USMilitary.com featured columnist Dr. Sasha Toperich is the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the “Mediterranean Development Initiative” (MDI) based in Tunis, Tunisia, and is a
Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.
Early Background – The Birth of Extremism in Libya
The origin and the causes of terrorism in Libya go back to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He ruled Libya with an iron fist, prohibiting any democratic institutions, free press or free media. In 1969, Gaddafi staged a coup, putting an end to an era of a rather progressive kingdom under King Idris, which existed from 1951. Oil was discovered, and production started in 1963. Libya has a population of only 6 million people in an area larger than that of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland combined. In addition, it has Africa’s largest oil reserves.
Instead of applying Libya’s huge wealth for development programs, Gaddafi exploited it for his own misguided adventures, supporting terrorist group from the Philippines, to Ireland, to essentially all of Africa where he spent lavishly to stage coups and support leaders close to him, and to fuel his ambitions of becoming Africa’s King of Kings.
His reckless acts included the bombing of a night club in Germany frequented by American soldiers, the bombing of a US Pan Am 103 as well as a UTA flight over Niger, a conspiracy to assassinate the King of Saudi Arabia, war with Egypt, and an ill-fated invasion of neighboring Chad. Meanwhile, he neglected his own people to the extent that Libya became the answer to TV quiz shows: “Name a very rich country with very poor people”. His oppression and waste of the country’s resources created an opposition movement both within and outside Libya.
The Rise Of Al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood
Gaddafi dealt harshly with the opposition, arresting and executing opponents within Libya, and sending assassination squads to eliminate enemies abroad. Most of his opposition was located in the eastern part of Libya, where he brutally dealt with young rebels in the Green Mountain, which he attacked, especially in the cities of Derna and Benghazi. His heavy handed methods drove many to jail in the infamous Abu Sliem prison in Tripoli (where in 1996 during one event, 1260 inmates were executed), or to flee the country where many ended up in the mountains of Tora Bora in the welcoming arms of Al Qaeda. Derna became the largest supplier of Al- Qaeda recruits in the world, on a per capita basis. The Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive and well-organized group, was also active as opposition to Gaddafi, with many of its members ending up in the Abu Sliem prison. The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization born in Egypt in the 1920s, but based in London. Its goal is to establish an Islamic state regardless of state borders. Its pursuit of power led it to a failed attempt to assassinate Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, who retaliated with putting the group’s leader to death, and forced it to go underground. Even though the movement was now away from the public eye, it established a strong presence in different countries, stretching from as far as Jordan to Morocco, where its political arm won the last election and formed the current government. It also briefly ruled in Egypt after it narrowly won the first popular election (after the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak). However, it was swept from power by a popular movement and the more recent election brought current president Sisi to power with an overwhelming vote. Denying to recognize the new order, it went underground again. The Sisi regime cracked harshly on its mass resistance, leading to widespread violence and arrests.
Reconciliation Era in 2008 and the Arab Spring of 2011
In 2008, Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent Said Al-Islam, convinced his father to change his tactics and dangle a carrot instead. He released many inmates and made a pact with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders in return pledged loyalty to Gaddafi. While the Muslim Brotherhood declared its allegiance to the regime, it continued to organize itself. Meanwhile, many of Gaddafi’s opponents abroad, repented and returned to Libya, essentially ending any serious threat from abroad except for hardline Al-Qaeda members, a few of whom ending up in the Guantanamo prison. The Arab Spring that started in Tunisia in 2010, causing the fall of Ben Ali, spread into Egypt and then, on February 17, 2011, onto Benghazi in Libya. While Tunisia and Egypt were popular mass movement, there was little bloodshed and the regimes conceded quickly. In Libya, it was different. Gaddafi cracked down violently in Benghazi, and the uprising turned violent. Built up frustration with 42 years of oppressive regime led many young people to carry arms.
Gaddafi was close to putting down the revolt was it not for the UN intervention, through Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the protection of people by any means possible. NATO forces, led mostly by the US, France, and Great Britain, led a destructive aerial campaign against Gaddafi’s forces, which went beyond the protection of civilians in a systematic campaign to change the regime. Russia and China were content to watch. The Arab Spring was a watershed event to the rise of terrorism in Libya. Former Al-Qaeda members, either underground or returning from Pakistan and Afghanistan, quickly joined the fight against Gaddafi’s forces on the ground, while NATO destroyed his army from the air, eventually forcing his attempt to escape from his last stronghold in the home city of Sirte in Central Libya. French fighters were tracking him, bombing his convoy and forcing him in the open. Rebels, mainly from the nearby city of Misrata, which Gaddafi had besieged in a destructive and bloody manner for over 6 months, vowed to kill him, after capturing him alive.
The Rise of Militias
The ground fight against Gadhafi was carried out by militia groups formed by young people from all walks of life. These groups were infiltrated by Al –Qaeda’s well trained and ideological factions, chief among them was Ansar Al- Sharia in Derna and Benghazi. Taking over arms left by Gaddafi or supplied by outside countries, mainly in Qatar, these groups grew in confidence and strength. The Muslim Brotherhood managed to exercise strong influence into the ad hoc National Transitional Council, which was formed early in the revolution to steer the fight against Gaddafi and win international support. The National Transitional Council and the Transitional Government made a colossal mistake that soon determined the fate of Libya since, and perhaps for years to come. Under pressure from Islamist groups (Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda affiliates), they paid salaries to militias which fled into Tripoli after the death of Gaddafi. The salaries were generous compared to average pay in government jobs. It was estimated that no more than 20,000 people joined militias to fight Gaddafi forces in 2011, but the generous salaries attracted a large number of youth to join, and numbers swelled to over 250,000 militia members paid salaries by the government.
The General National Congress came to power after the first election was conducted early 2012. Extremists, former members of Al-Qaeda, called “the Fighting Force”, entered Congress and made alliances with Muslim Brotherhood candidates. They were well organized and despite their minority status, they soon took over powerful defense and budget committees, and brought their supporters into influential positions within the government. Ministers were forced at gun point to sign checks in hundreds of millions of dinars paid to militia leaders, who often pocketed major parts of the pay. It is estimated that over a thousand militias operate in Libya, all funded by the General National Congress and its government.
Militia leaders, Islamist groups, and certain foreign regional governments, prevented the formation of a national army and a police force. This created a state of disorder, allowing for ISIS members to move into the country. The poor security situation, and availability of weapons and funding from supporters in the General National Congress and the government, swelled the power and ranks of Al-Qaeda affiliate’s (Ansar Al-Sahria) in Benghazi and Derna. They dared to assassinate the US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi of September 11 2012, and took over Derna, declaring it an Islamist State. Another important factor to instability was Gaddafi’s calculated opening of weapons warehouses, just when he was forced to flee Tripoli to Sirte. Over 20 million pieces of weapons fell in the hands of militias, while some were also smuggled across borders into other countries.
To add to instability and perhaps Gaddafi’s cunning revenge, he ordered the release of over 18,000 prisoners, some of whom were sentenced to death for murder or the smuggling of drugs and alcohol. These street criminals soon carried arms, joined militias, and became militia leaders, now engaged in crimes of ransomed kidnapping and extrusion, terrorizing major cities.
The Rise of ISIS
ISIS found fertile grounds to move into Libya, first into Derna, where they vied for power with Ansar Al-Sharia, first fighting as allies, later as enemies. Ansar Al-Sharia prevailed, forcing ISIS to escape and gather in Sirte. There, former Gaddafi followers supported ISIS in a similar manner as in Iraq. In Iraq, certain Sunni groups supported ISIS, having been oppressed by a Shia majority and persecuted under the Maliki’s Shia dominated government, giving strength to ISIS in Iraq. Ansar Al-Sharia and ISIS carried out systemic assassinations in both Derna and Bengazi.
Those who were favoring democratic state, or those who were opposing the Islamic State, (former army, security members, media personalities, civil rights leaders, lawyers and others) were gunned down, in a campaign that killed 100s if not 1000s of people. Finally, General Hafter organized a band of army people and started fighting the terrorist groups in Benghazi. The terrorists were expelled from all but a few pockets where they still carry out sniper operations and random missiles at the terrorized populations. Thousands of Benghazi civilians were forced to flee the heavy fighting areas into other sections or other cities, as far as Tripoli – 1000 kilometers west.
The Fall and Decline of ISIS and Ansar Al-Sharia
General Hafter presents a major threat to Islamists groups, who vowed to fight them. The General received considerable support from Egypt and the UAE. Meanwhile, extremist groups in Benghazi and Derna received weapon support from other Islamists groups in the western regions of Libya and, allegedly, from Qatar and Turkey. The city of Misrata saw a rising threat from ISIS control of nearby Sirte, and a few months ago started a campaign to liberate Sirte. The campaign was harder that thought. ISIS had entrenched itself in the city, welcoming recruits who escaped from Syria and Iraq through Turkey, including members from neighboring countries, mainly Tunisia and Sudan. The fight cost over 400 lives and 2,000 seriously injured, to the forces fighting in Sirte, mainly from the powerful city of Misrata (Libya’s third largest city). Having suffered heavy casualties, Misrata was in no mood to take on Hafter forces that swept (without resistance) into the central oil rich region, forcing the gangs of the so-called “Oil Facilities Guards” to flee. This “Oil Facilities Guard” shut down oil exports for two and a half years, resulting in losses of over 100 billion dollars to the treasury, in a country that relies on oil for 95% of its government revenue.
Status and Outlook
There are still some remnants of ISIS in Sirte and Ansar Al-Sahrai in Benghazi and Derna. In addition, there are strong supporters in western cities of Sabrata and Zawia, and sleeping cells of ISIS and other Islamists in Tripoli and other cities. The Muslim Brotherhood continues to exercise power and influence over the Presidential Council and Higher National Council, two bodies created by the UN sponsored accord. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk continues to oppose the Presidential Council, refusing (twice this year) to approve the cabinet nominations.
The terrorism situation in Libya is far from being resolved, despite the recent set back for Ansar Al-Sharia and ISIS. Their recruits largely escaped the cities where they had to surrender power, dissolving into other cities. Under a weak government and a poor security situation, warring militia war lords, unprotected borders, in a country awash with weapons, Libya is still a fertile ground for terrorist groups posing a threat for the country, its regional neighbors, and even the entire European continent.