ON THE FRONT LINES IN EASTERN LIBYA
Nicholas A. Heras
The international coalition to combat the Islamic State (IS) has begun to expand its operations inside Libya in order to contain the growing power of the militant Salafist organization. Several coalition countries, led by the United States, France, and Great Britain, have deployed Special Forces to network with, assess, vet, and provide support for local Libyan armed groups that are fighting the IS. This effort is particularly focusing on supporting anti-IS forces in two of Libya’s most important cities — Benghazi on the central eastern coast and Misrata on the central western coast (Al-Hurra, May 17; Asharq Alawsat, May 14).
Along with these military efforts, international actors led by the United Nations, European Union, and the United States are seeking to empower the newly formed Government of National Unity (GNA), headed by its new Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, to be the predominant political and security actor in Libya and the coordinator of the local Libyan anti-IS forces (Al-Arabiyya [Dubai], May 17; Associated Press, May 6). These efforts at consolidating the GNA’s power in the country, and making it the lead anti-IS force, are complicated by the reality that the new unity government is still in an incipient state. Furthermore, rival governments to the GNA, such as the formerly Tripoli-based National Salvation government, and powerful local militia actors throughout Libya are waging their own independent campaigns against the Islamic State.
WAGING THE ANTI-ISIS CAMPAIGN IN TRIPOLI: A SHORT PROFILE OF KHALIFA AL-GHAWEIL OF THE NATIONAL SALVATION GOVERNMENT
Khalifa al-Ghaweil is the prime minister of the National Salvation government, although he maintains a national security portfolio similar to that of a defense minister. A major rival to the GNA, he is a major force preventing the newly formed government from consolidating its power. Frequently portrayed as simultaneously a technocratic and a militant leader, al-Ghaweil, 53, is a native of the city of Misrata. Prior to the start of the Libyan revolution against the Gaddafi government in February 2011, al-Ghaweil worked in the field of engineering for the Gaddafi government and in the private sector (El-Watan News [Tripoli], June 1, 2015). Shortly after the start of the Libyan revolution, al-Ghaweil joined the opposition movement in Misrata, although he was not a militia commander or an active combatant in the civil war. After the defeat of the Gaddafi government and its collapse in October 2011, al-Ghaweil became active in local politics in Misrata, which eventually led to his election as a member of the Misrata City Board of Directors, an influential local council, in June 2014 (El-Watan News [Tripoli], June 1, 2015). After the Libyan Dawn coalition seized control of Tripoli, in no small part thanks to the participation of Misratan militias, al-Ghaweil traveled from Misrata to Tripoli, where he became a deputy prime minister and a national security adviser to Omar al-Hassi, the prime minister of the newly-empowered National Salvation government (Al-Jazeera [Doha], August 12, 2015; El-Watan News [Tripoli], June 1, 2015).
Al-Hassi faced significant challenges to his authority, including a scandal concerning his misrepresentation of the financial health of his government, and he was forced to resign as prime minister of the National Salvation government in March 2015 (As-Sabah News [Tripoli], March 31, 2015). Al-Ghaweil succeeded al-Hassi as prime minister of the National Salvation government in late March 2015, although al-Ghaweil was initially supposed to succeed al-Hassi only for an interim period (Al-Jazeera [Doha], August 12, 2015; Libya Ministry of Defense, June 8, 2015; Al-Jazeera [Doha], April 2, 2015). Since assuming the position of prime minister of the National Salvation government, al-Ghaweil has tried to assert his authority over the disparate militia networks that had been part of the Libyan Dawn coalition, particularly those from his native Misrata. The Misratan militias are believed to number 65,000 fighters, the largest and most powerful fighting force in Libya, and to include a significant number of veterans of the civil war against Gaddafi. Through its large and generally coordinated militia coalition, the city of Misrata has strong influence over the security system in, and therefore the politics of, Tripoli (McClatchy, March 30, 2015; Washington Post, February 24, 2015; Al-Jazeera [Doha], June 2, 2014).
The international community’s general reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Tripoli-based National Salvation government, in tandem with the general difficulty of coordinating a loose alliance of localized militia organizations to become a national security force with authority over the entire country, have been long running challenges for al-Ghaweil. In spite of these challenges, al-Ghaweil has consistently tried to portray the Libyan Dawn coalition, with its strong Misratan component, as a national security organization for all Libyans and the foundation of the National Salvation government’s legitimacy (Bild, May 28, 2015; Al-Hayat, May 8, 2015). Recently, he has been more assertive in trying to direct the Libyan Dawn forces, particularly the militia coalition from Misrata, to conduct a campaign against the Islamic State in and around Sirte, as IS represents an existential threat to the governance and militia leaders of Misrata (Al-Arabiyya [Dubai], May 6; Al-Hurra, April 20; Al-Arabiyya [Dubai], February 18).
In contrast, Al-Ghawil’s critics, both inside and outside Libya, assert that he has been an ineffectual leader for the National Salvation government and a poor analyst of the security threats facing the country who was slow to acknowledge the rise of IS inside of Libya (Al-Wasat [Tripoli], March 25). While he is not the only major high profile Libyan leader to resist the implementation of the GNA, al-Ghaweil has been a particular target of international pressure due to his aggressive public resistance to the GNA. Al-Ghaweil was personally sanctioned by both the European Union and the United States in April 2016 for refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the U.N.-backed unity government, pressure that may have led to his personal decision to leave Tripoli and to return to Misrata (Al-Arabiyya [Dubai], January 27).
Divisions among Misrata’s powerbrokers, including those in its powerful militia coalition, and the pressure that some of these Misratan leaders has put on al-Ghaweil to withdraw from Tripoli and recognize the GNA, may also have influenced his decision to leave the capital (Libya Herald [Misrata], March 21; Libya Observer, March 20; Al-Raseefa [Misrata], October 13, 2015). Some factions in Misrata, including with it militia coalition, have been pushing to recognize the national unity government. Even so, al-Ghaweil has not changed his rhetoric toward the GNA or its backers. Al-Ghaweil continues to assert that the national unity government lacks legitimacy, betrays the revolution in favor of former Gaddafi loyalists, and was forced on the Libyan people by foreigners (Radio Sawa [Tripoli], April 4; Libyan Observer [Tripoli], March 30). In response to public declarations of support for the GNA from within the National Salvation government’s national security committee, al-Ghaweil issued a decree in January 2016 that sought the arrest of individuals on that committee, arguing that they were violating the law by seeking to undermine the legitimate National Salvation government (Akhbar Libya [Tripoli], January 16).
Al-Ghaweil has also been a harsh critic of the United Nations’ role in the diplomatic process to form the GNA. He has asserted that the U.N. is biased and involved in a conspiracy to remove the National Salvation government, particularly through the influence of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has been a strong backer of the National Salvation government’s opponents, and the former lead U.N. negotiator for the process to form the unity government, Bernardino Leon, was hired to head the Emirates Diplomatic Academy while he was still the U.N.’s lead negotiator. Given the timing of Leon’s hiring by the UAE, the National Salvation government under al-Ghaweil’s leadership accused the U.N. of being allied with its opponents and not an honest broker in the diplomatic process (Al-Ayam [Tripoli], April 6; Al-Jazeera [Doha], November 6, 2015).
Al-Ghaweil’s continued refusal to support the GNA is an obstacle to its full consolidation, especially due to the national unity government’s early struggles to establish a presence in Tripoli, which continues to have a security infrastructure that is mobilized from militias hostile to the GNA. The Misratan militias that remain powerful in Tripoli, such as the Misrata Military Council led by Salah al-Din Badi, have yet to provide support for Fayez Serraj, a situation that could present an opportunity for al-Ghaweil to reassert his authority in the city (Akhbar Libya [Tripoli], May 24; see MLM Briefs, March 31, 2016).
The GNA’s success in asserting its presence inside of Tripoli, claiming the city as its capital, and effectively uniting Libya’s disparate militias into a national security infrastructure to combat the Islamic State, will likely depend on Misrata’s forces accepting the GNA. The Misratan militias, while not the only anti-IS armed groups actively confronting the advances of the Islamic State, are currently being mobilized by Fayez Serraj against IS and are the core component of the military force in the GNA’s first and vitally important anti-IS campaign. Al-Ghaweil’s position as a powerbroker in Tripoli, and therefore within Libya more broadly, depends on the support of Misrata’s militias and the city’s local leadership.
His current position is tenuous due to the uncertainty over whether the majority of the Misratan militias will accede to the GNA or oppose it if it demonstrates it is ineffective. Al-Ghaweil, however, continues to maintain close and continuing social networks in Misrata, and he is not without a social support base in the city. While al-Ghaweil will probably not win a standoff with the international community over supporting the unity government, he and his allies can make it difficult for the GNA to form the national security architecture required for long-term stability and unity in Libya.
WAGING THE ANTI-ISIS CAMPAIGN IN BENGAZI: A BRIEF PROFILE OF SALAFIST COMMANDER ISMAIL MUHAMMAD AL-SALABI
One of the main forces opposing the Islamic State in the area of Benghazi is the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council, a coalition of militant Salafist groups. That coalition has been under severe pressure in recent months from both the Islamic State and forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. These local forces in Benghazi are currently being vetted by Special Forces from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other European nations for their suitability as partners in an anti-IS train, assistance, and support mission (Al-Hurra, May 17; Asharq Alawsat, May 14; Al-Arabiya [Dubai], March 4).
The Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council, which remains resistant to the authority of the GNA, incorporates three of the most prominent militant Salafist armed organizations in eastern Libya, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, the February 17 Brigade, and the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade. The coalition’s overall commander is Ismail Muhammad al-Salabi, the leader of the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, who is one of the most prominent Islamist militia leaders in Libya with strong connections to states influencing the Libyan conflict, especially Qatar (Al-Hayat, February 12).
Al-Salabi, 39, a native of the Barga suburb of Benghazi, was one of the most noteworthy armed opposition leaders during the 2011 civil war against Gaddafi government forces. He is generally credited with being a primary organizer of Benghazi’s resistance against Gaddafi forces just prior to NATO’S intervention in the conflict (European Parliament, January 29; YouTube, June 28, 2013; Reuters, September 4, 2011). His family was prominent in Islamist activist circles in Benghazi prior to the defeat of the Gaddafi government. Al-Salabi’s father is believed to be a founder of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s, while his brother is alleged to have strong Qatari ties and to be one of the most prominent thought-leaders in the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, as well as within the broader Islamist movement in eastern Libya (Sky News Arabia [Benghazi], August 27, 2014; Facebook, May 28, 2014; YouTube, June 28, 2013; Le Monde, August 30, 2011).
Al-Salabi was arrested by the Gaddafi government in 1997 for participating in a Benghazi-based clandestine network that provided shelter for Libyan Islamist dissidents, including those from the al-Qaeda linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). He was sentenced to six years in the notorious Abu Salim prison (YouTube, June 28, 2013; Le Monde, August 30, 2011). He said that while in prison, he became an Islamist activist and met and became close friends with two brothers of Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, one of the most prominent Libyan jihadists that fought in Afghanistan and an important LIFG commander before the 2011 Libyan civil war (Le Monde, August 30, 2011).
After the outbreak of the revolution against the Gaddafi government in February 2011, al-Salabi became a commander in the Benghazi area’s powerful February 17 Brigade. He later helped mobilize the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade from fighters that belonged to the February 17 Brigade (YouTube, June 28, 2013). The Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, which is named after a prominent Benghazi-area militant Salafist martyr, is estimated to number between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters and believed to be a primary recipient of Qatari financial and military support since 2011. The armed group under al-Salabi’s leadership networks aligns closely with other militant Salafist organizations and has maintained close and continuing ties with the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia (Sky News Arabia [Benghazi], August 27, 2014; Al-Ahram [Cairo], April 1, 2013). Al-Salabi has positioned the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade in opposition to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives government. As a result, the armed organization has been involved in fierce clashes in and around Benghazi with forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar (Asharq Al-Awsat, May 17, 2014).
Al-Salabi has been careful to position himself and his organization to the Western media as being Islamists seeking to work towards a society based on sharia through the democratic process and as vital partners to the international community to establish stability in Libya (The New York Times, October 13, 2012; Washington Post, September 24, 2012; The New York Times, September 15, 2012). The Rafallah al-Shati Brigade, however, has been the target of angry demonstrations by local Benghazi residents as a result of the militia’s behavior, including allegations of detaining civilians and placing them in militia-run prisons (Al-Yaum [Benghazi], May 30, 2014).
Al-Salabi’s opponents, including the Egyptian government, have also presented an alternative narrative, depicting him as a key node in al-Qaeda’s Libya network and as an important agent working on behalf of Qatar’s, Turkey’s, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s joint agenda in North Africa and in Syria. He is accused by the Egyptians and their Libyan allies of working with Qatar and Turkey to facilitate the movement of Libyan jihadists to join al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned rebel groups in Syria and of organizing an armed opposition army out of disaffected Egyptian Islamists— the “Free Egyptian Army”—to overthrow the al-Sisi government in Egypt (Al-Dostor [Cairo], May 30, 2014; El-Saba7 [Cairo], May 5, 2014; YouTube, April 16, 2014; Al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 10, 2014).
Al-Salabi is an important leader in the militant Salafist armed opposition movement that opposes IS in the area of Benghazi, which is a frontline in the battle to prevent the expansion of IS in Libya. His leadership within the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council will be essential to prevent the collapse of the armed opposition coalition from internal tensions related to the ferocity of the fighting against multiple enemies in and around the city. The strength of al-Salabi’s prominent role in Islamist civil society in the area of Benghazi, including his family’s leading role in Islamist circles in the city and support for him by foreign sponsors, will be tested by rising dissension within the ranks of the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council from proponents of the Islamic State’s vision for Libya.
Nicholas A. Heras is a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security and an associate fellow at The Jamestown Foundation.