A Mystery Insurgency in Libya


A campaign of targeted assassinations against military officers and politicians. Bombings of military facilities, courthouses and televisio stations. Attacks on foreign organizations and diplomatic missions.

Is Libya catching fire?

Libya has seen all of this and more with growing frequency in the last two years, particularly in the eastern half of the country around Benghazi. Considering incidents in the last year alone, it would seem that Libya is in the the first phase of a guerrilla insurgency. But something different is going on here: claims of responsibility for these attacks almost never come, and the government rarely blames anyone other than “unknown assailants.” Libyan media reports also prefer to avoid assigning responsibility, instead stating that bombs “were detonated” or that an embassy “has been targeted”. Nowhere is the identity of those responsible even suggested. What Libya faces today is something largely unprecedented that deserves notice and analysis: someone is perpetrating an anonymous guerrilla campaign. This is an insurgency without insurgents.

Normally when a group within a society uses violence against the state, it announces its identity, grievances and demands so that its violence can provide political leverage and power. How can violence affect political change unless people know what terms they must meet to make the violence stop? That’s why the anonymous assassinations and bombings that plague Benghazi are so unusual. Who benefits from nameless terror?

The lack of clear perpetrators is not the only unusual thing about Libya’s post-war violence. A close analysis of bombings in Benghazi and Tripoli indicates that the perpetrators are not trying to cause mass casualties. Rather, bombings are most commonly targeted against specific individuals – mostly current or former military officers. Dozens of Libyan military officers have been killed, but the targeted nature of the attacks is notable. While some bombs have exploded in public places, they are often too small to do much damage, or they explode in the late evening or early morning hours when few are present. Even in cases where people have been killed, the casualties are in the single digits. Compare this to Iraq, where dozens of civilians are killed weekly in bombing attacks.

Another strange fact: there have been very few arrests related to the assassinations and bombings. In the large majority of incidents no one is arrested at all. Prime Minister Zeidan has even stated that the identities of people who commit bombings and attacks on the security forces is known but he does “not want to name them”.

Libya’s hyperactive rumor mills have no shortage of theories about the perpetrators’ identity: unrepentant Qaddafi loyalists, plotting ex-Qaddafi officials in the new government, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafi militias like Ansar al-Sharia are all blamed in turn on the street and online. Jihadists are the favorite culprits. I interviewed Matthew Van Dyke, an American filmmaker who fought with Libyan rebel units during the 2011 civil war, who summed up the case for their culpability well.    Mr. Van Dyke said that there are a number of “indicators that it could be Islamist groups” behind the attacks. He noted that “most of the assassinations are in Derna and Benghazi, where Libyan Islamist groups are most active” and that “the targets are usually members of the security forces” who are “a direct threat to Islamist militants”. Finally, Van Dyke also pointed out that many security officials in Libya also worked for the Qaddafi government and that Libyan Islamist groups may want to “settle old scores. However, he emphasized that he had no first-hand knowledge of events during the revolution that could have led to post-war assassinations and insisted he was not pointing fingers.

Recent events support Van Dyke’s hypothesis about Islamist responsibility for at least some of the murders. On September 22, a popular Sufi cleric was murdered in Derna, an Eastern Libyan town that is a well-known hotbed of armed political Islam, and a group named “Vanguards of the Caliphate” made an unconfirmed claim of responsibility. Still, there isn’t a definite connection between this group and  other events like the murders of military officers and car bombings of public buildings.

And Islamist militants are not the only suspects. I spoke with Hussam Najjar, an Irish-Libyan veteran of the civil war who helped lead the Tripoli Brigade. Najjar was adamant that most observers have it wrong: “I’m not convinced for one minute that it’s Islamists”. In Najjar’s telling, the facts suggest a different explanation. “When they catch loyalists red-handed with explosives it’s never on the news, but if there’s some explosion and there’s a possibility that it could be Islamists, it’s everywhere.” Najjar’s unit was one of the first to enter Tripoli and was immediately occupied with preventing the escape of wanted regime figures and securing weapons caches, government buildings, and intelligence records. During this time, Najjar says that his unit uncovered “plenty of evidence in the form of sleeper cells, munitions caches at secret locations, and many confessions” indicating that regime loyalists prepared to start a post-war insurgency. “It was a logical next step for them when they realized they couldn’t take us on in a conventional fight.” Najjar says that “anyone who gains from the instability of Libya” should be considered as a suspect for supporting these groups.

So who is behind Libya’s mystery insurgency? Islamists? Qaddafi loyalists? Someone else? In truth, there are probably multiple groups using violence for various reasons; common sense would dictate that armed Islamists and Qaddafi loyalists are both responsible for some of the incidents. Libya has many competing factions and the struggle for power is becoming increasingly rough. Still, though, the question remains: who is doing the most bombing and assassinating, and why are there so few of arrests and claims of responsibility? To fix Libya, we have to answer this question.


Jack Mulcaire is a contributor to War on the Rocks. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, he helped lead a group of international volunteers that aided and consulted with local rebel councils and units. 


Photo Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection