The Rise and Mysterious Fall of Militant Islamist Movements in Libya

Wolfram Lacher

After the fall of Gaddafi, Islamist revolutionary leaders in Benghazi and Darna had campaigned among their followers to join state institutions and support political processes such as the 2012 elections.

Groups such as Ansar al-Sharia split from the revolutionaries precisely because they rejected that state. With his attack on the revolutionaries, Haftar seemed to vindicate Ansar al-Sharia’s uncompromising position: “Ansar told the Shabab [young men, fighters]: ‘You see? We told you that we have to fight against the state, that we have to conquer it! Now the state is waging war against you!’”

Later, after Haftar’s allies attacked the revolutionaries’ homes, IS tried to attract followers by emphasising that it rejected any compromise with the enemy.Wolfram Lacher

At times, this uncompromising attitude seemed to increase IS’s chances of success.

In January 2015, for example, a member of the Shura Council expected IS to win the battle for Benghazi, “because they are brutal fighters who will kill anyone who gets in their way. The tribes will submit to them to save the lives of their sons.”

A politician whose three sons were killed in the fight against Haftar said at the time that many who were now fighting for IS were not Islamists, but had joined it because of the other side’s violence.

Another person close to the leadership of the Shura Council said at the same time: “If we need IS to defeat Haftar, then let IS come. My family has lost everything, our house was burnt down, thousands of families have fled Benghazi. I have nothing left to lose.”

According to a former leading member of the Rafallah Sahati Brigade, such radicalisation processes explain why many members of the group first turned to Ansar al-Sharia and later to IS.

Last but not least, there were people whose support or mobilisation for militant Islamists came from opportunism, such as the tendency to join a force that seemed to be on the way to military victory: “When IS suddenly took over almost the entire province of al-Anbar [in Iraq] in 2014, many in Benghazi were impressed.”

Similarly, in Sirte, the triumph of IS in Iraq was a strong argument for members of Ansar al-Sharia to submit to the caliphate. A resident of Darna told of a pharmacist who had sought a licence from IS for his business on his own initiative: “I was surprised and asked him why. He replied: ‘Libya always wanted to be a powerful Arab state.

And now look at IS, its territory is bigger than that of Great Britain!’ In Darna, there were fighters who “joined every new wave – first IS, later Haftar”.

In Benghazi, IS fighters included “people who drank alcohol, consumed drugs or robbed banks and used IS as a cover for their self-enrichment”. In Sirte, where supporters of the Gaddafi regime had been militarily defeated and subjected to persecution by revolutionaries from Misrata, IS offered them an opportunity to obtain weapons, find protection and perhaps even take revenge on Misrata.

Decline: Tactical logics of action

Similar tactical considerations can be seen in the decline of militant Islamist groups. And here too, such objectives are located on a spectrum that ranges from reactions to an immediate threat to sober costbenefit calculations.

The fact that former revolutionaries in Sabratha, Darna and Misrata went from initial tolerance towards IS to a costly confrontation with the organisation was directly linked to the threat posed by IS.

In Sabratha, the armed groups tolerated IS supporters “until they started kidnapping and killing people”. Confrontation only occurred when the IS offshoot suddenly tried to gain control of the city after a devastating American airstrike in February 2016 – and was subsequently driven out.

In Darna, IS repeatedly clashed with the Abu Salim Brigade as of mid-2014. Together with other organisations, the latter formed the Mujahidin Shura Council of Darna (Majlis Shura Mujhahidi Darna), which was briefly joined by part of the local Ansar al-Sharia group before it broke away from the alliance. But open warfare between IS and its opponents only erupted when IS assassinated a prominent Shura Council commander – former LIFG member Nasr al-Okr – and when the Shura Council leader, Salim Derbi, was killed in the ensuing clashes.

Fighting in Darna continued for eight months. External observers usually described this confrontation as an internal conflict between jihadists, namely between IS and groups ideologically affiliated with al-Qaeda. In reality, however, the latter description only applied to part of the hard core of the Abu Salim Brigade.

And as for the fight against IS, the Shura Council not only succeeded in mobilising broad support in Darna; it also increasingly tried to shed its jihadist image in public statements.

. It is difficult to judge whether this also involved genuine ideological change among at least some of the leaders of the Shura Council, as well-informed observers insist. Nevertheless, the fight against IS in Darna must be seen as the beginning of a process whereby the local revolutionaries distanced themselves from jihadism – even if not all of them did so.

The later renaming of the Shura Council as the “Darna Protection Force” (Quwat Himayat Darna) followed the same logic. The Protection Force avoided any jihadist references and presented its resistance against Haftar as the city’s collective struggle against dictatorship and support for a “civilian state”.

A commander of the Protection Force, who escaped to western Libya after the group’s defeat, emphasised that the group no longer had any links to jihadists.73 Even more drastic and consequential was the change that occurred in Misrata when IS threatened to expand from Sirte towards Misrata.

From early 2015 onwards, IS brought Sirte under its control and repeatedly attacked an armed group from Misrata that maintained a presence on Sirte’s outskirts. Although this raised awareness of the threat in Misrata, it did not yet trigger mobilisation.

Leading players in Misrata also continued to allow their city to be used as a logistical hub by Haftar’s opponents in Benghazi – from which IS elements in Benghazi also benefited.

This only changed when IS attacked checkpoints between Sirte and Misrata in May 2016, threatening the city itself The spontaneous mobilisation of Misratan armed groups prompted a large-scale offensive that would last for months.

Hundreds of fighters in the city were killed before IS was defeated in December 2016. As one fighter said at the time: “The day after the attack on the checkpoint in al-Sdada, I joined the offensive.

Because IS was closing in, it even appeared in Misrata itself.” This was accompanied by a profound shift in attitudes towards militant Islamists in general. Interrogations and documents found in Sirte revealed that IS in Sirte and Benghazi had been able to benefit from the support for Haftar’s opponents in Benghazi, which was channelled through Misrata. Social pressure in Misrata then put an end to this support.

Political calculations are also likely to have played a role in this development. Misratan politicians had been trying to find new allies in eastern Libya since the formation of a unity government in early 2016.

This required them to end their support for the groups in Benghazi. The shift in Misrata was an important reason why opponents of Haftar who had been driven out of Benghazi increasingly tried to distance themselves from the jihadists. One example of this was the founding of the Benghazi Defence Companies.

The leaders read out the founding declaration in June 2016 in front of the Libyan flag, with an army officer in their midst, and announced that they were following the rulings of the Dar al-Ifta’, i.e. the mufti in Tripoli.

By doing so, they sought to differentiate themselves from the Shura Council, which Ansar al-Sharia had prevented from using the national flag, as well as from all groups that referred to jihadist legal scholars.

They also tried to screen out fighters with links to extremists during the recruitment process – with mixed success, as described above. After they were accused of such links, they cut ties with dubious figures, which they never tired of emphasising when meeting with the military chain of command in Tripoli and Misrata, with British and American representatives – and with the author.

Individual fighters also sought protection by distancing themselves from militant Islamists. A young man from a western Libyan city who had fought against Haftar in Benghazi told the author: “One of my brothers had joined IS in Syria and was killed there.

When I came back from Benghazi, people started asking questions about my ideological tendencies. Later, some distant relatives of mine fought in the ranks of IS in Sabratha. For all these reasons, I sought protection at home and found it in the [anonymised] brigade.

When Haftar attacked Tripoli in 2019, his opponents had learned from this experience. They were now acutely aware of the toxic nature of links with extremists – which the Haftar camp and its foreign allies sought to fabricate from the first day of the war.

Prominent commanders from Benghazi, accused of such links rightly or wrongly, wanted to join the fight against Haftar in Tripoli. However, both figures from their own circles and western Libyan leaders advised them to stay away so as not to harm the cause.

Former foot soldiers of the Shura Council were able to join the forces fighting Haftar, provided they had never been members of Ansar al-Sharia or IS. In addition, many other young men who had been forcibly displaced from the east of the country by Haftar’s forces took up arms. But instead of forming their own unit, which would have attracted negative media attention, they joined various western Libyan groups.

Previously, they had found themselves in a precarious situation in western Libya, as displaced young men from the east faced generalised suspicion of being terrorists. They were often held without reason and without trial in the notorious prison of the “Deterrence Apparatus,” one of the most powerful militias in Tripoli.

By joining western Libyan groups as individual fighters, including the Deterrence Apparatus, they countered such suspicions and found protection.


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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