During the 2011 Libyan revolution the former fighters of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) joined the rebels in their fight against Mu’ammar Ghaddafi’s troops. Their militias took under guidance of their former emir (leader) Abdelhakim Belhadj in August 2011 Tripoli by surprise. Ghaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, desperately tried to persuade the fighters to switch sides and join his father’s troops. In exchange for their support, he would make Libya the next Saudi-Arabia or Iran (i.e. countries ruled by religion), Moreover, Darnah, a hotbed of Islamist activism, could become “an Islamic zone, like Mecca”. The offer was turned down and the regime crumbled soon thereafter. In the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ghaddafi regime, Belhadj consolidated his powerbase in Tripoli as head of the Tripoli Military Council.
The resurgence of Belhadj and the LIFG may seem troubling as the LIFG consisted of former mujahidin, Islamic fighters who fought with the Taliban against the Russians in Afghanistan. Moreover, the LIFG was considered by most security services as an affiliate of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda. Based on this information, one would half expect Belhadj to establish by force his own Islamic caliphate and to call for a global jihad (holy war) against Western unbelievers. But Belhadj did in fact the opposite. As head of the Tripoli Military Council, he called for gun control and the restoration of security. In May 2012 he quit his post to run as candidate in Libya’s first free parliamentary elections. This may seem a surprising turn of events at first sight, but less so on closer inspection.
Abdelhakim Belhadj was born in 1966 in Tripoli neighbourhood Souq al-Jumaa. He studied Engineering at al-Fatah University before he moved to Afghanistan to fight against the “infidel” Russians in the 1980’s. During the same period more Libyans travelled to Afghanistan to fight and to escape the lack of religious freedom at home. In 1990 a group of these Libyan mujahidin founded the LIFG with the goal to overthrow Ghaddafi back home. Belhadj became their emir under his nom de guerre, Abu Abdallah al-Sadiq.
Some of the fighters returned to Libya to lay in secret the groundwork for LIFG’s network in Cyrenaica. After clashes with Ghaddafi’s troops in Benghazi in 1995, the group made its existence known. More attacks followed over the years on Ghaddafi’s troops and security forces as well as several assassination attempts on his life. The LIFG counted at the height of its power around 2.500 members. Not all of these members were present in Libya. Some had stayed in Afghanistan, others moved to London where they published the communiqués of the group. The LIFG also profited from chaos in Algeria as result of the civil war between government troops and armed Islamist groups. LIFG fighters moved from Afghanistan to camps in East-Algeria to prepare their attacks on Libyan soil.
However, the group’s fortune soon turned. Ghaddafi launched an all-out attack against the LIFG in Benghazi and the Green Mountains between 1996 and 1998. The LIFG suffered heavy losses and its leaders, including Belhadj, were sent on the run. Meanwhile, the commanders of the LIFG in East-Algeria were killed by their “brothers” of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). The GIA became infamous for its random and bloody attacks on Algerian civilians and was denounced for this by other armed groups like the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC, currently known as al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)). The LIFG commanders were executed after they had refused to swear alliance to the madcap leader of the GIA.
After 9-11 the LIFG was listed as an al-Qaeda affiliate. As a result, Belhadj and several other LIFG leaders were extradited to Libya between 2004 and 2005, where they were imprisoned in the notorious Abu Selim prison. According to Belhadj the link between the LIFG and al-Qaeda was never proven. Moreover, the LIFG did not only turn down an offer of al-Qaeda to cooperate in 1998, but opposed al-Qaeda’s idea of global terrorism. However, al-Qaeda announced in 2007 that the LIFG had officially joined them. But as the leaders of the LIFG were in prison at the time, this action may be a move of individual LIFG members, who had joined al-Qaeda’s cause.
Belhadj and other LIFG fighters were released in 2010, after they had completed a deradicalization program set up by Seif al-Islam Ghaddafi. Under guidance of the cleric Ali al-Salabi the LIFG members forswore violence and extremism and promised to integrate in society. Al-Salabi himself had been imprisoned in Abu Selim prison for eight years during the 1980’s. Al-Salabi is close to the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, which his father co-founded, and lived for some years in exile in Qatar. The reformed LIFG fighters returned home and the LIFG was disbanded.
This could have been the end of the LIFG and its members, if the Libyan revolution had not occurred begin 2011. The former fighters broke their earlier promise to abstain from violence and took up their weapons to attain their original goal: the removal of Ghaddafi. LIFG’s spokesman in London, Anis al-Sharif, announced the resurrection of the LIFG as the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC). Former LIFG fighters in the east joined the 17 February Brigade led by Ismael al-Salabi, the brother of Ali al-Salabi. Like Belhadj, Ismael is a former mujahid and was imprisoned by the regime between 1997 and 2003. His brother Ali became the spiritual leader of the revolution.
The al-Salabi brothers did not wholeheartedly support the rebels’ transitional government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), and the former Ghaddafi officials on it. Ismael’s brigade is held accountable for the killing of Abdel Fatah Yunis, a general under Ghaddafi who had become the leader of the rebels’ army. It remains for the moment a mystery by whom and why Yunes was murdered as in June 2012 the lawyer investigating his case was himself killed. Although al-Salabi supported the rebels, he had still contact with the Ghaddafi regime. He spoke with Seif al-Islam, who tried to persuade him to switch sides. This offer was turned down and al-Salabi said later that he only had tried to negotiate the departure of the Ghaddafi family and the end of the conflict.
The end of the conflict came into sight when Belhadj’s militia took Tripoli in August 2011. Belhadj installed himself as head of the Tripoli Military Council with al-Sharif, the spokesman of the LIFG/LIMC, as its spokesperson. Belhadj stressed the need to bring Libya’s gun culture under control and restore security. Although acclaimed for taking Tripoli, Belhadj is not without criticism. According to his critics the militias of Belhadj and Ismael al-Salabi were favoured by Qatar, who provided them with money and weapons with the aim to control Libyan oil and/or politics. Belhadj denies to have received directly any weapons or funds from Qatar, but he praises the country for its help to Libya.
In November 2011 the al-Watan Party (in Arabic حزب الوطن) was founded by al-Salabi realizing his longstanding plans for a political party. The members of the party seem to consist of a mix of former LIFG members, Libyan Muslim Brothers and other otherwise unaffiliated members. Belhadj even quits his post as head of the Tripoli Military Council in order to run as candidate for the al-Watan Party in Libya’s 2012 parliamentarian elections. Again accusations surfaced that the party was controlled and funded by Qatar.
Apart from the composition of the party and these accusations, the al-Watan party is remarkably unremarkable in the Libyan political arena. Its description as a national party based on Islam and the Libyan culture and its vision of Libya as a “moderate” Islamic democracy with a constitution based on Islamic law (sharia) is very similar to the plans and descriptions of other Libyan political parties. The al-Watan party only distinguished itself in the elections by its focus on a strong army and security. In the end, the al-Watan party could only secure one seat of the 80 available seats in the elections.
The former mujahidin of the LIFG are surrounded by many conspiracy theories and allegations. After defeating Ghaddafi, they could have taken control of parts of Libya by force and little could have stopped them. But most former fighters, including Belhadj, seem have enough of fighting and wish for now to rebuild their country. This attitude may the result of the disappointment over their jihad in Afghanistan as the country remains poor and war-torn. Radical Islam has only brought them death in the guise of the GIA. And their great enemy Ghaddafi is finally gone. Hopefully these are enough reasons for the former mujahidin to choose a live in peace over continuous fighting.
Main internet sources and further reading
– Website al-Watan party – wattan.ly
– Libyan daily The Tripoli Post – tripolipost.com
– Ashour, O., Libyan Islamists unpacked: Rise, transformation, and future, May 2012, Brooking Doha Centre
– Ashour, O., Post-Jihadism: Libya and the global transformations of armed Islamist movements, in Terrorism and Political Violence 23:3 (June 2011), p. 377-397
– Gambill, G., The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), in The Jamestown Foundation Vol. 3, Issue 6 (March 2005)
– Lacher, W., Families, Tribes and Cities in the Libyan Revolution, in Middle East Policy Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (Winter 2011), p. 140-54
– Rajartnam, S., Combating terrorism in Libya through dialogue and reintegration, March 2010, International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research
– Ronen, Y., Qadhafi and militant Islamism: unprecedented conflict, in Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 38, No. 4 (October 2002), p. 1-16