A takeover of a Libyan port city by an Islamist terror group raises an ominous possibility.
Taking advantage of the ongoing chaos in Libya, a large group of Islamist gunmen, believed to be members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), recently seized a weapons depot in the eastern Libyan port city of Derna. The incident underscores the increasing danger posed by militant Islamic terror groups to fill a potential power vacuum created by the disintegration of the Gadhafi regime.
Calling itself the “Islamist Emirate of Baraqa,” the group, assisted by Libyan Army Colonel Adnan al-Nwisri, seized over 250 weapons. The cache included a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, three anti-aircraft guns, 70 assault rifles, and over 70 military vehicles.
The gunmen also took both civilians and Libyan soldiers as hostages in the nearby port city of Al-Baida, threatening to kill them unless the siege of that city was lifted by Libyan security forces. The same group was also accused by Libyan officials of hanging two soldiers only days earlier.
While concerns abound that Islamic fascists will eventually take control of both Tunisia and Egypt in the aftermath of their revolutions, the chances of it first occurring in Libya may be much greater. Unlike those two countries, which have a semblance of military and civilian institutions to at least temporarily fill any power void, Libya has nothing comparable. According to one US intelligence analyst, “Everything is controlled by Qaddafi and his clique. The country could quickly become a failed state if it collapses."
Complicating the issue is Libya’s complex tribal structure. These tribes have been played off each other by Gadhafi during his entire forty year reign, embroiling them in volatile rivalries. Fears exist that Libya could suffer the same fate as Somalia, where fighting between tribes and al Qaeda forces have plunged the nation into near anarchy.
In fact, the LIFG attack on Derna as well as the recent takeover of Libya’s second largest city Benghazi by Gadhafi opponents occurred in anti-Gadhafi tribal strongholds. According to a released wikileaks document: “Residents of eastern Libya in general, and Derna in particular, view the al-Qadhafa clan as uneducated, uncouth interlopers from an inconsequential part of the country who have stolen the right to rule in Libya.”
Now, added into the chaotic mix, is the added potency of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Formed in the early 1990s, the LIFG has waged an intense and bitter fight against Gaddafi. Formed by Libyans who had fought against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan, the group is dedicated to two principle objectives: “To overthrow Qaddafi and to contribute to the international jihadist campaign.”
By November 2007 the LIFG had merged with al Qaeda. A statement by al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al Zawahri, read at the time: "Today, with grace from God, the Muslim nation witnesses a blessed step. Honorable members of the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya announce that they are joining the al Qaeda group to continue the march of their brothers.”
Yet in March 2010, after three years of secret talks between imprisoned leaders of the LIFG and Libyan security officials, Seif al-Islam, son of Gaddafi, announced the LIFG had rejected al Qaeda’s violent ideology and had produced an alliance with the Libyan government against al Qaeda.
In return for their pledge of cooperation, Seif al-Islam freed over 850 prisoners linked to Islamic terror groups from Libyan prisons, including three of the LIFG’s top leaders: Abdullah Sadeeq; Abu Mundhir al Saadi; and Abu Hazem.
The LIFG conversion was supposedly sparked by their release of a long religious document called the Corrective Studies, which read in part: “Jihad has ethics and morals because it is for God. That means it is forbidden to kill women, children, elderly people, priests, messengers, traders and the like. Betrayal is prohibited, and it is vital to keep promises and treat prisoners of war in a good way. Standing by those ethics is what distinguishes Muslims' jihad from the wars of other nations.”
However, many jihadist critics of the LIFG’s actions argued that the Corrective Studies lacked any legitimacy because it was authored under prison duress. In either case, the ramifications of this wholesale prisoner release now have far greater implications. According to one US intelligence official: "The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an affiliate of al-Qaeda that has now seen dozens if not hundreds of cadres freed from jail in Benghazi, now poses a threat to the entire region.”
Now, as the Libyan regime disintegrates, the LIFG has gone back on the jihad, reportedly merging with Al Qaeda in North Africa (AQIM). AQIM, which evolved from the Algerian militant group Salafist Group for Preaching Combat (GSPC) has been responsible for over 800 terrorist attacks in the Sahel-Maghreb region of North Africa.
AQIM’s goal is the creation of an Islamist state that includes the North African nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya -- as well as al-Andalus, the parts of the Iberian Peninsula governed by Muslims in medieval times. In addition to its merger with AQIM, LIFG, according to the Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, has reaffirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda.
For Gadhafi, to find himself in the crosshairs of Islamic militants is a disturbing irony in that he was once himself a staunch promoter of worldwide Islamic revolution, evidenced by his creation of the Islamic Legion in 1972.
However, when he became the target of an assassination attempt by LIFG members in 1993, his Islamic revolutionary fervor was replaced by a greater concern over his own safety.
Gadhafi’s new commitment to his own security became clear after 9/11. For all his past anti-American, anti-Western terrorist actions, he soon found himself in alliance with the Bush administration’s War on Terror. In October 2002, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abderrahman Chalgam even admitted that his government had closely consulted with the United States on counterterrorism. More telling, perhaps, was Gadhafi’s own website which posted “The phenomenon of terrorism is not a matter of concern to the U. S. alone. It is a concern for the whole world.”
For the Libyan people, their concern lies much closer to home. While they struggle to replace one tyrannical leader, an equal if not greater threat waits in the wings. The attack in Derna was just a reminder of its deadly presence.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com