Quilliam’s President Noman Benotman examines why Extremists have declared Libya part of the Isil caliphate, and what’s gone wrong.
Libya is now in the throes of an extreme political crisis. If the conditions remain unchallenged and, hence, unchanged, it will turn into another Syria or Iraq.
While ISIL has managed to capture the attention of the international media with its powerful propaganda and its violent tactics, the world’s has ignored the equally threatening Islamist groups and movements that have prospered in North Africa in the post-Arab Spring vacuum. Nowhere is this threat more profound than with the rise of radical Islam in Libya.
Since 2012, the capital, Tripoli, has principally been controlled by an Islamist-dominated General National Congress and an array of Islamist militias. In the east, Ansar al-Sharia (AS), the group made infamous for its involvement in the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in September 2012, and designated by the USA as a terror organisation, has grown in military power and political influence. Since early 2013, the city of Benghazi has been plagued by political violence. Assassinations are happening almost daily, and bombings and kidnappings have been a regular feature. Islamist militias, including AS, have been blamed for the violence. The dynamics of Islamism in the eastern region of Libya are a cause for huge concern. We must respond.
The ongoing low-level insurgency in Benghazi is driven by two factors. The first is the radical Islamist ideology of certain groups that refuse to recognise the modern state and its institutions. For example, according to the leader of AS’s Benghazi branch, Mohammed al-Zahawi, his group will not disarm and demobilise until its version of sharia is imposed. The realisation of such an Islamic state constitutes the group’s main aim. In other words, it is the nature of their Jihad.
The second reason is the Islamists’ history with the state security forces. During the 1990s, Muammar Gaddafi unleashed a crackdown on all expressions of Islamism, which saw thousands of youths arrested and jailed as political prisoners. Many were incarcerated in the notorious Abu-Saleem prison. Today’s rejection of state institutions has its roots in that brutality.
Unfortunately, over the last two years, the central government in Tripoli has not been able to provide the necessary military, political and financial support needed to resolve the crisis in Benghazi. In May 2014, General Hifter, an established Libyan General, announced the beginning of “Operation Dignity”: a military-led campaign to eliminate terror from the country formed from a broad-based coalition in Benghazi and neighbouring cities as well as Cyrenaica. The campaign began with air raids on the bases of some of the most powerful Islamist militias such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Raf Allah al-Sahati Brigade and the 17 February Martyrs Brigade.
As a response to this campaign, Islamist militias united to form a brutal coalition now known as the “Shura Council of Benghazi’s Revolutionaries”. The most recent of their attacks involved a suicide bombing in the surroundings of Benghazi’s Benina airport that claimed the lives of 40 soldiers.
However, Benghazi is not the only Islamist stronghold in Libya: the city of Derna, which has historically been a strong recruiting ground for Jihadi fighters to Afghanistan, Iraq, and more recently Syria, is of serious concern. Derna has remained largely outside the influence of the central state since the 2011 uprising, leaving radical Islamists with the freedom to realise their ideal Islamic polity. According to local reports, Derna’s Shura Council of Islamic Youth and Ansar al-Sharia have decided to declare Derna an “Islamic emirate” and publicly announce their allegiance to ISIL and its leader and so called “Caliphate” of Abu Baker al-Baghdadi. This means that ISIL now has its terrorist tentacles in Libya.
If the international community continues to overlook the current Libyan crisis, the country is likely to become an incubator of militant Islamist groups. Such a state would constitute a threat not only to its immediate neighbours but also to the West. Neutralising the influence of radical Islamists should therefore a top priority. In addition to a military response, however, we need a holistic and proactive approach that focuses on achieving reconciliation and stability. This involves forcing all rival political parties to the negotiation table to agree that a newly elected parliament is the sole representative body in the country. It is only from here that an inclusive and broad-based government can be realised.
Born in Libya in 1967, Noman Benotman first adopted radical Islamism in the mid-1980s after reading the books of Sayyid Qutb. In 1989 he travelled to Afghanistan where he fought against the Soviet Union, taking part in battles around Khost, Gardez and elsewhere. After the Soviet withdrawal, he helped set up the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which aimed to violently overthrow Colonel Gaddafi and establish an ‘Islamic state’ in Libya. In 1994, he moved to Sudan where he forged close links with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other key members of al-Qaeda. Since 1995 he has lived in London where he was initially part of the ‘Londonistan’ scene alongside other senior extremists such as Abu Qatada and Abu Musab al-Suri before gradually distancing himself from Islamism.
He is currently President of the Quilliam Foundation, and leads Quilliam’s work on de-radicalisation processes in the UK and abroad.
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