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Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was listed by the UN on 6 October 2001 pursuant to paragraph 8(c) of resolution 1333 (2000) as being associated with Al-Qaida, Usama bin Laden or the Taliban for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts or activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of”, “supplying, selling or transferring arms and related materiel to” or “otherwise supporting acts or activities of” Al-Qaida (QE.A.4.01.), Usama bin Laden and the Taliban.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) is an Al-Qaida (QE.A.4.01.) affiliate. The LIFG was formed in the early 1990s in Afghanistan, and formally announced its existence in 1995. The group relocated to Libya where it sought to overthrow Mu'ammar Qadhafi and replace his regime with a hard-line Islamic state. After operating clandestinely for several years, the LIFG (the membership of which was limited to a few hundred members) launched a low-level insurgency in 1995. Based mainly in eastern Libya, that insurgency included three attempts on Qaddafi’s life, including a 1996 attempt, and lasted until 1998, by which time it had been crushed by the regime. Following a Libyan government security campaign against LIFG in the mid- to late 1990s, the group abandoned Libya and continued its activities in exile.

LIFG participated with the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (QE.M.89.02.) in planning the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, that killed over 40 people and injured more than 100. LIFG has also been linked to the 2004 attacks in Madrid, Spain. Abd al-Rahman al-Faqih was a senior leader of the LIFG and was involved in the provision of false passports and money to LIFG members worldwide. Al-Faqih was tried and found guilty in absentia by the Rabat, Morocco Criminal Court of Appeals for his involvement in the series of suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco on May 16, 2003 that killed over 40 people and caused more than 100 injuries. It was strongly suspected that the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (GICM) carried out that attack. GICM was designated pursuant to Executive Order 13224 on November 22, 2002.

In 2002, Al-Qaida leader Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Hussein (QI.H.10.01.), also known as Abu Zubaydah, was captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan, accompanied by at least three LIFG operatives and a fourth individual, the former head of the Sanabel Relief Agency Limited (defunct) in Kabul, Afghanistan, who was also known to have ties to LIFG. LIFG commanders, including Abu Yahya al-Liby and the now-deceased Abu al-Laith al-Liby, have occupied prominent positions within Al-Qaida’s senior leadership.

On 3 November 2007, LIFG formally merged with Al-Qaida. The merger was announced via two video clips produced by Al-Qaida’s propaganda arm, Al-Sahab. The first clip featured Usama bin Laden’s (deceased) deputy, Aiman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri (QI.A.6.01.), and the second featured Abu Laith al-Liby, who then served as a senior member of LIFG and a senior leader and trainer for Al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Reaction to the announcement by al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) had joined forces with al-Qaeda (AQ) and was calling for the overthrow of Qadhafi's regime was relatively muted. Regime insiders were concerned that the LIFG/AQ announcement could presage a period of political violence that could hurt their personal economic interests, while the reaction of average Libyans ranged from concern about instability and adverse economic consequences to enthusiasm for the merger.

Libyans' reactions to the announcement varied depending on their socioeconomic status. The elite remember the LIFG's insurgency in the 1990's and its attempts to assassinate Moammar al-Qadhafi, and were concerned that a call to topple the regime premised on an explicitly religious message akin to that of Zawahri and LIFG leader Abu Laith al-Libi, would find a receptive audience among the many Libyans who have not benefited from recent economic liberalization and development, regardless of whether they share al-Qaeda and the LIFG's stated desire for an Islamic caliphate. The elites' principal concern was to protect the sanctity of their personal economic fiefdoms in the event the LIFG made a serious run at toppling al-Qadhafi's regime.

A significant number of Libyans welcomed the announcement. This was not a sign that most Libyans were fundamentalist Muslims or are sympathetic to the idea of establishing an Islamic caliphate, although more conservative iterations of Islam were enjoying a resurgence in Libya. Rather, the level of dissatisfaction with Qadhafi's family and regime was such that some Libyans are willing to support any alternative perceived to be viable in the hope that the next regime will be less oppressive.

On 23 August 2009, to mark the beginning of Ramadan and the Libyan leader's 40th anniversary in power, LIFG leadership issued another press statement, this time apologizing to Muammar al-Qadhafi for their past acts of violence against him. The first of two rounds of prison releases took place shortly after the statement was published, with 91 LIFG prisoners pardoned and released. A second amnesty was announced in mid-October, with another 43 LIFG members reportedly being released. These releases constituted approximately half of the imprisoned LIFG members, all of whom were imprisoned at Abu Salim prison. Saif al-Islam had publicly stated his intention to demolish the facility, infamous for the 1996 uprising that left 1200 prisoners dead, after the last prisoners have been released.

In late September 2009, six leading members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, being held in the Abu Salim prison, issued a document outlining a revised interpretation of their jihadist ideology -- one which renounces violence and claims to adhere to a more sound Islamic theology than that of Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations. The authors represent the group's historic senior leadership, including Abd al-Hakim Balhaj (aka, Abu Abd Allah al-Sadiq, Emir of the LIFG), Abu al-Munder al-Saidi (Jurisprudence Official of the LIFG/most senior shari'a authority), Abd al-Wahab al-Qayed (the elder brother of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a leading AQIM figure), Khalid al-Sharif, Miftah al-Duwdi, and Mustafa Qanaifid.

In the 417-page, Arabic-language document, entitled "Revisionist Studies of the Concepts of Jihad, Verification, and Judgment of People," the authors point to ignorance and a misinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence as the basis for their formerly violent expression of Islamic jihad. The authors state that "The lack of religious knowledge, whether it was a result of an absence of 'ulama' (religious scholars) or the neglect of people in receiving it and attaining it, or due to the absence of its sources, is the biggest cause of errors and religious violations." They credit a deep evaluation of their lives' experiences, coupled with a closer study of shari'a law for their ideological reform.

The study was characterized as an attempt to recant former LIFG doctrine and to establish a new "code" for jihad for the benefit of the modern Muslim community. In the text, the authors directly challenged Al Qaeda, addressing the recantation to "anyone who we might have once had organizational or brotherly ties with." The document gives detailed interpretations of the "ethics and morals to jihad," which include the rejection of violence as a means to change political situations in Muslim majority countries whose leader is a Muslim and condemns "the killing of women, children, the elderly, monks/priests, wage earners, messengers, merchants and the like." It claims that "The reduction of jihad to fighting with the sword is an error and shortcoming." The revised LIFG ideology is the result of a two-year initiative, led by Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi.

The LIFG's renouncement of violent jihad and extremist ideology, and the document's direct challenge to Al Qaeda, represents a significant achievement for Saif al-Islam in particular and the Libyan government as a whole. The primary motivation for Muammar al-Qadhafi's backing of the initiative was undoubtedly regime security, and for Saif al-Islam, it may also have been political, designed to shore up his credentials both at home and abroad. Viewed by some observers as reflecting a genuine change of heart among former extremists, the “de-radicalization” of the LIFG was met with considerable skepticism by other analysts.

Some jihadi elements groups pushed out of their strongholds in Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and other northern Mali towns and cities moved north toward southern Libya, through established Saharan routes in Algeria and Niger. And it seems plausible, as some reports suggest, that some jihadis formerly based in northern Mali may even have joined like-minded radical Salafis in Benghazi and Darnah.

Shortly after the uprising against the Qaddafi regime broke out in mid-February 2011, former LIFG members, together with a new generation of young Libyans with Islamist or Salafi convictions, were quick to join – and, in several cases, assume the leadership of – the newly formed revolutionary brigades. LIFG is believed to have several hundred members or supporters, mostly in the Middle East and Europe. Since the late 1990s, many LIFG members have fled from Libya to various Asian, Arabian Gulf, African, and European countries, particularly the United Kingdom. It is likely that LIFG has maintained a presence in eastern Libya and has facilitated the transfer of foreign fighters to Iraq.

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