Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s decades-long confrontation with the West has never given him much purchase among militant Islamists in Libya. In fact, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG – Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya) has waged a violent insurgency for ten years – with a hostility toward the eccentric dictator so implacable that it refuses even to negotiate with his envoys. Ironically, this internal challenge has led Qadhafi to abandon his quixotic defiance of the United States and join the Bush administration’s war on terror, while the prospect of a LIFG takeover in Libya has facilitated American and European forgiveness of past transgressions.
Prior to Qadhafi’s seizure of power in 1969, Libya had long been ruled by the descendents of the 19th century Islamic revivalist leader Muhammad ibn al-Sanusi. Keenly aware that the endorsement of the Sanusi religious establishment was critical in the short run to his regime’s legitimacy, Qadhafi consulted frequently with ulama (clergy) during his early years in power and granted them positions of influence in the legal and educational system. After consolidating his authority, however, he sidelined the ulama, seized control of their mosques, and nationalized their awqaf (religious endowments). Adding insult to injury, he propagated his own idiosyncratic version of the Islamic faith.  In a region where even slight deviations from religious orthodoxy are taboo, such tampering was nothing short of blasphemous. Those who objected to this heresy were brutally suppressed. Most notably, prominent Salafi preacher Muhammad al-Bashti (who could hardly be considered a radical) was tortured to death by Libyan security forces in 1981.
So long as oil revenues remained plentiful, however, clerical angst did not inspire broad-based challenges to Qadhafi’s rule. With the decline of oil prices in the 1980s, however, educated Libyans began to deeply resent the regime’s heterodox religious orientation, conspicuous corruption and economic mismanagement. Adding fuel to the fire, Saudi Arabia stepped up its support for radical Wahhabi militants in the 1980s, nine of whom (including three army officers), were executed by the regime in 1987. As in other Arab states, government repression at home led many militant Libyan Islamists (estimated to be at least 500) to join the mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Some returned to Libya in the early 1990s; others traveled to the Sudan, where Osama bin Laden had begun building what would become the al-Qaeda terrorist network, or took up residence in Britain.
These Libyan “Afghans” eschewed the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir movements popular among the estranged ulama and began organizing their own network – one that aimed not at restoring clerical privileges, but at overthrowing the Qadhafi regime altogether and establishing an Islamic state. Soaring unemployment, shortages of goods, and other economic ills stemming from the imposition of UN sanctions in 1992 made conditions in Libya ripe for an Islamist takeover. The emergence of this network also reflected regional trends. In Egypt and Algeria, Islamist militants were waging bloody insurgencies with support from Sudan.
Although the prospect of a Sunni Islamist state in control of Libya’s oil resources obviously appealed to Sudan’s radical Islamist leader, Hassan Turabi, the dozens of Libyan Afghans who had congregated in bin Laden’s camps were not allowed to organize an armed rebellion against Qadhafi – mainly because there were nearly one million Sudanese workers in Libya, but also because Qadhafi had been allowing Algerian militants in Sudan to cross the Libyan desert into Algeria without interference. After an October 1993 rebellion by Libyan army units left hundreds dead, however, Turabi became convinced that Qadhafi’s days were numbered and lifted these restrictions.
Initial efforts by Libyan Afghans to mobilize armed resistance to Qadhafi fared poorly. Dozens of Islamist operatives were arrested by the security forces in 1994. Things began to change the following year, however, with a series of spectacular operations that appeared to indicate substantial Islamist penetration of the security establishment. In June, militants disguised as members of Qadhafi’s Revolutionary Committees launched a daring operation to free a detained comrade from a hospital. Weeks later, they stormed a prison in the eastern port of Benghazi and released more of their compatriots. The regime launched a major arrest sweep, ostensibly against drug smugglers (Qadhafi was still loath to admit that he faced a domestic political challenge), and quickly ascertained that the militants were being supported financially and logistically by bin Laden’s network in Sudan.
Qadhafi demanded that the Sudanese government expel Libyan operatives from his camps and began ejecting thousands of Sudanese workers from the country. Under pressure from his hosts, bin Laden reluctantly informed his Libyan compatriots that they had to leave and gave them $2,400 each and plane tickets out of the country for their families. “Most of them, they refused the offer…they were very upset and angry,” a Moroccan member of al-Qaeda later recalled. 
Meanwhile, fierce clashes between security forces and Islamist guerrillas erupted in Benghazi in September 1995, leaving dozens killed on both sides. After weeks of intense fighting, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) formally declared its existence in a communiqué calling Qadhafi’s government “an apostate regime that has blasphemed against the faith of God Almighty” and declaring its overthrow to be “the foremost duty after faith in God.”  This and future LIFG communiqués were issued by Libyan Afghans who had been granted political asylum in Britain (often after being rejected by continental European governments), where anti-Qadhafi sentiments stemming from the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, remained at a fever pitch. The involvement of the British government in the LIFG campaign against Qadhafi remains the subject of immense controversy. LIFG’s next big operation, a failed attempt to assassinate Qadhafi in February 1996 that killed several of his bodyguards, was later said to have been financed by British intelligence to the tune of $160,000, according to ex-M15 officer David Shayler.  While Shayler’s allegations have not been independently confirmed, it is clear that Britain allowed LIFG to develop a base of logistical support and fundraising on its soil. At any rate, financing by bin Laden appears to have been much more important. According to one report, LIFG received up to $50,000 from the Saudi terrorist mastermind for each of its militants killed on the battlefield. 
The conflict continued to escalate in 1996. In March, several dozen Islamist detainees escaped from al-Kuwaifiya prison near Benghazi and fled into the mountains of northeastern Libya, where security forces in hot pursuit came under attack by LIFG guerrillas. As the fighting spread and intensified, the main coastal highway from Benghazi to the Egyptian border was closed for days. In June, LIFG fighters killed eight policemen at a training center near the town of Derna, east of Benghazi. In July, the government carried out massive arrest sweeps throughout the country and launched a major air and ground assault on LIFG mountain bases. Although LIFG forces were decimated, the security forces also suffered heavy losses, while the heavy traffic of air force jets to and from the front (easily perceptible to foreign diplomats in Tripoli) made it impossible for Qadhafi to credibly deny that he was facing a major revolt.
In November, a LIFG operative hurled a grenade at Qadhafi during his visit to the desert town of Brak. Qadhafi escaped uninjured, but was said to have been hospitalized for severe shock. In light of evidence that LIFG had been tipped off as to the Libyan leader’s itinerary, it is probably no coincidence that weeks later Qadhafi ordered the execution of eight officers who had led the failed 1993 army mutiny.
Although LIFG attacks on military and police outposts continued intermittently over the next few years, the government gradually gained the upper hand by imposing martial law on the Derna region and instituting a range of draconian measures (such as cutting electricity and water supplies to towns suspected of harboring LIFG militants) to intimidate its inhabitants into submission. Although this strategy damaged the government’s legitimacy, it was very effective in undercutting LIFG’s local support network. LIFG received a major blow in October 1997, when one of its most capable commanders, Salah Fathi bin Salman (a.k.a. Abu Abd al-Rahman Hattab), was killed in fighting with security forces. In the summer of 1998, the government launched a major assault on the group’s remaining hideouts in the northeast and rounded up scores of alleged sympathizers throughout the country. By the end of the decade, LIFG operations in the country had slowed to a trickle.
In a 1999 interview, LIFG spokesman Omar Rashed lamented that the Libyan people had not “passed beyond the stage of sentiments to the stage of action,” and hinted at a shift in focus, as bin Laden had done, from regime change at home to international jihad. “The United States no longer relies on its agents to constrict the Islamic tide; it has taken this role upon itself,” he said, in language reminiscent of al-Qaeda propaganda.  By this time, many operatives of LIFG (and a likeminded group, the Islamic Martyrs’ Movement, also founded by Afghan veterans) had already chosen to follow the path of bin Laden, who relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996. Former LIFG member Abu Anas al-Libi, for example, was a key planner of al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Another is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (Al-Qaeda members frequently adopt a surname identifying their country of origin – “al-Libi” is Arabic for “Libyan”), the former commander of bin Laden’s Al-Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan. Abu-Hafs al-Libi (a.k.a. Abd-al-Hakim al-Jiritli) served as one of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s chief lieutenants until his death in October 2004.
Following 9/11, Qadhafi jumped at the opportunity to collaborate in the Bush administration’s war on radical Islamist terrorism. Just weeks after the attacks, a CIA team flew to London to meet face to face with the man believed to have planned the 1988 Lockerbie bombing – Musa Kusa, the head of Libyan intelligence. Kusa provided the CIA (and also Britain’s M16 foreign intelligence service) with the names of LIFG operatives and other Libyan Islamists who trained in Afghanistan, as well as dossiers on LIFG leaders living in the UK. In light of the central role of Libyan Afghans in al-Qaeda, this was a major intelligence windfall for the Bush administration.
The American government, for its part, officially designated LIFG as a terrorist organization. Although LIFG does not have a presence in the United States, the Bush administration’s designation is not merely symbolic. For starters, it means that any state providing assistance to LIFG can potentially be designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department. More importantly, it means that any member of LIFG living in undemocratic countries backed by the United States (e.g. Pakistan, Egypt) runs the risk of arrest and “rendition” back to Libya.
That Britain has not designated LIFG a terrorist organization is significant, as several prominent leaders of the group continue to live in London and Manchester. All of them strongly deny any affiliation with al-Qaeda and are keen to emphasize that LIFG has never carried out an attack outside Libya or against civilians.  This may be technically true. One member of LIFG living in Britain was jailed for sixteen months without charge after he allegedly sent money to a suspected al-Qaeda member, but was eventually released because the government failed to present concrete evidence of criminal activity in court. According to the U.S. State Department, LIFG was “involved in planning and facilitating” the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca, but the suspects in this case were non-Libyan members of the Fighting Islamic Group in Morocco (FIGM). Although the two groups are almost certainly linked by more than ideological affinity, the U.S. government has never released information clarifying their relationship.
Whether LIFG still constitutes a major threat to Qadhafi is unclear. Although LIFG guerrillas still maintain a modest presence in the mountains of northeastern Libya, intelligence cooperation with the United States has enabled the Libyan government to cut off their lines of logistical and financial support.
Gary C. Gambill, a political analyst for Freedom House and adjunct professor at College of Mount Saint Vincent, has published widely on Lebanese and Syrian affairs. He is the former editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.
1. The Islamic calendar was changed to start with the Prophet’s birth (rather than his hijra to Mecca), for example, and the entire corpus of hadiths (traditions) of the prophet was discarded.
2. Trial testimony of L’Houssaine Kherchtou, United States v. bin Laden, Feb. 21, 2001 (transcript pp. 1280-1282).
3. Al-Hayat (London), 20 October 1995.
4. See “The Shayler affair: The spooks, the Colonel and the jailed whistle-blower,” The Observer (London), 9 August 1998. Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie substantiate this claim in their 2001 book Ben Laden: La Verite interdite (Bin Ladin: The Forbidden Truth).
5. Al-Hayat (London), 7 September 1997.
6. Nida’ul Islam (https://www.islam.org.au), April – May 1999.
7. Al-Hayat (London), 2 March 2004.