On October 18, 2017, a Conference on the internal and external causes of insecurity and violence in
Libya and the role of the European Union in peacebuilding and state-building efforts was organized jointly by the European People’s Party Group (EPP Group), the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) in Brussels.
NCUSLR Chairman of the Advisory Board Wolfgang Pusztai talked about “The challenge of ISIS and Jihadism.”
"The challenge of ISIS and Jihadism"
1. Islam in Libya & the Islamist Nexus
Islam has a long tradition in Libya, since its conquest by Arab tribes in the 7th century. In the 19th century, a Sufi Sunni order, the Senussi raised to prominence and led the resistance against the Italian conquest in the early 20th century. Almost entirely wiped out by the Italians, its influence faded away, although the head of the order, Idris, became king of independent Libya in 1951.
After Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 all the Islamists were persecuted as opponents to the regime. Many of them were killed or tortured and jailed. Quite a few of them ended up in the infamous Abu Slim prison, were bonds were fostered between the various brands of Islamists, lasting until today.
In the early 1990s the LIFG was established by former Afghanistan fighters and tried to overthrow Gaddafi, but failed. Many were killed or ended up in Abu Slim. Some survivors escaped to Europe and Afghanistan, where they got in touch with Al Qaeda.
In today’s Libya, about 90% of the population are Sunni Muslims, and 8% Ibadites, following an own Islamic school of thought, which predates the major schools of Sunni and Shia. Among the Sunni a significant number follow Sufi traditions, a more mystical form of Islam, but there are no concrete numbers. Since the 1990s various brands of Salafism have become popular among the Sunnis.
In the recent years, Madkhali Salafists established a foothold in Libya. They are “quietists”, limiting their engagement in politics to supporting existing authoritarian regimes claiming to be Islamic. They believe that loyalty is owed to regimes that impose themselves and show strong authority, regardless of their politics.
This whole Islamist Nexus has a significant impact on the stability of Libya.
2. Major groups & expected developments
2.1 IS in Libya
The so-called Islamic State (IS) arrived into this religious environment in 2014. It follows a radical purist interpretation of Islam, strictly rejecting anything that it is not “originally an Islamic practice” and was not performed in Prophet Muhammad’s time. This includes not only all kinds of Sufi traditions, but also practices such as the Tarāwīḥ Prayer in Ramadan, which is very popular even among many Salafists. Its ultimate goal is to establish a pan-Islamic global caliphate, consisting of a caliph, a territory under its control and the ultra-conservative application of Islamic law. Altogether, IS ideology is widely in contradiction to the traditional understanding of Islam in Libya.
However, Libya became the second most important battlefield for IS. Libya’s insecurity, its geostrategic important location and the plentiful hydrocarbon resources attracted and empowered militias and terrorists alike. The absence of state structures, the availability of weapons of all kinds, uncontrolled land and sea borders, and wide ungoverned spaces in the south offer perfect conditions.
But IS has made several mistakes which have led - at least for the time being - to its failure in Libya.
In Derna and Sabratha IS build its own organization based on existing local Islamist groups, accepted or at least tolerated by the other militias, including the old LIFG-fighters and AQ affiliates. But in both cities, IS overstepped the mark, in Derna by forbidding a traditional Ramadan prayer and by killing the most prominent militia leader in the subsequent dispute; in Sabratha by beheading some members of prominent families after an American airstrike. They were driven out in bloody fighting by the other Islamists.
In Sirte, the home town of Muammar al-Gaddafi and the center of his tribe, the Ghaddadfha, the initial success of IS built up on local grievances. They provided security, ended the rule of militias and the encroachments of Misrata gangs, and accepted locals joining their ranks as equals. Initially, IS gave back some kind of self-confidence to the citizens of Sirte. Altogether, the disillusioned population was somewhat receptive to the "Islamic charity" and the "law and order" approach of IS.
The first mistake of IS was their cruelty in enforcing Sharia law and their overreaction to the resistance of some members of the Firjan tribe, when they killed about 50 of them, beheaded twelve more and crucified four at a central location in Sirte. This alienated the population. Many left the city.
After conducting several raids on the hydrocarbon infrastructure in the Sirte Basin, IS decided in early May 2016 to secure its western flank against a possible offensive by the recently established Government of National Accord (GNA), Libya’s internationally recognized government, by taking the junction Abu Qurayn. But the terrorists had overseen that they had overstepped a red line by cutting off Misrata, western Libya’s most powerful military force, from its vital land connection to southern Libya. This triggered the American-supported Misrata-led Operation Bunyan al-Marsoos, which ultimately led to the total defeat of IS in Sirte.
Nevertheless, the group was not entirely wiped out. In recent months IS has regained strength. It has regrouped in some more remote parts of Libya and renewed its attacks on carefully selected targets to underline its existence and prove its value to its financiers. There is reliable information that a significant number of jihadists has moved from Syria and Iraq to southern Libya. My estimate is that IS in Libya numbers currently about 600-800 fighters.
After a successful re-consolidation, IS now has two strategic options in a still favorable environment. Libya could again be used as a major battleground, or its vast ungoverned spaces could serve as a safe haven in a global phase of weakness for the terrorist organization.
My assessment is that they will follow the second option, which is less risky to them and more dangerous to the region and Europe.
2.2. AQIM and affiliates
AQIM and affiliates like Al Mourabitoun use Libya’ southwest, the Fezzan, as a safe haven and logistics zone for their activities in the Maghreb and the Sahel Region. For them Libya is in this capacity much more important than as a combat zone. Although some Libyan members urged AQIM’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, to start terrorist attacks in Libya, for the time being no such activities took place.
2.3. Other radical Islamists & terrorist groups
Besides IS and AQIM, there are various other groups in Libya, which include either a significant number of radical Islamists and jihadists or are even AQ affiliates.
The BRSC, which is an umbrella organization for various radical Islamist and jihadist groups like Ansar al-Sharia, 17February Brigade and Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, was defeated in Benghazi by General Heftars Operation Dignity last summer, after a three year long bloody battle. The BRSC fought shoulder-to-shoulder with IS jihadist against Heftar. Its remaining elements are still active.
The SDB (Saraya Difaa al-Bengazhi) consists mainly of former BRSC fighters, who were driven out of Benghazi, and other radical Islamists from western Libyan cities like Misrata. In December last year and in March this year the SDB tried unsuccessfully to take the Oil Crescent from the LNA. It was also involved in the Birak AFB massacre in May, when up to 141 LNA soldiers were killed.
Another example is the DMSC. It includes the local Ansar al-Sharia branch, which is led by Sufian Bin Qumu, a former confidant of Osama bin-Laden. Allegedly the city of Derna also harbors several Egyptian terrorist groups.
The Al Farouk Brigade is a jihadist group with links to AQ, IS and AQIM.
3. Influence on Politics
It must be acknowledged, that Islamic extremists have a certain influence on politics in Libya. Members of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group have still their network, encompassing almost the whole of Libya. They try to influence politics from behind and position trusted persons in key roles.
In Misrata all kinds of Islamists can be found, from moderate MB members to BRSC, DMSC and SDB fighters and supporters, to Al Farouk jihadists. All of those try to influence and shape the policy of the city.
It must be noted that the influence of the Madkhali Salafists is on the rise on several sides of the conflict. In the east they provide some of the elite units of Heftar’s LNA. In Sabratha they are part of the al Wadi brigade and the Anti-IS Operations Room, ousting recently the Dabbashi militias from the city. Many leaders and members of Tripoli’s powerfull Rada Force and Nawassi Brigade are also Madkhalis. Since a couple of months Madkhali Salafists are even getting more important in the Misrata.
IS and the other jihadists are a major threat not only for Libya, but also for the whole region and Europe.
This threat can be only successfully contained by unified efforts of all the major Libyan players, including the LNA, Misrata and the larger Tripoli militias. Otherwise, the terrorists will exploit the lack of attention of the warring factions to continue with their strategy.
Ceasefires between the main military powers and a certain amount of stabilization are a precondition for fighting terrorism.
As the rifts between the regions are very deep, such a stabilization cannot be achieved top-down by a central GNA or something like that. It must be done through the municipalities, districts, governorates and three historic provinces bottom-up.
The – amended – 1951 constitution could provide a temporary foundation for this process. Amendments must include the distribution of oil revenues and eventually the implementation of a president or a presidential council as a head of state.
The EU should play a major role in these stabilization efforts, rewarding stable cities and regions with reconstruction, state building and investment programs.