June 12, 2017
Warning Update: Feared return of the Qaddafi regime will galvanize Salafi-jihadi groups in Libya
A Libyan militia released Saif al Islam al Qaddafi, the heir apparent of deceased Libyan dictator Muammar al Qaddafi, on June 9. The freeing of the younger Qaddafi reflects the increasing mobilization of members of the former Qaddafi regime within the ongoing struggle for control of . Their reactivation, accompanied by the rise of a would-be strongman, gives weight to fears that former elements of the Qaddafi regime seek to regain their influence in the country. This feared return of the ancien régime will embolden a Salafi-jihadi insurgency inside of Libya and derail efforts to establish the inclusive and responsive governance required for lasting peace.
Saif al Islam’s release coincides with the ascendance of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) militia coalition based in eastern Libya. Haftar is backed by Egypt and the UAE, favored by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Russia, and possibly championed by some in the U.S. administration. Haftar’s star as a stabilizing strongman, à la Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi, appears to be rising. His forces secured a major strategic victory in early June when, thanks to Egyptian and Emirati air support, they drove rival forces from several towns and bases in central Libya.
Haftar is not a viable solution to the Libyan crisis, however. He is weakening legitimate and democratic local governance structures by establishing military rule in the areas he controls. Nor will Haftar win the battle against Salafi-jihadi groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda as he prioritizes political objectives. Haftar’s uncompromising line against all forms of Islamism forces instead strengthens Salafi-jihadi groups by forcing Libya’s Islamist movement to coalesce around them, rather than alienate them. Finally, the rise of Haftar—a former Qaddafi ally who seeks to reconstitute Libya’s armed forces—engenders fear in his opponents that he will reverse the 2011 revolution. Saif al Islam’s release, in conjunction with
The Abu Bakr al Sadiq Battalion, a militia from the northwestern mountain town of Zintan, released Saif al Islam, citing as justification an amnesty law passed by a Haftar-aligned transitional government in eastern Libya. The Battalion had captured him as he attempted to flee Libya in late 2011. Saif al Islam’s house arrest had shielded him from both a death sentence handed down by an interim government in Tripoli and extradition to the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. Now, he reportedly intends to remain in Libya and re-enter the political fray. A forthcoming statement from Saif al Islam is expected to confirm his release, which has been reported falsely in the past. His location is rumored to be either the Haftar-controlled Beida or Tobruk in the east, the former regime stronghold of Bani Walid in the northwest, or the southwestern city of Ubari.
The release of Saif al Islam highlights the myriad divisions between and within the groups that are grappling for control of post-Qaddafi Libya. His freedom incited both celebrations and anger in western Libya and drew the ire of the Abu Bakr al Sadiq Battalion’s rivals in Zintan. Responses from within the pro-Haftar eastern administration, whose Ministry of Justice may have called for Saif al Islam’s release, have been mixed. Even within the LNA, the group’s spokesman affirmed Saif al Islam’s freedom while the commander of the LNA’s western region ordered the Abu Bakr al Sadiq Battalion’s dissolution. Tepid reactions within the pro-Haftar bloc will pale in comparison to those of Haftar’s many opponents, and some allies, who will see Saif al Islam’s escape from justice as a betrayal of the revolution for which they fought.
Saif al Islam’s release reflects the growing influence of former regime officials in Libya and heightens the perception that the regime will return anew. Conditions have begun to favor the quiet return of the old guard, even as all parties to Libya’s current civil war continue to draw legitimacy from their roles in the 2011 revolution and its aftermath. The public’s fatigue with post-revolution instability, coupled with Haftar’s promise to provide security, set the stage for regime officials to return to public life, especially in the east. Haftar called for pardoned Qaddafi-era military personnel to join the LNA in April and appointed a prominent Qaddafi-era officer to commander the LNA’s Sirte military zone in March, drawing only limited backlash. The Qaddafi family even expressed support for a Haftar-led government that would allow it to return from exile in May. The gradual return of regime figures is not limited to the east. Ali Kana, Qaddafi’s former military commander for southern Libya, assembled an armed force in the south and assumed control of one of Libya’s largest oil fields in late May.
The return of regime officials, coupled with Haftar’s advance, is a rallying cry for al Qaeda, ISIS, and other Salafi-jihadi groups. These conditions are an existential threat to Libya’s Islamists, who fear that a Haftar-led or neo-Qaddafi regime would prove as hostile to them as Sisi’s Egypt. Moderate Islamist militias seek to survive by cooperating with hardline militias and Salafi-jihadi groups, which are well-positioned to capitalize on this polarization. The al Qaeda network, which remains strong in Libya despite the May 2017 dissolution of Ansar al Sharia, has made inroads into militia coalitions like the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB). The freeing of Saif al Islam will amplify the revolutionary message of the BDB and similar groups. Al Qaeda’s penetration of the armed Islamist movement will only deepen as Haftar moves westward, inspiring insurgencies such as the campaign currently resurging in Benghazi. Meanwhile, Libyan forces’ preoccupation with the civil war allows ISIS cells to reconstitute, recruit, and support external operations in the seams of the ongoing conflict.
The release of Saif al Islam al Qaddafi surfaces several dangerous currents that will strengthen U.S. enemies in Libya. The U.S. must pressure its allies to cease the current military escalation and enter into an inclusive framework for negotiations.