Libya’s Is­lamists at war

The Africa Report - - FRONTLINE - Nono­man Bebenot­man Pres­i­dent, Quil­liam Foun­da­tion, UK

Since 2012, Libya’s cap­i­tal, Tripoli, has prin­ci­pally been con­trolled by an Is­lamist-dom­i­nated Gen­eral Na­tional Congress and an ar­ray of Is­lamist mili­tias. In the east, An­sar al-sharia (AS), the group in­fa­mous for its in­volve­ment in the 2012 killing of US am­bas­sador Chris Stevens, has grown in mil­i­tary power and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence. Since early 2013, the city of Benghazi has been plagued by po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence. The on­go­ing low-level in­sur­gency is driven by two fac­tors. The first is the rad­i­cal Is­lamist ide­ol­ogy of cer­tain groups that refuse to recog­nise the mod­ern state and its in­sti­tu­tions. For ex­am­ple, the late leader of AS’S Benghazi branch, Mo­hammed al-za­hawi, said his group will not dis­arm un­til its ver­sion of sharia is im­posed. The sec­ond rea­son is the Is­lamists’ his­tory with the state se­cu­rity forces. Dur­ing the 1990s, Muam­mar Gaddafi un­leashed a crack­down on all ex­pres­sions of Is­lamism, which saw thou­sands of youths jailed as po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Many were in­car­cer­ated in the no­to­ri­ous Abu Salim pri­son. To­day’s re­jec­tion of state in­sti­tu­tions has its roots in that bru­tal­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, over the past two years the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Tripoli has not been able to pro­vide the nec­es­sary mil­i­tary, po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial sup­port needed to re­solve the cri­sis in Benghazi. In May 2014, Gen­eral Khal­ifa Haf­tar an­nounced the be­gin­ning of ‘Op­er­a­tion Dig­nity’: a mil­i­tary-led cam­paign to elim­i­nate ter­ror from the coun­try that was formed from a broad-based coali­tion in Benghazi and neigh­bour­ing cities as well as Cyre­naica. The cam­paign be­gan with air raids on the bases of some of the most pow­er­ful Is­lamist mili­tias such as AS, the Rafal­lah al-sa­hati Brigade and the Fe­bru­ary 17 Mar­tyrs Brigade. As a re­sponse to this cam­paign, Is­lamist mili­tias united to form a bru­tal coali­tion now known as the Shura Coun­cil of Benghazi Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.

How­ever, Benghazi is not the only Is­lamist strong­hold in Libya. The city of Derna, which has his­tor­i­cally been a strong re­cruit­ing ground for ji­hadi fighters to Afghanistan, Iraq, and more re­cently Syria, is of se­ri­ous con­cern. Derna has re­mained largely out­side the in­flu­ence of the cen­tral state since the 2011 up­ris­ing, leav­ing rad­i­cal Is­lamists with the free­dom to re­alise their ideal Is­lamic polity. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal re­ports, Derna’s Shura Coun­cil of Is­lamic Youth and AS have de­cided to de­clare Derna an “Is­lamic emi­rate” and an­nounced their al­le­giance to Is­lamic State (IS). This means that IS now has its ter­ror­ist ten­ta­cles in Libya. If we con­tinue to over­look the cur­rent Libyan cri­sis, the coun­try could be­come an in­cu­ba­tor of mil­i­tant Is­lamist groups. We need a holis­tic and proac­tive ap­proach that fo­cuses on achiev­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. This in­volves forc­ing all ri­val po­lit­i­cal par­ties to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble to agree that a newly elected par­lia­ment is the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive body in the coun­try. It is only from here that an in­clu­sive and broad-based gov­ern­ment can be re­alised.

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