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Libya’s Islamists: A Fragmented Landscape
Libyan protesters gather outside the offices of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Party of Justice and Construction, in the Libyan capital Tripoli on July 27, 2013 (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images)
(MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images)

Libya’s Islamists: A Fragmented Landscape

Alison Pargeter

Post-Qadhafi Libya has been defined by chaos, division and disintegration. With the once-strong center in tatters, the country has fragmented into an array of militias, towns, tribes and regions, all competing to dominate the new order. Libya’s Islamist milieu is no different. Ten years after the overthrow of the former regime and it is difficult to identify a single coherent Islamist movement or current. Even the Libyan branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood is wrought with divisions and is shattered from within, as evidenced by the group’s recent decision to convert itself into an NGO. The militant scene is even more diffuse, defined more by location and personalities than by any particular ideology or organizational dynamic, while the various Salafist currents that are spread across the country are equally difficult to pin down.

This complex and shifting Islamist landscape is partly a function of the way in which Libya’s revolution unfolded, with town after town rising up against the regime and forming their own local militias. It is also a reflection of the fact that in Libya, local and regional dynamics and identities often transcend national preoccupations. As a result, the various Islamist groups that have emerged, including those at the more extreme end of the spectrum, have found themselves unable to go beyond their own localities. This environment has given rise to a proliferation of Islamist personalities and commanders, each bent on establishing and maintaining their own personal fiefdoms. Indeed, ideology has often been lost to the more pressing aim of imposing control and reaping rewards at the local level. Despite the aspiration to the Ummah (one Muslim nation) by both the militant and the moderate currents, therefore, Libya’s Islamists have fallen prey to the localization and raw fighting over the spoils that has characterized so much of the Libyan conflict.

The picture has been muddled further by the intervention of external powers, including Turkey, which is currently serving as a type of COMINTERN for the Islamist movement, controlling and directing it in a fashion not entirely dissimilar to that in which Moscow controlled the international Communist movement during its heyday. While Turkish intervention may have served as a rallying point for many of these Islamist currents in western Libya, who welcome Ankara’s backing and support, there is still no ideological or organizational glue to hold them together. Libya’s Islamist scene therefore is as chaotic and dysfunctional as the rest of the country.

The Moderate Scene: Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood

The story of moderate political Islam in Libya, as represented by Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood has been one of disappointment and failure. A decade on from the Arab Spring, when it looked as though the region’s future would be defined by the rule of political Islam, the Libyan Brotherhood no longer even exists in its classic form. This inglorious end is perhaps unsurprising. In stark contrast to its counterparts in neighbouring countries, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood never had a chance to root itself in Libya, largely because of Qadhafi’s zero tolerance approach to any oppositional or organizational force outside of his Jamahiriyah (State of the Masses). The movement operated mainly in exile abroad, its cadres returning to Libya at the time of the 2011 revolution. As such, the Libyan Brotherhood never had any social base upon which to draw.

Although its political arm, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), succeeded in punching above its weight politically in the first part of the transition, manoeuvring its way through the bargaining that followed the 2012 elections to play a major role in the country’s first elected government, from the start, the Libyan Brotherhood found itself up against enormous challenges. This was partly because armed groups on the ground always had more sway than the country’s nascent governance structures, but also because the Brotherhood soon found itself grappling with its own internal divisions. These divisions became especially acute in July 2013, when the Brotherhood was brought down in Egypt, unleashing a wave of anti-Brotherhood sentiment inside Libya. The Libyan Brotherhood was accused of being bent on seizing power, and its offices and those of the JCP were attacked in Benghazi. Indeed, events in Egypt galvanized anti-Brotherhood sentiment in Libya, prompting the JCP to announce it was freezing its work in the government and the General National Congress (parliament).

Events in Egypt also triggered an internal review process. At this time, a current within the JCP came to feel that the association with the Brotherhood in Egypt had become toxic. This current sought to use the review process as a means of distancing itself and the Libyan Brotherhood from its Egyptian counterpart. As prominent JCP member Abdulrazak Al-Aradi explained, this linkage made the group “a soft target.”1 This faction within the JCP also began looking increasingly to Tunisia where An-Nahda was engaged in a process of “Tunisification,” focusing on politics and national priorities in a development that would later result in its dropping the term Islamist altogether. As such, parts of the JCP began calling for a similar process of “Libyfication” within the Libyan Brotherhood.

Although the Libyan Brotherhood did not go as far as An-Nahda, at the movement’s general conference in October 2015, there was broad agreement that the Brotherhood should rebrand itself and refocus its activities on religious and educational work. The movement’s then general guide, Ahmed Abdullah Souki, explained, “The movement’s priority at this stage should lie in focusing on internal educational work as well as dawa and serving society.”2 However, a current inside the movement, including some in the traditional leadership who were intent on upholding the branch’s historical link with Egypt, pushed back against going down this route.3 With elements inside the movement and the party pulling in different directions, this review process ended up being buried, leaving the Brotherhood and the JCP in a kind of suspended animation that was to continue for years.

Yet the movement was facing a bigger problem. When the country split into two competing factions in 2014—one in western Libya and the other in the east—the Libyan Brotherhood enmeshed itself fully in the dynamics of the west. More specifically, it bound itself to Operation Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of revolutionary and Islamist forces led by Misrata, and backed by Qatar and Turkey, which in the summer of 2014 took control of the capital and most of western Libya. Some elements within Operation Libya Dawn were particularly hard line, adopting a radical Islamist outlook, and supporting militant groups in the east of the country. As well as inadvertently confining itself to the west of the country, therefore, this association tarnished the Brotherhood’s image and left it open to accusations of extremism. So much so that in February 2017, the Tunisian An-Nahda leader Sheikh Rachid Al-Ghannouchi cautioned JCP leader, Mohamed Sawan and senior JCP member, Nizar Kawan, that it was time to cede some “painful concessions” and move away from groups that have been labelled as terrorist, warning that failure to do so would open the Libyan Brotherhood to the same future as that of its Egyptian counterpart.4

However, the movement’s traditional leadership was reluctant to split off from its Islamist allies in this way, preferring to remain situated within the revolutionary milieu. Yet by doing so, it ended up being swamped, lost in a sea of Islamist and revolutionary forces and currents in which it was unable to stamp its mark or authority.

In such an environment, internal cleavages only worsened. Serious problems erupted in 2015 when elements from the JCP began engaging in the UN-lead peace process that was to result in the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in Skhirat in December 2015. The Brotherhood’s leadership, with its more hawkish outlook, baulked at partaking in any kind of rapprochement with the forces in the east. So too did some members of the JCP. Al-Aradi explained, “The JCP was divided between those who accepted the Skhirat declaration and those who rejected it…. The faction that rejects the political agreement is keen on its association with the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement. Those who support the political agreement want to develop the party and take it away from the movement.”5 Some JCP members were so outraged at the party’s willingness to back the peace deal that they resigned, accusing the party leadership of “deviation.”6

Tensions grew, and in 2018, the movement mobilized its members to try to get a greater grip on the party. When JCP leader, Mohamed Sawan, reached the end of his two terms as leader, the movement called on its members to renew their membership of the party. The attempt to muscle in on the party in this way elicited accusations from some JCP leaders that the movement was intervening in its affairs and threatening its independence. For many in the JCP, therefore, the association with the party had become a heavy burden.

With the party and the movement in disarray, and with the country unravelling fast, the Libyan Brotherhood was unable to keep itself together. The leadership, with its traditional mentality, proved unable to move on. As such, the Brotherhood became increasingly irrelevant. In August 2020, the Brotherhood branch in Zawiya announced its dissolution. Two months later, the Misratan branch followed suit, citing the leadership’s failure to implement the revisions and reform sagreed in 2015 as one of the reasons for its decision.7 With these two important branches dissolved, the movement had all but imploded from within. So much so that in May 2021, the Brotherhood announced it was turning itself into an NGO and changing its name to the Revival and Renewal Association.

Despite its hopes in 2011 of seizing the moment to make a glorious return to Libya, therefore, the Brotherhood failed to make any real mark and got lost in the morass of forces and factions that sought to dominate post-Qadhafi Libya. Moreover, by binding itself so tightly to the forces of the west (and by extension to these forces’ foreign backers), it took sides in the conflict, thereby alienating large swathes of the population while simultaneously laying itself open to accusations of militancy. Furthermore, the resistance of its leadership to reform left it unable to adapt or make itself relevant. By its own actions, therefore, the Brotherhood cornered itself and in so doing, brought about its own ignoble demise.

The Militant Scene: A Mishmash of Islamisms

Libya’s jihadist scene has also been characterized by division and failure. Since 2011, there has been no overarching current or group able to embody a sense of any cohesive Islamist project capable of transcending Libya’s uncompromising geography, complex social fabric and regional divisions. Even the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had once been able to articulate a national mission and aspiration, could not come together once the lid of repression was lifted. Indeed, from the outset, the militant Islamist arena was a muddle of ill-defined groups and forces comprising LIFG and Al-Qa’ida remnants, as well as other jihadists, many of whom were freed from the notorious Abu Slim prison in 2011. These forces were unable to unite under a single ideological banner and became locked in the local, linked more to neighbourhoods, towns, or to their own revolutionary brigades that had risen up against the regime than to any overarching Islamist project. The jihadist scene was splintered from the start, characterized by local commanders and forces that had no social base and whose primary goal was to seize control.

Indeed, once the Qadhafi regime fell, these hardline Islamist forces moved quickly, like their non-Islamist counterparts, to impose themselves on their own neighborhoods and areas, relying on revolutionary legitimacy, which in the new Libya had come to trump all else. Yet they did so as individual brigades or militias rather than in the name of any Islamist movement. This mosaic of forces created a confused picture, with Islamist brigades jostling up against each other and against other forces, as they sought to take control and to fight over the spoils. Within this ruptured environment, personality came to override the Islamist project. Islamist commanders such as Wissam Ben Hamid, Ziyad Balam, Ahmed Majberi and Ismail Salabi came to prominence in the east, while the likes of Hadia Shaban, Ahmed Ali Attir, Abdulraouf Kara and Haitham Al-Tajouri rose in the west. These figures represented a broad range of ideological stances, from militant jihadist, to moderate, to Salafist.

Many of these forces may have had a hardline Islamist outlook, but they were keen to be part of the new state. Although this eagerness was related partly to accessing state funds, it was also because these brigades viewed themselves as the custodians of the new Libya and believed it their duty to take the revolution to its end. As Islamist, Ahmed Majberi, the head of the Zintan Martyrs’ Brigade in Benghazi explained, “We are part of the state. We wanted to bring the whole regime down, not just the family of Qadhafi…I want to complete the task that my brothers died for.”8 Regardless of their personal ideological outlook, these commanders saw themselves as revolutionaries first and foremost, tasked with purging the country of the vestiges of the past.

Yet even when they were given semi-legal status in the form of the Libya Shield Brigades and the Supreme Security Committees (SSCs), which answered nominally to the Ministries of Defence and Interior respectively, they remained fragmented. They joined these forces as individual brigades and militias, retaining their own identities and independence, with their own command structures, and in some instances, their own shura councils. They also continued to act on whim, embroiling themselves in in-fighting and turf wars, as they sought to outmanoeuvre each other in the pursuit of control and access to financial gain. As such, these groups defied any single label, representing a mishmash of Islamist and revolutionary elements for whom ideology often appeared to be little more than a garb.

From Ansar Al-Sharia to the BRSC

Against this backdrop, a number of more puritanical groups that had a more explicit ideological agenda came to the fore, primarily in the east of Libya, a region traditionally associated with Islamist militancy. These groups first came under the spotlight in June 2012 when, in a major show of force, they gathered in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square in support of implementing Sharia. This gathering comprised a dizzying array of brigades who had pulled together in the words of one participant to, “terrorise those who don’t want the rule of Allah’s Sharia.”9 This was the first real manifestation of a purist current who called for Hakimiya (God’s rule on earth) and who differed from the more revolutionary-minded Islamist forces that were willing to work with the authorities.

The most prominent of these forces was Ansar Al-Sharia (AAS), which differentiated itself by its association with a wider transnational movement and by its efforts to create a social base through engaging in charitable work. However, even AAS proved itself bound by geography and unable to expand beyond a handful of localities. The largest branch, AAS – Benghazi, was led by former LIFG veteran, Mohamed Al-Zahawi, and comprised many former Abu Slim prisoners, most of whom came from the Benghazi municipality.10 The group was focused in certain neighbourhoods of the city, unable to break into the tribal crescent that formed Greater Benghazi.

AAS – Derna was led by Sofiane Bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, and was located in the Bu Masefer forest outside of Derna. Despite Qumu’s assertion that the location was a way for the group to protect the town’s power plant, it is more likely that the group was forced to locate itself outside of the town because of the presence of the far stronger Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade, led by ex-LIFG veteran, Salim Al-Derbi. AAS also established a branch in Sirte in July 2013, vowing to ensure that Sharia was “employed in everything. 11 There were also seeds of branches in a handful of small towns.

However, AAS never succeeded in getting any real foothold in the capital or in expanding beyond these localities. Despite Al-Zahawi’s attempts to rebrand the group under a single umbrella, AAS-Libya, following accusations of its involvement in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in September 2012, there is little to suggest that there was any serious organisational linkage or co-ordination between these branches. Furthermore, while the group certainly admired Al-Qa’ida, there was little to indicate either that there was any formal link to the Al-Qa’ida movement. Rather, like the other jihadist forces and brigades, these AAS branches operated more as independent groups that orbited around their own leaders.

However, the launch in May 2014 of Hafter’s Operation Dignity Campaign, designed to eliminate Islamist elements of all hues from Benghazi, was to redraw the lines of the militant scene in the east. Faced with such a ferocious foe, various Islamist forces, including AAS, bandied together to form the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) which vowed to defeat Hafter. Yet while these forces may have been willing to fight alongside each other, the differences between them were too deep to be smoothed over even in the face of a common enemy.

In fact, the launch of Operation Dignity triggered further divisions inside some Islamist forces. A split emerged inside Brigade 319, for example, between hard line elements including Salim Al-Nabbous, who sought to fight against Hafter and those of a more Salafist inclination, led by Admin Al-Tawerghi, who preferred to remain neutral.12 When the Al-Tawerghi faction refused to hand over the brigade’s weapons and ammunition, the Al-Nabbous faction, in conjunction with some elements from AAS, launched a bloody attack against brigade’s Bu Atni camp, killing 14 members of the Al-Tawerghi group, including Al-Tawerghi himself, who was tortured and beheaded.13

As for the BRSC, this coalition was always a marriage of convenience comprising forces with varying stances and viewpoints. As Ahmed Hassan Meshiti, a member of the BRSC, remarked, “Every one of us had his own position. Our ideology is not the same.”14 Similarly, Al-Aradi observed of the BRSC, “These brigades all fought the forces that were around Hafter but they were not clear about their stance towards the state, nor were they united around one vision. Some of them were revolutionaries, committed to the legitimacy of the state, and they were rejecting carrying weapons against it. Other brigades and leaders were closer to the idea of IS and Al-Qa’ida and some of them were raising the flags of these two organisations and adopted their slogans.”15 Thus, while the BRSC certainly contained plenty of violent extremist elements, the whole alliance cannot be tarred with the same brush. Rather, it represented an opportunistic coming together of Islamist-leaning forces who sought to prevent Benghazi from slipping out of their hands.

They were ultimately unsuccessful, however, and in 2017, Hafter, with the help of Salafist Madkhalist and tribal forces, defeated the BRSC, marking the end of the presence of these groups in Benghazi and in the east more widely. Similar groups that had spawned in Derna and Ajdabiya were also put down and despite a number of attempted comebacks, such as the Defend Benghazi Brigades, a loose collection of BRSC remnants which briefly succeeded in seizing the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider from Hafter in March 2017, the group disbanded three months later. Around the same time, Ansar Al-Sharia, which had been devastated by Hafter’s campaign, also announced its dissolution.

Hafter succeeded, therefore, in putting the nail in the jihadists’ coffin in eastern Libya at least. Yet in so doing, he also opened the door for the Salafist current, which under his patronage has been able to expand and impose itself in the areas under his control. In return for military support, with Salafist fighters making up some of the LNA’s most potent brigades, Hafter afforded the Salafists control over the religious space in the east. Salafist Madkhalists have used the eastern Awqaf, for example, to pursue their ideological agenda, with the Supreme Fatwa Committee issuing edicts against women travelling unaccompanied, mixed gender gatherings and demonstrations.16 Yet while these Salafists may have played a major role, including in assisting Hafter to extend his power into other towns and regions, they are far from united and are as disparate a force as everything else in Libya.

Islamic State

The Islamic State (IS) came to a similarly sticky end, although it was defeated by a coalition of forces led by Misrata rather than by Hafter. Despite IS’ presence attracting much media attention, the group’s experience in Libya was limited and its power and reach often exaggerated. While IS certainly had its moment, the group proved unable to survive in the fragmented and highly competitive Islamist arena. Even at the height of its prowess, it failed to get any real grip beyond Sirte and the surrounding area, and was always a poor and flawed imitation of the group in Iraq.

Its presence in Libya was always small, and the group took many months to make its first real conquest. From its first public appearance in Derna in October 2014, when a group of youth declared their allegiance to the khalifa, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, it took until February 2015 for it to take Nawfaliya, a small town with a reputation for Islamist militancy even during the time of Qadhafi, and until May 2015 to take Sirte, its first and only sizable territorial conquest in Libya.

Sirte’s fall to the group was no coincidence. Sirte was Qadhafi’s birthplace, home to his tribe—the Qadhadhfa—and as such, resisted the 2011 revolution until the bitter end. Thus, while other towns in Libya were taken over by revolutionary forces that had sprung up from within, Sirte fell into the hands of outside forces who defeated the town. These forces, many of whom were from Misrata, which had traditionally had an antagonistic relationship to Sirte, ransacked the town, unleashing their revenge, prompting thousands of terrified residents to flee. Once the dust settled, the victors left Sirte in the hands of the newly created, Sirte Revolutionaries Brigade, which comprised mainly veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq jihads, as well as former Abu Slim prisoners. Although some members of this force came from Sirte, the brigade was strongly associated with Misrata, many of its cadres having been trained by the Al-Farouq Brigade, a Misratan force known for its militant Islamist outlook.

Although there were a handful of other forces present in Sirte, including tribal forces, it was the Sirte Revolutionaries Brigade that went on to form the Sirte SSC, which had huge support from the hawkish Misrata Military Council. It was these same forces that went on, with the support of the Al-Farouq Brigade, to establish the Sirte branch of AAS in 2013. The commander of AAS in Sirte was Ahmed Ali Attir, a Misratan who had been one of the founders of the Al-Farouq Brigade.17

As such, AAS was able to entrench itself in the town, taking advantage of the fact that Sirte’s social fabric had been shattered. The main tribes associated with the former regime, including the Qadhadhfa, the Werfella and the Awlad Suleiman, all of which were present in the town —had already opted out of the scene, having declared from the outset of the revolution their refusal to engage with the post-2011 order. In addition, there was no competing Islamist-revolutionary force from the town that could oppose the AAS takeover. That is not to suggest they had no competition whatsoever. In July 2013, for example, the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, led by former army officer, Saleh Bu Haliqa from Benghazi, tried to check their progress and succeeded in killing Al-Attir in August 2013. However, forces in Misrata quickly rallied round, sending fighters to Sirte to kick Bu Haliqa out.18 The combination of strong Misratan backing and the fact that the country’s new authorities had turned their backs on the town, dismissing it as a remnant of the old regime, meant that these AAS militants had more or less free rein.

By the time IS came along, therefore, the environment was already ripe for the group to seed itself. Many AAS members in Sirte gave their allegiance to IS in 2015 in what was a change of brand more than a takeover. However, IS’ arrival in Sirte was not supported by all of AAS, and triggered yet another fracturing within the Islamist camp. Some AAS members, including Amar Said and Khalifa Barq, refused to join IS, opting to go to Benghazi to join the fight against Hafter instead. The same had occurred in Nawfaliya, where the Emir of AAS, Gaydan Al-Nawfali, refused to join the group, choosing to station his forces in an animal feed warehouse outside the town. 19

Even among these more extreme elements, therefore, IS’ allure was not sufficient to be able to unite the extremist strand. While IS may have attracted some youth from other towns, as well as contingents of foreign extremist elements, its appeal was not universal. Indeed, despite Benghazi being home to some of the most diehard of militants, IS was only able to attract a handful of adherents in the city. While it managed to attract some support in Derna, it was easily outnumbered and chased out by other militant elements, led by the Abu Slim Martyrs’ Brigade, which was far more locally rooted in the town. In Sabratha, meanwhile, it remained little more than a small cell that never made any real impact.

Despite the chaos and lawlessness of post-Qadhafi Libya, therefore, the group’s reach remained limited and bound by several factors including the country’s geography, and the crowded and highly competitive Islamist scene that contained groups that were far more embedded in the local map. In addition, in contrast to IS in Iraq, IS in Libya could not play on sectarian dynamics, nor did it serve as a magnet for former regime personnel. Despite reports in some media outlets that tribes or notables from tribes linked to the former regime gave their allegiance to IS20, there is no concrete evidence to suggest this is the case. Had these tribes backed IS in any serious fashion, the group would not have been dislodged so easily.

As such, once Misrata launched its campaign to take control of Sirte, the group’s days were numbered. With the assistance of US air strikes, Bunyan Al-Marsous, a coalition of brigades from Misrata, which included Islamist oriented forces, succeeded in dislodging IS and taking over the town, killing and arresting many of its leaders and personnel.

Since its defeat in Sirte, what was left of the group has struggled to make its presence felt. IS remnants are accused of having perpetrated a number of hit and run attacks in desert areas such as in May 2017, when IS fighters attacked the Lodd Agricultural Project, south of Sirte, and October 2018, when they launched an attack against the remote desert town of Al-Fuqaha in Al-Jufra. Most recently, a suicide bomb detonated at a checkpoint in Sebha in an attack claimed by IS. However, it is difficult to gauge how many of these attacks were actually the responsibility of IS, given that in the chaotic and contested environment, it has benefitted both sides in Libya’s conflict to tag their opponents with the IS label. While it may still have elements operating in the southern deserts, these elements have failed to exploit the vast ungoverned spaces in any visible or tangible way.

As such, the group’s future would appear to be doomed. Indeed, in light of the difficulties IS had in installing itself in Libya when the group was at its peak and conditions almost ideal, it seems unlikely that it will re-emerge in any meaningful form. Warnings of its being positioned to “grow even stronger in civil war conditions,”21 and of its being able to mount a “large scale resurgence,”22 are probably exaggerated. This does not mean that there aren’t still extremist elements in Libya that aspire to the kind of uncompromising ideology espoused by IS. However, Libya ultimately proved hostile to the group that was unable to nest itself in an overcrowded militant scene dominated by personalities and fiefdoms.

Enter Turkey

With IS routed in Sirte and the BRSC and its counterparts in Derna and Ajdabiya chased out of the east, western Libya has become the main centre of what is left of Libya’s Islamist scene. Yet this scene is no less chaotic. Ever since Qadhafi’s toppling, western Libya has been bursting to the seams with armed groups of differing hues, each beholden to their particular commanders or areas. Although many of these forces pulled together under the banner of Operation Libya Dawn, this coalition struggled to hold itself together, its components endlessly embroiled in turf wars in the struggle to dominate and to reap the benefits of controlling official bodies, buildings and financial flows.

These cleavages became even more pronounced in 2016 with the arrival of the internationally-backed GNA, when a number of forces in Tripoli, led mainly by Salafist-Madkhalist commanders, positioned themselves, for opportunistic reasons, as the new executive’s security providers. A split developed between those forces, which included the Special Deterrent Force and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, which had put themselves nominally under the command of GNA’s Interior Ministry, and those more hawkish Islamist forces who looked to Libya’s ultraorthodox Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadiq Al-Gharianni. This latter group rejected the GNA altogether, viewing it as an imperialist imposition that served what they considered to be the counter revolutionary forces of the east. They also considered Salafist Madkhalist forces to be serving as a vector for Saudi Arabian influence, although the extent of Saudi support for these elements remains unclear.23

While this division was by no means clear cut, and while there were other forces present in the west that fell into neither camp, competition between these two main trends intensified at the end of 2016, when GNA-allied forces began arresting and imprisoning elements from the BSRC, which was backed by Al-Gharianni and his supporters. More explosively, in October 2016, elements from the Special Deterrent Force were accused of kidnapping and killing Sheikh Nadir Al-Omrani, Al-Gharianni’s deputy in the Dar Al-Ifta.24 Fearing a backlash from the pro-Gharianni camp, GNA-aligned forces launched what they described as a “pre-emptive strike” on their militant opponents, attacking various hardline militias and pushing them out of the capital.25

Although these hardline forces lay low for a while, they returned to the scene en masse in April 2019, when Hafter launched his assault on Tripoli. At this time, the GNA hastily cobbled together the “Volcano of Anger” coalition, bringing in all forces regardless of ideological orientation to help repel the attack. Despite their differences with the GNA, these militant factions saw in this campaign the opportunity to stage a comeback while presenting themselves as steadfast revolutionaries who could ride in and save the day.

Hafter’s attack, therefore, galvanized a broad array of revolutionary and Islamist groups, including Salafists, jihadists, and those of a more moderate outlook, who put their differences to one side to defend the capital. They presented a formidable force. As Wehrey and Badi rightly observe, “Haftar’s rationale in the assault ignored the fact that a dizzying array of Tripolitanian militias has vested political and economic incentives to defend, in contrast to the security vacuum in the south and to the tribal demography of the east, where Haftar was more successful.”26

Yet it was not through revolutionary ardour alone that Hafter was pushed back out of Tripoli a little over a year later. Hafter’s defeat was in no small part down to the intervention of Turkey, which provided significant military assistance to the GNA, including sending large contingents of Syrian mercenaries to assist in the fight. These mercenary forces, who were mainly Syrian Turkmen, and who had been trained by Turkey in northern Syria, were shipped over to Libya in large contingents on the promise of pay, healthcare provision and the possibility of Turkish nationality, as well as the threat of being kicked out of the Syrian National Army.27 Through these forces, Ankara hoped to rebalance the military equation and to offset the advantage afforded to Hafter through the support he was receiving from Egypt, the UAE and Russia, including Wagner Group mercenaries. Indeed, Libya’s conflict has been fuelled by the relentless intervention of external powers on both sides, who have aggravated and prolonged the chaos.

Although many forces in the west, including those of a non-Islamist bent, welcomed Turkish military involvement, it was the Islamist and more ardent revolutionary forces that had pushed particularly hard for such intervention. That the Islamists should have looked to Turkey at this time was expected. Turkey, which had sided with Operation Libya Dawn in 2014, had already become a key magnet for Libyan Islamists of all hues. It not only served as a place of refuge, opening its doors to those fleeing the east, as well as those who had come to feel increasingly uncomfortable in the west following the GNA’s arrival, including Al-Gharianni himself, it became a new ideological center around which Libyan Islamists revolved.

It was natural therefore that in late 2019, when thanks to the backing of his UAE, Egyptian and Russian sponsors, Hafter looked set to pulverise forces in the west, Islamist forces and political personalities pressurized the GNA into accepting Turkey’s offer of large-scale military assistance. The head of the Higher State Council, Khalid Al-Mishri, a former leading member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, intimated at this time that the head of the Presidency Council, Fayez Serraj could find himself and his government brought down if he did not accept Turkish military help.28 Al-Gharianni, meanwhile, lashed out at the GNA for having dallied over accepting Turkish assistance, issuing a fatwa ruling that Turkish military bases in Libya were halal (religiously permitted) as well as legally acceptable.29 Under such pressure and with Hafter looking poised to take over, the GNA had little choice but to comply.

While Turkey’s entry into the conflict turned the tide of the war in the GNA’s favor, its ongoing presence in the country has also had an impact. Indeed, the Turkish presence appears to have had somewhat of a stabilizing influence on the unwieldy array of forces in western Libya. There has been a notable reduction in intra-militia fighting since its arrival, and Tripoli looks to be more stable than it has done for a while.

This does not mean that there aren’t still tensions or low-level clashes that erupt from time to time. The ongoing squabble over who controls the Awqaf that is being played out between Salafist Madkhalist currents and those of a more political Islamist bent is a case in point.30 However, Ankara seems to have brought some semblance of order, temporarily at least. Yet while Turkey may have helped these forces put some of their differences to one side, they are no closer to becoming any kind of cohesive force or movement. Despite the efforts by successive governments to turn them into professional security forces, they remain as unwieldy as ever. While there are still Islamist leaning forces in control of particular neighborhoods and towns, these forces are still more focused on what they can gain rather than imposing any particular ideological agenda. As such, the Islamists of varying shades have been subsumed by the wider chaos, leaving an Islamist scene that is diffuse, diluted and more elusive than ever.

Conclusion

Qadhafi’s toppling opened the door to a wide array of Islamist factions and forces who came to the fore after more than 40 years of repression. The chaos that engulfed the country at this time, as well as the absence of any proper centralized authority, the ready availability of weapons, and the complete marginalization of those linked to the former regime, looked on the surface to offer an ideal environment for militant Islamist groups to flourish. Yet while Islamist forces, including jihadist elements, certainly proliferated, they never succeeded in forging any unified or coherent ideological force that could extend beyond the local.

Yet the Islamists were not alone in their failure to create a movement with national reach or appeal. There has never been any truly organic national movement established in Libya, whose three regions were bolted together at independence in 1951. Libya’s monarchy was always a creature of the east, and while Qadhafi’s 1969 coup may have attracted support, his revolutionary Jamahiriyah was imposed by brute force. Since his demise, there has been nothing akin to any national movement able to extend across the country as a whole. Attempts at forging political parties have been pitiful, while regional, local and tribal identities remain as potent as ever. The recent adoption of a political system based on allocation, with posts in the recently appointed Government of National Unity (GNU) doled out by region and chosen to appease various towns, tribes and personalities, is evidence of such.

It is little surprise, therefore, that Libyan Islamism remains characterized by division and discord. While Islamist elements will continue to represent an important component in the national picture, they will remain as fragmented as everything else in the country.

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