Libya plunged recently into armed turmoil. The government and parliament are unable to control the militias, militants and armed tribesmen who helped topple Gaddafi but now defy state authority. Last month, Khalifa Belqasem Hafter launched Operation Karama, or Dignity, to stamp out Islamist militias destabilizing the nation. As the head of the so-called “National Army”, he vowed to drive out militias and extremist elements, especially in Benghazi and Derna in eastern Libya.
Hafter had lost confidence in the ability of Libya’s weak and divided government to keep a short leash on militant Islamists. He accused the weak central government in Tripoli of failing to tackle Islamist militants, such as the Ansar al-Sharia group. Based in Cyrenaica’s capital, Benghazi, Hafter began an offensive that has turned the city into a war zone and Libya into an anarchic state on the verge of full-blown civil war.
While initially considered nothing more than an idle threat, Hafter has since been leading a personal crusade of sorts in eastern Libya to root out what he considers extremist groups. The prevailing ideological camps in Libya are, not surprisingly split on the Hafter endeavor. Islamists slam Hafter’s coup attempt meant to disrupt the country’s fragile democratization. Nationalists applaud them as patriotic efforts to fight back against terrorist extremists who have preyed on the post-2011 anarchy.
Observers associate Hafter’s drive to wipe out Islamists from Libya to Egypt’s army strongman el-Sisi, who overthrew president Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in July 2013. Hafter, like Sisi, is said to have the full support of the Gulf States, which are known to be fiercely anti-MB. Hafter even established a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – the same name used by the Egyptian Army. Yet, while Hafter has gathered public, political and military support within and outside Libya, it will be a much more difficult endeavor to defeat Libya’s Islamists and jihadists. While Al-Sisi commanded a formidable army, Hafter’s “national army” is just another militia like so many others in Libya.
The evolution of Hafter’s political profile and drive is clearly indicative of a broadening level of public acceptance towards firmer action to remedy the deteriorating state of security in the country. For example, in February, when Hafter protested the extension of the General National Congress (GNC), he was unable to generate nearly as much support as he has now. The enthusiasm for Hafter’s endeavor from almost all units of the army, political parties, the state and the public in Libya could be serve as important momentum in snatching Libya out of malaise. However, Hafter’s victory is far from certain – and there is a risk that the country will slip into a civil war.
Still, despite his drive to bring the security situation under control, Hafter will have to persuade more parties capable of influencing the security/militia balances to join his side against what he calls the terrorists and their allies in Libya. His forces alone will be unable to score a definitive victory. Therefore, he will need to expand his scope of alliances in order to counter the Islamists and extremist factions that work together at many levels, from the GNC to militia formations.
The GNC appointed Ahmed Maiteeg as prime minister on May 4, 2014. This appointment followed the resignation of the caretaker prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni after holding the job for just five days. Thinni refused to accept GNC’s decision, claiming irregularity of voting procedures and filed a complaint with Libya’s Constitutional Court to invalidate Maiteeg’s ascension to prime minister.
The Constitutional Court confirmed that the recent decision of the GNC is illegal. Ahmed Maiteeg, considered to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, then abdicated his post as prime minister. However, the conflict between Islamists and their opponents has been taken to another level, which is likely to further inflame the conflict. The recent decision of the Constitutional Court of Libya has failed to alleviate the political and security tension in the country.
It is hard to tell who has the upper hand in Libya. The political landscape is so fluid that the game could change at any moment. Respect for the Constitutional Court’s decision is a positive sign. Focus should now be on ensuring proper handling of the parliamentary elections planned on June 25 and legitimate appointment of the prime minister. Whatever the outcome, the possibility of political instability and further violence remain high. There remains a long road ahead for Libya move forward from the revolution to the state.
Libya’s perilous landscape of militias
Heavily armed militias de facto rule most of Libya since the overthrow of Gaddafi, despite the attempts of successive governments to command control over the vast country. Libya, therefore, continues to suffer from a chronic absence of security, law and order for more than three years after the revolt, with daily assassinations, bombings and kidnappings, in addition to a frightening rise of customary crimes. At the bottom of all is this is the presence of a multitude of heavily armed militias. Many of these militias melted away as their members re-entered civilian life, but some still survive in the form of official and non-official military units. Currently, there exist up to 1,700 armed militias in Libya. These armed groups might have a wide variety of aims and ambitions; however, money and power are the two most important denominators that they all share.
The current impasse in Libya proves that it is radical Islamists that have stained the Arab peoples’ rise against tyrannies and stunted the potential of a swift transition to democracy. There is a regional and international consensus that Libya has become a danger not only to itself but also to the world around it. French forces who fought al-Qaeda and its allies in northern Mali found out that almost all the weapons were smuggled from Libya. The majority of weapons smuggled to Egypt’s Sinai and to Gaza radical Islamists come exclusively from Libya.
Although the majority of Libyan Islamists participated in the 2011 uprising, they hold a diverse set of political views and are divided by their preferred tactics as well. A description of Libyan Islamists necessarily includes different factions, the most intransigent peripheral elements being those that totally reject the center. Libyan Islamists also include tribes, those who follow mainstream Libyan religious traditions, and in some cases, even those who support the idea of a Libyan state distinct from an aspirational Islamic Caliphate.
There are at least four main Islamist factions: the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC), the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (LMB), assorted Salafis, and freelance jihadists. The LIMC and the LMB are the two groups that are most influential in society and politics of the post-Gaddafi Libya. Only these two groups have shown a willingness and desire to play the spoiler in post-revolution Libya, and they have been successful despite a dearth of public support for the central government, due in large part to an absence of effective security forces.
The second most powerful group in Libya, the LMB’s political wing – the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) – participated in last year’s election for the GNC, winning 17 of 80 seats. The JCP is the LMB’s political arm and it is led by Mohammed Sawan. JCP was formed in March 2012 and, to a great extent, it follows its Egyptian counterpart, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The party won roughly 48 percent of the vote in the local council elections in Benghazi, an MB stronghold. Notably, it lacks the strength and the popular base of its counterparts in both Egypt and in Tunisia.
The LIMC has expressed an interest in non-violence and participatory democracy. However, their vilified attacks on foreigners and Sufi shrines show who they really are. In the 1990s, it was a guerilla jihadist group but it renounced violence several years before the uprising and consented to the National Transitional Council’s authority in 2011, reflecting a willingness to share power with non-Islamists. Many observers question the group’s commitment to democracy, believing that their acceptance of electoral democracy is a tactic to gain power and fend off Western criticism during the transition period.
The city of Derna in Eastern Libya is known to be a hotbed for Islamist radicals. Derna’s most famous Islamist, Abdul Hakim Al-Hassadi, is known also as the “Emir of Derna” and some accuse him of being the leader of Al-Qaeda in Libya. Derna has a history of being a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist groups, and suicide bombers in particular. Along with other cities in eastern Libya, Derna supplied militiamen for the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an anti-Gaddafi movement that sprang up in the training camps of Afghanistan in the early 90s.
Even more damaging to Derna’s reputation were the revelations that emerged after coalition forces, operating near the Syrian border with Iraq in 2007, recovered records of about 600 foreign fighters who had entered Iraq the previous year. Analysis of the information by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point in the US found that of the 440 fighters whose hometowns were listed in the data, 52 were from Derna – the highest of any town or city listed. The statistic was even more remarkable on a per capita basis. Derna’s population is around 100,000, while the Saudi capital, Riyadh – which provided 51 fighters – is home to several million people.
Prominent Extreme Islamist Individuals and Groups
Al-Qaeda has set up an Islamic emirate in Derna, in eastern Libya, headed by by Abdelkarim al-Hassadi, a former U.S. prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Nowdays Al-Hassadi led Derna’s Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade in ousting the Gaddafi regime. In fact, Gaddafi had singled out Derna in general when warning of an Islamist presence in rebel ranks, so Al-Hassadi was singled out in particular. He spent five years in Afghanistan under the Taliban, from 1997 to 2002, and is on record as praising Osama Bin Laden’s “good points”. Al-Hassadi has no qualms about giving his view that Libya should be an Islamic state, governed according to sharia law. Al-Hassadi has a lieutenant, “also a member of al-Qaeda and named Kheirallah Baraassi” in al-Baida.
Another prominent Islamist who turned politician after the last election in 2012 is Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Belhadj enrolled in the Arab Mujahedeen supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and later it was his Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that was fighting against Gaddafi’s regime earlier in the 1990s. He was then captured by the CIA in Thailand, spent time in Guantánamo, and was rendered back to Libya in 2004. After six years in a Libyan prison, Belhadj was released in a general amnesty orchestrated by Seif al-Islam. Belhadj fled Libya but eventually returned to Tripoli in late August 2011, apparently with the backing of Qatar—and soon appeared on Al Jazeera in front of the gates of Gaddafi’s compound, Bab al-Aziziya.
Founded by Seifallah Ben Hassine in early 2011, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia was involved in the September 14, 2012 attack against the U.S. Embassy and American school in Tunis. The Tunisian government has declared Ansar al-Shari’a a terrorist organization, and the group has been implicated in attacks against Tunisian security forces, assassinations of Tunisian political figures, and attempted suicide bombings of locations that tourists frequent. Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, which is ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), represents the greatest threat in Tunisia and Libya.
Ansar al-Shari’a groups constitute the most eminent threat not only to Libya, but also to regional and international interests. Ahmed Abu Khattalah is a senior leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi and Sufian bin Qumu is the leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Derna and he was previously detained at Guantanamo. Ansar al-Shari’a has been formed separately after ousting Gaddafi, in Benghazi and in Derna. The group has been involved in terrorist attacks against civilian targets, frequent assassinations, and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya. There were also involved in the September 11, 2012 attacks against the U.S. Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya, where they caused the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Ansar al-Shari’a presents itself to Libyans as a social organization, offering for example a health clinic and a center for Islamic exorcism. It also provides aid to the poor. Its Facebook page shows the group’s vehicles patrolling the streets and its members constructing new buildings and handing out money to the needy. None of this is clandestine: Ansar al Shari’a signs mark the clinics and the cars are emblazoned with the black Ansar al Shari’a flag. The same flag can be seen flying from many apartment balconies both in Benghazi and in Derna.
The United States has designated Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, Derna, and their sister organization in Tunisia as separate “Foreign Terrorist Organizations”. The US has also designated Ahmed Abu Khattalah, Sufian bin Qumu, and Seifallah Ben Hassine, commonly known as “Abou Iyadh,” as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
Ben Hassine has longstanding ties to al Qaeda. In 2000, Hassine became the co-founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), which was established with the help of al Qaeda’s senior leaders. Ben Hassine reportedly met with both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The TCG was implicated in the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed by two Tunisians pretending to be journalists.
Whether in Egypt, Syria, Yemen or Libya, Islamists have turned what might have been a peaceful and effective movement in the right direction into a mayhem of violence and repression. While no road to democracy is smooth, Libya has seen enough of mayhem since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011. With the presence of heavily armed militias and Jihadis who do not believe in the “state” or modern political institution, Libya’s bath from the revolution to the state will be a serious challenge.
By Hamdi Hassan
A political scientist and writer working for peacebuilding in Libya