One of the biggest questions and worries the past year in Western counterterrorism circles has been about how the MENA uprisings would affect al-Qa’ida. Many pointed to the uprisings as evidence that the citizens of the MENA were not only shedding off the yoke of tyranny, but also discrediting al-Qa’ida. On the other side of the debate were those that believed that it would provide the impetus for jihadis to take over. Throughout the past ten months I have maintained that one would see something more in between these two visions and that one should focus on the internal dynamics of each country. The three countries that have worried me the most are Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Gregory Johnsen has done a great job keeping everyone updated on al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s evolution and advances in Yemen. Additionally, I have a forthcoming post at al-Wasat about the potential for jihadi penetration in the Syrian theater if the country does indeed devolve into a civil war. This post will therefore only focus on Libya and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib’s (AQIM) outreach to Libyans since the beginning of the Libyan uprising in February.
Co-editor of al-Wasat and specialist on AQIM and North Africa, Andrew Lebovich, has written some excellent pieces related to AQIM, the Libya conflict, and the seizing of weapons, which you can read here (4/4/11), here (6/19/11),here (9/8/11), and here (9/27/11). Lebovich’s two main arguments stated:
It is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011 … AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad. (4/4/11)
The place where these weapons really could make a difference is northern Algeria, where AQIM has conducted a persistent IED campaign for years against Algeria’s army, police and gendarmerie. (6/19/11)
Indeed, I believe Lebovich’s argument has many merits, yet it is only one aspect of the broader picture. It is also worth noting AQIM’s media strategy since the beginning of the Libyan conflict. It is also necessary to re-visit and reassess how the Iraq jihad played a role in the Libyan jihadi community. Although AQIM is known for its history in Algeria and its attempts in recent years to infiltrate and gain influence in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger since the beginning of the MENA uprisings AQIM has zeroed in on Libya as if they smell blood in the water. Prior to the MENA uprisings AQIM (to my knowledge) never released anything dealing with Libya specifically. Since the beginning of the MENA uprisings, AQIM has released seven statements and/or videos related to the uprisings. Four of which dealt with Libya, two on Tunisia, and one related to Algeria (see chart below). It is crucial to point out that the releases on Tunisia and Algeria were all published in January. Therefore, all of AQIM’s focus on the MENA uprisings since late February — when they released their first statement on the then impending Libyan civil war — has solely dealt with Libya. This shows a genuine interest by AQIM in the Libyan theater and potentially, though not definitely, a calculation that they could make inroads.
At first, I had trouble accepting that AQIM could possibly make any inroads in Libya. One of the main reasons has to do with the Algerians’ checkered past with the Libyans during the 1990s in the age of the local jihad. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into detail about it, but I would suggest reading Camille Tawil’s excellent book Brothers In Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists, which provides rich detail of the issues between the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) and the LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) during the Algerian civil war. To put it mildly the Libyans had a bitter taste in their mouth toward the Algerians. Another reason that led me to initial skepticism was that the LIFG underwent revisions in the latter half of the previous decade, which to a certain extent moderated the leadership and members who were jailed in the group.
It also does not also necessarily account for Libyan foreign fighters in the Iraq jihad, though. According the Sinjar Records, which should be taken as a random sample of foreign fighters at the height of the Iraq jihad, the average age of the fighters were 24‐25 years old and the median age was 22‐23 years old. This would suggest that the Libyan fighters that survived the fight and did not become a suicide bomber or die in battle and returned to Libya were too young in the 1990s to get caught up in the arrests and sweeps against the LIFG. It would also suggest that the LIFG did not necessarily have sway ideologically on this new generation of Libyan jihadis. Moreover, the revisions were done with explicit coordination with the Qadhafi regime, which in the current environment calls into question those that engaged with that regime. It will also test al-Qa’ida’s current amir Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s theory that the revisions by the LIFG as well as others in Egypt and elsewhere were insincere based on pressures from various regimes. Either way, it could be argued that two ideological trends were taking hold simultaneously within the Libyan jihadi community. The first generation of Libyan jihadis were “moderating” their doctrine while the second generation was exposed to the virulent ideology of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. This twin phenomenon would have been masked by Qadhafi’s suppressive policies, which have only been exposed since his fall.
It should be noted that this does not necessarily provide wholesale proof that there is going to be some type of jihadi takeover of the Libyan government. That said, there are new data points that should be analyzed in light of the previous paragraph. It was pointed out to me Sunday on Twitter by al-Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom that the admin of the official Facebook page of the Libyan uprising (17 February Intifada) posted AQIM’s most recent video message from Shaykh al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi. This is no doubt a worrying sign.
Additionally, this past Friday a picture in Benghazi that showed the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq flag hanging over a court building raised some alarms in the media. My initial reaction was that it most likely was a souvenir from the Iraq jihad and that it may not seem as much of a provocation as many would think since it has the shahdah (Muslim testament of faith) on it, which could signal the renewal of Islam in society. On Sunday the jihadi forums posted two videos of a caravan of cars and then marchers carrying similar flags as well as others linked to AQ. This made me rethink my initial reaction to the flag controversy, which led me to what I believe is a more nuanced take in the paragraph above that outlines how Libyan foreign fighters were exposed to AQI’s ideology. Although the LIFG’s trajectory following the Libyan uprising appears to conform to their moderation during their revision process since they have changed their group name to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change, the second generation of jihadis now that Qadhafi is dead are slowly flexing their muscle in a society rife with violence, revenge, and potential tribal war. There are still many blind spots and it is too early to conclude anything definitive, but further influence of AQIM should be watched closely.