Jihadism in Libya

By Aaron Zelin

The tragic death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel in yesterday's attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was the latest episode of violence attributed to Islamist extremists in Libya. A small contingent of local jihadists has emerged since Muammar Qadhafi's ouster, and they have applauded the recent attacks, though it is not clear how much responsibility they bear for carrying them out. The growth of such groups is a worrisome development that reinforces the importance of active U.S. engagement with the new Libyan authorities.

Before the War

Prior to the 2011 uprising, the country's main organized jihadist movement, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, had already deradicalized and retired. Founded after the anti-Soviet jihad, the LIFG attempted to overthrow the Qadhafi regime in the mid-1990s but began to move away from armed conflict in 2006. In 2009, the group's shura council members -- some in Libyan prison, others in exile in Europe -- negotiated an end to conflict with the regime via Qadhafi's son Saif al-Islam. The minority that disagreed with that decision joined al-Qaeda in Pakistan, leaving no organized presence in Libya. Therefore, on the eve of last year's war, organized violent jihadism in Libya was more or less extinct.

Once the uprising began, the LIFG stuck to its word and did not return to jihadist activities, even changing its name to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change. As the rebellion unfolded, however, many members of the group joined the armed resistance, where they drew on their prior combat experience; most prominently, LIFG figure Abdul Hakim Belhaj became head of the Tripoli Military Council.

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Following Qadhafi's fall, the LIFG split into two political factions that contested the July 2012 legislative elections: the broad-based moderate party Hizb al-Watan (HW), which Belhaj joined, and the smaller, more conservative and Islamist-tinged Hizb al-Umma al-Wasat (HUW), which most other LIFG members joined under the leadership of prominent figure Sami al-Saadi. HW did not win any seats in the election, while HUW garnered one, which was allocated to Abdul Wahhab al-Qaed, brother of the late Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda figure.

New Local Groups

Even as LIFG put down its arms after the war and joined the political process, new jihadist groups began to emerge once the dust settled. One of the largest is Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB), led by Muhammad Zahawi. In addition to online connections with the Ansar al-Sharia group in Tunisia, ASB has ties to several smaller Salafi-jihadist katibas (battalions) in Libya, including the shadowy Ansar al-Sharia in Darnah (ASD), led by former Guantanamo Bay inmate Abu Sufyan bin Qumu. Many of these katibas participated in the ASB's first "annual conference" this June; based on photos from the event, as many as a thousand individuals attended.

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Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at The Washington Institute. This article was originally published as Policy Watch 1980 and is reprinted with permission.

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