Libya, the Arab Winter?

In this essay, the author explores the fragile security situation and the rise of Islamist groups in post-revolution Libya. 


By Camille Maubert, 3rd October, 2012

Libya, through the persisting instability and violence ten months after the demise of Colonel Gadhafi, illustrates how fragile revolutionary gains can be. Indeed, the fall of the regime led to the disintegration of the status quo, the polarisation of the political scene and the assertion of new power relations. As the regime fell, so did the unity that the tyrant coercively insured over the great multiplicity of groups in the country, and this political break up resulted in the (re)-emergence of voices and groups with diverging agendas, interests and allegiances. The fight against the repressive regime united a multiplicity of actors from various tribal and socio-economic backgrounds into a strong, inclusive, but leaderless movement which disintegrated after the fall of the dictator. The uprising lost its unity at the moment when it lost its enemy. As a result, the constituents of this heterogeneous movement reorganised themselves in various groups with different – and sometimes competing – agendas. Among them are Islamists, which are the focus of this study because of their central role in the on-going violence. The security vacuum which stemmed from such a sudden change gave rise to instability, violence, and the empowerment of un-democratic actors – armed militias, terrorist groups, and so on – and increased insecurity in the wider Sahel region.

Accordingly, this paper aims to address the security consequences of the Libyan uprising by asking ‘How did the popular revolution impact on the regional security environment?’ In other words, it seeks to analyse the repercussion of the instability intrinsic to the post-revolutionary transitional period on Islamist activities in order to assess the shape and extent of the terror threat in the region. It argues that the security landscape is characterised by an increased Islamist presence which feeds on the instability, weak governance and widespread violence to expand its activities and audience.

Islamists’ Messaging During the Revolutions

The part taken by Islamist groups during the revolution seems to have been rather limited in extent. For instance, the black and white Islamist flags were noticeable by their absence while the Libyan one occupied the visual landscape. A major reason for that is that religious discourses and Islamic matters were not at the order of the day during the protests; Nationalism was the main driver and legitimiser of the revolution. As analyst Filiu argues “The key demand in all these protests is always the same: dignity, pride, honour. The revolutionary trend is essentially a struggle for self-determination, for liberation from a corrupt clique, for regaining control and power over a nation’s and the individual’s destiny”. Therefore, the Libyan insurgency is emphatically nationalist and in that respect amalgamates religious elements as part of the collective identity, not as a specific corpus, which means that the occasional incorporation of Islamic components into the larger revolutionary discourse must be understood more as a tool of mobilisation rather than in holistic terms.

If religion wasn’t a major part of the revolutionary discourse, then how can we explain the proliferation of Islamist activities in the post-revolutionary period? It is worth mentioning that Islamist activists didn’t appear after the fall of the Libyan regime. They were already present during Gadhafi’s rule but remained limited in scope as a result of decades of methodological sterilisation of the political landscape and ruthless repression of dissident forces. Despite the government’s crack downs, local salafi groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) persisted in their underground activities. However, they tended to focus specifically on local issues and, as shows the absence of Libya in AQIM’s messaging activities before the uprising, the links between the LIFG and global jihad were partial. Interestingly though, AQIM’s activities on jihadi forums at the beginning of the uprisings testify that Al Qaeda took a new interest in the Libyan situation, as, between February and October 2011, AQIM’s communiqués focused specifically on Libya.

AQIM’s Communiqués during the Arab Spring (Date: title):

13/01/2011: “In Support of the Intifadah of our People in Tunisia” and “A Call to our Revenging People in Algeria”

28/01/2011: “To our People in Tunisia: The Tyrant has Fled but the Indfidel and Tyrannical System Remains”

23/02/2011: “Support and Backing for the [Libyan] Revolution of our Family the Free, Descendants of Umar al Mukhtar”

11/03/2011: “Support for the Free, Descendants of Umar al Mukhtar”

02/10/2011: “Congratulations on the Victory of the Descendant of Umar al Mukhtar”

27/10/2011: “Open Letter to the Libyan People”

The first one, entitled “Support and backing for the Libyan revolution of our family the freemen descendants of Umar al Mukhtar”, called on the Muslim population to support the fight of their Libyan brothers against the apostate regime: “We declare our support and backing of the Libyan revolution in its legitimate demands (…)We call the Libyan people to be steadfast and patient, and we encourage them to continue their Jihad and revolution and to elevate it to remove the criminal tyrant (…)We call all the Muslim peoples to support their brothers in Libya with all of what they own”. The last message, entitled “Open letter to the Muslims in Libya” is more virulent. It first praises the Libyan people for toppling Gadhafi then denounces the NATO intervention as “driven by the hidden crusade hatred on Islam and Moslems” and meant to hijack the revolution to impose a secular state. This anti-Western stance is reinforced in the message by the reference to the Libyan people as the sons of Umar al Mukhtar, the leader of the anti-colonial resistance against the Italian domination of Libya. Lastly, the message urges for the creation of an Islamic state in Libya: “Gather your determinations and efforts and keep your trust in Allah in implementing the Sharia of Allah in Libya (…) and the Tawhid of the governance of the Sharia is above the national unity and the security of Libya”.

Although rather vague in terms of proposing a specific guideline and agenda for the Libyan people, these statements contain some valuable information about what the revolutionary change should lead to. They indeed urge the Libyan people not to lay down their weapons as the fight for the Muslim community, the Ummah, is not over yet. In fact, the last communiqué warns that “the stage is critical and everyone is observing, take care of mobilizing, directing and gathering the Ummah in the rank of the Islamic not secular solution, and frame it to preserve its achievements”. This new development in the relations between local Islamists and global jihadists raised some fears that AQIM might attempt to exploit the political instability to stir radical discourses and make Libya a breeding ground for extremism, as suggest a progressive influx of jihadis on the ground.

The Islamist Infiltration

As early as December 2010, just months before the beginning of the Libyan uprisings, unusual movements of AQIM katibas from the Sahel to the Maghreb were reported. Allegedly, these groups of fighters aimed to benefit from the weak security presence at the Southern borders to infiltrate into Libya. Similarly, when the revolutions kicked off, Tuaregs from Algeria and Mali penetrated in the Djebel Nefoussa Mountains in Southern Libya where they supposedly sold weapons to the tribes rising against Gadhafi’s regime. The same activities reportedly occurred in AQIM’s stronghold of Al Bayda, where Al Qaeda related groups set up an Islamic Emirate in February 2011. This influx in jihadi presence may allude to an attempt by Al Qaeda to co-opt the tribes into accepting an Islamist presence in the traditional strongholds of Northeast Libya in return for weapons and maybe funding. Yet, allegations of such an Islamist takeover in the Northern cities of Dernah, Al Bayda and Benghazi mainly rely on partisan sources, including Gadhafi’s regime attempt to scare the West into supporting it by waving the Islamic flag. Nevertheless, more reliable information suggests that two senior Al Qaeda leaders made their way from the drone-stricken Pakistan to Libya: A group of very experienced figures from North Africa left camps in Afghanistan (…) and travelled back across the Middle East. Shortly after, a European and Libyan national was captured on his way back from Pakistan to Libya. Such information insinuates that Al Qaeda leaders and experienced fighters from South Asia could have a crucial role in recruiting, training and radicalising local rebels. Therefore, the – so far limited but increasing – influx of Islamists suggests that Al Qaeda may attempt to implant itself into Libya and eventually use the country as a safe haven and possible launching pad for attacks on regional and European targets.

The hypothesis of an increasing Islamist presence is reinforced by a clear surge in terrorist attacks since January 2012.

These incidents, which mainly consist in bombings and armed assaults, occurred principally in the Northeastern provinces of Libya, which comprise the cities of Benghazi, Dernah and Al Bayda. The difficulty, however, with analyzing these terrorists attacks, is that they don’t follow any specific pattern. Indeed, although the frequency of incidents increased, the tempo remained very irregular (see graph below) thus suggesting that there is not one but several groups behind the incidents, and that these groups don’t necessarily intent or have the ability to sustain a regular activity. In addition, a great majority of the attacks are not claimed by any known terrorist group. This may imply that not all violent attacks have been carried out by recognised terrorist outfits but rather by various factions like ex-rebels, criminal groups or disgruntled individuals. Yet, when looking at the incidents’ targeting pattern, it is possible to discern a logic in this heterogeneous list of attacks.

A shown by the pie graph below, the main targets are Western interests. This focus on foreign diplomatic institutions (US consulate, ICRC offices, UK mission) is consistent with the objectives exposed in AQIM’s messages analysed above.

The emphasis on protecting the gains of the revolution from a Western hijacking also appears in the discourse of the only known Islamist group that claimed some of the attacks in Libya: the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades (OARB). There thus seems to be a vague but credible collusion of interests between the local outfit (OARB) and global jihad, that is, the targeting of the Far Enemy and establishment of an Islamic State in Libya.

This recent rapprochement is emphasised by the proliferation of jihadi flags in Libya’s Northern cities. Indeed, between November 2011 and June 2012 the black and white jihadi flag was sighted several times in Benghazi. The most notable cases were the hoisting of the banner on top of the city’s courthouse by anti-Gadhafi rebels and, more recently, the waving of jihadi flags during a rally in Freedom Square where 300 armed men driving a dozen of trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons demanded the establishment of Sharia law. Although these reports seem to confirm an increasing and more open mobilisation of Islamist forces, jihadi appearances have been geographically limited to Benghazi and it is not clear what message they aim to convey. Indeed, it is debatable whether the Raya (Islamist flag) is being used as a sign of Faith in the fight against a corrupt regime and as a rallying banner, or as a symbol of Al Qaeda – similarly the call Allahu Akhbar can be used as a celebratory chant as well as a jihadi hymn. What is evident, however, is that Islamist and, more generally, violent activities are rendered possible by the proliferation of heavy weaponry and the inability of Libyan security forces to ensure government control over these areas.

Governance, Proliferation and the Islamist threat

The proliferation of weapons in Libya during and after the revolution is source of concern for regional authorities as it endangers the stability of Libya’s neighbouring countries. Indeed, following the demise of Gadhafi’s regime, the United Nations expressed concern that the stockpiles of weapons looted by rebels during the revolution could pose a threat to regional security, especially shoulder-fired missiles (MANPADs) which could be used to target passenger and military aircrafts. The concentration of weapons in the large hostile swathes of the Southern desert also presents a direct challenge to Libya’s new rulers by questioning their ability to impose their authority and enforce the rule of law. As early as November 2011, Niger’s military clashed with arms smugglers travelling from Libya. This is one of many instances when security forces from Algeria, Tunisia or Egypt have arrested smugglers and seized large quantities of weapons that were being trafficked trough a 1000km long traffic corridor in the Sahel, which also coincides with the area of activities of AQIM.

As a matter of fact Mokhtar Belmokhtar, AQIM’ leader, claimed in an interview to a Mauritanian journal (ANI) that, although Al Qaeda didn’t directly participate in the fight against Gadhafi’s forces, it was the main beneficiary of the revolution. As Lebovich explains in his analysis of the interview, “the organization has taken a rather careful, nuanced and subtle approach to Libya, implying but never admitting a specific role of any kind in the rebellion. And with only a few exceptions, the group has chosen not to take credit for playing a role in the anti-Qaddafi uprising”. However, Belmokhtar asserted that the Mujahedeens benefited from the fall of the regime, in particular as the ensuing security vacuum allowed them to expand their smuggling activities. Reports indeed recount that Belmokhtar was present in Libya in March 2012, “shopping for weapons” in Gadhafi’s stockpiles.

This procurement of large amounts of weapons by AQIM and other violent groups highlights Libya’s intrinsic weaknesses. The country is in effect vulnerable to rogue groups and activities due to the inability of under-equipped border guards to tackle smugglers, who are often heavily armed and well entrenched in the local power networks. Indeed, traffickers mostly are villagers who partake in black market activities for lack of other sources of income in border regions where factories have been destroyed by the fighting and where most of the youth is unemployed. AQIM benefits from such a socio-economic environment as numerous armed groups have been competing for the control of smuggling routes, and militias have been raising checkpoint to tax the traffickers who thus request AQIM fighter’ protection services in exchange for a part of the benefits.

Limitations to an Islamist Presence

Libya’s poor governance is undeniably a facilitating factor of the expansion of Islamist activities. Nevertheless, this very instability could also be a restraint to the development of Islamic groups as a permanent feature of the post-revolutionary landscape. Indeed, the threat stemming from violent groups is not monolithic; as mentioned above, the revolutionary movement fragmented in a multiplicity of groups with diverging interests. Among them are Islamists, but also tribal armed groups which too benefited from the proliferation of weapons and weak governance. In the transitional period, they attempted to assert their authority and influence the local balance of powers. In the weeks preceding the general elections, these rivalries led to violent clashes between tribes. A most notable example is the heavy violence witnessed in Mizdah which confronted on one side fighters from the Gontrar tribe and Zintan – known for their support to rebels during the uprising – and, on the other, combatants from the Mashashia tribe who fought with pro-Gadhafi forces. Such conflicts occurred mainly in the West and South of the country which, interestingly, coincide with the main smuggling hubs (represented by a gun symbol on the map below).

The fight for control of the smuggling route further complicates the fragile relations between tribes, who profit from the security vacuum to settle their old rivalries – primarily discrimination grudges dating from the Gadhafi time when one tribe was given land expropriated from another. As a result, it is likely that, although AQIM benefits from some level of instability to expand its activities, a persisting war between tribes might present a real challenge to Islamists and make the Libyan environment somewhat hostile to their development.

As a result of this analysis, it seems that Islamists groups profited from Libya’s post-revolutionary political and security turmoil to increase their capacities and entrench their presence. In that sense, it is safe to assume that Islamist groups pose a credible threat to Libya’s security and Western targets. However, at the time of writing, Islamist groups remain restricted to a few safe havens and do not seem to pose a direct threat to regional and European interests. This being said, “the same cannot be definitively said for other Al Qaeda-linked figures, who are accustomed to operating clandestinely when setting up funding and operational networks and may be doing the same in Libya. Given Al Qaeda’s expressed interest in the country and the key role Libyan militants have historically played in the organization, this concern cannot be easily dismissed. For the moment, though, armed jihadists—especially those sharing Al Qaeda’s extreme ideology—do not appear to be in a position to contest the fragile Libyan state”.


Camille Maubert is an international security researcher based in London. Her work focuses on security, intelligence and counter-insurgency, with a specific interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She is currently completing a Masters degree at King’s College War Studies Department.

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