The Dawn Divides: The Islamic State and Libya’s Inter-Islamist War

February 11, 2015

Libya’s political and security situation is once again in flux as alliances shift with circumstances. In mid-summer 2014, political and militia forces based in Misrata formed the Libya Dawn coalition as a unified opposition front to Qaddafi-era military officer Khalifa Hiftar’s Operation Dignity assault on Islamists in Benghazi. Yet its initial successes shave been since undercut by divisions among Misrata’s many allies. It is the brewing strife among armed Islamist groups within the Libya Dawn coalition that could indicate where the country as a whole might be heading. In much of western Libya and in some areas in the east, local Islamist militia groups comparatively less motivated by ideology perceive regional, ideologically-motivated Islamists as threats. Decision-makers in Misrata are now drifting from ideological militia factions and political actors who were once their allies but are opposed to a political solution, which Misrata increasingly seeks, to end the current state of conflict. As the Libya Dawn coalition continues to splinter, increased presence and activity by the Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda (AQ) and AQ-linked Ansar Al-Sharia (AS) may be the factor that turns the array of Libya’s Islamist armed groups against one another.

Misrata and The Libya Dawn Coalition

Misrata is a city unlike any other in Libya in that it behaves as a city-state and acts with a considerable degree of autonomy in its best economic, political, and security interests. Key business and political figures in Misrata seek international validation in order to further the city’s goals, and UN-brokered peace talks are presenting an opportunity for the city-state to assert itself and achieve a sense of legitimacy. And while most perceive it as the country’s seat of the Muslim Brotherhood, Misratans typically see themselves as revolutionaries fighting an ongoing battle against remnants of the Qaddafi era.

Today, two governments are competing for control. As a result of June 2014 elections, the House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk is recognized in the international arena as the legitimate Libyan governing body. Just as Misrata had been the driving force behind the Libya Dawn coalition battling Hiftar’s fighters, it also sought to legitimize its militia offensive politically by reviving the General National Congress (GNC) as a counterweight to the HOR (with which Hiftar is aligned). The two bodies have since been competing for recognition as the country’s legitimate legislature. Signs of internal divisions emerged among the militia and political actors within Libya Dawn coalition early on, but what were originally frictions are shifting toward outright fragmentation, both within the armed coalition and between Misrata and the GNC it created.

The brigades of the Libya Dawn coalition directly under Misrata command are the Libya Shield Central, West, and Third force (in the south). These forces amplified their capabilities in western Libya by cooperating with local proxies to fight and sustain local control on behalf of the broader coalition. Misrata justified targeting its near enemies in the west – primarily Zintani brigades and Wershefana tribal militias in Tripoli – because they are allied with Hiftar in the east. Hiftar’s reputation as both anti-Islamist and an anti-revolutionary remnant of the Qaddafi era facilitated the joining of local revolutionary groups with Islamists under the Libya Dawn umbrella. This strategy led to quick, initial success: by October 2014, the coalition seized Tripoli and nearly all of western Libya.

But this unified front against Hiftar and the HOR has faltered. To date, powerbrokers in Misrata’s militia, business, and political spheres have maintained support for any armed group opposed to Hiftar, including AS. Yet the open, publicly stated support of AS among some within the GNC and Hiftar’s December 2014 attacks on Misrata has forced the city’s heads to change tack. The varied responses among Libya Dawn’s many players in response to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) invitation to talk peace in Geneva in January 2015 are a case in point of the coalition’s current state of fracture. Those within the Dawn coalition interested in establishing a unity government – actors in Misrata and local councils in other cities and towns – are in open disagreement with political and militia actors who oppose it. The rift between Misrata and the GNC is therefore widening as the city-state creates distance from the AS-aligned Islamist factions that dominate the body.

Today, Misrata’s strategic position is insecure. Despite being well-trained and organized, the Libya Shield forces are strategically and tactically stretched. And the Libya Dawn coalition has strained itself to the breaking point by aligning with such a varied network of allies, among the most problematic of which are regional, ideological Islamists like AQ. The emergence and expansion of yet another such Islamist group and possible AQ competitor, IS, may be the factor that permanently fractures the coalition and further pits Islamist against Islamist.

The Islamic State Comes to Libya

Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia have until now represented the principal regional Islamist actors in Libya. But just as the Islamic State’s profile has risen globally, in many ways eclipsing that of AQ, its influence is growing inside Libya, too. A Libya based militia unit known as the Bittar Brigade has fought alongside IS in Syria since 2011; its members may be returning to Libya, or their compatriots may be indirectly connected to the Levant branch through family networks. The direct presence of IS has already been felt, particularly in Derna where the Islamic Shura Youth Council (ISYC) has declared allegiance. Yet even in this small city where IS makes its strongest mark, it is opposed by the deeply localized Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade. The Derna Jihadists Shura Council (DJSC), a new coalition that includes AS, also likely opposes it. The latest sign of IS expansion and capability came on January 27 in an attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which IS-linked social media immediately attributed to the “Province (or State) of Tripoli,” a group that claims allegiance to IS. The group came online in November 2014, posting photographs of a handful of poorly equipped men and a few old vehicles. Allegedly among those involved in the hotel attack, in addition to Libyans, were Sudanese and Tunisian nationals, which suggests that this small group has links – and possibly origins – abroad. It is also possible they are AQ or AS defectors seeking to rebrand under the IS label. Whatever the Province of Tripoli’s genesis, it clearly represents IS’s growing influence and its potential to exploit the existing fissures among the Libya Dawn coalition’s many players.

By appearances thus far, IS’s reach and its capacity to gain a solid foothold by coopting other Islamists in Tripoli and western Libya both appear somewhat limited, but capacity is growing. The group’s online presentation and the small scale of the Corinthia Hotel attack suggest IS’s relative insignificance, both in Tripoli and across Libya as a whole, at least at the present time. Its organization is scattered and AS and AQ may buffer its reach. What the hotel attack may do is spur AS-AQ defection to IS-linked groups and inspire small, less organized IS cells throughout the county to spring up and coordinate with stronger forces in Derna and abroad. The vast spans of desert in the southwest offer opportunities to train and organize that will go unchecked amid Libya’s current state of chaos and lawlessness. If IS command and control becomes centralized over time in tandem with leadership in the Levant, it bears potential to grow and solidify a network in Libya’s uncertain environment. This would exacerbate the Libya Dawn coalition’s existing challenge of maintaining unity between those who wish to continue the fight against Hiftar, even if that means cooperating with IS forces who only partly share their goals, and those who now seek a political solution.

Misrata’s Catch-22

Misrata is in a difficult position. It needs to maintain its varied anti-Hiftar coalition, including regional Islamists like AS, because eliminating Hiftar remains the only goal for many militia commanders. At the same time, those who seek a political solution need to create distance from these regional Islamist actors if Misrata is to gain international legitimacy. Moreover, Misrata brigade members may increasingly become the direct target of IS. Despite the likes of some in Misrata, such as Libya Dawn commander Salah Badi who refuse to give an inch toward compromise, the imperative to create distance with regional Islamists may now be winning out. Misrata’s best hope of maintaining a broad-based coalition might be to shift the paradigm around which it is focused, replacing Hiftar as the principal adversary with those Islamist groups that seek expansion throughout the Middle East and North Africa. IS would be included among these, but it would also extend to include AS. In that event, Misrata would still face the ire of Hiftar in the near term. But if regional Islamist groups in Libya (IS, AQ, and AS) are perceived to present enough of a threat to the interests of localized actors, the focus on Hiftar and the HOR as the prime enemy may wane and a battle between regional and local may ensue. For Misrata, this could open a window for a political solution that lends the city the chance to protect itself and gain international attention while doing so. It may very well take such an opportunity, even if that means cutting ties with AS and putting aside the anti-Qaddafi revolutionary narrative.

There are obstacles that could prevent this scenario from unfolding. Key actors in Misrata, such as the Misrata Municipal Council and HOR boycotters like Fathi Bashaaga, members of the Tripoli Local Council, and powerful businessmen, are already turning away from those in the GNC, such as Abdurahman Swehli, and others opposed to a political solution to Libya’s conflict. Yet some among them remain tied to regional Islamists like AS, by family or tribal connections and the need for allies in the fight against Hiftar. The trouble for moderate Islamist actors in Libya seeking negotiated settlement, and for international parties encouraging it, is determining where the boundaries of the myriad armed groups lie. Due to overlapping alliances, tribal connections, and shared interests among them, the task of singling out IS, AQ, and AS factions is challenging, to say the least.

This is particularly evident in the east, where the fight between Hiftar and the Islamists that he ambiguously defines as terrorists powers on. Both AS and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council – which includes militia brigades that at least initially self-identified as anti-Qaddafi, not Islamist – still appear to receive unabated military support from Misrata. Members of the Farouk brigade, for example, which jumped to assist fellow extremists in Benghazi at the start of fighting in May 2014 and which is also considered to have sent countless numbers of young fighters from across Libya’s mid-coastal region to fight alongside other jihadis in Syria, are sustained by factions in their home city of Misrata. Even though city leaders insist they denounce ideologically-driven groups, such claims are dubious because of Misrata’s pattern of reliance on any group willing to help it fight Hiftar. In the west, the connections among Islamists are also murky. For example, the Tripoli Local Council mayor, Mahdi al-Harati, who previously pioneered the trafficking of Libyan jihadis to Syria, is now advocating for dialogue with the HOR.

Could a Political Solution Unfold?

Still, among the multifold political bodies and parties, militia groupings, politicians and powerbrokers in Libya, both conflict and agreement are driven by competition for influence in local social and political space far more than by ideology. From the beginning of the post-Qaddafi era, all factions have been well aware that no militia working alone can decisively win. This led to two potential courses of action for any party to the conflict: either form broad, but weak coalitions that fight interminably due to structural incapacity; or arrive at a political solution. The regional Islamist factions within the Libya Dawn coalition have and do pose a threat to the economic, security, and political aims of many localized militias, even among some brigades of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The latter nonetheless remain dependent upon the former. Whether this threat or dependence wins out will determine, in large part, which of these two courses of action Misrata’s key leaders will take now, and the course that Libya as a whole may take in the near future.

Beyond the Libya Dawn and Operation Dignity offensives, the question is whether all sides have reached the conclusion that that no one can decisively win, even by coalition. Do both Hiftar and Libya Dawn have something to gain from the formation of a unity government if IS poses a threat to the interests of both parties – and their local allies?

Perhaps. And this is where Misrata‘s role is pivotal to Libya’s current course. Both Libya Dawn’s and Hiftar’s forces are battle-weakened, and influential actors in Misrata are emerging as independent players. If rational political actors in Misrata and localized Islamist militias throughout the country are at least willing to create enough space between themselves and the AS fighters with whom they have thus far aligned, Hiftar and the HOR, if able to reconcile their own internal rifts, may well sit down to talk with Libya Dawn. At a minimum, they could coordinate strategies for dealing with this common enemy. For even though Hiftar conflates all Islamists as terrorists, he seems at least in part motivated by political interests. Misrata could offer to clearly delineate and identify the boundaries between hardline, regional Islamist groups and more moderate, localized ones. Hiftar would then be incentivized to narrow the scope of his assault to Misrata’s two-fold advantage: the city would avoid continued onslaught by Hiftar and have an ally in a potential fight against regional ideological groups.

The nebulous framework of relationships between the various stakeholders in the current conflict is constantly in flux. Yet amid the most recent developments – the rise of new players among Libya’s most hardline, regional Islamists, Misrata’s apparent desire for international legitimacy, and the weakened state of both the Libya Dawn coalition and Hiftar’s forces – the potential for political settlement between Libya’s two competing governments could very well be in the offing. This is only possible if Misrata and the HOR begin to see IS, AS, and AQ as a shared enemy. To be successful, any negotiations toward that end must include the widest possible array of stakeholders, including Islamist groups currently allied with AS. This should be done both directly through UNSMIL and indirectly through local councils and elders. Despite repeated local and international efforts to date to encourage reconciliation, armed conflict continues to dominate the potential for sane political discourse. But if key participants in the ongoing war are able to see the mutual benefit in redirecting attention toward stemming the advance of regional Islamists and the ideology they espouse, the opportunity to arrive at a political solution is now. If this happens, the continued fracturing of the new Libyan state might be prevented.

 

Amanda Kadlec is a Middle East and North Africa analyst and 2012-3013 Fulbright Fellow. She is the author of several publications on Libya.

Hassan Morajea is a Libya-based British-Libyan freelance journalist. He is a regular contributor to the Middle East Eye and The Telegraph.

 

Photo credit: Ben Sutherland