Al-Qaeda, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Jihad in North Africa

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 39

Ayman al-Zawahiri

On November 3, 2007, a new video from al-Qaeda media production house as-Sahab was circulated on jihadi forums. Entitled “Unity of the Ranks,” the video featured senior al-Qaeda leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Laith al-Libi. This video marked the announcement of the long anticipated merger between al-Qaeda and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya al-Muqatila (The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG). Although the LIFG has been in existence since the mid-1990s and has long been loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda through various avenues, that the merger would be announced at this point highlights several key issues about al-Qaeda’s strategy and the state of jihad in North Africa.

The LIFG merger calls into question al-Qaeda’s perception of its other affiliate in the region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Born out of the merger between the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) and al-Qaeda in September 2006, AQIM rose to prominence with several attacks throughout 2007, highlighted by the April 11 bombings in Algiers. Through its rhetoric, operations and indeed its chosen name, AQIM was meant to be al-Qaeda’s pan-Maghreb affiliate, bringing unity among the various jihadi groups and movements in North Africa, to say nothing of the North African networks in Europe.

However, since late August, AQIM has been beset with leadership issues in part due to the group’s use of martyrdom operations and a sustained campaign by the Algiers government (see Terrorism Monitor, September 13). These troubles have continued with the arrest or detention of numerous AQIM figures, including the head of AQIM’s Algiers operations Bouderbala Fateh (Echorouk, November 19), Djemai Boualem in Bejaia province (El Watan, November 12), and Sofiane El-Fassila, a key leader behind AQIM’s suicide operations (Liberte, October 9). Algerian security forces also killed Abdelhamid Saadaoui, alias Abu Yahia al-Haytham, a senior figure in AQIM and a close supporter of AQIM emir Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wadoud. All of this has contributed to a severe weakening of the group and a steady decline of its major operations and its overall potency in Algeria.

That LIFG merged with al-Qaeda rather than with AQIM perhaps highlights this point and indicates al-Qaeda’s lack of faith in AQIM. Al-Libi even noted the clear division between the groups in his statement, despite several Libyans having been found among AQIM’s ranks in recent months (Echorouk, October 27). Al-Libi’s claim that LIFG will be raising the “the banner of monotheism and jihad…over Libya side by side with our brothers of the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb” reinforces the notion that LIFG will be operating autonomously of AQIM.

Although it may appear useful to compare al-Qaeda’s merger with LIFG to the al-Qaeda merger with the GSPC, the comparison breaks down on two key points. First, the GSPC did not enjoy the type of high-level connectivity with core al-Qaeda members that LIFG has. This point is underscored in the merger video by al-Libi’s presence in Afghanistan and his reported connections with al-Qaeda (Al-Ra’y al-Amm, September 6). Secondly, the LIFG has not waged a continuous struggle against the Libyan government as the GSPC did. This is important as LIFG is less likely to have established operational resources and procurement methods in Libya.

The above factors and AQIM’s recent instability raise questions about the ability of LIFG to wage a sustained campaign. This is furthered by the Libyan government’s previous success in eradicating LIFG after group members initiated hostilities in 1995 in northeastern Libya. Although it took several years, Muammar Qadhafi’s security forces defeated the group and forced many members to go underground or emigrate. This display of force and Triploli’s desire to suppress insurrection—especially as foreign investment has recently begun flowing in—very likely translates into a similar outcome should LIFG commence operations within Libya.

Although it is far too early to draw conclusions, these points might indicate that the merger is intended not merely as a joining of organizations but rather as a symbolic union between the core of al-Qaeda and the Libyan cabal—or at least a particular subset thereof—in the global jihad. Thus, a more useful comparison might be the August 2006 merger between al-Qaeda and Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaimah’s faction of the Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG) (see Terrorism Focus, September 12, 2006). The LIFG, like the EIG, has been largely dormant for several years after incurring severe setbacks. Furthermore, much as al-Hakaimah does not seem to represent the core of the EIG, Al-Libi is also believed to represent only a minority within the LIFG. Finally, al-Libi, even more so than al-Hakaimah, has been linked personally to core al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan, leading some to conclude the merger is less about Libya and more about al-Qaeda shoring up its military command structure (Al-Ra’y al-Amm, September 6).