Libya and the anti-Islamist struggle

Since taking control in Tripoli the self-appointed Libya Dawn government has torched the homes of dozens of rival politicians and cracked down on critical media.

Libyan Army Forces. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Libyan Army Forces.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Back in 1969 Muammar al-Gaddafi, universally known as Colonel Gaddafi, led a coup d'état in Libya and subsequently ruled the country for forty-two years. He was overthrown in October 2012, a victim of the so-called “Arab Spring” – the upsurge of the Arab masses, protesting against the corrupt dictatorships under which most had lived for decades – and ever since Libya has been unable to achieve stability.
Today it is on the brink of a civil conflict no less unrestrained and bloody than that in strife-ridden Syria. Like Syria, Libya is currently a battlefield over which diverse armed groups, each intent on achieving its own ends, run amok. It, too, is plagued by Islamist extremists on the rampage, intent on destroying every vestige of democratic rule and substituting their own inhumane and soul-destroying version of Sharia law.
Having endured more than four decades of authoritarian rule, even the moderates in Libya have little understanding of democracy, while those aligned to Islamist interests positively reject it. As a result, Libya has had five governments since its revolution. In June 2014 it held its second democratic election since Gaddafi's overthrow. Islamist political groups participated, but won only about 30 of the 188 parliamentary seats. Consequently the poll was not only unsuccessful in achieving a stable administration, but resulted in quite the reverse.  For having failed to gain popular support, an umbrella group of Islamist militias known as Libya Dawn took to the streets in August, and virtually captured the capital, Tripoli.
What followed was a breakdown of law, order and established government. The democratically elected – and internationally recognized – prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, and most of his ministers and government officials fled the city with their families, and Libya Dawn set up a rival Islamist administration led by Omar al-Hassi, a hardline former al-Qaida affiliate. As a result, Thinni has been forced to run a rump state from a grey concrete hotel in the eastern city of Tobruk, some 900 miles from the capital.
True to Islamist form, since taking control in Tripoli the self-appointed Libya Dawn government has torched the homes of dozens of rival politicians, cracked down on critical media and, according to human rights groups and the UN, hounded civil activists out of the country. Libya Dawn has also forced the central bank to stop the flow of funds to the internationally recognized parliament, alarming other governments who fear that Libya’s vast oil wealth could bolster the resources of Islamist organizations.
The oil dimension to the civil unrest in Libya surfaced again last week, following a determined attempt by Libya Dawn – mirroring IS strategy in Iraq – to grab control of the country’s sizeable oil reserves. On Christmas Day Libya Dawn attacked the country’s largest oil terminal at Es Sider, setting five giant oil storage bunkers ablaze. In apparent revenge, jets of the Libyan Air Force, under the control of General Khalifa Heftar, launched a missile attack on the international airport at Misrata, a Libya Dawn stronghold. At Es Sider, one of Libya’s main export hubs, Libyan officials said that 850,000 barrels of crude oil had been lost in the fire.
Once the largest oil producer in Africa, Libya’s output – 1.59 million barrels per day at the end of 2010 – is thought to have dropped to as low as 352,000 barrels per day since the current outbreak of violence. Curiously, this particular cloud has a silver lining – at least as far as the oil producers are concerned. Fear over the reliability of oil supplies from Libya could have the positive effect of putting a floor under the tumbling world price of crude, which has lost about 45 percent of its value since the middle of 2014. Whether energy consumers, filling their cars or paying their gas bills, will benefit is less certain.
More to the point is evidence of a growing association between Libya’s Islamist extremists and the Islamic State (IS), currently wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq. In the dying days of 2014 the commander of US armed forces in Africa, General David Rodriguez, revealed that several hundred IS militants were in training camps in eastern Libya, now under the control of Libya Dawn. IS loyalists have also been noted in the coastal city of Derna and the adjacent Green Mountain range. In November the UN Security Council, learning that the Derna branch of the Libyan Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia had pledged allegiance to IS, declared it a terrorist organization.
“Training camps are seen and heard by everybody,” said Adel al-Faydi, a tribal leader from a town near Derna. “They include large numbers from many nationalities who reached Libya by sea. Now they are not hiding, they are out and about in the city.” He said that IS fighters and their jihadi allies recently gave Libyan tribal leaders a three-day ultimatum to withdraw their support to the government’s operations, “otherwise they'll assassinate them. That’s why we expect the violence to escalate in the coming days.”
Just like the IS in Iraq and Syria, Libya Dawn and its affiliates are intent on establishing their own regime across the country. The parallels are chilling. So far Libya’s three main cities – Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi – have fallen into their hands. Libya Dawn “want their own version of what an Islamic state should look like,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan commentator, quoting the words of Sadegh al-Gheriani, Libya’s grand mufti, an outspoken supporter of the Islamist militias, who has issued edicts demanding gender segregation and barring women from marrying foreigners.
In a classic political maneuver, Mohamed Zarroq, a Benghazi-based Islamist and co-founder of the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, claims: “People support Libya Dawn because they believe in what they are doing, They are cleansing the security forces of Gaddafi loyalists.”
Who, except for the crippled government holed up in Tobruk, is opposing these destructive Islamists? Only a loose alliance going under the generic title of the Dignity Movement, composed of liberal political factions, militias from the western city of Zintan and armed forces loyal to General Haftar. They are fighting what might be described as a rearguard action. Just like the democratic forces opposing IS in Syria and Iraq, they need all the help they can muster, both political and military. Let us hope it will be forthcoming.
The writer’s new book is titled: The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014. He writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (