In Part I of Libya’s Islamist and Misrata forces, we examined Dawn of Libya forces and the underlying dynamics created by the General National Congress (GNC). In this second post, we shall focus on the state-affiliated Islamist militias in Benghazi, the Salafist militias in Benghazi and Derna – as well as their Islamic State and Al-Qaeda links. In the next post, we shall look at actual and potential international involvement, from the UNSMIL peace talks to countries supporting the GNC and Dawn of Libya.

Here, we shall notably address the religious dynamic of the Salafist groups, which are increasingly fundamentally important to note, in Libya – as in the rest of the region and beyond. The Salafi movement, or Salafism, strives for the purest form of Islam by adhering to “the Islam of the first generations of Muslims – the Salaf,” which involves rejecting the “‘innovations’ (bid’ah) introduced by later generations of Muslims” (Durie, Middle East Forum, June 6, 2013). This fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam rejects democracy, is anti-Western, and calls for the implementation and domination of strict Sharia law in society (Lund, March 2013). Libya’s Salafists can be characterized, accordingly, as Salafi-nationalist, those who “lack the globalist perspective” of Salafism (defined by Lund, Ibid.), or Salafi-jihadist, those who have a global vision of Salafism – such as the ideology of the Islamic State.

This chart shows the relationships of support and clashes between Islamist and Misrata forces. Click for larger chart. – (c) Jon Mitchell for The Red (Team) Analysis Society

State-Affiliated Islamist Militias in Benghazi

Islamist groups in Benghazi are mainly concentrated under the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and can be categorized as state-affiliated Islamist militias, with the exception of Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi, as we shall see more in detail below. Haftar’s Operation Dignity forced moderate Islamist militias in Benghazi – those primarily focused on securing the city and keeping Qaddafi loyalists out of state institutions – to ally with the Salafi-nationalists. Libya Shield One, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, and the 17 February Martyrs Brigade fall under the Tripoli-based Ministry of Defense and, according to House of Representatives member Tarek al-Garoushi, interestingly continue to receive salaries from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives via Libya’s Central Bank (Finucci, 2013; Pack, et al., Atlantic Council, May 2014; Michael and Keath, Yahoo News, September 9, 2014; Vandewalle, New York Times, November 11, 2014; Kadlec, War on the Rocks, August 14, 2014). These state-affiliated Islamist militias appear to be both relatively autonomous by pursuing regional objectives through their coalition, while still carrying out their original law and order tasks from the state.

Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries

libya islamist groups, Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries
Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries logo from its Twitter profile

The Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR) – an alliance of Islamist militias in Benghazi – came into existence on June 20, 2014 to confront Operation Dignity (ACLEDData, September 10, 2014; Al-Arabiya Institute for Studies, August 25, 2014). This umbrella group is comprised of state-affiliated Islamist groups Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, 17 February Martyrs Brigade (17FMB), and Libya Shield One, in addition to Salafi-nationalist group Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi (TRAC).

Based on a YouTube video of Libya Shield leader Wissam Bin Hamid, Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi leader Muhammad Al-Zahawi, and SCBR military commander Jalal Makhzoum, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries exists to confront Haftar, to secure and control Benghazi, and to implement Sharia law (YouTube video, “Leaders of the rebels council of Benghazi…” October 5, 2014). Because the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries is made up of both hardline Salafi-nationalists and less-radical militia groups, there is always the possibility of fragmentation, however they appear united against Operation Dignity for the time being.

libya islamist groups,
Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi leader Muhammad Al-Zahawi (right), Libya Shield One leader Wissam Bin Hamid (center), and SCBR military commander Jalal Makhzoum (left)

Libya Shield One

libya islamist groups, Libya Shield One
Wisam Bin Hamid, leader of Libya Shield One

Led by Wisam Bin Hamid, Libya Shield One is the eastern division of Libya Shield, which has “an eastern Islamist hue, along with a strong tribal component” (Wehrey, September 2014; Pack, et al., May 2014; TRAC; Al-Arabiya Institute for Studies, August 25, 2014). Libya Shield One is a state-affiliated Islamist militia and allied with Ansar al-Sharia – as portrayed in social media that shows Libya Shield leader Wissam Bin Hamid and former Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi leader Muhammad al-Zahawi together on several occasions (YouTube video “Enter upon them through gates,” December 2, 2014; photos from Ansar al-Sharia obtained by Long War Journal; Al-Arabiya Institute for Studies, August 25, 2014).

Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade

Rafallah al-Sahati brigade, Libya war, libya islamist groups,
Rafallah al-Sahati brigade from their FB page

Formed during the 2011 civil war, the Rafallah al-Sahati brigade at one stage were a part of the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, but later broke off and formed its own brigade – although it still has ties with Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi and 17FMB (Pack, et al., May 2014; Finucci, 2013; Middle East Eye, June 26, 2014). Led by Ismail al-Sallabi and Salahadeen Bin Omran, the militia group has an estimated 1,000 fighters operating in Kufra and Eastern Libya, but primarily operates in Benghazi by performing “law and order functions” (TRAC). According to Alakhbar and Libya Stories, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade holds to a Salafist ideology (Alakhbar, September 23, 2012; Oakes, Libya Stories, May 30, 2014).

17 February Martyrs Brigade

libya islamist groups, 17 February Martyrs Brigade
17 February Martyrs Brigade logo posted on the 17 February Martyrs Brigade Facebook on April 7, 2011

Created in 2012, the 17 February Martyrs Brigade (17FMB) is led by Fawzi Bukatef and primarily operates in Benghazi and Sirte (TRAC; Pack, et al., May 2014; Chivvis and Martini, RAND Corporation, 2014). Some 17FMB fighters have allegedly traveled to Syria to fight alongside the Syrian rebels while others were “involved in the smuggling of arms to Syria in support of opposition forces” (TRAC). It calls itself “the forerunner to protect the revolution and protect Benghazi…” (17FMB Facebook post, translation, February 28, 2013). Similar to the other state-affiliated Islamist militias, 17FMB is a primarily localized Islamist group that seeks to enforce the revolution by keeping former Gaddafi supporters out of positions of power.

Salafi-Nationalists

Salafi-nationalists are not affiliated with state institutions and seek to implement Sharia law in Libya.

Mujahideen Shura Council

Mujahideen Shura Council, libya islamist groups,
Mujahideen Shura Council logo posted on the Mujahideen Shura Council Facebook page on December 19, 2014

In a possible response to the Nationalist Coalition pressure and impending offensive, Salafi groups in Derna formed the Mujahideen Shura Council coalition on December 12, 2014 (YouTube video “Shaykh Salem Derby announced Majlis Shura Mujahidi Dernah,” December 12, 2014; TRAC). Salim Derby, founder of the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and possible leader of the Mujahideen Shura Council, appears to at least show rhetorical support to the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, when, during the announcement he says, “As for you, the Shura Council of the brave rebels in Benghazi – we are with you in your war with the criminal Haftar and his soldiers” (TRAC; The Line of Steel, December 13, 2014; YouTube video “Shaykh Salem Derby announced Majlis Shura Mujahidi Dernah,” December 12, 2014).

Secondary sources have mentioned the involvement of Ansar al-Sharia Derna and Jaish Libya al Islami in this new coalition; however, it is unconfirmed for the time being (Global Post, December 13, 2014; TRAC). The fierce fighting between Ansar al-Sharia Derna and the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade in the summer of 2014 (Elbrqawi, Magharebia, June 9, 2014) could cast doubt on Ansar al-Sharia’s participation in the Mujahideen Shura Council led by the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade. Given the ideological and military rivalry between the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and the Shura Council of Islamic Youth (see below), the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade-led coalition could potentially be a uniting force to both confront Haftar’s forces and offset the power and Salafi-jihadist ideology of SCIY and the Islamic State.

Mujahideen Shura Council, libya islamist groups, Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade
Salim Derby, founder of Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and possible leader of the Mujahideen Shura Council

Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade

Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, Libya Islamist groups
Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade logo posted on the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade Facebook page on August 22, 2014

The two main power groups in Derna, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (Facebook Page) and Shura Council of Islamic Youth (SCIY – see below), hold to a Salafist ideology (TRAC), although they are fundamentally at odds over its implementation. Headed by Shâykh Salim Derby, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade is a “local movement who seeks to establish a local government” based on Sharia law, and therefore a Salafi-nationalist group, while the SCIY is a “global movement” that seeks worldwide Sharia law and has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, and therefore a Salafi-jihadist group (TRAC).

Some media sources claim that Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade is an al-Qaeda affiliate (The Economist, October 11, 2014; Vella and Balzan, Malta Today, October 12, 2014), while others supposedly quote statements from the group that say it will not pledge a “religiously binding oath of allegiance” to foreign individuals or organizations (Vella, Malta Today, October 11, 2014; Zelin, The Washington Institute, October 10, 2014).  Considering the existing doubt, we shall, for now, categorize the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade as a Salafi-nationalist group with no confirmed affiliations with foreign jihadist groups. As mentioned above, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade could be organizing the Mujahideen Shura Council as a buffer against Libyan Salafi-jihadist groups and the Islamic State.

Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (affiliated with AQIM)

Libya Islamist groups
Ansar al-Sharia logo

Ansar al-Sharia was created in June 2012 as a Salafi-nationalist militia that opposes democracy and aspires to implement Sharia law in Libya (Irshaid, BBC News, June 13, 2014; TRAC). It operates in Benghazi and Derna with a reported presence in Sirte as well, and consists of former Libyan militia members and foreign fighters (Tunisia, Algeria, etc.) (Ibid; Al Arabiya Institute for Studies, August 25, 2014; McGregor, Terrorism Monitor, August 8, 2014; Pack, et al., May 2014; Finucci, 2013). Although Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi (AAS-B) and Ansar al-Sharia Derna (AAS-D) hold to the same Salafi ideology, they do not operate under a “centralised command structure” (TRAC). The leader of Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi, Mohamed al-Zahawi, died this past week after succumbing to battle wounds he received months ago, according to his family and Ansar al-Sharia (The New York Times, January 24, 2015). It is not known yet who will replace al-Zahawi, but it will be interesting to see if the group continues with the same objectives or if there will be a change in strategy under a new leader.

AAS-B is especially known for its involvement in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; as a result, AAS-B adopted a charity strategy called da’wah in March 2013 to “garner more support” and “alter local perceptions” of its militant nature (Ibid; Irshaid, BBC News, June 13, 2014; McGregor, Terrorism Monitor, August 8, 2014; Carlino, Terrorism Monitor, January 9, 2014; Pack, et al., May 2014).

“This da’wa effort, coupled with rhetoric largely focused on moral issues, has partially overshadowed ASL’s militant side, bolstering the perception that the group is more preoccupied with solidifying its presence in post-Qaddafi Libya than seeking an open confrontation with Libyan authorities.” – Ludovico Carlino (January 9, 2014)

With links to Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi allegedly runs training camps for regional jihadists and serves as a “central transit point” for fighters on their way to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (Ibid; UN Security Council Press Release, November 19, 2014; TRAC). Despite Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi’s links to Al-Qaeda, it has nationalistic goals with a particular emphasis on Benghazi (based on an AAS-B YouTube video), and thus is better categorized as a Salafi-nationalist group (YouTube video “Video of Ansar al Shariah in Libya Battle “Enter upon them through gates”,” December 2, 2014).

Salafi-Jihadists

Libya’s Salafi-jihadist groups operate in Southern and Eastern Libya, and primarily concentrate in Derna – although their numbers “are not large and should not be exaggerated” (Chivvis and Martini, RAND Corporation, 2014). Salafi-jihadist ideology is globally focused, therefore differing from Salafi-nationalists.

Al-Qaeda in Libya

Libya Islamist groups
Logo of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

Libya has a recent history of affiliations with al-Qaeda, particularly in the city of Derna. According to the U.S. military, Derna produced “more al-Qaeda-inspired volunteers per capita than anywhere else in the Middle East during the Iraq insurgency against American occupying forces in the 2000s” (Morajea, Middle East Eye, December 12, 2014; Stephen, The Guardian, December 6, 2014). Many of the leaders in Libya’s jihadist groups are “former Al-Qaeda members”, particularly within Ansar al-Sharia, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Middle East Eye, November 26, 2014).

According to Stratfor, the Nationalist Coalition’s strategic acquisitions over the summer has resulted in Libyan Islamist groups recalling their jihadist fighters from Iraq and Syria to bolster their strength against Haftar (Stratfor, July 16, 2014). Al-Qaeda reportedly has two training camps in Libya for both Libyan and foreign fighters, although there are an estimated ten additional training camps hosted by regional jihadist groups (Pack, et al., May 2014). Al-Qaeda’s presence in Eastern and Southern Libya can be partially attributed to the tribes in those regions, as noted by Pack, Mezran, and Eljarh (May 2014):

“Al-Qaeda affiliates can move freely throughout the vast, ungoverned Libya desert by forging a web of temporary alliances, as a range of ethnic, ideological, tribal, and religious militias vie for control of key locations and are willing to sell their support to the highest bidder.”

Despite the presence of Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups in Eastern and Southern Libya, the “operational capacity of the transnational smuggling and military recruitment networks of the Tuareg, Tubu, and Arab aidoun militias” overshadow them (Pack, et al., May 2014). With a recent Islamic State foothold in Libya (see below), it will be interesting to see if support increases between the Ansar al-Sharia branches and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or if Ansar al-Sharia decides to establish ties with the Islamic State instead (See Uncertainty of Ansar al-Sharia in Derna below).

The Uncertainty of Ansar al-Sharia in Derna (affiliated with AQIM, unconfirmed allegiance to IS)

Libya Islamist groups
Ansar al-Sharia logo

Ansar al-Sharia Derna (AAS-D) is headed by Sufian bin Qumu, a previous Guantanamo detainee and former driver for Osama bin Laden (Pack, et al., May 2014; Joscelyn, The Long War Journal, January 10, 2014). The United Nations Security Council added Ansar al-Sharia Derna to its sanctions list for its affiliation with both AQIM and Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (Ansar al Charia Derna Narrative, November 19, 2014).

According to the United Nations, Ansar al-Sharia Derna declared allegiance to the Islamic State in October 2014 (Ibid; Middle East Eye, November 20, 2014). However, this could be false or more complex than described. IHS Jane’s 360, Counter Jihad Report, and an interview with an SCIY member provide three possibilities: 1) an AAS-D allegiance to the Islamic State is false, 2) the AAS-D allegiance is true, based on a merger, or 3) a divide occurred in AAS-D with one part pledging its allegiance, and the other rejecting it.  An October 11 interview with a member of the Shura Council of Islamic Youth revealed that Ansar al-Sharia Derna and Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade had not pledged allegiance to IS, although other militias loyal to SCIY supposedly had done so (MaliWitness, October 11, 2014). According to IHS Jane’s 360, Ansar al-Sharia Derna is a merged faction of Shura Council of Islamic Youth (October 6, 2014). This would mean that Ansar al-Sharia Derna would indeed be affiliated with the Islamic State through the SCIY allegiance. Counter Jihad Report discusses a division in Ansar al-Sharia Derna with one part joining SCIY and the other rejecting it (October 11, 2014). Meanwhile, Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi and the rest of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries have not pledged their allegiance to IS (Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 17, 2014).

Islamic State in Libya

Libya Islamist groups
Flag of the Islamic State

Evidence of an Islamic State presence in Libya comes from three sources:

  • On November 14, 2014, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State (IS), officially accepted the allegiance of those who swore oath to him in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria (Dabiq, Issue 5).
  • Head of AFRICOM, David Rodrigues, announced the establishment of IS training camps outside Derna that provide “training and logistics support” for at least 200 militants (The Africa Report, December 4, 2014; Stephen, The Guardian, December 6, 2014; Eurasia Review, December 17, 2014).
  • Derna residents report the presence of Islamic State-affiliated militias committing atrocities in the city (Human Rights Watch, November 27, 2014).

Derna is emerging as an Islamic State foothold, thus increasing the threat of further expansion in Libya, as well as North Africa. Libyan jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq include a 300-strong element from IS, known as the al-Battar Brigade, who gave their support to and helped expand the Shura Council of Islamic Youth (Cruickshank, et al., CNN, November 18, 2014; Lupo, Mediterranean Affairs, December 1, 2014). Such an action is the fulfillment of international concerns over Islamic State jihadists returning to their native countries. The Center for Security Policy considers this significant in that the returning al-Battar Brigade is an Islamic State “expeditionary force” in Libya, and not simply the allegiance of Libyan affiliates (Bauer, Center for Security Policy, November 20, 2014). The al-Battar Brigade could represent one of the abilities of the Islamic State to expand, whether through an actual “expeditionary force” or simply the return of jihadists (with an Islamic State influence) to fight in their home countries. Either way, the Islamic State affiliates in Libya display an increasing brutality, as evidenced by the recent execution of two Tunisian journalists (unconfirmed) and 14 Libyan soldiers (confirmed), the capture of 21 Christians, beheadings in Derna, and their claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Tripoli (Libya News Today, December 28, 2014; World Affairs Journal, January 12, 2015; Libya News Today, January 5, 2015; VOA News, January 8, 2015; Cruickshank, et al., CNN, November 18, 2014).

According to a former jihadist and Derna residents, a Yemeni jihadist known as Mohammed Abdullah, or Abu al-Baraa al-Azdi, heads the Islamic State element in Derna and has established IS groups in al-Bayda, al-Khums, Tripoli, and Benghazi (Bauer, Center for Security Policy, November 20, 2014; Michael, Counter Jihad Report, November 10, 2014). If Islamic State elements gain ground throughout Libya, we can certainly expect more atrocities and an aggressive response from Haftar’s forces. The Islamic State expansion could possibly even face pushback from less radical Islamist groups. Also, Libya’s oil assets and close proximity to “Europe’s southern shores” (Stephen, The Guardian, December 6, 2014) present a strategic threat if IS establishes a significant presence there; thus Libya could become the anti-ISIS coalition’s next target for airstrikes or an international intervention, as mentioned recently by France (upcoming post).

Shura Council of Islamic Youth in Dernah (allegiance to IS)

Libya Islamist groups, Shura Council of Islamic Youth
Shura Council of Islamic Youth logo posted on Center of the Country, Downtown Facebook page on April 5, 2014

Supported by the ISIS-affiliated al-Battar Brigade, the Shura Council of Islamic Youth (SCIY) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in October 2014 and is one of the primary groups operating in Derna (Cruickshank, et al., CNN, November 18, 2014; Lupo, Mediterranean Affairs, December 1, 2014; Banco, International Business Times, November 10, 2014). Formed on April 4, 2014, SCIY is comprised of local fighters, Libyan fighters with fighting experience in Syria and Iraq, and “allegedly some foreign fighters from Tunisia & Algeria” (TRAC; Zelin, The Washington Institute, October 10, 2014; Elbrqawi, Magharebia, December 1, 2014). The extremist group is fully utilizing tactics similar to the Islamic State, such as beheadings, public floggings, and political assassinations (Human Rights Watch, November 27, 2014). As we can see from its pledge (Cruickshank, et al., CNN, November 18, 2014), member composition, and actions in Derna, the Shura Council of Islamic Youth is one of the major vehicles driving a globally focused Salafist ideology into Libya’s civil war. In the near future, we shall likely see aggressive military responses to SCIY and future Islamic State affiliates from both domestic and international forces.

Aaron Zelin’s analysis of SCIY’s pledge to the Islamic State as an expansion model suggests that the Islamic State could rely on “autonomous local franchise organizations” that would make “national borders and contiguous landmass…irrelevant to how ISIS will grow its caliphate…” (Zelin, The Washington Institute, October 10, 2014).

After evaluating the similarities, potential future divisions, capabilities, and affiliations of Libya’s Islamist and Misrata forces, we see that Libya’s Islamist groups cannot be oversimplified; they represent a very complex element of Libya’s civil war. As Frederic Wehrey points out, Libya’s jihadists are “highly fragmented” and “hyper-localized” (Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 17, 2014). Disagreement over ideology, various regional goals, and differing affiliations with outside groups create a complex picture. Furthermore, the Islamist elements of Libya’s civil war represent a significant multi-regional threat for two primary reasons. First, Libya is a prime location for jihadist training camps (both the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda), which will only increase regional instability with Libya as a launching point for foreign jihadists from North Africa to the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and potentially Europe. Second, the potential expansion of the Islamic State in Libya can lead to further instability, become an increasing threat to Southern Europe, and provide the Islamic State with a significant foothold in North Africa, while linking with other IS affiliated groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bibliography

Featured Image: Photo of militiamen posted on the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade Facebook page on September 29, 2014

Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s First Colony in Libya,” The Washington Institute, October 10, 2014

“A Breakdown of Libya’s Warring Militia Groups,” ACLEDData, September 10, 2014

Amanda Kadlec, “Dignity Battles the Dawn: The Complex Web of Libya’s Civil War,” War on the Rocks, August 14, 2014

Andrew McGregor, “Libya’s Ansar al-Shari’a Declares the Islamic Emirate of Benghazi,” Terrorism Monitor Volume 12, Issue 16, August 8, 2014

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Chris Stephen, “US expresses fears as Isis takes control of northern Libyan town,” The Guardian, December 6, 2014

Christopher Chivvis and Jeffrey Martini, “Libya After Qaddafi: Lessons and Implications for the Future,” RAND Corporation, 2014

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Dabiq, Issue 5, posted by Clarion Project

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February 17 Martyrs Brigade Facebook page

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4 thoughts on “War in Libya and its Futures: State of Play – Islamist Forces (2)”

  1. Hi there

    Thanks for your informative e-mails.

    How involved the west is in Libya, and what salafi and islamist means.
    Are these fighters Libyans or invaders.

    Regards

  2. Hello Karuma,

    Islamists are those who adhere to the religion of Islam, while Salafists are those who adhere to a radical form of Islam that reject democratic government, engage in jihad, and wish to see Sharia law as the sole governing authority. The ones here in this article are primarily Libyans, although some fighters from other countries have joined some of the Libyan groups. We will discuss international involvement and UN peace talks in the next post, so keep an eye out for it. Thanks for reading!

    Jon

Comments are closed.