By Mary Fitzgerald
In Libya there are very few truly national actors. The vast majority are local players, some of whom are relevant at the national level while representing the interests of their region, or in most cases, their city. Many important actors, particularly outside of the largest cities, also have tribal allegiances.
Libya is home to a range of jihadist groups, from the Islamic State group (ISIS) to al Qaeda-linked groups, to other Salafi-jihadi factions.
Some are wholly indigenous and rooted in particular locales while others – particularly ISIS affiliates – include many foreigners at both leadership and rank and file level.
Libya’s Jihadist network can be divided along generational lines, starting with those who emerged in the 1980s. Many from that older generation fought against Soviet-backed forces in Afghanistan. These veterans later created a number of groups in opposition to Gaddafi, the largest of which was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which is now defunct.
Several former LIFG figures, including its final leader, Abdelhakim Belhadj, played key roles in the 2011 uprising and went on to participate in the country’s democratic transition, forming political parties, running in elections, and serving as deputy ministers in government as in the case of Khaled Sherif at the Ministry of Defence.
This did not sit well with the second and third generation of jihadists – among the former were those who fought in Iraq after 2003, among the latter were those who fought in Syria after 2011 – who lean towards more radical ideologies and reject democracy as un-Islamic. The Libyans that have joined ISIS tend to come from the second and third generations.
Local returnees from Syria helped form Libya’s first ISIS affiliate in the eastern town of Derna in 2014. Many had fought as part of ISIS’s al-Battar unit in northern Syria before returning home to replicate the model with help from senior non-Libyan ISIS figures.
The leadership of ISIS in Libya has always been dominated by foreigners. Its leader earlier this year was Abd al-Qadir al-Najdi, whose name suggests Saudi origins. He replaced an Iraqi whom the US claims it killed in an airstrike in eastern Libya in 2015.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recognised the presence of ISIS in Libya in late 2014, declaring three wilayats or provinces: Barqa (eastern Libya), with Derna as its headquarters; Tarablus (Tripoli), with Sirte as its headquarters; and Fezzan (southwestern Libya).
ISIS was driven from its first headquarters in Derna in 2015 by a coalition of forces which included the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an umbrella group comprising fighters led by local jihadists including LIFG veterans, who joined with army personnel who had rejected Khalifa Haftar and his Operation Dignity campaign. The same alliance later routed ISIS from its remaining redoubts on the outskirts of the town.
In early 2015, ISIS began to build its presence in Sirte, which was Gaddafi’s former hometown and one of the regime’s last hold-outs. Prominent ISIS cleric Turki al-Binali and other senior figures visited Sirte as the group began to consolidate control.
It did so by reaching out to locals who felt aggrieved over the city’s marginalisation in post-Gaddafi Libya. However, the group met some resistance as a number of residents attempted an uprising, which was then brutally quashed.
ISIS tried to impose a system of governance on the city, using public executions to instill fear. Sirte became ISIS’ stronghold in Libya until May 2016 when a coalition of Misrata-dominated forces known as Bunyan al-Marsous (BAM) declared war on the affiliate there.
The BAM operation, which was accompanied by over 400 US air strikes on ISIS targets in and around Sirte, declared victory in early December.
ISIS also had a smaller presence on the outskirts of Sabratha, a coastal town in western Libya, until a combination of US airstrikes and attacks by local forces – including former jihadists from that first generation – managed to uproot the militants earlier this year.
In Benghazi, those fighting Haftar’s Operation Dignity include Libyan and foreign members of ISIS. Although Sirte was the group’s ostensible base, ISIS sleeper cells operate in Tripoli and other cities and towns in Libya.
While the Pentagon estimated there were over 6,000 ISIS fighters in Libya prior to the BAM operation, the UN and many Libyans believed that the actual number was much lower. Many of these fighters fled Sirte before BAM forces entered the city, and in one of three directions: south-west towards Sebha, west towards Sabratha and south-east towards the border with Sudan.
Others may have gone underground in different Libyan cities, raising the prospect of ISIS mounting an insurgency-style campaign in future.
ISIS controlled territories before BAM’s campaign
ISIS controlled territories after BAM’s campaign
Formed in 2012 by former revolutionary fighters calling for the immediate imposition of sharia law, Ansar al-Sharia’s first branch was set up in Benghazi, but affiliates have also emerged in towns such as Derna, Sirte and Ajdabiya.
While Ansar al-Sharia’s leadership tended to be drawn from Libya’s second generation of jihadists, the majority of its rank and file were from the generation that came after it.
The UN put Ansar al-Sharia on its al-Qaeda sanctions list in 2014, describing it as a group associated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Mourabitoun. Both groups mentioned also have a presence in Libya, both in the south and central/eastern regions, largely through Libyans who once worked with them elsewhere, particularly in Algeria, before returning home after Gaddafi was ousted.
Ansar al-Sharia has run training camps for foreign fighters, including a significant number of Tunisians, travelling to Syria, Iraq and Mali.
Individuals associated with Ansar al-Sharia participated in the September 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
While they are, at the core, an armed group, Ansar al-Sharia adopted a strategy between 2012 and 2014 that focused on preaching and charitable work to build popular support and drive recruitment. As a result, it became the largest jihadist organisation in Libya, with its main branch being stationed in Benghazi.
In response to Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity, Ansar al-Sharia’s Benghazi unit merged with other militias to form the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) in summer 2014.
While Ansar al-Sharia is now the dominant force in the BRSC coalition, it has experienced internal disarray due to the deaths of senior figures – including founder Mohammed Zahawi. It has also suffered the loss of a number of members through defection to ISIS.
Other Ansar al-Sharia units across the country experienced an uptick in defections as ISIS began to expand in Libya.
As ISIS tried to further co-opt existing networks, tensions grew between it and Ansar al-Sharia (and by extension with the latter’s associates in AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun) as they competed for members and territory. However, in Benghazi they still fight together against Haftar’s forces. The rivalry between ISIS – though the group is now significantly weakened – and al-Qaeda associated groups like Ansar al-Sharia is likely to define Libya’s jihadist milieu for the forseeable future.
Mary Fitzgerald is the Irish Times award-winning foreign affairs correspondent. She is a journalist and researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya.