In his work on identifying the causes of World War I, the American historian Lawrence Lafore observed that geopolitical events can be traced to origins that destabilize and undermine some areas more than others. Destabilization is destined to have a greater impact in contexts where certain historical, economic, social, cultural and ideological factors make the subversion or complication of power balances likely.
This certainly applies to the current situation in Libya, which has been shaken by changing balances of power and complex political trends in the region. The security vacuum after 2011 has thwarted attempts to facilitate the transition from war to peace and has further complicated internal imbalances. This situation has presented jihadist groups with opportunities to create bridgeheads and claim areas of influence.
For its part, the West underestimated the problems that emerged in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall. It avoided getting bogged down in a situation that seemed to be without significant risks at the time. Instead, developments after the fall were very complex and sinister.
It is difficult to understand the current Libyan political situation. The country has two national parliaments which compete with each other, three strongmen, and a multitude of factions and armed groups with different agendas and political objectives. Different centers of official and de facto power make the case that they will save Libya from chaos, but in the ballet between the army and militias it is difficult to identify who will actually be able to control power and support institutions. In fact, Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi, and to a more marginal extent Tobruk and Derna, all intend to play decisive political roles.
If cities are mirrors to the interests of the most prominent members of the various communities, the fluctuating positions of individuals who are not politically strong on their own should not be neglected, as they can count on good relations with other actors who are ready to support their ambitions and rivalries. For example, the deputy Abdessalam Kajman is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, while Salah Badi, a controversial former parliamentarian from Misrata, is close to General Nouri Abusahmain and Khalifa Ghwell.
Islamic State (IS) has exploited the chaos. It gained control of the central Mediterranean coast of Libya around the city of Sirte in 2015 and has carried out attacks in all the main Libyan cities, including the capital Tripoli. But it was driven out of Sirte in 2016 by local forces and was heavily defeated in Benghazi by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field Marshal Heftar. Its operatives have fled from Derna and Sabratha. However, it is possible that IS personnel have found hiding places and are now simply waiting for better times.
The Libyans who joined Islamic State come from the second generation of jihadists, who were in Iraq and Syria after 2011, and the third. They are more radical and antidemocratic than the first-generation veterans, who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and then returned home to create several groups to oppose Muammar Gaddafi, the largest of which was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
Turning back to cities, Tripoli has seen conflicts between Government of National Accord leader Fayez al Sarraj and the leading supporters of the General National Congress. Tobruk and Al Bayda are under the control Heftar. The prosperous port city of Misrata, home to the largest and most powerful militia in Libya, faces local rivalries, fomented by the conflicts between the armed groups dotted around the city, including the two largest, the Halbous and Mahjoub brigades. The Bunyan al Marsous (BAM), the coalition that expelled IS from Sirte, is also present in Misrata with Battalion 604, formed mostly by the Salafi followers of al Madkhali from western Libya.
In this intricate scenario, the positions of other regional political actors are not always perfectly intelligible. Although it has officially assured its support in Tripoli to Fayez al Sarraj, Egypt, a firm opponent of political Islam, continues to trade arms with Tobruk and to favor the leadership of Heftar.
For their part, almost four years after Libya’s second civil war began, the West and the United Nations have pushed the country’s rival governments to put aside their differences, hold national elections and unify the institutions.
Heftar has played a key role in the Libyan conflict. He is a central figure, and a complication too. He is crucial to every peace negotiation and bid to unify the various factions, but he is also a controversial and deeply polarizing figure for the Libyan population.
At present, changes in the balance of power in Tripoli and the expulsion of the Misratan and Islamic militias could pave the way for an agreement involving Heftar’s LNA. Heftar is also close to the president of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Saleh Issa. Nevertheless, despite having the support of multiple international actors (Heftar has established close ties with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt), his intransigent and anti-Islamist positions have made him a divisive figure. His health also worries the other parties and his army.
While he has critics and opponents, Heftar can still count on strong popular support, won thanks to the military initiatives undertaken against the Islamic domination of the Shura revolutionary council of Benghazi and against IS.
As for Qatar and Turkey, they have provided arms and support to Libyan ex-jihadist political figures. But the prominent Libyan antagonists do not appear to have aligned themselves with either country.
At the regional level, although the search for a solution that brings order and stability to Libya is desired by governments, neither Algeria nor Tunisia seem to provide support to the various centers of power.
A complete reading of the current situation in Libya cannot neglect the impact of another factor – the Salafist groups in the leadership of the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) of Tripoli. Among the prominent members are the authoritative Hashem al-Bishr, the former head of the national SSC Abdellatif Qaddour, and the commander of its support units, Abderraouf al-Kara. The Benghazi-based units also include several former Salafi-inspired revolutionary brigades.
At the extreme end, the series of attacks against the US liaison office in Benghazi (11 September 2012), the convoy of the British ambassador, the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Benghazi and Misrata, and Sufi sanctuaries indicate the rise of groups that follow radical Salafi currents. Although they operate mostly outside the institutional framework, some of them apparently may rely on internal support from the Supreme Security Committees.
During the revolution of 2011, the Salafi jihadist contingent played a significant role, and one group stands out: the followers of al-Madkhali. They were generally neutral and, in some cases, supported the old regime.
The Madkhali Salafis: An Overview
The first Gulf War in 1991 had a disruptive effect on the history of Islam, especially in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by inviting a multinational force to deploy on its territory. The decision upset the internal balances of the nation, which were already fragile. Enraged Saudi Salafists in the Sahwa (awakening) movement no longer limited their criticism to liberal intellectuals and highly traditional scholars and began attacking the state itself for its invitation to “infidel” forces.
Madkhali Salafism was part of the Saudi response, which ultimately won. It refers to a vein of Salafism promoted by Umayr al-Madkhali. Al Madkhali is not well‐known in the West and he is no longer a figure of influence in Saudi Arabia. However, in the 1990s, he was very influential in Saudi Arabia and he enjoyed government support.
In this context, some saw Madkhalism as the most practical solution, calling for local implementation of sharia law for highly conservative Muslim societies and removing heresies alien to Islam while still maintaining peaceful and friendly relations with the non-Muslim world.
The Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists share the same goal of establishing an Islamic state and applying sharia.
Al-Madkhali’s Influence in Libya
Coming back to Libya, al-Madkhali denied that he encouraged his followers to support the military coup and Heftar. However, many Salafis formed armed militias to fight together with forces loyal to Heftar and his group used Salafist support as a propaganda tool in its favor because al-Madkhali preaches obedience and discourages political dissent.
In fact, Gaddafi himself considered Madkhalism a precious doctrinal treasure because it conferred religious legitimacy on the regime, did not interfere in the internal political affairs of the country, and could be used to fight both moderate Islamic groups and extremists.
When the revolution erupted on 17 February 2011, al-Madkhali issued a fatwa asking everyone to stay at home and condemning the revolution in Libya as “sedition”.
For their part, Qatar decided to fund the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
In sum, regional conflicts between Salafis and others and among Salafis themselves have rumbled on for decades, and in Libya the repercussions are especially destabilizing.