Libya: The Jihadist Threat

6 MINS READDec 21, 2007 | 21:41 GMT
Captured documents from an al Qaeda safe-house in the Iraqi city of Sinjar have revealed a significant flow of Libyan fighters coming into Iraq. The growing Libyan contingent in Iraq is a worrying sign for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who now faces the challenge of keeping battle-hardened Libyan Iraq veterans at bay.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point released a report Dec. 19 on a series of captured al Qaeda documents that were discovered in a September raid in the city of Sinjar near the Syrian border. The report provides valuable insight into what is essentially al Qaeda in Iraq's human resources department, with detailed records of foreign fighters' hometowns, occupations, salaries and routes to Iraq. What stood out most in the report was the growing Libyan component of al Qaeda in Iraq. According to the findings, 112 of the total 595 records state Libya as the militants' country of origin. Unsurprisingly, the majority of militants (244) hailed from Saudi Arabia, but Libya contributed far more militants per capita than any other country, including Saudi Arabia. Based on a sample of Libyan fighters, the Sinjar Records also indicate a relative surge of Libyan recruits into Iraq between May and July 2007, with 30 out of a sample of 39 Libyans listing their arrival in that time frame. Libyans made up a small contingent of foreign fighters in Iraq in the past, with most estimates ranging around 4 percent. The Sinjar Records, however, reveal a significant influx of Libyan recruits, which is bound to have Tripoli worried. While the jihadists in Iraq gradually lose their support base as more Iraqi Sunni insurgents buy into the political process, the impetus is on the region's jihadist breeding states to insulate themselves from the coming exodus of hardened, trained Iraq veterans. The vast majority of foreign fighters listed "student" as their home occupation and were around 24-25 years old. The biggest fear of Iraq's neighboring Sunni regimes is that with minimal education and professional experience, the occupation these young fighters will be most trained for when they return home is insurgency. But of all the jihadist-producing states, Libya is in the strongest position to prevent a rise in militancy within its borders. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has run Libya as a police state since he took power in a military coup in 1969. In the early 1990s, a sizable group of Libyan jihadists who fought alongside Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets returned home and launched a militant campaign aimed at toppling Gadhafi. The group formally became the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in 1995, and carried out a low-level insurgency that included assassination attempts targeting Gadhafi and attacks against military and police patrols. Gadhafi responded with an iron fist and essentially imposed martial law in the Islamist militant strongholds of Darnah, Benghazi and the towns of Ras al-Helal and al-Qubbah in the Jabal al-Akhdar region — the same northeast mountainous regions the bulk of today's Libyan recruits into Iraq call home. After a series of military crackdowns, Gadhafi gained the upper hand in dealing with his Islamist militant opponents, and the insurgency tapered off by the end of the 1990s. Since then, a number of Libyans have popped up in al Qaeda's core leadership, including Anas al-Libi, one of the key planners of the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi, a commander of Osama bin Laden's al-Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan; Abu Hafs al-Libi, a chief associate of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq; Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda commander and media personality in Afghanistan; and Abu Farj al-Libi, now in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, who was known as al Qaeda's No. 3 leader and director of operations and the mastermind of two assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. As a sparsely populated desert country with an extremely adept security apparatus and a relatively moderate Islamist pulse, Libya is not an easy country in which to sustain a viable jihadist insurgency. With limited options at home, a large number of Libyans have consistently gone overseas to fulfill their jihadist aims. The bleak insurgent options in Libya could lead many of these fighters to relocate from Iraq to Afghanistan, where jihadist forces are in a stronger position to wage attacks. But this does not mean Libya is entirely in the clear. Tripoli cannot rule out that a sizable number of Libyan Iraq veterans could join together and return home to revive the insurgency, particularly after the LIFG formally joined al Qaeda on Nov. 3 in an announcement by al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Though the Libyan al Qaeda node has yet to stage any significant attacks in Libya, Tripoli has warily observed how the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in neighboring Algeria widened its targeting criteria and made significant advances in bombing techniques after joining the al Qaeda bandwagon in September 2006. According to the Sinjar Records, Libyans and Moroccans formed an overwhelming majority of militants who listed themselves as "suicide bombers" rather than "fighters" upon entering Iraq. Saudis, on the other hand, were relatively split between suicide bombers and fighters. This is likely a reflection of the variance in skill set between the North African and Saudi nodes. Whereas the Saudis have more experience in tactical planning on the battleground, the Libyans and Moroccans, who have limited insurgency experience in their home countries, are more expendable as suicide bombers. The past decade has been good to Gadhafi's regime. The Sept. 11 attacks created an opportunity for the United States and Libya to warm up to each other through intelligence sharing, and Libya is in a prime spot to become an energy superpower by boosting Western investment in its energy sector now that the nuclear and Bulgarian nurse sagas are wrapped up. Gadhafi also has made way for the empowerment of his son and likely heir, Seif al-Islam, to maintain a firm grip over the country. But the more Iraq's security environment turns inhospitable to the jihadists, the more Tripoli has to be concerned about as the Libyan jihadist contingent makes plans for the future.

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