Possible Return of Militant Islamists in Libya

5 MINS READJun 7, 2012 | 16:17 GMT
Possible Return of Militant Islamists in Libya
Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members in Tripoli

Two attacks in almost as many weeks targeting foreign offices in Benghazi indicate that militant Islamist groups may be re-emerging in Libya's east. If Libyan jihadist groups are resuming operations, it would severely complicate the ruling National Transitional Council's (NTC's) efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country. However, with oil interests and NATO's reputation at stake, Western countries are unlikely to stand by if the militant groups become a serious threat.

The most recent attack came the evening of June 5, when an improvised explosive device detonated by the front entrance of the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi. No one was injured in the blast, but the office's front gate was damaged. An unidentified Libyan security official told Libya's New Quryna newspaper that the Brigades of Imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman left letters at the scene claiming the attack. The U.S. Embassy said it was not aware of any claim.

The attack followed a May 22 rocket-propelled grenade attack on offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Benghazi, an attack that the Brigades of Imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman later claimed in a media statement. Benghazi has long cultivated Islamist militancy, and the conditions are in place for such militancy to rise again.

Militia or Jihadist Violence

To this point, the violence that has ravaged post-Gadhafi Libya has been militia-based. Militia violence is based on deep-rooted tribal struggles over resources, land and loyalties. Such violence has been especially prevalent in Tripoli, where militias served as a makeshift security force after the fall of the regime, and across the vast desert region of Fezzan, where ethnic Toureg, Toubou and Arab tribes clash in the few habitable towns. Militia violence can also be directed against the government, as demonstrated by the June 4 seizure of the Tripoli International Airport by the al-Awfea Brigade militia.

The recent attacks in Benghazi were different. First, the targets were international, which, in conjunction with the claim of responsibility for the May 22 attack, suggests the attacks were motivated by transnational ideology. In the statement, the attackers accused the ICRC of distributing Bibles to local residents and of being a "Christianization castle." The group said the attack was a warning and that the ICRC should leave Libya. The attackers concluded the statement by saying they would soon have a message that would reach America — a possible hint of the June 5 bombing.

Second, there is the group purported to be responsible for the attacks: the Brigades of Imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman. Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheikh," was the al Qaeda-linked leader of Gamaah al-Islamiyah, an Egyptian militant group. Abdel Rahman was convicted in New York in 1995 for his role in a 1993 plot to bomb several targets in the city. His imprisonment has long served as a call to arms in jihadist circles, and many past threats and attacks have been linked to his case.

It is unclear whether the June 5 attack was in response to the death of senior al Qaeda figure Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was active in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), or if it was related to the threat in the final lines of the Brigades' May 22 statement. (The June 5 attack has not been confirmed to have been the work of the Brigades of Imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman.)

History of Jihadism in Eastern Libya

Eastern Libya, with its isolation and present levels of anarchy, is the ideal environment for jihadists to flourish. The Gulf of Sidra separates the region, historically called Cyrenaica, from the western region, historically known as Tripolitania. In the 1990s eastern Libya was home to the LIFG, a jihadist group created by Libyans who had returned from fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The LIFG carried out a low-level insurgency against the state, and in 2007 it announced that it had formally joined the al Qaeda network.

LIFG activity abated as a result of a rehabilitation program put in place by Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, but the militants may have decided that the fall of the Gadhafi regime reversed any agreements they had with the old regime. It is also possible that more radical elements of the group broke off to form their own group, or that there are jihadists in the region unaffiliated with LIFG. The Libyan government in the past has specifically targeted the cities of Darnah, Benghazi and Ras al-Helal, as well as al-Qubbah in the Jabal al-Akhdar region, for cultivating Islamist militants. That these areas are also centers of demonstrations against the NTC suggests that any group in the area has a mass of angry, unemployed youths from which to recruit. The current vacuum of authority in Libya has provided such groups with a great deal of operational latitude.

Implications of a Jihadist Rise

The May 22 and June 5 attacks were minor, damaging only the perimeters of the targeted facilities. But the accessibility of weapons and explosives in the area after Gadhafi's fall means a violent campaign would be easy to sustain or escalate. If a militant Islamist group is behind the June 5 attack, and if that same group was behind the May 22 attack, then it is likely to increase its attacks when the ICRC and U.S. diplomats do not leave as a result of its threats. This would only add to the NTC's growing list of problems.

The NTC is still in the process of forming its security apparatus ahead of elections, which were recently delayed despite international and domestic pressure to hold them as soon as possible. The NTC has not yet been able to secure the loyalty of the country's many divided tribal factions, which clash regularly across the region. And despite a gradual rise in oil output, the Libyan energy industry remains damaged, outdated and dependent on multinational corporations for development — corporations that may eventually find themselves threatened as well.

The recent attacks are probably the first visible signs of the re-emergence of Islamist militants in eastern Libya. Such an event would substantially complicate the NTC's attempts to move forward with the political transition in post-Gadhafi Libya. It would also be yet another unintended consequence of the Arab Spring. However, in the Libyan case, oil interests and the NATO intervention that contributed to Gadhafi's downfall ensure that Western powers have a stake in Libya's future. The West is unlikely to stand idly by if Islamist militants start to truly threaten Western interests.

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