Libyan Islamists and the security forces: Iraq 2.0?

The factionalization of the security forces is making the task of reigning in militias that remain independent of the central government difficult.

Libyan Military Training Exercise 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Libyan Military Training Exercise 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Libyan elections in July that saw a poor performance on the part of Islamist parties were justifiably hailed by many commentators, who saw Libya as a notable exception to the theory of a universal regional ascendancy for the Islamists. I myself had wrongly predicted that the Islamists would gain the lion’s share of the votes.
However, the election results should not lead to complacency.
As Reuters reports, armed Islamists have demolished Sufi shrines in Tripoli and Ziltan, with Libya’s Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A’al affirming that he would not want the security forces to engage in an armed confrontation with these religious radicals.
What’s more, the destruction of the shrine in Tripoli took place by day in the open, and many of the perpetrators are reportedly members of the very same security forces.
In my article on the outcome of the Libyan elections- “Rethinking Libya” (July 15 2012) – I suggested that looking at developments in Iraq post-2003 serves in many ways as a useful guide to understanding how things might pan out in Libya.
IN THIS particular case, analogy with Iraq is helpful, for it is clear that the post-Gaddafi Libyan security forces are being built up in much the same way as the new Iraqi security apparatus was created and developed following the fall of Saddam’s regime.
That is, facing a situation of chaos caused by competing militias, the post-Gaddafi Libyan government has understandably pursued a policy of trying to build up the new security forces as quickly as possible – an approach that was also adopted by the United States in Iraq.
However, the major problem is that the focus is on quantity, not quality, and so political factions and other ideologues can take advantage of the situation, flooding the ranks of the new security forces with their own partisans.
In Iraq, the result has been the large presence of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shi’a Islamist militiamen.
The former means that Baghdad cannot risk an armed clash with the Kurds, as illustrated by a recent stand-off between the two sides at the disputed Rabia bordercrossing town, located near the Syrian border. The incident resulted in no actual armed conflict.
As for the Shi’a Islamists, their presence in the security forces means that they can enforce their rules in many areas with impunity, something that was apparent in the reports earlier this year of targeted killings of dozens of “emos.” Even if the Iraqi government wanted to do something about this string of killings, it would likely refrain from action, lest elements of the security forces should effectively be at war with each other.
And so it is with Libya. Filling the ranks of the new security forces with their own partisans serves as a useful alternative to elections for Islamists to wield influence and authority in the country. In this context, the remarks of the General National Congress speaker Muhammad Magarief who – according to a McClatchy report – first alleged that those responsible for the acts of desecration of Sufi shrines “are unfortunately aligned with some in the Supreme Security Committee and exrevolutionaries.”
THE SAME report also notes admissions by the General National Congress that Gaddafi loyalists have infiltrated the security forces. This development provides an interesting contrast with the experience in Iraq where – in light of the de-Ba’athification process – loyalists to the prior regime have not been able to join the Iraqi security forces. Instead, they have simply been waging an active insurgency campaign against the government, most recently under the banner of the militant Naqshibandi movement that works with al-Qaida in Iraq.
At the same time, it should not be concluded that the Gaddafi loyalists are refraining from violence against the new order. Already they have been suspected of committing a series of car bomb attacks in Tripoli, and it is hardly implausible that they are behind such operations.
Indeed, entry into the security forces could be viewed as a mere stepping-stone to acquire the necessary weaponry and funding to begin an active insurgency campaign.
The factionalization of the security forces is not only allowing Islamist militants to get their way with impunity, but is also making the task of reigning in militias that remain independent of the central government all the more difficult. Low-level violence – with perhaps dozens of casualties on a monthly basis – looks set to dominate the Libyan scene for quite some time. On the other hand, this problem is unlikely to impede economic growth. As in Iraq, foreign investment will be deterred by violence, but the intact oil infrastructure that is unlikely to be dismantled will ensure that there is no shortage of money.
The writer is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is