On 11th January 2010, Quilliam held a roundtable entitled:
Refuting Al-Qaeda: Former jihadists and the battle of ideologies
with Noman Benotman, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
Maajid Nawaz, co-Director, Quilliam
– Noman Benotman is from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the jihadist group in Libya, who have issued recantations of their previous jihadist ideology in a document, entitled Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Accountability and the Judgement of People. This is of immense value for the countering-extremism debate across the world.
– My own experience of this was in prison in Egypt where I had my first exposure to critics of Islamist supremacy via writings by Egypt’s largest terrorist organization – al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya – who authored a series of books that were critical of their actions in the past. This made me rethink my own affiliations with Hizb ut-Tahrir.
– Refutations are important for three reasons:
1. If we can keep jihadists debating internally and fighting with each other, they will focus less on spreading their ideas externally.
2. To see people like Noman who have been there and are now regretful and highly critical of their actions, is crucial for young people thinking of joining these organizations.
3. It allows for people across the world to see that it is possible to be a Muslim and not be an extremist.
James Brandon, Senior Research Fellow, Quilliam
– The LIFG was formed in the early 1990s by Libyan Islamists fighting in the Afghan jihad. Noman was one of these – fighting in Afghanistan from 1989 onwards.
– Originally the LIFG was set up to overthrow the Libyan regime of General Gaddafi, but over time it developed more radical ideologies, mixing more with al-Qaeda’s ideology.
– In the early 1990s, jihadists were forced to move on from Afghanistan and go elsewhere. Many of these went to Libya that was a safe-haven for them at the time. Noman went with them to Sudan where they trained for jihad and developed a real al-Qaeda ideology.
– In this period, Noman was involved with Dr. Fadl, Zawahiri, Bin Laden – the top level of AQ.
– In 1995 LIFG were forced to leave Sudan under pressure from the Libyan government. Noman went to London where he mixed with Abu Qatada, Abu Musab al-Siri – top level AQ thinkers in London.
– Others went to Afghanistan where they set up the training camps. It was AQ that followed the LIFG to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, LIFG leaders and AQ mixed, the LIFG becoming increasingly radical and a part of AQ.
– In 2000, Noman went back to Afghanistan to talk to the LIFG during which time he also talked with Bin Laden and Zawahiri about which direction they should go.
– In 2002, Noman resigned over disagreements over LIFG’s role and position. He became involved in increasingly non-violent political movements.
– In 2005, the Libyan government approached him to act as an intermediary between them and the LIFG to see if there could be some kind of reconciliation.
Noman Benotman, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
– Firstly, to put the LIFG’s repositioning in context, I would like to talk about the idea of the geography of jihad. There are many processes regarding the reconciliation between armed groups and their own national governments. We can’t understand the connections between all of them until we introduce this concept.
– There are three main geographical areas:
1. The core: This is where the core members reside and is changeable – sometimes it’s Pakistan, sometimes Yemen, Algeria or Libya, for example.
2. The preferred areas.
3. The semi-preferred areas.
All of these areas are connected to each other through a network. For the LIFG, its core is Libya itself, but it has a presence in other countries (the preferred and semi-preferred areas) which are connected to the core in Libya as well as the wider network of al-Qaeda.
– It is very unlikely that any armed group would voluntarily change their ideology without their activities first being reduced physically through force. When a local government is engaged in a conflict with any armed group, military defeat is not the problem; defeating the ideology is the problem. When we manage to reduce the activities of any armed group what we have gained is time not military defeat. In Yemen, for example, they had completely disappeared from the map, but given time the radical groups are back. The important factor is therefore how local governments and the international community are capable of using that time effectively.
– The LIFG now distinguishes between its struggle as a political group and its identity as Muslim. Prior to their ideological shift they believed that everything they did was Islam itself. This is the main problem within radical groups: their political agenda is equated with Islam and therefore questioning their agenda is seen as questioning Islam.
– General Gaddafi’s son – a key figure on the Libyan political scene – launched an initiative to talk with the LIFG leadership. He was aware that the influence of the LIFG’s network extended outside of Libya, especially in Afghanistan.
– Several years ago some of the LIFG leaders were offered the option of being released if they were prepared to sign a deal, but they refused. The Corrective Studies were not just written because they wanted to be released from prison – they had been offered (and rejected) this opportunity before.
– However, this time the LIFG leadership were offered an initiative where they would keep their dignity. The Libyan government told them that it was not the idea of Islam itself, but their political agenda that was their point of departure. The LIFG made it clear that they would like to be part of the new Libya – the programme being offered by Sayf al-Islam. The Libyan government therefore said that they could be a part of it but told them they needed to change their ideology. Crucially, this did not include changing their religion.
– We then managed to facilitate full communication amongst the whole of the LIFG. The prison authorities were hesitant to provide a meeting place in prison to what was regarded as one of the most dangerous groups — a group they didn’t trust. However, we overcame that problem and the leaders of LIFG used and utilized that opportunity to communicate honestly with their followers.
– The LIFG therefore decided voluntarily and ideologically that they believed in the changes they were making. It wasn’t because they wanted to gain their freedom, but because they understood the political situation. They wanted to gain something because they’d been fighting for 20 years and thus far they had fought and had achieved nothing.
– The idea of international jihad is still a problem. The LIFG still believes what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq is jihad – the countries are under occupation. However, crucially, they don’t believe in terrorist acts to liberate the country: they don’t support the killing of civilians and, for the first time, they argued that embassies in these countries are not legitimate targets either. Instead, their conception of jihad has to do with the original idea of jihad: that it is a local problem, focused on local regimes. It is not international jih
ad like AQ.
– All studies and revisions so far have stopped there. They have denounced violence but haven’t taken the next step – they haven’t addressed democracy. I understand that in many Middle East countries there is no democracy at all. However, the problem is that groups give up the armed struggle but go no further. They should give people an alternative. As a concept the most effective process available is democracy, whether we like it or not.
– The LIFG’s revision is very useful and effective. In Morocco they have tried to do the same thing with jihadi-salafis in their prisons; in Algeria the security services have distributed copies of the Corrective Studies and tried to create a debate in various hotspots.
– However, this is just the beginning. The Libyan government needs to proactively take advantage of it. If it doesn’t do so soon, we will be back to square one. The authors of the study need to go out and preach what they believe and challenge other radical groups on a daily basis.
– The problem is that six of the LIFG’s leadership council are still in prison. People are questioning the Corrective Studies because they have not seen the leaders supporting the document and legitimizing what it says. I cannot say when they will be released, but many members of the Libyan government would like to see them released so that they can do this.
– The Corrective Studies is important because it is the most comprehensive argument made on the Salafi-Sunni understanding of Islam. But the hard part is how to make these ideas available to people.
– Recently, there was an attempt to speak to grassroots jihadis in prison. A few hundred were told to read the book. Most of them said they didn’t understand anything because it was sophisticated and complicated. It is nine chapters written in a highly academic style. Here is the problem. We have a book from one of the most influential groups in the jihadi movement, but we don’t know how to disseminate its ideas.
– We have been through this for years, and we need to come up with a conclusion and serious solutions.
I am not very consoled by this. Although the LIFG no longer calls for jihadi resilience against the Libyan government, there is still significant justification for jihad abroad. Surely this only encourages the young to go and engage in jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq?
I mentioned that this is a problem. This has to do with the roots of terrorism because, as I told you, we have the geography of jihad – the different areas. The LIFG has abandoned using violence in the local struggle, which is good. But when they start to talk about Afghanistan or Iraq, they can’t justify the occupation there. Muslims need to start to talk about the idea of jihad these days in the context of international relations in order to undermine those groups that believe they have the right to launch jihad against other nations. The problem is Muslims don’t want to go down that road, but this is the real solution.
It is interesting what you are proposing – an empowering role for religious clerics. There is no doubt that in certain Muslim countries there is a relationship between corrupted regimes and extremist clerics. Is this another attempt to prepare for having another ruler or is it a genuine attempt to increase awareness that neither jihad nor shari’ah law is compatible with modern day human rights? Is this a genuine attempt of separation between religion and the state in an attempt to reach true democracy or is this just a means of promotion for Sayf al-Islam?
There is no link between Sayf al-Islam and the LIFG initiative. If you wanted to be the ruler, you wouldn’t wait for the LIFG inside prison to agree.
But wouldn’t it give Sayf al-Islam legitimacy?
Legitimacy wouldn’t come from the LIFG. Why would he be the only ruler in the Middle East to ask for legitimacy? The main problem in the Middle East is tribalism. The main enemy of democracy is the tribe – for example the up-coming elections in Iraq. I don’t believe there is any connection between anyone wanting to be in power and the LIFG initiative.
The Corrective Studies mentions that jihad is legitimate in Iraq and Afghanistan…
Yes, that is correct. But you can’t use terrorist tactics to justify fighting against civilians in other countries. That was clear in the LIFG’s argument.
The main problem in the Middle East is dictatorships supported by Western countries. Why are these countries still supporting these regimes?
This is not a question for me, it is for Hilary Clinton! The problems in the Middle East are the products of our own societies; it has nothing to do with support from the West. There are influences through international relations, but these are internal problems that we need to face ourselves.
How has global jihad affected local ethnic conflicts, and has it made the situation worse for ethnic minorities in the Middle East?
Theoretically yes. I am not aware of any situation where it is really because of the global jihad except potentially Iraq where it is chaos. I don’t think there is any specific example.
Do you think that the LIFG held back on certain issues due to its situation in jail (that it wouldn’t be taken seriously) – specifically on the notion of takfir [issuing a verdict of apostasy]? They were not as clear on this as initially expected.
I think they were clear about it. The book itself is very sophisticated and has been written as if a scholar would read it. It does not talk about takfir itself, but the judgemental attitude that it embodies. This is tackled when they say that such judgement is the duty of the scholars and that nobody has the right themselves to judge others. Judgement is the work for the scholars of Islam – and this is clear in the Corrective Studies.
Do they then concede that they are not qualified scholars to talk about this?
Yes. It is a problem when people classify others without knowing what you’re doing or what you’re talking about.
Even if the leaders are released from prison and go around the country arguing in favour of the paper, the country is highly repressive and so being able to do so publically will require the government’s permission. Would this not undermine credibility?
Yes of course, but you have to do it one way or another. When you do such a thing I am sure you will start to lose some people. I think this is not the issue. If you are really genuine and believe in Allah you shouldn’t care about these things. The vast majority of the Middle East population do not believe in violence, so I still believe you need to see this out.
Did the Corrective Studies discuss the concept of dar al-harb [land of war]? A lot of the justification for violence can come from what you define as a place of war. Do you discuss that?
Unfortunately not. This is one of the issues that someone needs to talk about. Is this a category that is compatible with the modern world? Nobody wants to go down that road.
Deflecting things to scholars is a recognizable tactic regarding the issue of takfir. The question is which scholars do you talk to? Also on the question of hakimiyya [sovereignty of God] – I understand that they still hold the principle that only God is sovereign and can make laws. Is this the case?
They believe in the Islamic state of course. But I think their attitude has changed as it is something that is not very easy. When you go through the struggle you gain a lot of skills and under
standing including politics. I have spent more than half of my life as a fighter, but I can tell you that no one has given a true meaning of the Islamic state – including Sayyid Qutb. Every single group in the jihadi movement just produces soldiers – they say that they need to gain power before talking about the details of their Islamic system. The culture of every single group is a militant culture; they don’t go down that road of education.
What is the LIFG’s view towards Israel?
It is a very complicated issue and has never been part of the LIFG’s practical agenda. They believe in the rights of the Palestinians, and they don’t believe in the existence of Israel. But practically it doesn’t mean anything to them or their struggle.
How are the Corrective Studies different to Dr Fadl’s refutation?
It is very different. Dr. Fadl’s argument leaves a lot of gaps and questions, including the idea of why you don’t use jihad to change local government.
One of the six leading members [Abd al-Wahhab al-Qayd] is the elder brother of Abu Yahya al-Libi [leading member of AQ] – do you think this family connection has an influence on changing his mind or ideas?
I don’t think so. I don’t think it is easy to change Abu Yahya al-Libi’s ideas or ideology. People around him have been influenced by loyalty. Until now, there has been no statement from AQ criticising the LIFG which is unusual. This is not the case with other groups – al-Jamaa Islamiya, Dr. Fadl etc. That shows how credible this group is.
Where do you stand with ‘loyalty and allegiance’ to Islam?
AQ’s ideology is based on this idea because it is very easy and doesn’t need a scholar. It is simple for them to label you as a non-Muslim on the basis of actions – because you weren’t loyal to the Muslims and had allegiance to non-Muslims. Police, writers, people working in the media and other institutions have all been labelled as non-Muslims. This is missing in the Corrective Studies – I am not sure if they missed it deliberately or if it was too sophisticated, but it is a real problem.