This article focuses on the first of the scenarios depicting a Salafist victory, where Al-Qaida (AQ) becomes the dominant force on the battlefield, defeats the other actors, then works towards establishing the caliphate. In our previous scenario we detailed the scenario of a nationalist victory where the new government guides Libya towards a secular and nationalist state where Sharia is not a source of governance.

Note: Considering the future names of potential factions that would result from a new split between the unity government, we shall use the label nationalist for those that supported the nationalist-dominated Council of Representatives (COR) and any future anti-Islamist factions; Islamist to note those that supported the General National Congress (GNC) and any future pro-political Islamic movements; and Salafist will remain the label of choice for groups that reject democratic institutions and embrace jihadism.

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Scenario 4 Salafist Conquest

In this scenario, a “Salafist victory” refers to the cessation of major hostilities resulting from a Salafist group’s military domination of the other actors. Once a Salafist group – either Al-Qaida or the Islamic State – defeats the others, it will be in a position to rebuild Libya as an Islamic State governed by Sharia law.

As the war drags on, the Islamist and nationalist coalitions fragment – thus replacing powerful coalitions on the battlefield with weaker, singular players, or, they become too exhausted to achieve a total military victory; meanwhile, Salafist groups’ strength increase in numbers and capabilities, allowing them to make strategic gains. With the rival governments now significantly weakened, the Salafist groups finally become the dominant military force and achieve a total victory. Having gained the military victory and now having the dominant influence in Libya, the Salafist groups begin rebuilding the country as an Islamic state.

Indicators to Monitor

Below are the main indicators we identified that impact the likelihood to see scenario 4 occurring. They should thus be monitored.

  1. The level of exhaustion suffered by the Islamists and nationalists. Heightened levels of exhaustion will decrease the ability of the Islamist and nationalist coalitions to achieve a military victory. Having to simultaneously fight each other, as well as the Islamic State and Al-Qaida may increase exhaustion levels, thus increasing the likelihood of a Salafist conquest.
  2. The level of cohesion of the Islamist and nationalist coalitions. If either of the coalitions begins to lose cohesion, their risk of fragmentation begins to increase. Also affecting their cohesion is the coalitions’ ability to maintain ties with the tribes loyal to them. The fragmentation of one or both coalitions increases the likelihood of this scenario, as the Salafist groups could more easily exploit the situation and defeat weaker, singular factions instead of having to face a large coalition. A past indication occurred when some of the Misratan brigades in the Dawn of Libya coalition pledged support for the unity government and others refused – instead, forming the Steadfast Front (STRATFOR, April 2, 2016).
  3. The willingness of the Islamists and nationalists to unite to defeat the Salafist threat. If the Islamist and nationalist coalitions temporarily unite to defeat a growing Salafist threat, the likelihood of this scenario decreases. Although the coalitions may not cease all hostilities against each other, they may agree to divert more of their forces to focus on a mutual Salafist threat. A past indication occurred when militias from Misrata and Zintan agreed to a truce in order to combat the advance of Islamic State forces (El-Ghobashy and Morajea, The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2015).
  4. The number of jihadists joining the ranks of Salafist groups in Libya. An increase in the number of jihadists crossing into Libya will increase this scenario’s likelihood. If Salafist groups are able to significantly increase their ranks as the Islamist and nationalist coalitions grow weaker, they will begin gaining the upper hand in military capabilities. A past indication occurred when hundreds, if not more than 1,000, Boko Haram fighters joined the Islamic State’s ranks in Libya (Paton, International Business Times, March 5, 2016).
  5. The quality of jihadists fighting in Libya. If Al-Qaida and Islamic State groups in Libya are able to recruit large numbers of experienced Libyan fighters or import experienced jihadists from other countries, the likelihood of this scenario increases. With more experienced fighters, the Salafist groups will pose a larger threat and be more difficult to repel. A past indication occurred when Islamic State leadership sent senior members to Libya (The Soufan Group, March 3, 2016).
  6. The ability of either Al-Qaida or the Islamic State to militarily defeat all other armed actors. If Al-Qaida or the Islamic State is unable to defeat the Islamist and nationalist coalitions, as well as each other, this scenario could not occur. An Al-Qaida victory would require the defeat of the rival coalitions as well as the Islamic State, while an Islamic State victory would require the defeat of the coalitions and Al-Qaida. The ability to achieve a total military victory would largely depend on the above indicators, as well as the level of external support and the current situation of regional conflicts.
  7. The level of Al-Qaida expansion in Africa. If Al-Qaida affiliates in Africa grow in strength and are able to carry out increasingly-successful attacks, Al-Qaida in Libya will likely gain better access to fighters, weapons, and other resources, thus increasing the likelihood of this scenario occurring. Al-Qaida expansion throughout Africa would also benefit AQ in Libya by diverting the focus and counter-terrorism assets from international operations in the region. Past indications of diverting external counter-terrorism assets occurred when the United States deployed military assets to Niger, Cameroon, Central Africa, and Somalia with the purpose of conducting or supporting counter-terrorism efforts (RT, December 5, 2016; Savage, Schmitt, and Mazzetti, The New York Times, November 27, 2016).
  8. The severity of conflicts or threats elsewhere that reduce Libya to a secondary interest. If conflicts or more significant threats arise elsewhere that consume the focus and military resources of external actors – particularly the United States – the international focus on Libya will lessen, thus increasing the likelihood of this scenario.
  9. The severity of the European Union’s core problems that push Libya to the background. This year, the European Union saw failed policies, Brexit, and the beginning of a shift towards populist movements. Now facing what the BBC calls a “looming existential threat” (Mardell, BBC News, December 6, 2016), the EU has had to refocus many of its priorities. If the EU’s existential issues remain severe during an Al-Qaida victory in Libya, the likelihood of this scenario increases.

Sub-scenario 4.1 An Al-Qaida Victory

With the Islamists and nationalists having significantly weakened the Islamic State in Libya, the stronger Al-Qaida affiliates are able to more easily defeat Islamic State forces. In the aftermath, Islamic State jihadists are either killed while defending their last strongholds, or flee the country.

Considering its opposition to democratic institutions, Al-Qaida uses violence to eliminate political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party, and uses the threat of force to prevent future political movements from arising. However, once political parties are removed, Al-Qaida turns toward a local form of rule – one where local councils are responsible for governing their own people – overseen by a central AQ organizational structure.

Having learned lessons from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaida leadership in Libya turn over the responsibility of everyday governance to local civilian councils. Implementing a grassroots approach to influencing and controlling populations, as well as seeing the strategic mistake made by the Islamic State (declaring a caliphate too soon, taking territory, and aggressive action beyond the Levant – thus prompting massive international intervention), Al-Qaida shuns a strong centralized form of government that the Islamists and nationalists would have utilized, and instead covertly integrates itself into the local councils to garner domestic legitimacy and avoid foreign intervention. This model gives the illusion that Libyans are self-governed by their own local councils instead of Al-Qaida, but of course, Al-Qaida members are embedded within local councils to ensure AQ’s long-term strategy in Libya is carried out.

Propaganda photos by Ansar al-Sharia highlighting its “Department for Public Works”, posted by Michael Horowitz, 28 May 2015

Again, applying lessons from AQAP and AQIM, Al-Qaida focuses on the problems of the local populations while gradually applying selected Sharia principles, instead of forcefully implementing full Sharia law. By assisting with public services and providing charitable acts, Al-Qaida gains the trust and support of Libyans, and make them “sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours,” as emphasized in an AQAP strategy document (Green, The Washington Institute, December 12, 2013). Through a selective implementation process of Sharia, Al-Qaida tactfully avoids the harshest provisions until the Libyan population is more susceptible to its implementation (note: this process has the potential to exceed our 3-5 year analysis timeline). Once Sharia is close to being fully integrated in Libyan society, the Al-Qaida leadership in Libya begins propagating the country as an Islamic emirate.

Al-Qaida’s organizational structure in Libya is somewhat similar to the Islamic State structure. Based on a comparison of the organizational structures of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaida’s organization in Libya has a head leader, a Shura council [consultative body], a military wing, a propaganda wing, and a Sharia council [judiciary body] (Counter Extremism Project, AQAP, AQIS, and AQIM). The Islamic State also has the Caliph [leader], the Shura council, the Sharia council, and the Military council in its central hierarchy (see Dr. Helene Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – The Calif and Legitimacy,” and “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Means of Violence” for detailed analysis of the Islamic State structure). However, Al-Qaida’s governance strategy in Libya is profoundly different from that of the Islamic State. Once they secured the city of Sirte, Islamic State fighters called on residents to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the caliph of the Islamic State, cracked down on forbidden vices, and enforced Sharia law on the population, including severe punishments such as ‘flogging, stoning, amputation, and execution” (Zelin, The Washington Institute, August 6, 2015). Wanting to avoid this strategy and gain the support of the Libyan people, Al-Qaida utilizes a localized governance model with a very gradual implementation of Sharia – all while its leadership directs its will and influence on the population from the background.

To gain influence over the tribes, Al-Qaida members begin marrying into the tribes and recruiting their unemployed youth. Furthermore, the localized system of governance allows the Amazigh, Tuareg, and Toubou to become more autonomous and not have to endure systematic discrimination by a centralized state – an appeal that earns some favor, despite tensions that exist between Libyan tribalism and Salafism (Mitchell, “Tribal Dynamics and Civil War III,” May 11, 2015). To lessen these tensions and avoid drawing attention to incompatibility, Al-Qaida does not overtly attempt to draw the tribes into its long-term strategy for the caliphate. With Al-Qaida’s growing presence in Libya comes an influx of fighters and resources from other countries. Such an influx coming through southern Libya boosts the economic gains for the Tuareg and Toubou, who become dependent on the jihadist-dominated trade routes for money and other support.

Ansar al-Sharia snipers in Benghazi train by shooting at picture targets of General Haftar and Egyptian President el-Sisi, posted by Oded Berkowitz, 16 September 2015

After achieving military victory, the Al-Qaida groups initiate a vengeance campaign against hated political and military figures that have not fled the country, as well as outspoken opponents of Al-Qaida. By eliminating prominent leaders that once opposed Salafist groups during the war, Al-Qaida removes any future possibility of opposed Libyans rallying around one of these leaders in a resurgent insurgency; it also provides a useful propaganda piece to rally Al-Qaida affiliates around the region.

Jihadist recruits training near Benghazi

Victory over the Islamists and nationalists by Libya’s Al-Qaida groups earn the recognition of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who seeks to integrate them with its regional organization and increases the amount of money, fighters, and weapons flowing into the country. With Libya now under the influence of Al-Qaida, it offers a safe haven for jihadist training camps. This allows Al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula (AQSP), AQIM, AQAP and smaller Al-Qaida affiliates in the region to send their fighters to Libya for training. Libya’s vital trade routes also allow Al-Qaida a protected route to transnationally move fighters, arms, and resources with greater ease. A victory in Libya thus allows Al-Qaida to expand its operations across the region with the added benefit of defeating what is left of the Islamic State there.

Unless Al-Qaida begins launching widespread attacks out of Libya, the international community is very hesitant to intervene. Considering Al-Qaida’s new support from the population, the lack of friendly armed factions on the ground, and no desire to commit large amounts of troops, the international community – particularly Western powers – do not wish to get involved in a large-scale occupation. Alternatively, some countries – such as Egypt – see a direct threat from an Al-Qaida-controlled Libya and decide to intervene. However, this would require new scenarios to fully understand their depth.

Indicators to Monitor

Below are the main indicators we identified that impact the likelihood to see scenario 4.1 occurring. They should thus be monitored.

  1. The level of the Islamic State’s strength. The level of Islamic State strength or weakness will impact how long it takes Al-Qaida to dominate the battlefield. If the Islamists and nationalists manage to degrade Islamic State strongholds and capabilities before becoming weak themselves, the likelihood of this scenario increases. A past indication occurred when the Islamist and nationalist coalitions cleared the Islamic State stronghold in Sirte (Amara, Reuters, December 6, 2016).
  2. The ability of Al-Qaida affiliates in Libya to defeat the Islamic State. In order to defeat Islamic State forces in Libya, Al-Qaida’s affiliates will need to form a united and coordinated front to destroy remaining IS strongholds and quash leftover IS cells. The likelihood of this scenario increases if Al-Qaida groups launch a united military offensive against the last Islamic State strongholds. A past indication occurred when an Al-Qaida linked jihadist alliance – the Mujahideen Shura Council – drove the Islamic State out of its burgeoning stronghold in Derna (Joscelyn, The Long War Journal, April 20, 2016).
  3. The willingness of Al-Qaida to base its strategy on lessons learned from AQAP and AQIM. Implementing learned lessons from regional Al-Qaida organizations is crucial to the success of the Libyan branch. If Al-Qaida in Libya is willing to adopt the strategy recommendations from AQAP and AQIM, the likelihood of this scenario significantly increases. However, both recommendations would have to be implemented: 1) gaining the support of the population by allowing local institutions to govern (although still very much influenced by AQ, and overseen by the central AQ leadership in Libya) – an example set by the AQAP group that seized Al Mukalla (Hubbard, The New York Times, June 9, 2015) and 2) gradually implementing Sharia law while primarily focusing on the needs of the local population to gain their support and trust – advice from both AQAP and leaders in AQIM (The Associated Press, February 14, 2013; Green, The Washington Institute, December 12, 2013).
  4. The willingness of Al-Qaida affiliates to unite behind a cohesive, long-term strategy for Libya. Alliances between Al-Qaida affiliates in Libya do not mean that they all will immediately unite behind a cohesive strategy for the long-term. Considering the more localized nature of Libya’s Al-Qaida affiliates (e.g. Ansar al-Sharia in Derna, Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade [primarily Derna]), they may compete for leadership roles or instead wish to pursue their own strategy in their areas of influence. If these groups are unwilling to participate in a cohesive long-term strategy, the likelihood of this scenario decreases.
  5. The ability of AQ to embed itself in the local councils. If local civilian councils are vehemently opposed to Sharia and Al-Qaida, and are aware of the jihadists’ strategy, they may prevent AQ members from participating in the local councils or even having a presence in their town or city. In this case, the likelihood of this scenario decreases.
  6. AQ’s ability to provide public services and charity to the population. Providing public services and charity to local populations has proven to generate positive support for Al-Qaida groups in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen (Masi, International Business Times, April 7, 2016; Zelin, Hudson Institute, April 6, 2015), and thus will likely play a role in Al-Qaida’s grassroots strategy for Libya. If Al-Qaida is able to establish effective public service groups throughout the country, this scenario’s likelihood increases. Past indications occurred when Ansar al-Sharia’s “General Services Directorate” provided aid to families in Benghazi, Derna, and other towns (Joscelyn, The Long War Journal, June 30, 2015).
  7. The timing of AQ’s implementation of Sharia law. The timing would likely have a serious impact on the likelihood of Al-Qaida succeeding in Libya. If the group forces too much of the strict principles of Sharia on the population too quickly, it will likely lose support. However, if it adopts AQAP’s advice on incremental implementation (see Green, The Washington Institute, December 12, 2013), the likelihood of this scenario increases.
  8. The willingness of the minority tribes to cooperate with Al-Qaida. If Al-Qaida takes a multi-faceted approach to gaining influence over the minority tribes, it will likely increase the willingness of the tribes to cooperate. By marrying into the tribes, its fighters establish familial ties. Through its recruitment of unemployed tribal youth, as well as the influx of fighters, arms, and illicit goods across the southern trade routes, Al-Qaida increases economic opportunity for the tribes, which help boost their willingness to cooperate with the jihadists. And lastly, Al-Qaida’s reliance on local and tribal councils allows these tribes to be more autonomous and not dependent on a central state for their political rights. The likelihood of this scenario increases if the minority tribes are more willing to cooperate with Al-Qaida.
  9. The level of AQ’s desire to eliminate leaders from the Islamist and nationalist camps. Al-Qaida will likely target leaders that are outspoken in their opposition to Sharia law and or Al-Qaida as a whole. In the event of an Al-Qaida conquest, political and military leaders from the rival coalitions may flee the country; Al-Qaida leadership may put a bounty on the heads of those remaining in the country. However, they may not target the Islamist leaders from the Dawn of Libya and the General National Congress that had connections with Al-Qaida affiliates during the war. A past indication occurred when Ansar al-Sharia (an Al-Qaida affiliate) put a bounty on General Haftar and some of his key commanders (Wehrey, Carnegie Middle East Center, June 19, 2015).
  10. The willingness of external actors to militarily intervene in Libya. In the case of an Al-Qaida victory in Libya, the international community would certainly have cause for extreme concern. However, the global situation and the reality on the ground in Libya will likely determine the willingness of external actors to militarily intervene. If an abundance of conflicts and geopolitical situations outside of Libya are preoccupying the focus and military resources of external actors, they may be less willing to commit to a full military incursion. Furthermore, no friendly Libyan factions would be available to partner with a foreign coalition. If external actors are considerably hesitant to militarily intervene in Libya, the likelihood of this scenario increases. However, if some countries – like neighboring Egypt – perceive an imminent threat from an Al-Qaida-controlled Libya, they may decide to act unilaterally, thus decreasing the likelihood of this scenario occurring.


Feature Photo: Ansar al-Sharia gun position, posted by The Long War Journal, 30 June 2015

Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Rise and Decline of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya,” Hudson Institute, April 6, 2015

Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Burgeoning Capital in Sirte, Libya,” The Washington Institute, August 6, 2015

Alessandria Masi, “Al Qaeda Winning Hearts And Minds Over ISIS In Yemen With Social Services,” International Business Times, April 7, 2016

“Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” Counter Extremism Project

“Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS),” Counter Extremism Project

“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” Counter Extremism Project

“AP: Al Qaeda letter found outlining Mali strategy,” The Associated Press, February 14, 2013

Ben Hubbard, “Al Qaeda Tries a New Tactic to Keep Power: Sharing It,” The New York Times, June 9, 2015

Callum Paton, “Isis in Libya: How Boko Haram jihadis are flocking to join Daesh’s holy war in North Africa,” International Business Times, March 5, 2016

Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Mazzetti, “Obama Expands War With Al Qaeda to Include Shabab in Somalia,” The New York Times, November 27, 2016

Daniel Green, “Al-Qaeda’s Shadow Government in Yemen,” The Washington Institute, December 12, 2013

Dr. Helene Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – The Calif and Legitimacy,” The Red Team Analysis Society, May 25, 2015

Dr. Helene Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Means of Violence,” The Red Team Analysis Society, June 15, 2015

Frederic Wehrey, “Splitting the Islamists: The Islamic State’s Creeping Advance in Libya,” Carnegie Middle East Center, June 19, 2015

Hani Amara, “Libyan forces clear last Islamic State holdout in Sirte,” Reuters, December 6, 2016

Jon Mitchell, “War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3),” The Red Team Analysis Society, May 11, 2015

Mark Mardell, “Could the European Union fall apart?” BBC News, December 6, 2016

“New report reveals spread of US war on Al-Qaeda around the world,” RT, December 5, 2016

Tamer El-Ghobashy and Hassan Morajea, “Two Main Libyan Militias are Maintaining a Truce to Battle Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2015

The Soufan Group, “The Islamic State’s Expansion Strategy in Libya,” TSG IntelBrief, March 3, 2016

“The Sun Sets on Libya Dawn,” STRATFOR, April 2, 2016

Thomas Joscelyn, “Ansar al Sharia Libya fights on under new leader,” The Long War Journal, June 30, 2015

Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State fighters retreat from bases outside Derna, Libya,” The Long War Journal, April 20, 2016