Tags: Analysis: Are Radical Islamists Lurking in Libya?

Analysis: Are Radical Islamists Lurking in Libya?

Friday, 05 August 2011 12:03 PM

The killing of a Libyan rebel military commander by an Islamist rebel group and claims by Qadaffi’s son that his father’s regime plans to forge an alliance with radical Islamists now part of the Libyan resistance indicate that radical Islamists in Libya, while probably small in number, are a factor to be reckoned with in the Libyan conflict.

The alleged assassination of Abdel-Fattah Younis, the head of the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), has caused a crisis for the NTC. The Financial Times reported on July 31st that a leader of the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, a radical Islamist rebel faction, confessed to the killing. Younis, a former Libyan general who defected to the rebels in February, was under arrest by the NTC on charges of mismanaging his forces and to answer questions that he may have forged secret links to the Qadaffi regime. Younis was hated by many Libyans – especially Islamists – for his ruthlessness as Qadaffi’s security chief. A spokesman for the Qadaffi government responded to the news that Younis was assassinated by an Islamist group by claiming it is an indication that the Libyan rebels are unfit for government and that al Qaeda-linked elements form the strongest element of the rebel forces.

Meanwhile, according to an interview with the New York Times published on August 3rd, Saif al Islam Qadaffi, one of the Libyan leader’s sons, claimed the regime is seeking to form a secret alliance with radical Islamists among the Libyan rebels in hopes of driving out or killing liberal-minded rebels. According to the New York Times, Ali Sallabi, a Qatar-based Islamist associated with the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), was Saif Qadaffi’s counterpart in the talks. Sallabi acknowledged that there had been conversations with the regime but ruled out the idea of an alliance. In March 2011, the LIFG pledged to work with the NTC against the Qadaffi regime.


While the number of radical Islamists among the Libyan rebels is believed by most experts to be small, General Younis’ assassination by a radical Islamist rebel group while under arrest raises questions about the control of the NTC as well as the commitment of Libyan Islamists to the rule of law, both now and after hostilities end.

On the surface, Saif Qadaffi’s claim that the regime is in talks to form an alliance with radical Islamists does not sound credible since his father has suppressed Islamists since he took power in 1969 and was recently referred to in an al Qaeda propaganda magazine as a lunatic and a false idol. Indeed, this sounds no different from threats Col. Qadaffi has been making for months of joining forces with al Qaeda if the West did not end military support for the Libyan rebels.

While al Qaeda and other radical Islamists have no love for Qadaffi, an alliance should not be categorically ruled out for two reasons. First, Saif Qadaffi made peace with the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in 2007 and negotiated an arrangement to release 250 of their members from prison in exchange for an agreement to not challenge the regime, according to the Institute for the Study of War. Second, al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups have shown a willingness to put aside differences with other Muslim groups and leaders to unite against the West and the United States. This phenomenon was highlighted last week when the Obama administration accused Iran of letting al Qaeda operatives operate out of Iran to conduct terrorist missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Younis assassination hurt the reputation of the NTC which is desperately seeking international recognition as well as financial and military assistance. Although they may only be a small part of the Libyan resistance, radical Islamists allied with the rebels need to be monitored to prevent future violence like the Younis assassination and to ensure they are not enticed to forge an alliance with the Qadaffi regime.

[Fred Fleitz is a former CIA analyst and Chief of Staff to Ambassador John Bolton.]

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Analysis: Are Radical Islamists Lurking in Libya?
Friday, 05 August 2011 12:03 PM
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