theories of social movements as well as analyses of Islamist groups in other contexts.

It is not always clear at what point it changed from being a question of tolerance to one of of alliances. However, the more the conflicts escalated, the more actors were willing to make pacts with militant Islamists.

For example, a revolutionary commander in Sabratha said in retrospect about the involvement of later IS members in the town’s armed groups: “We knew them, we tolerated them until they started kidnapping and killing people. Before that, we didn’t care about them, and we thought it was good that they were supporting the fight against Assad in Syria.

In the 2014 war, we were already aware of Abdallah Haftar’s [later head of IS in Sabratha] inclination towards IS, but he fought with us as an individual, he didn’t have his own group. However, we decided to only give him heat-seeking missiles one by one – because we knew we could soon be in conflict with him and his kind. We never considered IS as an ally – they were just individuals fighting with us.”

In Benghazi, it became particularly clear how conflict dynamics contributed to the formation of alliances with militant Islamists. The alliance formed between the main revolutionary armed groups and Ansar al-Sharia in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council in June 2014 was a direct reaction to the attacks they had been subjected to by Haftar’s alliance since May.

“This is a counter-revolution! Haftar has not only attacked Ansar al-Sharia, but also the revolutionaries. Of course we are now fighting together against Haftar,” one of the leaders of the alliance told the author at the time.

Voices that opposed this alliance – not least for tactical reasons – were in the minority. Prominent among them was Ziyad Balam, head of the Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade, who refused to join the Shura Council.

According to Balam, he warned the leader of the Shura Council, Wissam ben Hamid, against allying with Ansar al-Sharia: “I told Wissam: ‘Foreign governments regard Ansar al-Sharia as al-Qaeda, and here in Libya they are associated with the assassinations.

Foreign fighter jets will come and bomb you.’ But Wissam dismissed the warning – he thought he could quickly defeat Haftar, make peace with Haftar’s allies and then once again distance himself from Ansar al-Sharia.”

Such logic later repeated itself in a modified form, after Haftar’s opponents, having been driven out of Benghazi, realised how much the alliance with jihadists had harmed them. By forming the Benghazi Defence Companies, they actually sought to distance themselves from jihadists, as explained below. However, in order to reach Benghazi from central Libya, they collaborated with fighters from Ajdabiya who were accused of having links to jihadists.

At the time, the group’s leaders defended this approach: “It is true that Usama al-Jadhran used to be with Ansar al-Sharia and is now with us, but he is not really religious. We need him until Ajdabiya, then we can get rid of him.” But in retrospect, the group’s most important figure, Ismail Sallabi, admitted: “The problem lay in our alliance with Ajdabiya, with Jadhran’s people.

They had their own connections with extremists, and we had little influence over the composition of their group.” One of the most controversial issues is the relationship between Haftar’s opponents in Benghazi and the local branch of the Islamic State.

While the Haftar camp demonised all opponents as Dawaesh (IS members), his opponents often denied any alliance with IS. With the passage of time, a more nuanced picture has emerged. In the words of one member of the Shura Council: “When IS supporters appeared, many of our fighters said: ‘Let them fight, the defence of our city unites us.’ Others confronted Wissam [ben Hamid], asking how he could fight alongside IS. Wissam replied that he was not in a position to fight the group.”

Another member of the Shura Council confirmed this: “After Haftar’s militias attacked our homes in October 2014, we were forced to withdraw into the city to protect our families. These attacks drove fighters into the arms of IS.

I spoke to Wissam about this. He told me that he couldn’t open a second front against IS now and had to give them some ammunition, otherwise they would attack us. But he was trying to prevent IS from gaining strength by only giving them a few weapons. Later, when we learnt that IS was buying weapons and ammunition from Haftar’s people, we stopped altogether.”

During the civil war of 2014–15, groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and IS benefited from alliances with revolutionary groups.

However, groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and IS not only benefited from alliances with revolutionary groups, but also from the fact that some of the latter became radicalised through conflicts.


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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