Region: Middle East & North Africa / Libya


The North African nation of Libya is a failed state that is home to a wide array of Islamist and Salafi-jihadi groups. Muammar Qaddafi ruled the oil-rich country for four decades. The 2011 Arab Spring, the resulting Libyan revolution and a subsequent NATO intervention toppled the dictator’s centralized state. The country devolved into a battleground for an array of ideologically diverse groups. The fall of the Qaddafi regime created the possibility for Libya’s long suppressed Islamists to wield political power, but they failed to achieve even temporary political gains. Successive transitional governments likewise faltered, and the country spiraled into a complex civil war shaped by localized grievances, regional power struggles, ideological divides, and a zero-sum competition for power and resources.

Several Salafi-jihadi groups took advantage of the regime’s fall and subsequent instability to establish and expand safe havens in Libya. These groups include the al-Qaeda–linked Ansar al-Sharia Libya and the Islamic State (IS). Salafi-jihadi groups in Libya have recruited and trained militants, governed populations, and prepared attacks on other states in the Maghreb and in Europe. Islamist militants in Libya, including Salafi-jihadis, remain a destabilizing force and threat despite significant losses.

Libya remains in a state of instability. In the first half of 2021, the country’s national currency, the dinar, lost more than half of its value, while political tensions have led to the outbreak of fighting between various factions in Tripoli. In June 2021, a Libyan court ruled that warlord Khalifa Haftar was allowed to run for the country’s presidency, paving the way for his formal bid for the country’s top political post.

Level of Islamist Activity:


Islamist Activity

Political Islam appeared in Libya in the mid-20th century, when King Idris I welcomed asylum-seekers from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This sanctuary period ended in 1969, when Colonel Muammar Qaddafi overthrew the Libyan monarchy. Qaddafi violently suppressed all political opposition during his forty-year rule, including the country’s Islamist element. Islamist organizations challenged the regime through both peaceful and violent means from the 1970s to the 1990s. State oppression fostered the development of Libyan Islamist networks in the country’s prisons and beyond its borders, including in Afghanistan and England. Qaddafi later sought to co-opt Islamist organizations through a policy of negotiation and de-radicalization spearheaded by his son, Sayf al-Islam, in the early 2000s.

The 2011 Arab Spring protests rallied Islamists and secularists alike against the Qaddafi regime. Qaddafi’s brutal response led to a civil war, a NATO intervention, and ultimately the dictator’s death. Various groups vied for influence in the resulting power vacuum, yielding chronic instability. Libya’s transitional government struggled to establish order and rebuild state institutions. Militias and non-state actors proliferated and strengthened in the three years after the revolution.

Rivalries exploded into a full-scale civil war by 2014, when Khalifa Haftar, a former regime officer, launched Operation Dignity with the goal of defeating Islamist groups in Libya.1 An alliance of western Libyan militias, including Islamist ones, launched Operation Dawn to counter Haftar’s offensive in August 2014, seizing Tripoli’s airport and other parts of the capital and causing a split in the country’s transitional government.2 Outside actors, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia supporting Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and Qatar and Turkey bolstering the Government of National Accord (GNA) have since backed various proxies. Ongoing factional conflict has even mobilized a growing number of formerly nonviolent “quietist” Salafists to join the fray to defend their interests in opposition to both the Muslim Brotherhood and violent Salafi groups.3

Post-revolution Libya became a hotbed for transnational Salafi-jihadi organizations. For example, Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafi-jihadi group formed by members of al-Qaeda and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), is likely responsible for the September 2012 attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.4 IS took root and grew rapidly in 2014, establishing the first branch of its caliphate outside of Iraq and Syria. IS’s Libyan branch has also supported terrorist attacks in Europe, notably the May 2017 Manchester bombing.5

Islamist and Salafi-jihadi armed groups in Libya, ranging from Islamist-leaning militias in the Libya Dawn coalition to Ansar al-Sharia allies and the Islamic State, have lost significant ground in the past five years, but remain a threat to the country’s stability.6 The establishment of the UN-backed GNA in late 2015 widened a split between hardline and moderate Islamists in the Operation Dawn coalition, marginalizing the former. In December 2016, GNA-allied forces, with U.S. support, ousted IS from its stronghold in Sirte.7 Subsequent U.S. airstrikes have hindered, but not stopped, IS’s efforts to reconstitute. Haftar’s forces made significant gains against Islamists and Salafi-jihadis in eastern and central Libya from 2016 to 2019, including retaking Benghazi and claiming victory in Derna. Islamist and Salafi-jihadi armed actors remain key players in the Libya conflict, however. They will regain and likely retain power as long as Libya lacks effective governance and security structures. Nonviolent Islamist political actors also remain active in Libya, but are less influential than more organized armed factions.

Despite Islamist and Salafi-jihadi losses, ongoing conflict in Libya holds opportunities for such groups to regain strength. Haftar’s forces attempted to seize the capital, Tripoli, in April 2019, kicking off more than a year of fighting in the capital region. A Turkish-backed intervention helped GNA forces, including Libyan Islamist militias and Syrian fighters, defeat Haftar’s forces in Tripoli despite significant support from Russia, Egypt, and the UAE.8 As of August 2020, the focus of the conflict has shifted to central Libya and the country’s oil resources.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood seeks to establish sharia as the foundation for state and society in Libya. The organization came to Libya in 1949, when King Idris I allowed Egyptian Brotherhood members fleeing political persecution to settle in Benghazi.9 Egyptian asylum-seekers and clerics founded the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood as a branch of the original Egyptian organization. The group, allowed relative freedom to spread its ideology, attracted local adherents.

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi overthrew the Libyan monarchy in 1969 and promptly cracked down on the Brotherhood, arresting some members and returning others to Egypt.10 The crackdown continued until 1973, when Brotherhood members agreed to dissolve the organization, effectively silencing themselves for the remainder of the 1970s.

The Brotherhood reorganized in the early 1980s and revived its aspirations to replace the Qaddafi regime with one governed by sharia law. It renamed itself al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya al-Libiyya (Libyan Islamic Group), and gained popular support among Libyan students who met exiled members in the U.S. and UK. These students subsequently spread the Brotherhood’s ideology and joined its covert cells inside of Libya.11 The Brotherhood won popular appeal through charitable and welfare work and recruited members of the Libyan middle class to its cause. The Brotherhood was strongest in eastern Benghazi, where major tribes historically opposed Qaddafi’s rule.12 The regime either imprisoned or executed most Brotherhood members remaining in Libya by the mid-1980s.13

The Brotherhood began to regenerate in 1999 as a result of dialogue with the Qaddafi regime. The talks gained momentum in 2005-2006, when Qaddafi’s son, Sayf al-Islam, assumed an active role in the talks in an effort to co-opt and neutralize opposition groups (especially Islamists). The Brotherhood is known to have had roughly 1,000 members within Libya and 200 more in exile on the eve of the 2011 Libyan uprising.14

After the fall of Qaddafi, the Muslim Brotherhood re-emerged and claimed a place in Libyan civil society. However, in the 2012 parliamentary elections that followed Qaddafi’s ouster, a Brotherhood-affiliated party performed poorly15 and support for the Libyan Brotherhood remained limited in the subsequent parliamentary elections two years later.16 The public’s rejection of the movement reflects the legacy of Qaddafi’s demonization of the organization, as well as the growth of anti-Brotherhood sentiment surrounding the presidency of Mohammad Morsi in Egypt. Resentment toward the Brotherhood also stems from perceptions that it is anti-democratic as well as accusations of ties to more radical groups like al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia.17

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood remains a player in Libyan politics. It formally announced its support for the UN-backed GNA in March 2016.18 However, the Brotherhood’s influence is limited by the fragmentation of the Libyan Islamist movement and the rise of anti-Islamist militia commander Khalifa Haftar.19 Haftar’s rise—backed by anti-Islamist leadership in Egypt, the UAE, and Russia, as well as Saudi Arabia—has made life even more difficult for the group. The decision by a notable number of Islamist politicians to leave the Brotherhood in order to gain broader support in early 2019 reflects the challenges facing the group in a highly polarized political environment.20

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)

The LIFG formed as an underground movement in 1982 that sought to overthrow the Qaddafi regime through an assassination campaign.21 Authorities captured many LIFG members, including its founder Iwad al-Zawawi, after failed attempts to overthrow the regime in 1986, 1987, and 1989.22

LIFG members fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan where, supported by al-Qaeda, they built training camps to reinvigorate the organization and expand military capabilities. LIFG tested their military prowess while conducting jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.23 Influential Salafi-jihadi clerics, such as Abdullah Azzam, also indoctrinated Libyan recruits.24

LIFG reinvigorated its efforts to overthrow the Qaddafi regime in the 1990s following the Afghan jihad. LIFG members established cells or traveled to London to obtain logistical and financial support from al-Qaeda and (allegedly) the British government.25 They also sought to establish the group’s structure and develop leadership capabilities in this period.26 LIFG established a base of operations in Sudan in 1993.27 The group then sent delegations from Sudan to Algeria to continue training. LIFG’s interlude in Sudan was independent of the plans of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who spent five years there in the 1990s.28

A LIFG raid on a hospital in Benghazi sparked a crackdown by security forces that compelled the group to announce its existence publicly in October 1995.29 The Libyan regime pressured the Sudanese regime to eject the LIFG at the time. Many LIFG members returned to Libya, while others escaped to England. Pressured by exposure, the LIFG conducted a series of attacks on the Libyan regime throughout the 1990s, including several failed attempts to assassinate Qaddafi. The Libyan regime fought the LIFG into the late 1990s and killed several of its leaders.30

The LIFG declared an official ceasefire in 2000 though its Libyan insurgency and terror campaign effectively ended by 1998.31 Many members returned to Afghanistan. Those who fled included LIFG emir Abdelhakim Belhaj (aka Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Sadiq), its chief religious official, Abu al-Mundhir al-Sa’idi, and Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda operative involved in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.32

The LIFG had a complicated relationship with al-Qaeda and its ideology. The U.S. Treasury Department designated members of the LIFG as Specially Designated Global Terrorists in 2001 for their ties to al-Qaeda.33 Senior al-Qaeda leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi announced a merger between the LIFG and al-Qaeda in 2007, but some LIFG senior leaders refused to swear allegiance to al-Qaeda.34 Likewise, the LIFG did not demonstrate significant support for al-Qaeda’s attacks on the West.35 The group did not limit its activities to Libya, however, and the U.S. State Department listed it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization for its ties to the 2003 bombings in Casablanca, Morocco.36

Several LIFG members also went on to become senior figures in al Qaeda.37 In 2005, the Libyan regime began a reconciliation and de-radicalization process overseen by Sayf al-Islam Qaddafi.38 The LIFG revised its definition of jihad to exclude violence against the state in 2009, producing a new code titled “Corrective Studies” that permitted jihad only in the cases of the invasion of Muslim lands.39 The LIFG officially disbanded in 2010. While the regime subsequently released many LIFG members, others, such as former LIFG member turned parliamentarian Abd al-Wahab Qa’id, were not released until the uprising against the Qaddafi regime in March 2011.40 The U.S. State Department delisted the LIFG in 201541 and the UK Home Office did the same in 2019.42

The LIFG’s extensive network of former members has played a prominent role in the swell of Islamist activity that began with the Arab Spring and the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. Elements of the LIFG human network established branches of the al-Qaeda associate Ansar al-Sharia.43 Other former LIFG members now lead political parties and militias. Among these figures are the group’s former emir, Belhaj, who founded the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change and sought to rehabilitate his image by providing social services and youth activities. Belhaj formed the Alwattan Party (“Homeland Party) to compete in the 2012 parliamentary elections (it won no seats) and backed the Libya Dawn coalition in 2014.44 Khalid al-Sharif, an LIFG deputy emir, served as deputy defense minister in two post-Qaddafi governments and remains a key political figure. Al-Sharif endorsed a new political movement formed by Islamist political leaders in western Libya in July 2020.45

Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL)

The 2011 revolution created an opportunity for new Salafi-jihadi groups to fill the vacuum created by the LIFG’s renunciation of military operations. Al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri charged senior operatives, including Abu Anas al-Libi, with forming a Libyan affiliate in 2011.46 Former LIFG operatives formed branches of Ansar al-Sharia in the eastern Libyan cities of Benghazi and Derna.47 Muhammed al-Zahawi, a former LIFG member and regime prisoner, led Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi until his death in late 2014 or early 2015.48 ASL is a Sunni Islamist organization that pursued strict adherence to sharia law in Libya.49 ASL opposed the democratic system, considering it an immoral structure that unduly gives power to man instead of God.50

ASL remains the primary suspect in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.51 Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi later changed its name to Ansar al-Sharia in Libya – an attempt by the organization to rebrand itself as a national movement rather than a local rebel force.52 Ansar al-Sharia developed affiliates and established training camps throughout Libya, including in Sirte and Ajdabiya.

Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi was a separate organization from Ansar al-Sharia Derna, despite some crossover in membership and political goals. Former Guantanamo Bay inmate Abu Sufyan bin Qumu led the Derna group.53 Bin Qumu’s status is unknown following rumors that he defected to ISIS.54 Both Ansar al-Sharia branches sought to establish sharia law in Libya.55

ASL built popular support in Libya and abroad through dawa and charity campaigns.56 Its most effective method was the provision of social services, including infrastructure repair and development projects, the provision of security, and general aid.57 One of the group’s most successful projects was its anti-drug campaign in Benghazi, coordinated with a local hospital, a soccer club, and telecom and technologies companies.58

The ASL branches used local support bases to advance a global violent jihad. They formed an important cog within the global Salafi-jihadi movement and trained militants to fight in Syria, Mali, and elsewhere in North Africa.59 The UN listed both Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia Derna as terror organizations associated with al-Qaeda in November 2014.60

ASL developed battlefield relationships with other Libyan fighting forces to enhance its legitimacy, spread its ideology, and mask its affiliation to al-Qaeda. ASL has known ties to several smaller Salafi-jihadi katibas (battalions) in Libya, including Katibat Abu ‘Ubaydah al-Jarah and Saraya Raf Allah al-Sahati.61 These alliances were a force multiplier for ASL, which had only a few hundred members in 2012.62 Since then, however, ASL has exploited the chaos and instability in Libya in order to strengthen its presence in Libyan communities and spread its ideology.63

In 2014, ASL transitioned almost exclusively to military operations in order to defend its position in Benghazi. Former Libyan Army commander Khalifa Haftar began Operation Dignity to defeat terrorists—broadly defined as all Islamists—in eastern Libya, with ASL among his priority targets.64 ASL launched a counteroffensive that caused high civilian and military casualties.65 It joined with other Islamist militias fighting Haftar to form the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) in June 2014.66 Shortly thereafter, the new umbrella organization overran several bases in Benghazi, seized a large cache of weapons, and declared the city an Islamic emirate.67

The BRSC has since lost most of its military strength. This is due, in part, to Haftar’s foreign-backed forces fighting the BRSC’s own fighters. The BRSC cooperated with ISIS militants in a last-ditch effort to preserve its strongholds in 2017.68 Ansar al-Sharia officially dissolved in May 2017 due to heavy casualties and leadership attrition.69 Haftar declared victory in Benghazi in July 2017.70 ASL and other al-Qaeda linked militants fled the city to safe havens elsewhere in Libya.71

Ansar al-Sharia Derna controlled Derna city as part of the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD) starting in December 2014. The MSCD drove Islamic State fighters out of Derna in June 2015.72 Haftar’s forces seized most Derna from the MSCD in mid-2018 following a yearlong blockade.73

Islamic State (IS)

IS took advantage of Libya’s persistent chaos in the wake of the 2011 revolution to establish its first wilayat (province) in North Africa. The group’s aspirations for a Libyan franchise began in 2013, when Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent an emissary to Derna, which has longstanding Islamist militant networks.74 ISIS leadership sought to establish a potential fallback for its base in the Levant.75 Libyan militants and ideologues with ties to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria began pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by late 2014.76 The establishment of three ISIS wilayats in Libya provided the group strategic proximity to Europe and a logistical hub for Africa.

ISIS first took root in Derna through an affiliate called the Shura Council of Islamic Youth, later known as ISIS Wilayat Barqah (Cyrenaica). ISIS simultaneously developed outposts elsewhere in Libya, notably in Sirte, Sabratha, and various Benghazi neighborhoods. ISIS lost its first Libyan position when the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD), which included Ansar al-Sharia and other LIFG-linked militias, fought back against ISIS in response to its extreme ideology, brutal methods, and the assassination of a MSCD leader.77 The MSCD ousted ISIS from Derna in June 2015.

ISIS tempered its loss in Derna with its takeover of Sirte on the central Libyan coast in spring 2015. The group conducted a dawa and intimidation campaign in the city, where it also co-opted pre-existing ASL networks.78 ISIS propaganda soon featured the Libyan city alongside Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq as a demonstration of the expanding caliphate.79 ISIS Wilayat Tarablus governed Sirte with the same harshness as its Levantine counterparts, enforcing corporal punishments and violently quashing dissent. ISIS gradually expanded to the east and west of Sirte, controlling a 150-mile stretch of coastline at its peak. It also conducted a campaign of attacks on oil infrastructure in eastern Libya in an effort to deprive the Libyan state of revenue.80

Experts estimate that ISIS had 3,000 fighters in Sirte at the height of its presence there, although other reports estimated as many as 6,000 drawn from Libya, the broader Maghreb, and sub-Saharan Africa.81 ISIS did not gain significant support from Libyan communities, which view the group as foreign. Claims of strong ties between pro-Qaddafi groups and ISIS in Libya, akin to those between former Ba'athists and ISIS in Iraq, are overstated.82

ISIS in Libya seeks to attack neighboring states and Europe. Katibat al-Battar, a seasoned ISIS unit compromised mainly of Libyan and European fighters, deployed from Iraq and Syria to Libya to coordinate attacks in Europe and Tunisia.83 Libya-based militants conducted the 2015 Bardo and Sousse attacks that devastated Tunisia’s tourism economy. ISIS also used Libya as a launchpad to try and expand the caliphate to the Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane in March 2016.84 Members of Katibat al-Battar met in Tripoli with Salman al-Abedi, the British suicide bomber who killed 22 people at a concert in Manchester, England in May 2017.85

Between 2016 and 2017, ISIS suffered a series of defeats that significantly reduced its strength in Libya. Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces, with some Western assistance, drove ISIS Wilayat Barqah from its posts in Benghazi. American airstrikes supported an offensive that ousted ISIS from Sabratha, near the Tunisian border. Sirte and surrounding small towns remained the group’s primary stronghold until mid-2016, when ISIS overreached into terrain controlled by forces from the western Libyan city-state of Misrata. Misratan militias, aligned with the UN-backed government and backed by American air power, launched a grueling campaign to recapture Sirte that culminated in December 2016. Many ISIS fighters left the city, but the group still suffered significant casualties.86

ISIS in Libya remains a potent threat despite its territorial losses. Former CIA Director John Brennan warned in June 2016 that the branch was ISIS’s most developed and dangerous, citing its influence in Africa and ability to stage attacks in Europe.87 ISIS is reconstituting in central and southwestern Libya, where it has access to lucrative smuggling routes.88 Intermittent U.S. airstrikes have interrupted the group’s resurgence, but it is not defeated. Hundreds of ISIS militants—if not more—remain active as a network of cells and military units—termed “Desert Brigades”—throughout the country.89 The previously dormant ISIS Wilayat Fezzan has become the group’s most active in Libya, claiming regular guerrilla attacks in Libya’s remote southwest.90 The group has also conducted several high-profile attacks intended to disrupt the formation of a functioning Libyan government in Tripoli, including a May 2018 attack on the High National Election Commission and a September 2018 attack on the National Oil Corporation.91

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

AQIM was first established in 1998 in Algeria as a Salafi-jihadi organization with the goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb that would enforce sharia law. The instability in North Africa that followed the Arab Spring in 2011 created a conducive environment for the group’s expansion throughout the region. As a result, a number of fighters left the Sahara and Sahel region to fight in the growing conflict in Libya, allowing the group to expand east.92 AQIM fighters transited southwestern Libya with the help of locals toward coastal Ansar al-Sharia networks.93

The fall of Qaddafi in 2011 gave AQIM the means to easily acquire weapons and recruit more fighters, especially amongst the experienced Tuaregs, who were supported by Qaddafi.94 In post-Qaddafi Libya, AQIM took advantage of the security vacuum and opened training camps, like the Ubari camp in the Southwest.95

In 2012, reports indicated that al-Qaeda sought to create a clandestine network in Libya to be used in the future to destabilize the government and offer logistical support to the branch’s activities in the region.96 AQIM has supported Ansar al-Sharia since its establishment in 2011. In return, Ansar al- Sharia in Libya has provided AQIM affiliates with fighters in Mali.97

AQIM has shifted its focus to the Sahel region of West Africa since coopting the Tuareg rebellion in Mali in 2012, with AQIM’s prioritization of the Mali theater intensifying with the formation of an AQIM-affiliated umbrella group (Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen) in 2017. AQIM has retained a senior leadership haven in southwestern Libya. The United States carried out a series of drone strikes against al-Qaeda in southern Libya in 2018, begining on March 24 and ending on November 30, the last of which killed 11 suspected members of AQIM in southwest Libya near the town of al Uwaynat.98 The US denied involvement in a strike targeting al-Qaeda in southwest Libya in February 2019. The GNA released a statement confirming a join US- Libyan operation, which allegedly hit an al-Qaeda cell in near Ubari.99 The State Department reported in June 2020 that, since 2016, forces aligned with the LNA have conducted operations against both AQIM and ISIS in southern Libya, where terrorist groups are known to operate freely.100 However, it must be mentioned that LNA operations in the Fezzan have also been criticized for targeting civilians.101

Islamism and Society

Libya has over six and a half million citizens, roughly 97 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim. The dominant school of Sunni thought in Libya is Malikism, often considered the most moderate of the four traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence.102 Non-Sunni Muslims in Libya are primarily Ibadi Muslims in the native Amazigh community or foreigners, including Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews.103

Islam permeates everyday life for most Libyans. Religious instruction in Islam is compulsory in all public schools. Sharia governs matters like inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property.104 Libya’s draft constitution designates Islam as the official state religion and sharia as the principal source of legislation.105 The constitution bars non-Muslims from Libya’s parliament and presidency, per a July 2017 draft; however, the country’s interim laws protect the rights of non-Muslims to practice their faiths.106 A protracted and fierce debate over sharia has revealed cleavages over the role of Islam in contemporary Libyan society.107

Islamist political ideology in Libya has surged since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, but still lacks broad support. Libyans responded enthusiastically to Islamist political parties following Qaddafi’s ouster because they promoted a sense of identity and pledged to maintain order.108 Many Libyans remain skeptical of Islamism, but years of failed political transition have emboldened various Islamist factions and militias.109 Islamist organizations have filled the governance gap left by the collapse of the Libyan state by providing valuable social and governmental services, including health care, youth activity planning, and religious organization. This allowed groups like ASL and the LIFG, in limited cases, to gradually move away from their image as global jihadi organizations and gain some domestic support.

Islamism has become increasingly divisive. The 2017 Gulf crisis, which pitted Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar over the latter’s support for political Islamists, has produced increasingly polarized media treatment of Islamism in Libya. Anti-Islamist media outlets and officials tend to portray all political Islamists as terrorists, even though the majority of Islamist politicians and armed groups oppose, and often fight against, Salafi-jihadis.

Islamism and the State

Libya won its independence from Italy in the aftermath of World War II. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1951 under King Idris I, the head of eastern Libya’s Sufi Senussi order. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi overthrew the monarchy in a military coup d’état in September 1969 and established the Jamahiriyah (state of the masses), an Arab nationalist regime based on an ideology of Islamic socialism. Qaddafi outlawed all political parties and organized political dissent, including Islamist groups.110

The Qaddafi regime suppressed challenges to its rule, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s failure to launch set conditions for the emergence of the LIFG. The LIFG launched several failed efforts to topple the regime and assassinate Qaddafi in the 1980s and 1990s. The regime decimated the Islamist opposition by 1998, leaving only fragmented resistance by the early 2000s.111

Sayf al-Islam Qaddafi began negotiations with Islamists on behalf of his father in the mid-2000s. He brokered a deal to free imprisoned Islamists if they agreed to recognize the legitimacy of Qaddafi’s government, renounce violence, and formally revise their doctrines. These negotiations led to the release of more than 100 Brotherhood members in 2006 and hundreds of LIFG members by 2008.112 The LIFG also renounced violence against the state. The regime brought quietest Salafi clerics from Saudi Arabia to Libya during this period to foster religious discourse that condemned anti-state rebellion.113

The Arab Spring protests upended Libya in February 2011. The regime cracked down violently on protesters, plunging the country into civil war. The conflict and additional prisoner releases allowed Islamist networks to reconstitute in Libya. Qaddafi’s fall sent Libya into a turbulent democratic transition and set the stage for a power struggle in the resulting vacuum.

Political Islamists participated in parliamentary elections in 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) faced off against the liberal National Forces Alliance (NFA).114 The JCP, led by former political prisoner Mohammed Sawan, won 17 of 80 available seats to the NFA’s 39.115 The JCP failed to achieve post-Arab Spring electoral success like that of its model and inspiration, Egypt’s Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party.

Two political factions of the LIFG – the Hizb al-Watan (HW) and Hizb al-Umma al-Wasat (HUW) also participated in the 2012 legislative elections. Former LIFG emir and Tripoli militia leader Abdelhakim Belhaj led the HW, which ran as a broad-based moderate party. Former LIFG religious official Sami al-Sa’adi led the HUW, which included most former LIFG figures and ran as a more conservative Islamic party.116 The HW failed to win any seats in the election, while the HUW won a single seat, allocated to Abdul Wahhab al-Qa’id, brother of the late senior al-Qaeda official Abu Yahya al-Libi. Other small Islamist parties also failed to garner significant support. These parties include the Salafi party al-Asala, which won no seats, and the Hizb al-Islah wa-l-Tanmiyya, led by former member of the Muslim Brotherhood Khaled al-Werchefani.

Islamist parties and candidates won some seats the June 2014 legislative elections as political polarization increased. Low voter turnout and political violence between secular and Islamist forces marred the elections, and Libya collapsed into open war.117 Operation Dignity and the subsequent political crisis split the government in half between the two transitional parliaments: the General National Congress (GNC, elected 2012) and the House of Representatives (HoR, elected 2014). Islamist militias affiliated with the GNC ousted the HoR from Tripoli, further hardening the divisions.

Libya has two primary political blocs as of March 2019: one in the west and one in the east. The United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), established in December 2015, controls the Libyan capital of Tripoli as of June 2020. The GNA was meant to bring together the warring GNC and HoR into a unity government. In practice, it divided and weakened the GNC’s support base, though GNC leadership and armed allies remain potential spoilers. The HoR, whose leadership is aligned with Haftar, refuses to endorse the GNA.118 Haftar has maintained international acceptance and territorial control since 2017, raising his profile as a prospective strongman despite weaknesses in his fighting force and opposition from rival factions.

Haftar and his external backers, especially Egypt, the UAE and Russia, seek to eradicate political Islam and crush Islamist armed groups in Libya. He has courted religious conservatives by empowering followers of Madkhalism, a form of quietist Salafism that enshrines loyalty to a political leader and opposes more activist Islamist strains.119 Haftar’s campaign mirrors that of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Sisi’s crackdown on political Islam benefited Salafi-jihadi groups that argue for violence as the only meaningful force for change.120 Islamism will remain a powerful current in Libya for the foreseeable future, however, as Libya is a key front in a regional struggle over future of political Islam.121

The future role of Islamist parties in Libya remains uncertain. As of June 2020, the GNA and its allies pushed the LNA out of Tripoli, ending Haftar’s fifteen month attempt to occupy the city.122 This development is likely to escalate the conflict after the Egyptian parliament authorized the possible deployment of troops to Libya. The European Union took the opportunity to call for a ceasefire, hoping to defuse the situation, just as GNA forces were planning to attack the resource-rich city of Sitre.123 While how the situation will unfold depends heavily on the influence of external actors, it is unlikely that plans for peace negotiations will bear fruit.124

Islamist politicians and militia leaders have prominent roles in the Tripoli area. At the local level, quietist Salafi militias are taking on increasingly important security and governance roles in Libyan cities. The Salafi Rada Special Deterrence Force in Tripoli, for example, controls the city’s one functioning airport and provides security in the name of the UN-backed GNA.125 Salafi militias in Benghazi are also a powerful bloc within the LNA coalition.126 Islamists will undoubtedly play a key role in shaping a future Libyan state, whether by participating in a democratic process, taking up arms for a local or national cause, or waging violent jihad.


[1] Camille Tawil, “Operation Dignity: General Haftar’s Latest Battle May Decide Libya’s Future,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 12 iss. 11, May 30, 2014,

[2] Chris Stephen and Anne Penketh, “Libyan capital under Islamist control after Tripoli airport seized,” Guardian (London), August 24, 2014,; Ala’ Alrababa’h and Frederic Wehrey, “Taking On Operation Dawn: Creeping Advance of the Islamic State in Western Libya,” Carnegie Middle East Center, June 24, 2015,

[3] Frederic Wehrey, “Quiet No More?” Diwan, October 13, 2016,; Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars, “As Their Influence Grows, the Maghreb’s ‘Quietist’ Salafists are Anything but Quiet,” World Politics Review, December 11, 2018,

[4] Emily Estelle and Katherine Zimmerman, “Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, March 3, 2016,

[5] Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Manchester Bomber Met With ISIS Unit in Libya, Officials Say,” New York Times, June 3, 2017,

[6] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State in Libya Has Yet to Recover,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Policywatch 3222, December 6, 2019,; Cameron Glenn, “Libya’s Islamists: Who They Are – And What They Want,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, August 8, 2017,

[7] Hani Amara, “Libyan forces clear last Islamic State holdout in Sirte,” Reuters, December 6, 2016,

[8] Bethan McKernan, “Gaddafi’s Prophecy Comes True as Foreign Powers Battle for Libya’s Oil,” Guardian (London), August 2, 2020,

[9] Omar Ashour, "Libyan Islamists Unpacked: Rise, Transformation, and Future," Brookings Institution, July 28, 2016.

[10] Allison Pargeter, “Political Islam in Libya,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 3, iss. 6, May 5, 2005,[tt_news]=306.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibidem.

[13] Omar Ashour, “Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood faces the future,” Foreign Policy, March 9, 2012,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mary Fitzgerald, “Introducing the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy, November 2, 2012,

[16] Glenn, “Libya’s Islamists: Who They Are - And What They Want.”

[17] Mary Fitzgerald, “Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood Struggles to Grow,” Foreign Policy, May 1, 2014,

[18] “Libya’s Justice and Construction Party Announces Support for National Unity Government,” Ikhwan Web, March 30, 2016,

[19] Emily Estelle, “The General’s Trap in Libya,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, August 1, 2017,

[20] Matthew Reisener, “What Khaled Al-Meshri Thinks About the Future of Libya,” The National Interest, February 28, 2019,

[21] Camille Tawil, Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists (London: Saqi Books, 2010), 33.

[22] Ibid., 93-94.

[23] Evan F. Kohlmann, “Dossier: Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” NEFA Foundation, October 2007, 3,

[24] Ibid., 4.

[25] “Libyan Islamic Fighter Group,” Mapping Militant Organizations, March 4, 2017,; “The British government allegedly helped support the LIFG’s campaign against the Qaddafi regime, though there has not been independent confirmation of these claims.” Gary Gambill, “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG),” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 3, iss. 6, March 24, 2005.

[26] Tawil, Brothers in Arms, 93-94.

[27] James Astill, “Osama: The Sudan Years,” Guardian (London), October 16, 2001,

[28] Kohlmann, “Dossier: Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” 8.

[29] Tawil, Brothers in Arms, 65.

[30] Kohlmann, “Dossier: Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” 8-11.

[31] Tawil, Brothers in Arms, 140.

[32] Ibid., 179.

[33] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Three LIFG Members Designation for Terrorism,” November 30, 2008,

[34] “Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” Mapping Militant Organizations.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibidem.

[37] Three LIFG members, Abu Yahya al-Libi, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Abu Laith al-Libi, would go on to become senior members of al-Qaeda. All were killed in U.S. Predator drone attacks in Pakistan. Peter Bergen and Alyssa Sims, “Airstrikes and Civilian Casualties in Libya Since the 2011 NATO Intervention,” New America Foundation, June 20, 2018,

[38] Omar Ashour, “Post-Jihadism: Libya and the Global Transformations of Armed Islamist Movements,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 23, iss. 3, 2011, 384.

[39] Ibid., 385. According to Ashour, there were several challenges: “the six leaders in Abu Selim Prison wanted the decision to be unanimous so as to maximize the impact on the middle-ranks, the grassroots, and the sympathizers, and thus guarantee successful organizational de-radicalization. They thus demanded the involvement of the LIFG leaders abroad in the dialogue with the regime. Those leaders included two Shura Council members (Abu Layth al-Libi and ‘Urwa al-Libi) and two influential members of the LIFG’s legitimate (theological) committee: Abu Yahya al-Libi, currently believed to be the third person in al-Qaida, and Abdullah Sa‘id, who was killed in December 2009 by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. All four rejected the offer.”

[40] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Political Islam and the Fate of Two Libyan Brothers,” New York Times, October 6, 2012,

[41] United States Department of State, “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” n.d.,

[42] United Kingdom Home Office, “Proscribed Terrorist Groups or Organisations,” February 28, 2020,

[43] Estelle and Zimmerman, “Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya.”

[44] Sudarsan Raghavan, “These Libyans Were Once Linked to al-Qaeda. Now They are Politicians and Businessmen,” Washington Post, September 28, 2017,

[45], “Renewing His Support for the Extremist Current .. Al-Sharif: Abu Sahmain is Walking with Steady Steps,” Akhbar Libya 24, July 25, 2020,

[46] Estelle and Zimmerman, “Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya.”

[47] Aaron Y. Zelin, “Know Your Ansar al-Sharia,” Foreign Policy, September 21, 2012,

[48] “Libyan militant group says its leader, Mohamed al-Zahawi, was killed,” Associated Press, January 24, 2015,

[49] Faisal Irshaid, "Profile: Libya's Ansar al-Sharia," BBC News, June 13, 2014; Zelin, "Know Your Ansar al-Sharia."

[50] "Ansar Al-Sharia in Libya (ASL)," Counter Extremism Project, 2015.

[51] Mary Fitzgerald, “It Wasn’t Us,” Foreign Policy, September 18, 2012,

[52] Aaron Y. Zelin, “Libya Beyond Benghazi,” Journal of International Security Affairs no. 25, Fall/Winter 2013,

[53] Zelin, “Know Your Ansar al-Sharia.”

[54] “Abu Sufyan Bin Qumu,” Counter Extremism Project, n.d.,

[55] Zelin, “Libya Beyond Benghazi.”

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibidem.

[58] Zelin, “Know Your Ansar al-Sharia.”

[59] Aaron Y. Zelin, Testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and Subcommittee the Middle East and North Africa, July 10, 2013,

[60] “U.N. Blacklists Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia, Involved in Benghazi Attack,” Reuters, November 19, 2014,

[61] These battalions participated in ASL’s first “annual conference” on June 6, 2012. Other participants included, the Islamic Foundation for Da’wa and Islah, The Supreme Commission for the Protection of Revolution of February 17, Liwa Dara’ Libya, Katibat Shuhada Libya al-Hurrah, Katibat Faruq (Misrata), Katibat Thuwar Sirte, Katibat Shuhada al-Khalij al-Nawfaliya, Katibat Ansar al-Huriyya, Katibat Shuhada al-Qawarsha, Katibat al-Shahid Muhammad al-Hami, Katibat al-Jabal, Katibat al-Nur, Katibat Shuhada Abu Salim, Katibat Shuhada Benghazi, the Preventative Security Apparatus, Katibat al-Shahid Salih al-Nas, and other brigades from Darnah, Sabratha, Janzur, and Ajdabiya. Pictures of the conference can be accessed at

[62] Zelin, “Know Your Ansar al-Sharia.”

[63] Aaron Zelin, “Libya’s jihadists beyond Benghazi,” Foreign Policy, August 12, 2013,

[64] “Profile: Libya’s military strongman Khalifa Haftar.” BBC, September 15, 2016,

[65] “Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL),” Counter Extremism Project, n.d.,

[66] Glenn, “Libya’s Islamists: Who They Are - And What They Want.”

[67] Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL),” Counter Extremism Project.

[68] “ISIS in Action,” Eyes on ISIS in Libya, June 6, 2017,

[69] “Libyan Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia says it is dissolving,” Reuters, May 27, 2017,

[70] “Libya eastern commander Haftar declares Benghazi ‘liberated,’” BBC, July 6, 2017,

[71] “Militants Find Sanctuary in Libya’s Wild South,” Associated Press, July 13, 2017,

[72] Estelle and Zimmerman, “Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya.”

[73] Glenn, “Libya’s Islamists: Who They Are - And What They Want”; “Spokesperson says Haftar forces seized most of Libya’s Derna,” Associated Press, June 8, 2018,

[74] Geoff D. Porter, “How Realistic Is Libya as an Islamic State “Fallback”?” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, March 16, 2016,

[75] Ibid.

[76] Tarek Kahlaoui, “The rise of ISIS in Libya, explained,” Newsweek, May 29, 2016,

[77] Ibid.

[78] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Burgeoning Capital in Sirte, Libya,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Policywatch 2462, August 6, 2015,

[79] “IS Spokesman Rallies Fighters, Blasts U.S.-Led Campaign Against IS,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 21, 2016,

[80] “How the Islamic State Rose, Fell, and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb,” International Crisis Group, July 24, 2017,

[81] Patrick Wintour, “Isis loses control of Libyan city of Sirte.” Guardian (London). December 5, 2016,

[82] “How the Islamic State Rose, Fell, and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb,” International Crisis Group.

[83] Callimachi and Schmitt, “Manchester Bomber Met With ISIS Unit in Libya, Officials Say.”

[84] Emily Estelle, “Desknote: ISIS’s Tunisian attack cell in Libya,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, March 8, 2016,

[85] Callimachi and Schmitt, “Manchester Bomber Met With ISIS Unit in Libya, Officials Say.”

[86] Patrick Wintour, “Isis loses control of Libyan city of Sirte.”

[87] John Brennan, Statement before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, June 16, 2016,

[88] Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran, “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya,” Atlantic Council, June 20, 2017,

[89] Thomas Joscelyn, “How Many Fighters Does the Islamic State Still Have in Libya?” Long War Journal, July 20, 2017,; Frederic Wehrey, “When the Islamic State Came to Libya,” The Atlantic, February 10, 2018,; ‘Turkey sends hundreds of mercenaries to Libya; national army arrested “the most dangerous ISIS,”’ Hawar News, May 25, 2020. Accessed July 24, 2020.

[90] Zelin, “The Islamic State in Libya Has Yet to Recover”; Emily Estelle and Samuel Bloebam, “Africa File: Egypt Threatens Military Intervention in Libya,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, June 25, 2020,

[91] Sudarsan Raghavan, “ISIS suicide bombers attack Libyan electoral commission, killing at least 12,” Washington Post, May 2, 2018,; Ahmed Elumami, “Gunmen attack headquarters of Libya’s state oil firm, two staff killed,” Reuters, September 10, 2018,

[92] Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” Council on Foreign Relations, March 27, 2015,

[93] Arturo Varvelli, “Islamic State's Reorganization in LIbya and Potential Consequences with Illegal Trafficking,” George Washington University, November 2017, 5, IS Reorganization in Libya and Trafficking.pdf.

[94] Dalia Ghanem, “Why Is AQIM Still a Regional Threat?” Al-Araby, March 23, 2016,

[95] “Samuel Laurent: “Le désert libyen est devenu un haut lieu de la contrebande et du terrorisme,” Radio France Internationale, June 9, 2013,

[96] United States Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” August 2012,

[97] Lydia Sizer, “Libya’s Terrorism Challenge: Assessing the Salafi-Jihadi Threat,” Middle East Institute, 2017, 24-30,

[98] “Libya,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, n.d.,

[99] “Who bombed Al Qaeda in southwest Libya?” The National, February 17, 2019,; Umberto Profazio, “Push for southern Libya tests ethnic ties and regional alliances,” The International Institute for Strategic Studies, March 15, 2019,

[100] Christopher M. Blanchard, “Libya: Conflict, Transition, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, June 26, 2020, 23,

[101] “Government in Libya's Capital Condemns Deadly Air Strikes,” Reuters, December 2, 2019,

[102] Manal Omar, “The Islamists are Coming,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, n.d.,

[103] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, International Religious Freedom Report for 2013, n.d.,; “Libya,” Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, January 12, 2017,

[104] U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report for 2013.

[105] Ragab Saad, “A Constitution That Doesn’t Protect Rights and Freedoms: Libya Writes Its Constitution,” Atlantic Council, August 3, 2017,

[106] U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report for 2013.

[107] Ragab Saad, “A Constitution That Doesn’t Protect Rights and Freedoms: Libya Writes Its Constitution.”

[108] Omar, “The Islamists are Coming.”

[109] Mohamed Eljarh, “In Post-Qaddafi Libya, It’s Stay Silent or Die,” Foreign Policy, September 24, 2014,

[110] Pargeter, “Political Islam in Libya.”

[111] Ibid.

[112] Manal Omar, “Libya: Rebuilding From Scratch,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, n.d.,

[113] Frederic Wehrey, “Quiet No More?”

[114] Ashour, “Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood faces the future.”

[115] Mary Fitzgerald, “A Current of Faith,” Foreign Policy, July 6, 2012,

[116] Camille Tawil, “Tripoli’s Islamist Militia Leader Turns to Politics in the New Libya,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 10, iss. 11, June 1, 2012,

[117] “Libya Publishes Parliamentary Election Results,” BBC, June 26, 2014,

[118] Wolfgang Pusztai, “The Failed Serraj Experiment of Libya,” Atlantic Council, March 31, 2017,

[119] Frederic Wehrey, “Whoever Controls Benghazi Controls Libya,” The Atlantic, July 1, 2017,

[120] Estelle, “The General’s Trap in Libya.”

[121] Karim Mezran and Elissa Miller, “Libya: From Intervention to Proxy War,” Atlantic Council, July 2017,

[122] Martin Chulov, “End of Tripoli siege raises fears of full-scale proxy war in Libya,” Guardian (London), June 26, 2020,

[123] Dorian Jones, “Turkey Faces Pressure as Libyan Conflict Widens,” Voice of America, July 21, 2020,

[124] “Libya slams Egypt parliament’s authorization of military intervention,” Daily Sabah, July 22, 2020,; Alaeddin Saleh, “Erdogan’s Libya Campaign Puts Africa on the Brink of War,” Modern Diplomacy, July 21, 2020,

[125] Mary Fitzgerald and Mattia Toaldo, “A quick guide to Libya’s main players,” European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017,

[126] Wehrey, “Whoever Controls Benghazi Controls Libya.”