Al-Qaida’s Strategy in Libya: Keep it Local, Stupid

December 2017

Rhiannon Smith, the Managing Director of Libya-Analysis and Eye on ISIS in Libya (EOIL), and Jason Pack, the founder of Libya-Analysis and EOIL, have written an article for Perspectives on Terrorism that looks at how al-Qaida-linked groups focus on the local struggle in Libya, how they have shaped their strategies and activities in the country, and what impact this has had on the communities where they are active.

Smith and Pack argue that in Libya, al-Qaida-linked groups have done a better job than their ISIS-linked counterparts at staying rooted to local concerns, local actors, and evolving country dynamics, and that this has allowed them to mimic and replicate local and traditional power structures. The authors state:

Globally, al-Qaida has survived so long despite its defeats and setbacks because it has learnt from past failures and adapted. Where ISIS has invited direct confrontation and military annihilation through its high-profile brutality, al-Qaida has adopted a cautious bottom-up approach to building support. This keeps it below the radar, but makes it no less dangerous.  ASL [Ansar al-Sharia Libya, an al-Qaida linked group] has already applied this technique in Benghazi, and it is likely that its official disbandment is a continuation of this strategy. By publicly claiming it has disbanded, ASL may be able to protect itself against complete annihilation at the hands of Haftar’s forces, distance itself from the last three years of fighting in Benghazi, and allow its members to reintegrate into the city at a social level rather than a military one. As such, they may live to fight another day and rejoin other al-Qaida linked groups. The threat that ASL directly poses may be significantly reduced in the short term, but while chaos and insecurity still reign throughout Libya, it may not take the group, or others similar to it, long to rebuild a support base. In Derna, the DMSC [Derna Mujahadeen Shura Council] has cemented its legitimacy, not by watering down its ideological beliefs, but by framing its objectives so that they specifically appeal to the historic and socio-political context of Derna itself. By defeating ISIS and fighting against Haftar, the DMSC and its constituent parts have appealed to ingrained fears of central authority, thereby portraying themselves as patriotic Libyans first, Salafi-jihadis second. Indeed, al-Qaida-linked groups have done a better job mimicking such local and traditional structures than their ISIS-linked equivalents.

Click here to read the article in full.