“The enemy of yesterday is the friend of today...it was a real war, but those brothers are free men now.” By these words, presidential scion Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi referred to the leadership of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in a press conference on March 23, 2010 attended by Western ambassadors and guests to mark the release of LIFG leaders and discuss the major transformation of Libya’s largest Jihadist movement. Established in 1990, the LIFG was modelled along the lines of the Egyptian al-Jihad organization: secretive, elitist, paramilitary, and aiming for a decisive action to topple the regime. A brutal crackdown followed and the LIFG led a three-year insurgency mainly based in eastern Libya, including three attempts to assassinate Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in 1995 and 1996. The confrontations left 165 Libyan officials dead and 159 injured. The LIFG lost 177 members, including its top commander in Libya and four of its Consultative Council members. By 1998, the Consultative Council of the LIFG decided to impose a three-year ceasefire in Libya that was to have been reviewed in 2001, but the September 11 terrorist attacks that year changed all calculations.
According to the LIFG leaders and members interviewed in Tripoli, the dialogue with the Libyan regime started in 2005. In 2006, six members from the Consultative Council, including the Emir of the LIFG, were involved in such talks. The breakthrough occurred when Saif al-Islam, the main sponsor of the de-radicalization and reconciliation process, invited former senior LIFG commander Noman Benotman to visit Libya secretly in January 2007 and consult with the imprisoned leadership. “It was very risky but I really trusted Saif... still this process was by no means an easy one,” Benotman said. Tensions between LIFG members and wary Libyan officials were still evident during the press conference; the head of the Libyan Internal Security, for example, referred to the process as “repentance from heresy” as opposed to reconciliation.
As opposed to the Saudi approach of rehabilitating selected individuals mainly at the grassroots level, the Libyan authorities targeted for deradicalization well-known figures in the jihadist world. The released commanders included LIFG Emir Abd al-Hakim Belhajj (Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq), principal ideologue Sami al-Sa‘idi (Abu al-Munzir), and commander of the military apparatus Khalid al-Sharif (Abu Hazim). When I asked Belhajj about the current status of the LIFG, he replied that it had been dismantled; followers will be released and reintegrated as individuals, not as members of an organization.
The Libyan de-radicalization process followed a pattern seen before in Egypt and Algeria. Officials employed state repression, sought to win over charismatic leaders, encouraged interactions with the non-jihadists, and offered selective inducements. To a large degree, the LIFG was undermined militarily by the end of the 1990s. The military losses and the interactions with non-jihadists forced the LIFG leadership to update its worldviews, rethink strategically, and ultimately abandon political violence. Moderate Islamist figures, notably Sheikh Ali al-Sallabi, apparently played a crucial role in interacting with jihadist leaders, to the extent that Saif al-Islam thanked him publically in the press conference. Ex-jihadist leaders then had to interact with followers to convince them that armed action was illegitimate, an extremely difficult process in every de-radicalization case. Finally, the Libyan authorities bolstered the process by offering selective inducements, starting with the release from prisons and ending with reintegration into Libyan society.
As for the future, Saif al-Islam called on all Libyan fighters in the mountains of Algeria and Afghanistan, the deserts of Mali and Niger, and the valleys of Iraq to return home. The reintegration policies directed at the LIFG and other released prisoners will be crucial in providing credibility and support for this call. The lack of reintegration programs for the returnees from Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s was one of the causes of radicalizing and internationalizing of activities.
Among the more remarkable features of the March 23 press conference was Saif al-Islam’s brief reference to the June 1996 massacre at Abu Selim of hundreds of political prisoners, which is still a taboo in Libya. It was the Libyan equivalent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opening the file of the Hama massacre of 1982 or Gamal Mubarak of Egypt acknowledging mass torture at the al-Wadi al-Jadid or al-‘Aqrab prisons in the 1990s.
Many questions remain unanswered in the Libyan de-radicalization case, most importantly the future of this process and whether it will lead to any real political reform in Libya. On the last issue, there is no question that the March releases were a significant step, not only towards innovative security policies but also towards a more mature, conciliatory approach towards opposition. This is a rare approach in the Arab world, where the elite generally views political conflicts as zero-sum games and adopts a “kill or be killed” approach. But it is also entirely possible—as has been the case in Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia—for a government to take a conciliatory approach to jihadists in order to end the security threat they present while still maintaining repressive policies toward non-violent political opposition. These policies might make de-radicalization and national reconciliation short-lived phenomena.
Omar Ashour is a Lecturer in Politics at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (London, New York: Routledge, 2009).