How jihadists proliferate in the Libyan chaos

The current confrontation in Libya between general Khalifa Haftar’s forces and Fayez Al-Sarraj’s militias is a further phase of a conflict that has entered its 8th year after the overthrow of former leader Muhammar Ghedafi in 2011. A longstanding civil war that shows major international interference on behalf of Middle East actors on both sides as al-Sarraj’s forces are supported by Qatar and Turkey while Haftar is backed by UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

However, one main factor deeply rooted in such conflict that is often underestimated by the political arena is the presence of Islamist political forces and militias within al-Sarraj’s lineup that pose a serious threat not only to the stability of Libya, but to Europe’s security in general.

Moreover, the presence of the Islamic State jihadists in Libya only makes the whole situation far more dangerous and it is worth recalling that on May 4th, ISIS claimed an attack against the LNA’s 160 Brigade Jabril Baba training camp in Sebha, while on April 25th ISIS fighters attacked the home of a LNA supporter, Khaloukh Massoud, in Ghadduwa.

Additionally, on April 29th, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video for the first time in five years. In his message, Baghdadi said that he sees Africa as an important location for the group’s future operations, adding that ISIS could be effective in Libya despite losing Sirte in 2016.

As a matter of fact it is very likely that the jihadist activity in Africa will increase after the defeat of ISIS in Syria and there are several elements that point in that direction.

In 2018 almost 10,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in jihadist-related violence in Africa. The latest attack occurred on May 12th in Dablo, Burkina Faso, when 20 to 30 armed extremists attacked and set a church on fire while a mass was being celebrated, killing six people. Even though nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, it is well-known that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group as well as the local Ansar ul-Islam have been active in the area and it might be just a matter of time before someone steps forward with a claim.

ISIS and al-Qaeda activity has been detected in the mountain region of western Tunisia; jihadists belonging to Boko Haram have been engaged in clashes against the army in Chad and in Niger. It is also worth mentioning the activities of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS).

The presence of Islamists and jihadists actors, combined with the phenomenon of the illegal immigration, which is a major source of income for many tribes and militias in Libya, generate an extremely dangerous “cocktail” that puts at stake Europe’s security. In fact the so-called “southern route” is a perfect “bridge” to infiltrate potential jihadists into the “Old Continent” and facts speak for themselves, as it will be later exposed.

Military situation in Libya April 2019 (Source: 21st Century Wire)

The Islamist militias in Tripoli and Misrata

In September 2016, during an interview for the Al-Ahram newspaper, Fayez al-Sarraj had claimed that the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was a part of the Libyan political scene, adding that the relationship with Qatar was fraternal and that there was no evidence that Doha supported terrorism in Libya. In the same context, Al-Sarraj stated that his government was working to form a unified Libyan Army to fight terrorism, adding that there were no foreign forces inside Libya. [1]

However it is very unlikely that al-Sarraj will be able to fight terrorism and jihadism while having jihadist militia members among his own forces, such as Ansar al-Sharia and while Qaedist jihadists are being sheltered in Tripoli.   [2]  [3]

In addition, it is interesting to point out how several of these Islamist militias such as the Salafis and the ones linked to the Muslim Brotherhood hate each other and the only thing that keeps them together is the fight against the LNA.

As to al-Sarraj’s praise for the Muslim Brotherhood, it is clear how the organization’s support was vital at the time for the survival of al-Sarraj’s executive and still today the two main Middle Eastern actors supporting the Tripoli based government are Qatar and Turkey, the only two strongholds that the Islamist organization still has in the Middle East after its post 2014 downfall.

Al-Sarraj’s claim that “there was no evidence that Qatar was supporting terrorism in Libya” might even have been true at the time, but things rapidly change in the Middle East as shown by the Muslim Brotherhood’s quick uprise and downfall, as it went from privileged reference for the Obama administration and for the UK to an “extremist organization” banned in several Middle Eastern countries.

When al-Sarraj says that there is no evidence that Qatar ever supported terrorism, it is worth recalling that the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was calling for jihad in Syria while based in Doha. It is also worth keeping in mind that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrein and Egypt had isolated Qatar after accusing it of supporting jihadists in Syria. An interesting common denominator that lines up Qatar with another stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan’s Turkey, a major Middle Eastern actor caught on several occasions while providing support to jihadists in Syria.

Now, it is very interesting to notice how al-Sarraj’s main supporters in the Middle East are Turkey and Qatar; facts speak for themselves, as pointed out by the a Jerusalem Post article launched by the Middle East Forum website:

on December 18, 2018, the authorities seized a shipment of 3,000 Turkish-made handguns at Khoms, a port east of Tripoli. Four million bullets were discovered on a Turkish freighter docking in Libya a short time later. Another consignment of weaponry from Turkey was discovered at Misrata on January 7. Qatari support, meanwhile, is offered to Islamist militias and powerful individuals associated with the jihadi trend, most notably the Benghazi Defense Brigades, formed in direct response to Haftar’s activities in 2014, and bringing together a number of jihadi militias. Doha also offers support to Ali Salabi, an influential preacher and Muslim Brotherhood member, and to Abdel Hakim Belhaj, chairman of Libya’s al-Watan Party and a former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group member”. [4]

It is also important to keep in mind that when general Khalifa Haftar launched the offensive against Tripoli last April, the Muslim Brotherhood-related International Union of Muslim Scholars (based in Qatar) and the Tunisian islamic political party “Ennahda” were among the first to raise concern for the military operation against al-Serraj’s forces.

The Islamist militias in the Tripolitania area are among the first ones to oppose any type of deal between Al-Serraj and Haftar, aware that a potential agreement could undermine their current business activities. In addition, Al-Sarraj’s forces are internally divided and one of the few reasons that keeps them together is the contrast with the coalition led by Haftar, which clarifies why they oppose any type of reconciliation.

One more aspect that must be well considered is the widespread opinion that Al-Serraj does not control the militias but it’s quite the opposite, as the warlords are the real rulers, which makes the whole scenario even more problematic.

However, a strong and stable Libya with a government that is fully ready to fight Islamist and jihadist groups is now extremely important, especially after the increased Qaedist and ISIS activity in Africa’s central belt which runs from Mauritania to Somalia and it is very likely that the only real option for such a task is providing full support to Khalifa Haftar.

In order to proceed in such direction it is also essential to neutralize military and financial support provided to the Islamist militias by Qatar and Turkey and gain control of Misrata and its port, where most of the restocking comes through.

Illegal immigration as the jihadist “trojan horse” to Europe

The widespread instability in Libya has fostered the human trafficking business which is currently one of the major sources of income among local tribes and militia-linked criminal organizations that use the western ports of the country to load boats and vessels with illegal immigrants bound for Europe.

Migration flow in the Mediterranean Sea (Source: geenstijl.nl)

In Italy the new policies implemented by Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini have drastically reduced the flow; the Libyan Coast Guard is operating efficiently, blocking departures and bringing the illegals caught on board back to mainland. However it is very likely that the improvement of weather conditions as summer approaches, as well as the return to sea of some NGO’s, will encourage the traffickers to send as many boats as possible and this is a serious matter of concern as Islamist and jihadist activity in Africa is increasing.

Last April the Italian Minister of Defense, Elisabetta Trenta, claimed that “in case of a war in Libya we will have refugees, not immigrants, and refugees must be hosted”. However things are not as simple and linear, especially since the immigration route from Libya and Tunisia is used by the jihadists to infiltrate their own men into Europe, as facts show.

In April 2018, in Naples, the Italian police arrested 22 year-old Gambian citizen Alagie Touray on terrorism charges as he had recorder a video where he swore oath to ISIS. According to investigations, Touray was planning to launch a car against a crowded place. The individual had arrived in 2017 in Messina boarding a boat from Libya, together with 638 other immigrants and he had presented a request for political asylum.

Two months later, in June 2018, Italian authorities arrested another Gambian citizen, 34 year-old Sillah Housman, also accused of terrorism. As investigations moved forward it turned out that Touray and Housman had both trained in a jihadist mobile camp in Libya, known as “Mo’askar”.

That’s where they received training on how to use weapons and explosives, together with about a hundred other volunteers from countries such as Sudan, Egypt and Kenya.

Touray and Housman had left Gambia and traveled through Mali and Niger before reaching the terrorist camp in Libya. After the training period, the two Gambians had then reached Italy thanks to the flow of illegal immigrants departing from Libyan ports.

Another well-known case of a jihadist reaching Italy on board a boat of illegals is the one involving Anis Amri, the “Berlin Christmas market attacker”; Amri had arrived in the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in February 2011 after fleeing Tunisia on a boat together with other illegals.

As evidence shows, the policy of “open ports” seriously jeopardizes Italian and European security and it is an unthinkable, inadvisable and inconceivable option as jihadist activity thrives in Africa.

Additionally, it is evident how Italian authorities cannot deal with such a massive flow of immigrants, unable to identify, filter and eventually return those who are not refugees. Once on Italian soil, many of the immigrants have disappeared from radar, abandoning the sites where they had been placed and it’s not possible to rule out that jihadists were among those.

 Notes

[1] https://libyaprospect.com/2016/09/al-sarraj-muslim-brotherhood-is-part-of-political-scene/

[2] https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/libyas-islamists-who-they-are-and-what-they-want

[3] https://eyeonisisinlibya.com/other-jihadi-actors/24-april-1-may-gna-suspends-abedi-extradition-while-lna-claims-it-is-fighting-al-qaeda-in-tripoli/

[4] https://www.meforum.org/58334/generals-vs-islamists-in-libya


AUTHOR

Giovanni Giacalone. A senior analyst for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies (ITSTIME) in Milan’s Catholic University and a contributor for Il Giornale/Inside Over. Sociologist with an MA in Islamic Studies at Trinity Saint David University of Wales and a specialization in terrorism and counter-terrorism. His main areas of expertise are terrorism and radicalization and his research activities currently focus on Islamist extremism and jihadism in the Mediterranean area.