The Changing Face of the Jihadist Movement in Libya

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 1

The LIFG began operations in the early 1990s, but it did not seem to have rushed into getting involved in attacks against the Libyan regime. Its priority is thought to have been building cells inside Libya. That does not seem to have been an easy job for the LIFG. Under Colonel Qaddafi, Libya was (and still is) ruled as a police state. To complicate matters more, the LIFG was soon to lose its leader when the Egyptian authorities arrested Abdul-Ghaffar al-Douadi and handed him over to Libya in 1992.

While the Libyans were still building this jihadist group, an insurgency started in Algeria. In 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut – FIS) was on the verge of winning the election, and the Algerian authorities cancelled the election results, igniting a bloody civil war. The LIFG was drawn to this conflict for a number of reasons. First was a religious reason: the Algerian Islamists were launching a jihad against their government, and the Libyan jihadis wanted to offer them “a helping hand.” It should be remembered that the Libyan and the Algerian jihadis knew each other very well because of the time they spent together along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border during the Afghan jihad (al-Hayat, September 15, 2005). But in addition to this “religious duty,” the LIFG seems to have also been interested in Algeria for political reasons. Toppling the regime in Algeria would also help the aim of toppling the regime in Libya, as the LIFG must have concluded. The movement was hoping to launch a war against the Qaddafi regime from the Libyan borders with Algeria, instead of overseeing it from a distant place like Afghanistan.

For these reasons, the LIFG decided to send some of its best fighters from Afghanistan to Algeria, where they joined the GIA, which was quickly becoming the largest jihadi group inside Algeria. [1] These fighters started coming in 1993, with their numbers growing steadily through 1994 and 1995. However, these Libyan fighters were soon to clash with the leaders of the GIA. They had ideological differences, and the Libyans informed their leadership, based in Sudan and Britain at the time, of its situation – in fact, they were telling their leaders outside Algeria of their clashes with the GIA in secret letters written with invisible ink. Osama bin Laden, who was then still based in Sudan, sent a delegation to Algeria to see how this problem between the Libyans and the Algerians could be resolved. This delegation included three Libyans – two from the LIFG and one from al-Qaeda. The latter delegate was Attiya Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan al-Qaeda leader who now operates from the Wazirstan tribal agency in Pakistan. [2] The GIA was not happy with this delegation and arrested its members, but they managed to flee from their captors in 1996.

As if having these problems on the “Algerian front” was not enough, the LIFG found itself being dragged into a conflict with Colonel Qaddafi’s regime – a conflict it was not yet ready for. Things started to go wrong in the spring of 1995 – a local cell attacked a hospital in Benghazi (eastern Libya) to free an Islamist who was arrested earlier (al-Hayat, September 16, 2005). That attack led the security forces to go after the attackers and the dismantling soon led to the dismantling of other cells in succession. Seeing the cells it has been trying to build in Libya being crushed one after the other, the LIFG publicly revealed its existence in June 1995 and promised to fight until the Libyan regime was toppled. Clashes erupted in different parts of Libya, especially in the eastern regions, but the LIFG was jumping into a losing battle and was soon routed by the security forces between 1996 and 1997.

This defeat was not unique to the Libyan jihadis. By 1996-97, the Algerian and the Egyptian jihadis were to suffer a similar fate – their jihad ended in total failure. This prompted a rethinking among the jihadis to identify the reasons behind the failure of the three main attempts they launched in the 1990’s in Algeria, Egypt and Libya. That rethinking led Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Jihad, and part of the Egyptian Islamic Group to conclude that support from the West in general and America in particular was the reason why the “apostate” regimes in the Middle East did not fall when the jihadis attacked them. So, instead of fighting the local, “near enemy,” bin Laden and his allies directed their attention to the United States. In February 1998, bin Laden announced the creation of the Worldwide Islamic Front to Fight the Jews and the Crusaders. It is now known that he was lobbying various jihadi groups to join him in that front, but the LIFG does not seem to have done so.

The leaders of the LIFG moved to Afghanistan in 1999, a year after the creation of bin Laden’s new front. Their priority was to start a process of rebuilding their defeated organization. In order to concentrate on this mission, they agreed to cease any operations inside Libya. They also became very close to the Taliban leadership – the religious guide of the LIFG, Sheikh Abu al-Mudhir al-Sa’di (a.k.a. Sami Al-Sa’di) was much admired by Mullah Omar, who called him the “Shaykh of the Arab Jihadists.” [3] The LIFG took the line that the Arabs who were in Afghanistan had an obligation to obey the orders of the Taliban government; they were not supposed to behave as though they were “a state within a state.” It was clear that some Arabs were doing exactly that – Osama bin Laden was engaged in his war against America, as was clear from the bombing of the two embassies in East Africa, the Millennium Plot and the USS Cole bombing in 2000. In fact, the leaders of the LIFG told bin Laden in 2000 that they opposed his attacks against the Americans, not because they liked America, but because they feared that these attacks would undermine the Taliban government. Bin Laden’s response, according to a person who was present in the Kandahar meeting, was that he was now in the middle of a “big operation” against the Americans which could not be stopped, but after that he was ready to stop his attacks. [4] That “big operation” turned out to be the 9/11 attacks on American soil. These attacks and the American response of a “Global War on Terror” seem to have taken the LIFG by surprise. Most of its leaders fled Kabul ahead of the advancing American and Northern Alliance forces, eventually finding their way into Iran. One of the LIFG leaders, Abu Laith al-Libi, decided to stay in Afghanistan and fight the Americans.

Libya’s Jihadis in the Post 9/11 Environment

The LIFG’s first priority after the mayhem of 9/11 was to reconnect with its members who had fled Afghanistan. Its “amir,” Abdullah al-Sadeq (a.k.a. Abd al-Hakim Belhaj) and its religious leader, Abu al-Mundhir, were allowed to leave Iran and find another place to hide. They first fled to Thailand and then to Hong Kong, but both were arrested there and handed in to the Libyan government in 2004. [5] Other top leaders of the LIFG were imprisoned in Iran, as well as in other countries (including European nations). With the disappearance of most of the known leadership, those who survived from the LIFG top ranks became confined to Afghanistan. Abu Laith became the organization’s most prominent face until his death in Pakistan in Jan 2008 (Dawn [Karachi], February 1, 2008; al-Jazeera, January 31, 2008). [6]

Meanwhile, the 2003 war in Iraq saw the Americans turning their attention away from Afghanistan, allowing al-Qaeda to regain its balance a bit through decentralization, with franchises popping up in different places around the world. First an al-Qaeda franchise appeared in the Arabian Peninsula, then another franchise appeared in Iraq with the name of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and later al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was established. Iraq became the centre stage of the war against the Americans and many Libyans found their way there. The “Sinjar records.” which show that the Libyan fighters in Iraq only came second in number to the Saudis, also give an indication of the strong appeal among Libyan youth to join the jihad in Iraq– a jihad which was now led by al-Qaeda. [7] The LIFG, with most of its leadership in prisons or hiding, does not seem to have played a prominent role in the Iraqi jihad.

The Libyan jihadis were left without a leadership. In fact, LIFG leaders in Libyan prisons started to talk to the authorities about a possible deal that would ensure no violence was carried out by the jihadis inside Libya; in return the government would free those who renounced violence and might allow them more freedom to preach, as long as they clearly said that their ideology does not consider the state or its employees to be apostates. The LIFG’s leaders have come very close to doing exactly what the government was expecting out of them since the start of the talks in December 2006. A six member committee of the LIFG Shura Council led the talks. They were: the “amir,” Abdullah al-Sadeq (a.k.a. Abd al-Hakim Belhaj), his deputy Abu Hazem (a.k.a. Khalid al-Sharif), the religious leader Abu Al-Mundhir (a.k.a. Sami al-Sa’di), the military commander Azzoubair (a.k.a. Mustapha Qounaifid), the first amir, Abdul Ghaffar al-Douadi, and Idris (a.k.a. Abd al-Wahab al-Qaid, the brother of Afghanistan-based Abu Yahya al-Libi) (al-Hayat, June 30, 2008; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 6, 2008).

These Shura Council members agreed in principal on a review of the group’s ideology. They agreed on the following:

• Violence does not help the cause of Islam, and therefore it should not be resorted to.
• The LIFG would distance itself from the “takfir” ideology of identifying Muslims as apostates, particularly the Libyan government and those who work for it.
• The LIFG would say that it has no relationship with al-Qaeda and that it is not part of what al-Qaeda does.
• The Libyan group would also confirm that it opposes attacks that are carried out in the name of jihad – whether they were done by al-Qaeda or any other group.

As is clear, this list of principles included a clear message to please the government – that the LIFG rejects any violence against the state, and rejects the claim that it was part of al-Qaeda. The latter clearly contradicts the 2007 announcement of Abu al- Laith al-Libi proclaiming the merger of the LIFG with bin Laden’s organization. However, the Libyan authorities do not seem to have been satisfied with that position. It is possible they still do not trust the LIFG, or they think it is dead and buried and therefore there is no need to bring it back to life.


While talks regarding the existence and aims of the LIFG continue inside the prisons, the young jihadis in Libya seem to have become more and more active inside the country – they no longer seek to reach Iraq to fight the Americans. A number of cells have been broken up recently, especially in the eastern region (al-Hayat, June 30, 2008). Most of those arrested are said to have only been influenced by al-Qaeda’s ideology. Very few had a direct link with bin Laden’s franchise in the Islamic Maghreb. Only recently a group of Libyans who were thought to have been training with Al-Qaeda in Algeria were intercepted on the Algerian-Libyan border. These were said to have been planning an attack during a visit by a U.S. official to Libya, in October. Whatever their true target was, with the number of youths being drawn to the jihadist ideology, it seems only a matter of time before one of these cells manages to slip the government’s attention and carry out an attack inside Libya.


1. See Camille Tawil, The Armed Islamic Movement in Algeria: From the FIS to the GIA (Al-Haraka Al-Islamiyya Al-Musalaha fi Al-Jazair: Min “Al-Inqadth” ila “Al-Jama’a”), Beirut, 1998.
2. See Attiya’s letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, dated December 11, 2005. Attiya speaks in that letter about what he saw during his presence in Algeria and about the excesses carried out by the GIA. .
3. See Abd al-Nasir Al-Jarrari’s interview with Al-Hayat, January 8, 2004. Al-Jarrari is Mr. Saadi’s brother-in-law.
4. See the full story of the Kandahar meeting with bin Laden in Camille Tawil,  Al-Qaida and its Sisters (Al-Qaeda wa Akhawatuha: Kissat Al-Jihadyieen Al-Arab), Saqi Publishers, London, pages 334-336.
5. Al-Jarrari’s interview, al-Hayat, January 8, 2004. Al-Jarrari alleges that his brother-in-law and Abdullah al-Sadeq were handed in to Libya by American agents.
6. Another prominent Libyan in Afghanistan is Abu Yahya al-Libi, whose name came to prominence after he managed to flee the American detention facility at the Bagram air base near Kabul. Another name is Abdullah Said, who is considered the leader of the LIFG in Iran. He is now believed to be operating on the Afghanistan – Pakistan border.
7. The “Sinjar records” are a trove of jihadi documents recovered by American forces in the Sinjar district of Iraq in September 2007. The documents included the personnel records of over 700 foreign jihadis. The Saudis listed in the Sinjar records numbered 244, while the Libyans were 122 in number (52 of them came from one town, Darna, east of Libya).