Rise of Radical Muslim Groups in Libya

By Daniel Wagner & Giorgio Cafiero

It would be an understatement to say that the National Transition Council (NTC) has failed to govern Libya effectively since the fall of Gaddafi. The majority of territory outside Tripoli has fallen under the control of armed militias that have refused to disarm. Violent campaigns along tribal and ideological lines have been waged by Libyans determined to settle old scores and influence the ongoing political transition. Libya's armed Islamists are well positioned to shape the course of events. This year the NTC will be challenged to integrate the Islamists into the national political system, yet failure to do so will likely result in marginalized militants playing the spoiler. If current events in Algeria and Mali are an indication of what the future holds for Libya, Islamists may be expected to wage armed attacks against their opponents and western targets, which can only further damage Libya's investment climate.

Although the majority of Libya's Islamists supported the 2011 uprising, they hold a diverse set of political views and are divided by tactics. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (LMB), National Front for Salvation of Libya (NFSL), Islamic Rally Movement (IRM), and Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC) have all expressed an interest in non-violence and participatory democracy. Last June the LMB's political wing -- the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) -- participated in the election for the General National Congress, winning 17 of 80 seats. The LIMC, previously a guerilla jihadist group in the 1990s, renounced violence several years before the uprising and consented to the NTC's authority in 2011, reflecting a willingness to share power with non-Islamists. However, these groups' long-term political agendas and commitment to democracy have been questioned by analysts who suggest that their acceptance of electoral democracy is a tactic to gain power and fend off Western criticism during the transition period.

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Democracy or Sharia Law?

By contrast, other Libyan Islamists reject democratic practices and actively promote violent jihad. The Salafist Ansar al-Sharia (AaS, or Protectors of Islamic Law) is one of the most heavily armed factions in Libya and adheres to an extremist ideology not unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, or Ansar Dine in Mali. Believing democratic elections are "un-Islamic", the organization vows to remain armed until a strict version of sharia law is implemented across Libya. Based in Benghazi and Derna, AaS is a product of the uprising and believes that it owns the revolution as a result of resisting the regime before the NATO no-fly zone was imposed. In June the group attempted to assassinate the British Ambassador and during late August, it made international headlines after bulldozing ancient Sufi shrines in Tripoli and Zlitan. The September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi were carried out by the AaS, according to Libyan President El-Megarif.

AaS is heavily armed with anti-aircraft weaponry and automatic weapons, and numbers up to 5,000, but the group has gained legitimacy among a variety of non-militant groups within Libya, particularly after it assumed responsibility for guarding one of Benghazi's main hospitals last year, which was previously forced to operate under the threat of violence. While the NTC must eventually tackle groups like AaS, in the short-term it is forced to rely on autonomous armed battalions such as the AaS to ensure security, while seeking the longer-term objective of either disarming them or bringing them into a national military.

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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS.

This article was originally published by INEGMA.

(AP Photo)


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