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Libya at the crossroads?

THE RANKS OF AL QAEDA IN IRAQ WERE DISPROportionately filled by Libyans who travelled to fight against American and allied forces. What role, if any, have Islamists had in Libya's revolution, and could the country's post-Gaddafi political landscape be influenced by them?

When not flying the flag for African unity, Gaddafi has been known to promote worldwide Islamic revolution. In 1972, early on in his career as the country's Brother Leader, Gaddafi founded the Islamic Legion, a pan-Arab paramilitary force dedicated to the creation of an Islamic super-state across the Sahara and the Sahel to its south.

Over the years, however, Gaddaffi's record as a champion of Islam is mixed at best. In 1993, Gaddafi was the target of an assassination attempt by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), since which time he has set himself against any Islamist groups. For Gaddafi, personal safety trumps ideological concerns, genuine or otherwise.

Since 9/11, and the so-called War on Terror, Gaddafi has cooperated to a surprising degree with American and other Western intelligence officials. He is, or was, keen to show that Libya was just as much a front in the global war against Al Qaeda as Iraq, Afghanistan or the streets of New York and London.


Since the start of the uprising against him and his regime in February, Gaddafi has been busy branding his opponents as linked to Al Qaeda. There are those in the West and the Arab World, even among supporters of military intervention, that think Gaddafi may be right, up to a point.

Evidence of the involvement of Libyan fighters in Iraq has gone some way to justifying Gaddafi's fears about home-grown jihadists. In September 2007, American soldiers raided a desert encampment near the town of Sinjar in northwest Iraq. During the raid they grabbed a treasure trove of documents about the insurgency. Among the files were more than 70o personnel records, which detailed the origins of the foreign fighters with A1 Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

It was known that Libyans, in common with people from other Arab countries, had travelled to Iraq to fight. What surprised US intelligence officials going through the files were their numbers. The Sinjar records revealed that about 18% of fighters joining AQI between 2006 and 2007 were from Libya: the second-largest national contingent after Saudi Arabia's 41% contribution. Of these 111 Libyans, 85% had registered as suicide bombers.

Does this mean Libyan Islamists affiliated with Al Qaeda are involved in the Libyan revolution? It is hard to say with absolute certainty, but there is no evidence to support such a claim. Furthermore, Libya is not Iraq, and the circumstances that drove young Libyans to Iraq are not the same conditions that exist at home.

For one thing, the ultra-violence that is part of Al Qaeda's modus operandi has no tradition in Libyan society. One reason that Gaddafi brought foreign mercenaries into Libya at the start of the uprising against his regime was that many Libyan police and soldiers were unwilling to carry out shoot to kill orders against fellow, unarmed citizens.

Since seizing power in 1969, Colonel Gaddafi has always been hard on any group that might have been able to set up a power base in opposition to him. Thousands of political prisoners have died in Gaddafi's prisons, Islamists and secularists alike, most of them without anything like due process.

Since LIFG's 1993 assassination attempt mentioned above, Gaddafi has launched an especially vigorous crackdown on avowed or perceived Islamists in the country. Formed in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, by Libyan militants fighting against Soviet occupation forces, the LIFG had two goals: the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and the establishment of an Islamic state in Libya.

In an online audio recording, posted in November 2007, Al Qaeda's then number two Ayman Al Zawahiri announced that the LIFG had joined forces with his group. In Al Zawahiri's words, "Today, with grace from God, the Muslim nation witnesses a blessed step. Honourable members of the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya announce that they are joining the Al Qaeda group to continue the march of their brothers."


In 1998, Libya arrested more than 150 Muslim Brotherhood members. In 2002 two of these prisoners were sentenced to death, 73 to life imprisonment, a dozen were given jail terms of 10 years and 66 were acquitted. However, since 2006, Libya has released upwards of 850 Islamist prisoners, and more than 360 since March 2011.

In March 2006, 84 members of the Brotherhood were released, alongside Abdullah Sadeeq, Abu Mundhir al Saadi, Abu Hazem and Abdelhakim Belhaj, members of LIFG's senior leadership. They were let out alongside jihadis who had fought or been linked to the North African and Iraqi wings of Al Qaeda.

A 2008 statement issued by the Gaddafi Foundation said that Islamists held in Libyan prisons and previously linked to Al Qaeda had renounced their ties to the organisation, and were being released from prison as a result.

This then is the fear, both in the West and the Arab World, that in the wake of Gaddafi's departure there will exist a power vacuum in the country that Islamic terror groups will rush to fill.

In March 2011, after three years of secret talks between imprisoned leaders of the LIFG and Libyan security officials, Saif Gaddafi announced the LIFG had rejected Al Qaeda's violent ideology and were instead now in alliance with the Libyan government against Al Qaeda

Fifty-five of those freed returned home to Benghazi, Libya's second city, home to the country's one-time royal family and, today, centre of the opposition and home to the National Interim Council.

However, just because the Sinjar files showed a disproportionate number of Libyan Islamist radicals fighting in Iraq, that does not ipso facto mean that the anti-Gaddafi forces have a similarly lopsided number of radicals among them. The facts on the ground cannot be made to show jihadists influence the rebellion.

Future challenges

At the same time, this does not mean that such violent extremists are wholly absent from the rebellion. They are not. There is no doubt that the LIFG and others are keen to take advantage of the chaos that now holds sway in Libya.

Some observers believe that the situation is particularly worrying in Libya because Gaddafi's rule has so heavily revolved around him and his clique, and strong military and civilian institutions do not exist to the same degree as they do in, say, Egypt and Tunisia.

This is the challenge for those local and foreign parties with an interest in Libya's future: how to contain that violent minority who are bent on hijacking the rebellion. It may not be an easy task, but it is one that is vital, and which must be undertaken only when all the facts have been gathered and analysed.

For NATO, the UN, and indeed the Arab League, the maxim must be, ignore Libya's social and cultural terrain at your peril.

One interesting result of the Arab League's broad backing for action in, or at least in the skies over, Libya, is the creation of a new, more realistic narrative across the region, one in which the West can fight alongside Muslim allies, not just against them.

However, as one has seen from Afghanistan to Iraq, there is often a terrifying lack of understanding on the part of Western players--not to mention vested interests both there and among Middle Eastern powers--and it is vital to ensure that any action is based on honest and reliable evidence.

Facts should not be sacrificed in the interest of being seen to do something. All the talk of an Arab Spring may be premature. In the Middle East, it usually feels like summer or winter.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs/REGIONAL
Author:Gearon, Eamonn
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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