Libya’s Islamists at war
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.