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Radical Islam

The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya was founded in 1949 when Egyptian Brotherhood members fled a crackdown in Cairo and took refuge in Benghazi. Colonel Muamar Qadhafi took over Libya in a 1969 coup d’état and showed no tolerance for Brotherhood activities. After taking pains to curry favor with the 'ulema' in Libya in the years immediately after the 1969 revolution, Qadhafi broke with them in the late 1970's, criticizing aspects of Islam as "un-revolutionary". Brutal waves of repression kept the Brotherhood in check through the 1980s and 1990s. Although he renewed efforts to cultivate Muslim leaders in the 1990's, deep suspicions remain.

The historical roots of violent Salafism in Libya go back to the formation of a handful of jihadist cells in the eastern province during the 1970s, and to the participation of an estimated 800-1,000 young Libyans in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was formed in 1990 by Libyan fighters returning from the Afghan jihad, intent on waging jihad at home. Qaddafi came down hard on the group, and crushed the LIFG’s 1995-1998 insurgency.

The Qadhafi government prohibited independent association and forbid group activities that are inconsistent with principles of the 1969 revolution; as a result, the government authorizes religious associations and lay groups only after confirming that the groups' activities are in line with regime policy. The government applied these restrictions uniformly to all groups.

The World Islamic Call Society (WICS) was the official conduit for the Qadhafi-approved form of Islam. With an emphasis on activities outside the country, it operated a state-run university for Muslim clerics from outside the Arab world. The government encouraged students who graduate to return home and promote its interpretation of Islamic thought in their own countries. Beyond its role in education, WICS served as the religious arm of the government's foreign policy and maintains relations on behalf of the government with the country's minority religious communities. A state-run auqaf (religious endowment) authority administered mosques, supervises clerics, and had primary responsibility for ensuring that all religious practices within the country conform to the state-approved form of Islam.

The Qadhafi government closely monitored and regulated the practice of Islam, asserting it does so to ensure it did not take on a political dimension. For example, the government continued to ban the once-powerful Sufi Sanusiyya order. The order played an important role in the country's prerevolutionary history and is closely associated with the former monarchy. The government strongly opposed religious extremism and militant Islam, which it viewed as a threat to the regime. The government monitored mosques, and there was a widespread culture of self-censorship among clerics. Even mosques endowed by prominent families generally must conform to the government-approved interpretation of Islam.

Libyans may have represented the second largest contingent of foreigners involved in the anti-American Iraqi insurgency, with only Saudis making up a larger segment. Frustration at the inability of eastern Libyans to effectively challenge Qadhafi's regime, together with a concerted ideological campaign by returned Libyan fighters from earlier conflicts, have played important roles in Derna's development as a wellspring of Libyan foreign fighters in Iraq. Other factors include a dearth of social outlets for young people, local pride in Derna's history as a locus of fierce opposition to occupation, economic disenfranchisement among the town's young men.

A number of Libyans who had fought and in some cases undergone "religious and ideological training" in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the West Bank in the late 1970's and early 1980's returned to eastern Libya, including Derna, in the mid to late 1980's. This was part of a deliberate, coordinated campaign to propagate more conservative iterations of Islam, in part to prepare the ground for the eventual overthrow by Muammar Qadhafi's regime, which was "hated" by conservative Islamists.

These returned former fighters deliberately targeted towns and areas known to be less heavily surveilled and controlled by government security officials. Many of those were located in eastern Libya, where authorities have since Ottoman times experienced difficulty extending the writ of the central government. A small group of Libyans had reportedly fought in Afghanistan, subsequently undergone religious training in northern Syria and Lebanon, and then returned to Derna in the late 1980's were particularly instrumental in steering the community of Derna in a more conservative direction. Stressing their conservatism, they had spearheaded campaigns against many aspects of daily life, such as smoking cigarettes, which they deemed "un-Islamic".

Various social, political and economic factors contributed to and facilitated participation by a disproportionately large number of eastern Libya's native sons in "martyrdom acts" and other insurgency operations in Libya under Qadhafi, and in Iraq during the American operation. A reportedly deliberate Government of Libya policy to keep the east poor as a means by which to limit the potential political threat to Qadhafi's regime helped fuel the perception among many young eastern Libyan men that they have nothing to lose by participating in extremist violence at home and in Iraq.

The prospect of financial compensation for their impoverished families motivates some, but local pride in eastern Libya's historical role as a locus of opposition to occupying forces of various stripes was also an important factor. The fact that eastern Libyan mosques are more numerous and remote, together with tight local social networks, reportedly circumscribed the ability of Government of Libya security organizations to monitor and control the activities of radical imams as effectively as elsewhere in Libya.

Unlike the rest of the country, sermons in eastern Libyan mosques were laced with phraseology urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere through direct participation or financial contributions. While senior regime figures, including Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, appear to have recognized that the east merited more attention and investment, the reported ability of radical imams to propagate messages urging support for and participation in jihad despite Government of Libya security organizations' efforts suggested that claims by senior Government of Libya officials that the east was under control may be overstated.

Prior to Qadhafi's downfall, eastern Libya remained a locus of extremist activity over which Government of Libya security services had comparatively limited control. Eastern Libya suffered from a disproportionately high level of unemployment, particularly for young men between the ages of 18 and 34. At least half of the young men in that demographic were unemployed or only intermittently employed. The situation reflected in part the Qadhafi regime's belief that if it kept the east poor enough, it would be unable to mount any serious political opposition to the regime. The rationale is explaining in the Libyan proverb: "If you treat them like dogs, they will follow you like dogs".

There were violent clashes between local extremists and Government of Libya elements in late 2007. In one incident, extremists opened fire in proximity to a Benghazi hospital in connection with their attempts to secure medical assistance for a sick or injured comrade. In another, there was an explosion or an exchange of gunfire (accounts differed among his relatives) at a traffic circle in a Benghazi exurb in connection with an attempt by a police officer to stop a vehicle being used by extremists. There were non-specific accounts of raids by extremists, whom they understood to be affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, on police and military installations to secure weapons.

One observer noted that the unemployed, disenfranchised young men of eastern Libya "had nothing to lose" and are therefore "willing to sacrifice themselves" for something greater than themselves by engaging in extremism in the name of religion. "Their lives mean nothing and they know it, so they seek to give meaning to their existence through their deaths". The lack of jobs and dim prospects for future employment, together with increased costs of living, meant that many young men lacked the means to marry, leaving them without a key measure of social status and stability in what remained a traditional society. As in parts of neighboring Egypt, the average age at which men marry had increased in many parts of eastern Libya. Many now married in their early to mid-30's, which would have been considered "middle age" in the not too distant past.

Some young men, particularly those from more impoverished clans, were motivated by the promise of long-term financial compensation for their families should they complete "martyrdom acts" in Iraq or elsewhere. Extremist networks are able to incentivize young men to kill themselves by offering comparatively small payments of 150-200 Libyan dinar/month (approximately 120-160 USD/month) to families of "martyrs". As a point of reference, most government salaries range from 250 to 330 Libyan dinar per month.

The fact that the east has been comparatively disenfranchised, together with its historical role as a locus of opposition to the Ottoman and Italian occupations, contributed to a perverse sense of pride among eastern Libyans in their role as a main supplier of young men for jihad efforts in Iraq and elsewhere. There was strong sentiment against Coalition forces in Iraq, and pride in the fact that native sons "struck a blow" against "occupying Crusader forces in Iraq". Eastern Libyans were not necessarily anti-American, but were strongly opposed to a US military presence in Iraq or any other Muslim country. In the 1980's, the talk had been directed against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; now, it was focused on the US presence in Iraq.

A dearth of social outlets for young people in Derna "created space" for the message of returned fighters and conservative imams, who deliberately sought to eliminate the few social activities on offer for young people to monopolize the social and cultural environment. While Derna's social life had never been robust, there had been public cinemas, sports leagues and some youth activities organized outside the auspices of mosques. Virtually all of those had petered out in the late 1980's and 1990's, in part because of a campaign to label such activities as "un-Islamic".

The fact that Derna's educational system was weak had also enabled conservative clerics. Mosques and imams effectively offered the only alternative to schools, sports leagues and after-school activities. A heavy influx of Arabic-language satellite television - a phenomenon that dated to the late-1990's - also fostered a "hard view" of the world. Most young men watched a mix of al-Jazeera news, religious sermons and western action films on English language satellite channels broadcast from the Gulf. The result was a heady mixture of violence, religious conservatism and hatred of US policy in Iraq and Palestine. The consensus view in Derna was that the US blindly supported Israel and had invaded Iraq to secure oil reserves and position itself to attack Iran.

The leader of Libya's resistance against the Italian occupation in the early 20th century, national hero Omar Mukhtar, was from the eastern village of Janzour, and it would be a mistake to think that young men from Derna were motivated to undertake suicide operations in Iraq solely by unemployment and the chance to secure a stipend for their families The region had a long, proud history of opposing occupation forces of one stripe or another; its residents took pride in their willingness to "fight for justice and their faith" despite their relative poverty.

Not everyone liked the "bearded ones" (a reference to conservative imams) or their message, but the duty of a Muslim in general - and of a son of Derna in particular - was to resist occupation of Muslim lands through jihad. "It's jihad - it's our duty, and you're talking about people who don't have much else to be proud of." Derna's residents might take issue with attempts to ban smoking or restrict social activities, but there was consensus on "basic issues" like jihad. Depictions on al-Jazeera of events in Iraq and Palestine fueled the widely-held view in Derna that resistance to coalition forces was "correct and necessary".

For many young eastern men, jihad in Iraq was perceived to be a local issue. Among the factors fueling that perception were the proselytizing influence of Libyan fighters who had fought in Afghanistan and now recruited young eastern Libyans for operations in Iraq, the influence of Arabic-language satellite television broadcasts, use of the Internet to exchange information and coordinate logistics, and the comparative ease of travel to/from Iraq. There were media reports to the effect that Libyans, most of them from Derna and points east, comprised the second largest cohort of foreign fighters identified in documents seized during the September 2007 Objective Massey operation on the Syria-Iraq border.

The fierce mindset in Benghazi and Derna was in part attributed to the message preached by imams in eastern Libyan mosques, which was markedly more radical than that heard in other parts of the country. Sermons in eastern mosques, particularly the Friday 'khutba', are laced with "coded phrases" urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere through direct participation or financial contributions. The language is often ambiguous enough to be plausibly denied, but for devout Muslims it is clear, incendiary and unambiguously supportive of jihad. Direct and indirect references to "martyrdom operations" were not uncommon. By contrast with mosques in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, where references to jihad are extremely rare, in Benghazi and Derna they were fairly frequent subjects.

Part of the difficulty for Government of Libya authorities in controlling eastern mosques was that the most zealous imams tended to preach in small suburban and rural mosques. Unlike Tripoli, mosques in the east tend to be smaller and more numerous, making it harder to monitor all of them. Architecture and local heritage also play a role: many mosques in the east don't physically resemble traditional mosques elsewhere in the country, reflecting in part the pseudo-secret tradition of the Sanussi lodges that evolved in eastern Libya in the mid-19th century. The fact that many eastern mosques are less readily identifiable made it harder for Government of Libya security organizations to identify them and easier to hold unobserved meetings and sermons. It was widely known in the east that mosques in town centers were more closely monitored by Government of Libya security organizations; however, it was more difficult for security organizations to monitor smaller, more remote mosques in exurbs and towns around Benghazi and Derna.

It was common knowledge that Government of Libya security organizations attempted to monitor mosque sermons and activities, particularly Friday 'khutba' sermons. In Tripoli and other parts of the country, an officially-sanctioned Friday 'khutba' theme and talking point-equivalents are distributed to mosques, often by facsimile. In addition to the proliferation of smaller, less visible mosques, the ability of security organizations to effectively monitor eastern Libyan mosques was circumscribed by the comparatively tight social and familial structure. Communities in the east tend to be smaller and more tightly knit; outsiders are easier to spot and families watch out for members who may have been turned by Government of Libya security organizations to report on the activities of their relatives and neighbors.

In 2009 Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi's new role as "General Coordinator" of Libya was seen help the Libyan Government prevent the rise of some sort of Muslim Brotherhood extremist group. The government had recently undergone "an awakening" to the fact that there was a real problem with extremism in the east and was now making serious efforts to counter the threat. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi had publicly acknowledged past abuses and called for national reconciliation. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi had personally conducted negotiations with members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) about the possible release from prison of approximately one-third of the cohort of LIFG members imprisoned in Libya.

In 2009 six leading members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) imprisoned in Libya issued a 417-page document renouncing the use of violence and establishing a new "code" for jihad. The group includes LIFG's "founding fathers," individuals with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) senior leadership, including the elder brother of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a leading AQIM figure. The recantation claims to represent a clearer understanding of the "ethics" of Islamic shari'a law and jihad and specifically refutes the LIFG's decades-long jihad against Muammar al-Qadhafi. The document was the result of a two-year initiative led by Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi through his Qadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation (QDF), and supported by Libya's internal and external security services. As a result of the initiative, more than 200 jihadists (approximately half of the imprisoned LIGF members) were released from prison, with more releases expected.

On 17 February 2011 a revolt broke out against Muamar Qaddafi. By early 2011 Libya was swarming with al-Qa’eda and Muslim Brotherhood militias and affiliates fighting to overthrow Muamar Qaddafi’s regime. Since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime and the Transitional National Council’s (TNC) formal roclamation of the liberation of the country in October 2011, Libya experienced two main kinds of violence: the first has been carried out by radical Salafi elements, primarily but not only in the east, especially Darnah and Benghazi; and the second has pitted tribes, cities, towns and/or ethnic communities against each other.

In March 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya announced that it had formed a political party, after six decades in the shadows of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. The Islamist group declared the creation of the Justice and Development Party. The group had representation in more than 18 cities across the country, and more than 1,400 members attended the meeting in Tripoli to declare the formation of the political party. They chose as party leader Mohamed Sowan, a native of the city of Misrata, which saw some of the worst fighting in the civil was. Sowan was imprisoned by the deposed Libyan Arab Jamahiriya government, until he was released in 2006, and subsequently worked as a hotel manager.

The Brotherhood was considered the most organized movement in Libya to have nationwide support. Supporters included wealthy businessmen who returned to the country after the 2011 civil war ended, opening up civil society groups and charitable funds throughout the war-ravaged country. In the Libya National Conference election of 07 July 2012, the party, composed of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with other Islamist groups and independents, placed second in seats, and received 152,441 out of 1,484,723 valid cast votes.

The radical Salafi movement in Libya is organizationally amorphous and diffused. It consists of a multiplicity of locally based groups that have no documented, substantive organizational ties to one another. While these groups share certain objectives – prominent among which is the implementation of the shari`a and a rigorous enforcement of lifestyles consistent with their rigid understanding of Islamic morality – there is no firm evidence of close coordination among them – though the possibility of such collaboration should not be discounted.

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Page last modified: 07-01-2015 18:43:45 ZULU