Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 6

Libya is an orthodox Sunni Muslim country that broadly follows the Maliki school. Like all the countries of North Africa, Libya experienced an Islamist revival from the late 1970s onwards that expressed itself predominantly through the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Muslimeen) as well as through a number of more militant groups. Whilst the regime had more-or-less managed to stamp out these groups by the end of the 1990s, there remains a strong sympathy for their ideologies among the Libyan population.

The Early Years

After coming to power in 1969, Muammar Qadhafi made Islam, along with Arab nationalism and socialism, one of the key tenets of his new revolutionary state. He introduced his own particular political system – the Jamahiriyah (state of the masses) in which he outlawed political parties and made it clear that he would not tolerate any organized politicized group, including those of an Islamic nature. In a bid to rid his country of what he viewed as the corrupt practices of the former monarchy, that had derived much of its religious legitimacy through its links to the Senussi order – a Sufist movement that was established in Libya in the late 19th century – the new leader also implemented a series of Islamic reforms. However his unorthodox ideas about Islam soon drew criticism from the religious establishment. As a result, Qadhafi took steps to undermine the authority of the ulema, prompting many to flee the country. Others who remained and who continued to voice their criticisms of the regime, such as the highly popular imam of Tripoli Sheikh al-Bishti, simply “disappeared”.

One of the regime’s early targets was the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Muslimeen), which first appeared in Libya in the 1950s. The Libyan branch was founded by Dr. Ezadine Ibrahim and a number of other Egyptians who were given refuge by the former Libyan King Idris after fleeing persecution in Egypt. [1] The King allowed them a relative degree of freedom to spread their ideology and the movement soon attracted a number of Libyan adherents. It gained further momentum through Egyptian teachers working in Libya. Qadhafi, however, took a less accommodating stance and regarded the Brotherhood as a potential source of opposition. Soon after coming to power, he arrested a number of Egyptian brothers and forced them back to Egypt. In 1973, the security services arrested and tortured members of the Libyan Brotherhood, who, under pressure, agreed to dissolve the organisation. Some fled the country, including Abdullah Busen, who was at one time imprisoned with the Egyptian Brotherhood ideologist, Sayid Qutb. [2] As a result, the Brotherhood remained silent throughout the remainder of the 1970s.

The 1980s

By the start of the 1980s however, the Brotherhood , which had renamed itself the Libyan Islamic Group (Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya al-Libyia) and who aspired to replace the existing regime with sharia law through peaceful means, were beginning to gather a following once again. The group was given a boost by a number of Libyan students who had gone abroad to study in the UK and the U.S., where they were exposed to a range of Islamist ideas. These students returned to Libya and began to spread the Brotherhood ideology. The movement operated covertly in groups of interlinked cells that were spread throughout the country. Much of the group’s popular appeal was drawn from the fact that its members carried out charitable and welfare work. It attracted in particular members of the middle classes – primarily academics, students, engineers and those involved in commerce. The movement was especially strong in the east of the country in and around the city of Benghazi where the main tribes have traditionally opposed Qadhafi’s rule. Moreover, the population in the east is particularly conservative and open to the type of ideology promoted by the Brotherhood.

The regime continued to take an uncompromising stance towards the movement, executing one of its members in Tripoli in 1983. More famously, in 1986 it arrested a group of nine Islamists, reportedly members of the Brotherhood, and accused them of murdering a high-ranking security official. The following year, six of them were publicly hanged in Benghazi sports stadium and their executions televised. Despite these setbacks the group continued to gather momentum.

The 1980s also witnessed a more militant strand of politicised Islam taking root inside the country. A group of jihadists began gathering around the leadership of Emir Awatha Al-Zuwawi who travelled around the country preaching jihad. It was a highly secretive movement, with no official name and it was spread across a number of Libyan cities. Unlike the Brotherhood, it advocated launching military operations against the regime in order to overthrow Qadhafi. To this end, it worked covertly to acquire weapons and ammunition and according to one prominent Libyan Islamist, Abu Munder al-Saadi, its job was to “monitor targets against which the organisation could begin its military operations such as well known people in the Libyan security services or the Revolutionary Committees.” [3] The group engaged in a long term preparation for its military campaign and as part of its strategy, many of its members seized the opportunity to go to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, where they and other Libyans set up their own camp and underwent military training. Many returned to Libya to launch attacks against the regime, but by 1989 the authorities had discovered the group’s existence and they carried out a campaign to liquidate it. The regime arrested and imprisoned many of the group’s members including Al-Zuwawi, devastating the organisation until its surviving members were able to reinvent it as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in the early 1990s.

Militancy in the 1990s

It was in the 1990s however that political Islam really found a strong popular following in Libya. Despite its vast oil wealth, the country was suffering from chronic socio-economic problems brought about by a combination of economic mismanagement, falling oil prices and the international sanctions that were imposed in 1992 because of Qadhafi’s refusal to hand over the two Lockerbie suspects. With no other political alternative on the horizon, the population were ripe for the radical brand of political Islam that was sweeping the whole region. Not only did the Brotherhood garner more support, a number of new groups also sprang up. These included the Islamic Gathering (Harakat Atajamaa Alislami), founded by Mustafa Ali Al-Jihani. Its support base was almost entirely in the east of the country and its ideology was very similar to that of the Brotherhood. The Jama’at al-Tabligh also succeeded in drawing a following at this time, mainly in the western areas. However, they chose to distance themselves from politics, after a number of them had been arrested at the end of the 1980s and became co-opted by the regime, some of them being given posts as imams or speakers. It is rumoured that they developed good connections with Saadi Qadhafi – one of Qadhafi’s sons. [4]

More militant groups also appeared on the scene in the 1990s, made up largely from veterans of the war in Afghanistan. These included LIFG and the much smaller and less well known groups that mostly consisted of an emir and a handful of followers, such as the Harakat al-Shuhada’a al-Islamiyah (Libyan Islamic Martyrs movement), headed by Al-Hami, and Ansar Allah (Supporters of Allah). LIFG tried to bring all of the militant groups under its wing to create a more united front against the regime. These groups came into open conflict with security services in the mid 1990s and also made a number of assassination attempts against Qadhafi, most notably in 1996 and 1998. The regime retaliated by launching a campaign to liquidate these movements once and for all. It employed brutal tactics, arresting and killing many of their members and suspected sympathizers who had not been able to flee the country. There was no way that Qadhafi was going to allow what had unfolded next door in Algeria to occur in Libya.

Qadhafi targeted the more moderate elements as well as the militants. In 1998 it surprised the Libyan Islamic Group by launching a full-scale offensive against its members. It carried out a sweep of arrests of over 150 of its hard core members who were held incommunicado for many years. They were eventually sentenced in a mass trial in 2002; two of them were given the death sentence while others received life imprisonment. Their appeal failed and the sentences were upheld in December 2004. They remain in the notorious Abuslim prison, although there are rumours that they are in discussions with the Qadhafi International Charitable Foundation that is run by Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam. The arrests, however, were sufficient to greatly weaken the movement.

Current State of Play

By the end of the 1990s, the regime had more or less wiped out its organized Islamic opposition inside the country. There are still remnants, however, of the militant groups and pockets of jihadist resistance operating in the east of the country. These are thought to consist of cells of one or two individuals and do not have the necessary skills or resources to launch any serious attacks against the regime. However, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry a number of Libyans have been arrested in Iraq. These include Haidar Waw Shnawa, who was arrested by Iraqi police in Najaf in 2004 and implicated in bombings in Karbala and Khadamiya. [5] A number of insurgents have also returned to Libya from Iraq, such as Khlaid al-Zayidi from Benghazi, who was reportedly killed by the Libyan security services on his return. The regime clearly isn’t taking any chances, especially now that American companies are returning to the country. Qadhafi has been beefing up domestic security measures of late in the name of fighting terrorism, and continues to display his total intolerance to politicized Islamists of any persuasion that he refers to as Zanadiq (heretics).

However, the regime has been unable to prevent the growing religiosity that has taken hold among the Libyan population in recent years, as it has across much of the Arab world. Increasing numbers of the population are coming to sympathise with a Brotherhood-type of ideology and to aspire to the kind of Islamic alternative promoted by the Brotherhood in what could be interpreted as a form of passive resistance to the regime.

Alison Pargeter is a Research Fellow at the International Policy Institue, Kings College London. She has published widely on Libya.


1. Al-Hajj Faraj al-Najar: Ikhwan Libyia fi Ayoun al Misreen. [Libyan Brothers through Egyptian Eyes]. 21 December 2004. Available in Arabic on www.ikhwanonline.com.

2. Aymad al-Banani: Al-Ikhwan fi Libyia intisharoun hakiki ragma al-tadyiq [The Brothers in Libya: Spreading Despite Oppression.] 10 February 2005. www.pi-libya.com.

3. Sheikh Abu Munder Sami al-Saidi fi likah khas ma’a majallat bayarak al-majd al-Islamiyah [Sheikh Abu Munder Sami al-Saidi in a special interview with the Islamic Magazine, Bayarek al-Majd]. Undated Available on https://www.almuqatila.com/interviews/munzarbayareq.htm.

4. Noman bin Othman: Al-hal al-Libyia wa muatayat al-Islah wal tagir [The Libya situation and prospects for reform and change] 11 April 2004. www.akhbar-libya.com.

5. The Shia Strategy in Iraq and Pakistan. Zafar Hashmi. 22 January 2005. Available on https://www.shianews.com/hi/articles/politics/0000400.php.