The Danger of Islamist Terrorists in Libya

Libya, with its oil wealth and natural resources, could be an affluent and successful country. Instead, it is today a dangerous place and a chaotic society with continual fighting among Islamist terrorists, Arab nationalists, and a host of regional militias. The Obama administration and all democratic governments are now confronted by an increasingly troublesome issue, the growing influence of Islamist terrorism in Libya, Nigeria, and other countries in North Africa.

The terrorist groups, individually and in alliance, have taken advantage of the vacuum of central power and the mixture of rival tribal and regional groups and feuding political organizations in Libya. They control many of the large cities and much of the territory of the country, and are challenging the oilfields. Their tactics and ideology follow those of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to which many claim allegiance.

It is commendable that the U.S. House Select Committee on Benghazi is planning as George Orwell once wrote to report on true facts and “not to feel obligated to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.” At last, we will have the final definitive account of what happened before, during, and after the two attacks on September 11, 2012 by Islamist terrorists. The first on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, and the second, a few hours later, on another compound killed two American CIA contractors and injured ten others.

The forthcoming report will remind the country that the attacks were carried out by organized terrorist groups, and not the result of supposed mass outrage over a video that inflamed passions, as members of the Obama administration suggested. We already know that Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged ringleader of the main terrorist group, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, is being held in the U.S. on an 18-count indictment and multiple charges of murder. The group led the attack with assault rifles, grenades, and other weapons, and plundered sensitive U.S. information.

The Congressional inquiry should lead to further understanding of the dramatic increase of Islamist terrorism in North Africa. This is now a threat not only to neighboring countries in Africa but also to the whole world. Since the popular Libyan uprising in 2011, that followed the April Spring uprisings in Tunis and Egypt in February 2011, and the capture and death in October 2011 of the eccentric dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who had ruled Libya for 42 years, the country has been in chaos. Gaddafi’s bizarre political system, named in 1977 “Jamahiriya” or “state of the masses”, and run through “revolutionary committees”, was transformed into a republic that did not bring stability and security.

Today, that republic contains not only countless Islamist militia groups but also different political authorities, two governments and two parliaments, the General National Congress and a national parliament. The GNC, that has chosen Omar al-Hasi as prime minister, is dominated by Islamists who belong to a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Libyan party.

The official parliament composed of liberals and federalists, and the elected government and the Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, recognized internationally, has been forced to move to Bayda in east Libya. The commander of the Libyan army, General Khalifa Haftar, is conducting a campaign against Islamists. To counter their forces, General Haftar started “Operation Dignity,” an air and ground assault against the terrorist groups in Benghazi.  It attacked Islamist bases held by Ansar al-Sharia, the Raf Allah al-Sahati Brigade, and the 17February Martyrs Brigade. 

Opposed to the formal government are more than a few feuding Islamist groups and jihadists. The Libyan government does not control Tripoli, the capital. The Islamist group Dawn of Libya now controls the vital institutions there. In August 2014, the group seized the American Embassy in Tripoli from Zintan, a rival group, and now guards it. It has at least eight other militia groups associated with it.

The jihadists, a number of groups consisting of supporters of the Islamic State, control the area around the city of Derna. Those groups include Ansar al-Sharia, designated in January 2014 as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, and the Sahara Brigade. They have declared allegiance to the Caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

The situation is confusing because the name Ansar al-Sharia refers not to one specific group but to several Islamist and Salafist groups in East Libya. To clarify, the main group Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) is primarily associated with two others, Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (the one that attacked the American compounds in September 2012) and Ansar al-Sharia in Derna. ASL controls state and military bodies in Benghazi and public service facilities. It has large quantities of weapons, including SA-6 surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and armored vehicles.

Conflict rages in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, between government forces and terrorists. The city has undergone great violence, assassinations, bombings, and kidnapping. In the fighting, the terrorists destroyed part of Benghazi University. They bombed the area around Benghazi’s airport, killing 40 soldiers. The leader of the Ansar branch in Benghazi terrorists, Mohammed al-Zahawi, has made the demands of the group clear. The group, Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), will not disarm until a state based on sharia is created. It started in Benghazi and, in the context of political chaos, built communal ties with groups in other areas, and changed its name, claiming to be a national movement.

The problem is becoming urgent because it is spreading. This oil-rich country is becoming a terrorist haven. Terrorists who attacked Egyptians in South Sinai killing 30 soldiers in a suicide bombing were trained in East Libya. One estimate is that 3000 Egyptian terrorists have been trained in Libya. Even more disturbing is that a Libyan terrorist group called Masked Men Brigade that is linked to ASL and to al-Qaeda, in October 2014 captured eleven commercial jetliners that may well be used for terrorist attacks on a Maghreb state in North Africa.

The international community has become aware of the danger. On August 27, 2014 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2174 (2014) that expressed concern at the growing presence of al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups and individuals operating in Libya. But it was French President François Hollande who, the next day, called for “exceptional support” to restore order. The American administration is conscious of the danger of the Islamist terrorists to world peace but should be more active in participating in the effort to assist the legitimate Libyan government to overcome the Islamist threat.