LIFG: An Organization in Eclipse

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 21

The British government’s decision in October 2005 to designate the al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, LIFG) as a terrorist organization must have come as welcome news to Colonel Qadhafi, given that at its peak the group represented the strongest challenge the Libyan regime has ever faced. Indeed, Qadhafi had long been complaining that the British were hosting Libyan nationals intent on overthrowing his regime. While the U.S. government placed the LIFG on its list of designated terrorist organizations back in 2004, it appears to have taken the London bombings to push the British to follow suit.

Following this designation the British authorities arrested five members of the LIFG and, despite the protestations of human rights organizations, also signed an agreement with the Qadhafi regime that would enable the men to be deported to Libya. The deal marks a major success for the Libyan regime in its victory over the Islamists and, if the men are returned, it is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of what, for all intents and purposes, is a dying organization.

Crushing the LIFG in Libya

The LIFG was set up in Afghanistan in 1990 by a group of jihadists who had travelled to fight the Soviets during the 1980s. After the Soviet withdrawal the Libyans, like many other Arab mujahideen, turned their attention to establishing an Islamic state in their own country. Some of the group’s members returned to Libya in the early 1990s and began preparing themselves to launch an armed struggle against the Qadhafi regime. They took a long-term view, drawing new recruits to their cause and collecting sufficient weaponry and ammunition to enable them to mount a real challenge to the authorities. However, their cover was blown in 1995 after a bungled operation to rescue one of their members, Khalid Bekkish from hospital where he was under armed guard, led the authorities to discover a farm in the Benghazi area that was acting as a base for the group. This armed cell was run by Saleh al-Shaheibi who had deserted the Libyan army and who upon being discovered blew himself up to avoid capture [1].

The regime’s response upon discovering the existence of the LIFG was to embark upon a large-scale liquidation campaign. The group was able to put up enough of a fight to enter into a series of clashes with the security services and to launch an assassination attempt against Qadhafi, but the regime ultimately succeeded in killing or arresting a large number of the group’s members or sympathizers. Indeed, according to figures released this summer by the Qadhafi International Foundation for Charitable Associations that is run by Qadhafi’s son Sayf al-Islam, the regime is still holding 182 members of the LIFG in prison [2]. Others fled the country, and by the end of the 1990s, the LIFG had been more or less eliminated within Libya.

Forced Abroad

Following this crushing defeat, the LIFG existed primarily as a movement in exile. As such, their abilities have always been limited and their members scattered across a range of countries. Some who fled Libya returned to Afghanistan where the Taliban were happy to provide them with refuge and from where they hoped to regroup and focus their attention on taking the jihad to Libya. However, after the bombing of Afghanistan in November 2001 they were once again on the run. Many went to Iran and others fled further a-field to Europe or to Asia but this did not enable them to evade capture. Indeed, one of the biggest blows to the organization came in 2004 when two of its key members were handed over to the Libyan authorities. The group’s spiritual leader, Abu Munder al-Saidi was arrested in Hong Kong and its Emir, Abdullah Sadeq in Thailand. Both men were returned to Libya where they are reportedly under house arrest although their whereabouts have yet to be publicly confirmed by the regime.

Likewise, those who settled in Britain have also been limited in what they have been able to achieve. According to one Libyan Islamist, the organization’s members in the UK only number in the dozens [3]. It appears that these individuals abandoned the armed struggle long ago and were reduced to focusing their efforts on producing anti-regime propaganda and assisting other members of the organization based abroad by providing money and fake documents to help them settle in Europe. Indeed, according to the wife of one of the men arrested in the UK, her husband was engaged in “passport fraud to help his friends come to Britain to escape Qadhafi” [4]. The wife of another claimed her husband spent all his time on the Internet [5]. Accordingly, the arrests of the five men in Birmingham, Cardiff and London in October look more like a symbolic defeat for the remnants of a fading organization.

The Arabic media named the arrested men as Bashir el Fakhi, Ziyad Hashem al-Ruqai’i, Khalid Buslama al-Ilaqi, Nasir Buruaq and Ismail Kamoka, who spent a period in Belmarsh prison in relation to his alleged connections to Abu Qatada [6]. It seems that they were on a list of 25 members of the LIFG provided by the Libyan authorities to the UK in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The importance of these particular figures within the organization is not known, although Ziyad Hashem, also known as Shakir al-Ghaznawi and Imad al-Libi, is thought to be a member of the group’s media committee. In fact, allegations appeared in the Spanish media in August 2005 linking Hashem, as well as the imprisoned Emir Abdullah Sadeq, with the Tunisian Islamist Serhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, the suspected ringleader in the Madrid attacks [7]. The article, which cited a leaked Spanish police report, also claimed that Hashem was linked by marriage to the Moroccan Mustapha Maimouni, who is currently in detention in Morocco in connection with the Casablanca bombings. These allegations, however, do not appear to be substantiated.

National Agenda

The arrests have fuelled further speculation in the international media that the LIFG’s members were linked to international terrorism through al-Qaeda. This is a picture the Libyan regime is keen to promote. Indeed, the Libyan ambassador to the UK, Mohamed Belqasim Zwai, reportedly told the press this month that “we believe that all the LIFG members should be handed over to the Libyan authorities and not just a number of them because their presence will sooner or later pose a danger to Britain’s security due to their connections with the al-Qaeda organization” [8].

While the LIFG, like many other jihadist groups, may share the same aspirations and ideology as al-Qaeda, it has for the most part maintained a fairly consistent nationalistic approach. Although a number of Libyan individuals, such as Abu al-Faraj al-Libi who was arrested in Pakistan in 2005, appear to have thrown in their lot with bin Laden, the LIFG has focused its attention primarily on the situation inside Libya and its key objective continues to be removing Qadhafi from power.

The group has in fact been careful over the years to distance itself from bin Laden. Indeed, while they were in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the LIFG’s members preferred to ally themselves with Mullah Omar and the Taliban who were giving them protection rather than with bin Laden and Zawahiri, whom they accused of trying to create a state within a state in Afghanistan [9]. They also chose not to join al-Qaeda when they, like many other jihadists, moved to Sudan to take refuge in the early 1990s before being ejected a few years later at the request of the Libyan regime. While in Khartoum the group’s members fiercely retained their independence and, according to one Libyan Afghan veteran, Noman Benotman—currently one of the few sources of information on the group—their focus remained on fighting the “near enemy,” i.e., on overthrowing Qadhafi [10].

Algerian Experience

Following the Afghanistan experience, the LIFG maintained a localized and nationalist perspective in the context of the wider global jihad. In the early 1990s, the LIFG decided to join the struggle in Algeria by fighting alongside the GIA with whom they had built up close contacts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Noman Benotman, one of the reasons for going to fight in Algeria was to prevent the erosion of their members’ fighting skills after the war in Afghanistan. The other more important reason, however, was because the LIFG viewed Algeria as a “space behind” Libya that would act as a stepping stone for them to go on to fight in their own country [11].

With this in mind, in 1993 a number of LIFG members went to Algeria to survey the scene and to consult with the GIA. The following year, in collaboration with the GIA leadership, they sent a group of approximately 15 fighters into Algeria. Yet, this was to have disastrous consequences. After Djamal Zeitouni took over the GIA’s Emirship in September 1994 and the group’s tactics became increasingly brutal with Zeitouni advocating the indiscriminate killing of civilians, the Libyans began to object to the GIA’s stance. In a series of letters to the LIFG leadership that were written in secret ink and smuggled out of Algeria, the Libyan faction opposed to Zeitouni complained that certain elements of the GIA had deviated and that they had “no religion or manners” [12]. It seems that in response, the Libyans sided with a faction opposed to Zeitouni and as a result, a number of them were killed by the GIA, including one of the LIFG’s main military figures, Abu Sakhar al-Libi [13]. Others managed to escape and fled Algeria leaving the LIFG to regret the whole venture that had left some of their best fighters dead and had not enabled them to take the jihad back to Libya.

Conclusion

In fact, the LIFG was never able to rebuild any real strength inside Libya. Although Libyan radicals attempted to give a propaganda boost to their capabilities inside the country in 2005 by posting a series of warnings on Islamist websites claiming that Libya would be hit, this appears to be little more than fear mongering. Moreover reports that there are a few pockets of militants still fighting in the mountainous area around Derna are unconfirmed and it seems that those fighting may simply be small cells of individuals rather than any organized group. In any case, their strength is minimal.

It seems therefore that the LIFG’s decision to concentrate on national goals and to distance itself from al-Qaeda did little to help them in its struggle against the Qadhafi regime and was not sufficient either to prevent it from coming up against the wrath of Western governments in the war against terrorism.

Notes

1. “Al-Afghan al-Libyoun: Kasat iliyan al-Jama’a wa bina al-khalaya wa tikal al-Emir awal [The Libyan Afghans: The Story of the declaration of the group, the setting up of their cells and the arrest of the first Emir]” Part 2 of 5, al-Hayat, September 16, 2005.

2. Available in Arabic on http://www.gaddaficharity.org/

3. “Usuliyoun Libioun muqimoun fi Britania yakshown taslimahom ila biladihim. [Libyan fundamentalists residing in Britain fear being handed over to Libya]”. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 24, 2005.

4. “Families fear detained men will be killed by Gadafy regime”, The Guardian, October 19, 2005.

5. Ibid

6. “Britania tajeri mohadathat ma Libya litisslimaha hamza min al-Jama’a al-Islamiya al-Muqatila urtukulu al-ithnain al-mathi [Britain is negotiating with Libya to hand over five members of the Islamic Fighting Group arrested last Monday]” al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 5, 2005, Issue 9808.

7. “La Policía Revela Conexiones De “El Tunecino” Con Terroristas Libios Asentados En China”, ABC, August 1, 2005.

8. “Usuliyoun Libioun muqimoun fi Britania yakshown taslimahom ila biladihim. [Libyan fundamentalists residing in Britain fear being handed over to Libya].” Al-Sharq al-Awsat October 24, 2005.

9. From the LIFG website, www.almuqatila.com

10. “Al-Afghan al-Libyoun:Mohattaat al-Muqatila wa khilaf Zeitouni ma al-Qa’ida. [The Libyan Afghans: Muqatila’s base and differences between Zeitouni and Al-Qaeda]” Part 4 of 5. Al-Hayat. September 18, 2005.

11. “Al-Afghan al-Libyoun: Jithour al-Muqatila fi Jama’t Zwawi. [The Libyan Afghans: The roots of al-Muqatila lie in Zwawi’s group.]” Part 1 of 5, Al-Hayat September 15, 2005.

12. “Al-Afghan al-Libyoun: Abu Mu’ath wa Abu Whabsa awal al-Wasalyeen wa al Hattab rataba luwusoul 15 muqatilan al-tahaku bi Djamal Zeitouni waktafu [The Libyan Afghans: Abu Mu’ath and Abu Whabsa were the first arrivals and Hattab arranged the arrival of 15 fighters that joined Djamal Zeitouni and disappeared.]” Part 3 of 5, Al-Hayat, September 17, 2005.

13. “Al-Afghan al-Libyoun: Al-Muqatila tufawouth al-Jama’a wa mufidouha yafrouna min Zeitouni. [The Libyan Afghans: Al-Muqatila negotiates with the GIA and its envoys escape from Zeitouni.]” Part 5 of 5. Al-Hayat September 19, 2005.