Mapping Libya’s Jihadists

June 7, 2017

In a long form article for Norwegian NGO Hate Speech International, Jason Pack and Rhiannon Smith map out the history and context of Libya’s myriad jihadist groups.

Six years after protests first erupted in February 2011 against the brutal and repressive rule of Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, Libya remains a country beset by deepening political fragmentation, bloody internecine conflict and accelerating economic decline. The Islamic State (ISIS) capitalised on this instability and in late 2014 established a satellite branch in Libya, successfully seizing territory around the central coastal city of Sirte and expanding its influence across the country. By December 2016, an anti-ISIS military campaign supported by US airstrikes and led by militias aligned with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) – Libya’s internationally recognised government established under the December 2015 Skhirat Libyan Political Agreement – had succeeded in driving ISIS out of Sirte. However, the group is far from defeated and ISIS fighters are regrouping in the vast deserts and remote communities of southern Libya.1

Yet, while ISIS undoubtedly continues to pose a threat to security and stability in Libya, the group is neither the strongest nor the most dangerous jihadist2 group in Libya currently. Since those uprisings that culminated in Qadhafi’s violent death in October 2011, after 42 years in control, jihadist groups have grown in power and influence, often with funding from wealthy international backers. Although they remain largely on the fringes of Libyan politics and society, jihadists of all colours and stripes can influence developments in Libya due to the transitory and almost fickle nature of the country’s political and military alliances, as well as and the increasing polarisation and instability of institutions at the level of central government.

These jihadist networks also pose a threat to security outside Libya, as demonstrated by the horrifying suicide bombing against a Manchester arena on 22 May that killed 22 people and injured many more. The attack was claimed by ISIS and conducted by Salman Abedi, a British Libyan whose parents fled to the UK in the 1990s due to their connections to the al-Qaeda linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).3 Abedi visited Tripoli shortly before he carried out the attack, and although at the time of writing it remains unclear whether Abedi received direct training or support for his attack from ISIS cells in Libya, or from associates closer to home, his familial connections to Libyan jihadist networks are significant.4 It is therefore crucial to understand who these Libyan jihadists are, how they interact with other actors, and what influence they can exert.

Click here to read the full article.