While there are calls in Washington for a military response to the regime’s assaults on rebels trying to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi—including a no-fly zone—the real threat to U.S. security is flying under the radar. The fate of once-jailed Islamist fighters who are now at large should be among Washington’s top concerns. Islamists freed by Qaddafi and those who escaped from prison during the uprising are now able to operate in an environment of evaporating state control, abundant small arms caches, and under-guarded stocks of chemical warfare agents—posing a significant challenge to the Obama administration.
The deteriorating security situation in Libya carries clear risks for the United States and its interests. Many Islamist militants—including those who have been involved in violence in Libya and abroad—have either been intentionally released by the Libyan government in the last few years or escaped from custody in the early days of the uprising. A large portion of those released benefitted from a haphazard and incomplete state-run rehabilitation program, while others were freed in an ill-conceived concession intended to reduce tensions before the outbreak of fighting.
Current events in Libya cast serious doubt on the willingness of former detainees to respect or abide by the conditions of their release. They may no longer feel obliged to keep up their end of the bargain with a weakened government—a government many never accepted as legitimate in the first place. Violent Islamists have long sought to bring down the hated Qaddafi regime—just as they have looked to topple other “apostate” governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen—and some may now see this as their best opportunity to overthrow the government. And amid weakening state authority in Libya, violent extremists will find fertile ground. After all, it’s not in failed states where violent extremists flourish, but in weak and failing states.
Libya’s Islamist Opposition
Before the current civil war, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and Libya’s Islamist opposition represented the greatest challenge to the Qaddafi regime. Islamists waged a violent insurgency in the east of the country and attempted to assassinate Qaddafi three times. According to the Sinjar records—documents and computer data from al-Qaeda that were discovered by the U.S. military in a raid along Iraq’s border with Syria in 2007—Libyan nationals made up the second-largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq after the Saudis. A number of Libyan nationals have also held key positions in al-Qaeda, notably Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group’s chief ideologue and a potential successor to Osama bin Laden.
The LIFG was created in the mid-1990s by Libyan veterans of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. One report suggests that the LIFG trained over 1,000 Libyan nationals in Afghan training camps before the September 11 attacks. During Libya’s Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, information about developments on the ground was very difficult to obtain, but it is now known that within several years 177 LIFG fighters were killed in confrontations with Libyan security forces. More than 160 Libyan security personnel were also killed, with another 150 wounded. Some members of the LIFG aligned themselves with al-Qaeda, while others disavowed bin Laden and focused instead on Libya. For a time the LIFG was viewed as one of the most dangerous violent Islamist groups in North Africa and concerns remain today that some Libyan nationals may be active with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Until the present uprising, the LIFG represented the most noteworthy test to the Libyan regime and neutralizing the organization was a major priority for the government. Dialogue with the LIFG grew out of initial tentative meetings held among the regime, the imprisoned LIFG leadership, and LIFG leaders located abroad. The real substance, however, did not begin until 2007. It culminated with the publication of an ideological revision (a softening of their religious manifesto) by the LIFG entitled the Corrective Studies on the Doctrine of Jihad, Hesba, and Rulings.
By the time the regime began its dialogue with the LIFG they were largely a defeated organization. The leadership was imprisoned, leaders apprehended abroad were brought back to Libya, and the movement was no longer a viable threat inside Libya. Tripoli worked very hard to have the international community regard the LIFG as a terrorist organization and succeeded in getting the American government to list the LIFG as a foreign terrorist organization and to hand over LIFG suspects to Libyan authorities.
Two other factors were at work. The first had to do with Libya’s attempts to rejoin the international community. In recent years, Libya took substantial steps to move closer to the United States. Nearly every outstanding terrorism case was resolved. Tripoli renounced its clandestine weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile program and, in the process, provided crucial insights into the operation of the AQ Khan illicit nuclear network. Libya also shared significant intelligence on al-Qaeda and its operatives. In fact, Libya was the first country to issue an Interpol red notice for bin Laden.
Despite all this, Libya was still not fully welcomed in Washington. Sensing that violent Islamist extremism was what interested the American government, Libya sought to demonstrate how it could help combat the ideology of al-Qaeda and thus the LIFG revisions were in part initiated. The second component involved domestic Libyan politics. It is very telling that Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, Muammar’s second son, led this effort and not any of his brothers who were actually tasked with managing internal security. Eliminating the regime’s most serious security challenge bolstered Saif’s domestic political credentials.
In March 2010, I had the opportunity to learn firsthand about Libya’s Islamist opposition and the regime’s attempts to rehabilitate detained extremists. Given my research on extremist rehabilitation programs in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the Qaddafi Foundation invited me to visit Libya with other academics and journalists to learn more about what they were doing with the LIFG and other militants. The formula for prisoner release was simple: in exchange for their freedom, Islamist fighters agreed to renounce violence and recognize the legitimacy of the Libyan government.
During negotiations over the Libyan rehabilitation process, the LIFG produced the 400-plus-page “Corrective Studies” that outlined what is and what is not permissible in jihad. The dialogue with the LIFG was conducted under the patronage of Saif al-Islam and midwifed by Shaykh Ali al-Salabi, one of Libya’s most prominent Islamic scholars. Al-Salabi explained that he had known the LIFG leadership and worked as a mediator and facilitator in the process (along with Noman Benotman, a former LIFG commander living abroad).
Libyan authorities were unable to answer many questions about how the program was designed to work. They were incapable of providing details about what metrics were used to determine when detainees would be released or what instructions were offered in prison prior to release. And they would not offer any information about post-release support and monitoring. It quickly became apparent that the Libyans were not deliberately withholding answers, but simply didn’t have answers because their program did not address any of these points. This was not rehabilitation or disengagement—it was pragmatic demobilization.
Even more worrisome was that the Libyans acknowledged that their effort was based on Yemen’s failed rehabilitation program. Yemen’s program focused more on political expediency than genuine disengagement from violence and, as a result, a number of those released in Yemen have returned to Islamist violence.
Hundreds of Libyan militants were released through this scheme in the last several years. When I was in Tripoli in 2010, I met with the emir, military commander, and chief spiritual guide of the LIFG when the leadership were released from detention. I was also present when over 200 detainees walked out the front gate of the infamous abu Salim prison in Tripoli the next day. Those freed included members of the LIFG and other violent Islamist organizations, detained Muslim Brothers, and other young militants who either fought in Iraq or tried to get to Iraq to fight against the American military.
All of the detainees were freshly dressed in new clothes provided for the occasion, but few seemed to realize they were truly free and would soon be rejoining their families. Some detainees had to walk home from abu Salim as their families were not even notified of their release. One released militant observed that if they could not get rides home, how would the regime manage to provide for them once they were freed? It was a remarkable and chaotic scene. There was no intermediate step between detention and release, no reintegration process, and no program to facilitate their return to society. The doors of the notorious prison were just thrown open. This was not rehabilitation or reintegration, but the emptying of a prison. In the absence of a post-release support program, there is no way to do the follow-up monitoring necessary and encourage continued disengagement from terrorism.
Based on my initial impressions, it seemed as though few of the former detainees had truly renounced their previous beliefs. Instead, they were told that they would get unspecified help with jobs, a one-time cash payment, and that Libya was becoming more Islamic and tolerant of da’wa, or preaching Islam. In fact, one released LIFG member stated bluntly that “if we don’t get what we were promised from the regime, we will start shooting again.”
These were not the only detainees released by the regime. Over 350 Islamist fighters were set free in the past twelve months. According to some accounts, more than 700 detainees have been released in total. Now the key questions are, where are they and what are they doing?
In the days immediately preceding today’s violence, the regime released 110 more detainees, reportedly including Abu Idris al-Libi, a senior LIFG commander and the older brother of a key al-Qaeda operative, Abu Yahya. And on February 18, Reuters reported that some 1,000 prisoners escaped from Kuwafiyah prison in Benghazi. Shaykh al-Salabi, the cleric who oversaw the LIFG’s ideological revision, has rejected requests from the regime to mediate the current crisis and instead endorsed the revolt, supported the overthrow of Qaddafi, and openly criticized the “lies” of Saif al-Islam. Shaykhs Salman al-Auda and Yousef Qaradawi—who had previously endorsed the revisions and the government’s program—have now spoken out against the Libyan regime.
The prospect of experienced and perhaps unrepentant Islamist fighters at large is extremely concerning. Some of them trained in Afghanistan, others fought against the U.S. and allied militaries in Iraq. Some were at one time aligned with al-Qaeda and fellow travelers in the global Islamist insurgency. This problem is a reality regardless of how the civil war in Libya ultimately plays out, no matter if it is the Qaddafi regime or the rebels who are victorious. There is a risk that these now-freed Islamist fighters will jeopardize Libyan security, regional stability, and the national security interests of the United States and its partners. This is all the more worrisome because of the chaos into which Libya has descended.
There are no independent state institutions, political parties, trade unions, free press, or civil society organizations in Libya, and if Qaddafi leaves there is nothing or no one to fill the void. Qaddafi’s Libya is devoid of organized national governance, as the country is governed through “direct democracy,” peoples’ committees, and informal power brokers. Not even the military is a cohesive, national institution. Instead, the military is riven by regional and tribal fractures that are purposefully kept weak and chronically under-resourced.
A future Libyan government is very likely to include Islamist activists—but this is not something to fear. It is important to note that not all of those released Islamists represent a threat. However, those previously in custody included individuals who have participated in violence—including those who either fought in Iraq against the American military or tried to get to Iraq to fight. The United States and its allies must communicate in no uncertain terms that it expects any future Libyan government to maintain a strong position on violent extremism. This should begin with collecting information about who was released from custody and why they were detained. That is a key first step to getting a grip on this problem.
In the future, the United States must be involved in extremist rehabilitation and disengagement programs—not just to know what is going on in these programs, but to also help make them more successful. Washington can help facilitate the sharing of best practices, lessons learned, and can aid with financing. The real risk coming out of Libya’s escalating internal turmoil is the ability for dangerous—and in some cases perhaps committed—Islamist fighters who were previously in custody to threaten U.S. interests. Washington needs to pay closer attention to make sure that this problem is addressed and doesn’t get worse as Libya slides deeper into war.