At the end of August 2009, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) issued a set of revisions declaring the renunciation of violence. Following in the footsteps of Egypt’s al-Jama`a al-Islamiyya, the 420-page document, titled “Revisionist Studies of the Concepts of Jihad, Hisbah and Takfir,” is a scholarly work that draws on a range of Islamic references to condemn extremism and to advocate a peaceful and patient approach to improving the state of the umma (global Islamic community). In what is presumably a reflection on their own past, the group declared that the “backwardness” of the umma cannot be remedied by “hasty solutions or by enthusiastic actions or by sentimental behavior.”[1] Although the revisions accept the concept of defensive jihad against an occupying power, they reject the use of violence against one’s own rulers, stating, “The aim of fighting is to protect the Islamic project. Protection means resistance…But for jihad to become a military profession—this is a distortion of the concept…Allah doesn’t like aggressors.”[2] It also states that “arms are not for use legally or religiously to reform or bring about change in Muslim countries.”[3]

The revisions are a bold step for a group that was established in the camps of Afghanistan with the aim of bringing down the Libyan regime and which at their peak in the mid-1990s posed the greatest challenge to Colonel Mu`ammar Qadhafi in his 40-year rule. They are also a brave move for a regime that since coming to power in 1969 has been characterized by its zero-tolerance approach to Islamist opponents. Yet this ideological shift is not an unexpected development. The revisions are the culmination of negotiations that have been ongoing for at least the past couple of years between the Libyan regime, represented by the Qadhafi Development Foundation run by Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam, and the LIFG’s leadership who, along with much of the group’s rank-and-file, are housed in the Abu Slim prison in Tripoli. The foundation brought a number of Islamic scholars in addition to Noman bin Othman (also referred to as Noman Benotman), a former LIFG leader based in London, into the prison to convince the LIFG leaders to renounce violence in return for their release. As such, the revisions are the conclusion of more than two years of theological debate.

Although the revisions represent a major step for both the LIFG and the Libyan state, their impact is likely to be limited. Indeed, despite predictions in some quarters that this ideological shift will have major repercussions in jihadist circles and beyond, this article argues that they are unlikely to have much effect at all and may only spark relatively insignificant debate.

The LIFG in Libya
The LIFG was all but finished as an organization before the negotiations even began. In fact, the LIFG was a failed project from its inception. Despite the fact that the LIFG in Afghanistan had a reputation for military prowess, they were never able to garner a real foothold inside Libya. Much of the group’s leadership was forced to remain outside of the country, many in Afghanistan but others in the United Kingdom and a handful in Turkey and Qatar, among other places. Moreover, there was never much of an appetite for such a radical approach among the Libyan population, and the LIFG was unable to muster the same popular legitimacy as groups such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria, who had the injustice of the canceled 1992 Algerian elections on their side.[4] Once the LIFG was discovered by authorities in 1995, it took only a few years for the regime to eliminate the fighters within Libya, forcing those who escaped death or arrest to flee.

Even in exile, the LIFG was unable to survive for long. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, its members who had been residing there—including much of its leadership—were scattered and forced to flee. A number of key figures were subsequently arrested and handed over to Tripoli in 2004, while others were arrested in Europe under the threat of being returned.

It is clear that by the time the Libyan regime was willing to engage in dialogue, the LIFG was already compromised and had little room for maneuver. The LIFG’s main challenge was to come to agreement with the regime with the minimum loss of face. Therefore, while the LIFG’s renunciation of violence may be genuine, it has been driven largely by the promise of release, which for some of the group has yet to be realized.

In fact, the LIFG’s leaders were well aware that by entering into negotiations they would effectively drive the final nail into their own coffin. The Libyan state prohibits the existence of all organizations outside of the framework of Qadhafi’s unique Jamahriyya (State of the Masses), which means that the LIFG leaders will only be released as individuals and not as a group. In spite of the fact that their revisions declare that they will continue to strive for da`wa (missionary activities), they will certainly not be able to do so as an organization. As such, the state has succeeded in making no real concessions itself in the process and has successfully neutralized what was once its fiercest foe.

This is not the first time the regime has achieved a victory against Islamist opponents. In March 2006, it released around 100 Muslim Brotherhood prisoners who had also struck a deal with the regime, effectively finishing off the Libyan branch of the international organization. As well as further debilitating its opposition, these initiatives have also helped Libya improve its image internationally, as they have demonstrated that Libya can be more flexible with its Islamist prisoners than some other states in the region. The fact that the revisions are currently being translated into 16 languages courtesy of Saudi Arabia will only add to this positive publicity.

Therefore, the revisions must be considered as a victory for the Libyan state. Indeed, in spite of the length of the document—which covers a range of issues from extremism to da`wa to “enjoining good and forbidding evil”—the revisions essentially boil down to one point: it is incorrect to use violence against the state. It was of course this very change that the state demanded of the group in its negotiations. The regime has triumphed to such an extent that on this year’s 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution, the LIFG sent a communiqué to Qadhafi apologizing for their past actions and asking for his forgiveness, declaring,

We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on the coming of Ramadan and on this occasion we would like to send you our apologies regarding what we issued against you, from the setting up of a secret organization to all that happened afterwards, large and small.[5]

The LIFG and Al-Qa`ida
The impact of the revisions on al-Qa`ida will also be limited primarily because the LIFG was never part of al-Qa`ida or al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is true that some Libyan militants joined al-Qa`ida, but as a group the LIFG always retained its independence. The LIFG were positively opposed to Usama bin Ladin and believed his ideas were unworkable. They instead focused on nationalistic concerns. As former LIFG member Noman bin Othman explained, “on the question of al-Qa`ida, we never thought they had a realistic plan.”[6] He also declared, “We refused right from the beginning to be absorbed into this group because that would make us lose our ability to move freely and independently in Libya.”[7] The LIFG preferred to give their loyalty to Mullah Omar of the Taliban. The group’s spiritual leader, Abu Munder al-Saidi, went so far as to give a series of lectures in Afghanistan in which he advised Arabs there to follow the law of the Taliban government rather than Bin Ladin so long as they were living on their land.[8] Furthermore, in April and May 2000, al-Qa`ida held a series of meetings in Usama bin Ladin’s house in Kandahar to try to persuade others to join them. During the meeting, the LIFG asked Bin Ladin to stop using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks against the United States and tried to convince Bin Ladin that he should not violate the laws or policies of the Taliban, under whose protection they were all living, by launching attacks that risked bringing retribution.[9]

Some of the recent speculation about the LIFG’s links to al-Qa`ida was sparked by a statement made by Ayman al-Zawahiri at the end of 2007. Al-Zawahiri announced that the LIFG had become part of the al-Qa`ida network. This announcement was supported by another prominent Libyan Islamist, Abu Laith al-Libi, who was in Afghanistan and who had always been opposed to the LIFG negotiating with the Libyan state. The LIFG’s leadership, however, was appalled at the announcements, not least because, although a member of the LIFG’s shura council, Abu Laith did not have the authority to act or issue statements in the name of the group.[10] Abu Laith was killed by U.S. forces in January 2008, effectively putting an end to the project.

There are believed to be between 20-40 Libyans who are still with al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan; however, the impact of the LIFG’s revisions on them is likely to be negligible, as they have always rejected the idea of entering into a dialogue with the Libyan regime let alone agreeing to such a radical and remorseful strategic reassessment.

The LIFG decision will also likely have no impact on AQIM, which remains primarily an Algerian organization. Although a number of Libyans appear to have established links with AQIM in recent years, these do not appear to have had anything to do with the LIFG; these Libyans seemed to have cooperated with the group in an individual capacity. Moreover, the LIFG has had a particularly antagonistic relationship with Algerian militants since the early 1990s when a contingent of fighters who had gone to assist in the Algerian jihad were killed by the GIA for “deviancy.”

Overall, the revisions are unlikely to have any direct impact on al-Qa`ida or its affiliates. The revisions may, however, provoke debate within Islamist circles considering that there is a growing body of former militants calling for similar reassessments. Nevertheless, it is likely that these revisions will be regarded with a heavy dose of skepticism and suspicion by many of those in the jihadist camp because they were issued from prison. Some well-known Islamists such as Ali Belhaj, the former leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), have already criticized the project on that basis. [11] As in similar revisions recently, there is a deep mistrust within jihadist circles because they have all occurred in prison. Moreover, they are being undertaken by failed movements and by older leaders who in the eyes of the young are no longer relevant to the cause.

Today’s Generation of Militants
The revisions are also unlikely to have much impact on the generation of militants that have sprung up across North Africa. This new generation of militants seems to be characterized by their low education levels, nihilism and desperation that is reflected in their willingness to blow themselves up in suicide attacks.[12] Indeed, on account of the failings of the nationalist insurgent projects of the 1990s, they seem to have none of the specific political goals of groups such as the LIFG. Rather, given the strict confines in which they can operate, these individuals appear bent upon destruction in some vain promise that they will achieve paradise.

Although the appearance of such militants is most pronounced in countries such as Morocco or Algeria, Libya has not been immune. Reports have emerged in recent years about young men blowing themselves up to evade capture by the security services. Qadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, confirmed how in June 2007 three young militants exploded themselves in a house in Derna and in the same year clashes were reported between militants and members of the police in Benghazi. There are also many Libyans who joined the jihad in Iraq, and there are countless stories of martyrdom celebrations being held in Libya by the families of those who have died in Iraq.

For these militants, the LIFG’s revisions are unlikely to have a significant impact. It is true that the LIFG are regarded as heroes by some parts of the population; the fact that they fought in Afghanistan and have suffered in Libyan prisons gives them a degree of credibility. Yet by striking a deal with the regime, many will accuse them of being co-opted by the state. Perhaps more importantly, given the low education levels of many of these young radicals, they will have a difficult time understanding such a scholarly document as the revisions.

Moreover, the majority of today’s Libyan militants and volunteers for the Iraqi jihad have come from the country’s eastern regions—an area that provided the bulk of support for the LIFG when it was in its prime and an area that has traditionally had an antagonistic relationship to the center. As such, it would appear that while it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what drives someone to militancy, there are a number of underlying grievances related to internal regional factors in Libya that have yet to be resolved. As a result, while the issue of militancy in Libya should not be overplayed, it is certainly a problem that is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

In conclusion, the LIFG revisions are a positive step for both the group itself and for the Libyan authorities. Yet they are unlikely to have any real impact on militancy in the region and beyond.

Alison Pargeter is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge. She is currently running a project on radicalization in North Africa that is funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. She has published widely on issues of political Islam and radicalization. Her book, The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe, was published by I.B. Tauris in 2008 and her forthcoming book on the Muslim Brotherhood is due to be published by Saqi Books in 2010.

[1]  Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, “Revisionist Studies of the Concepts of Jihad, Hisbah and Takfir,” August 2009.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  The fact that the Algerian army canceled elections that the Islamists were set to win provided the GIA with additional legitimacy, as many in the population felt that they had been robbed of their rightful victory and as such found the idea of taking up arms against the state more acceptable.

[5]  Oea [Tripoli], August 27, 2009.

[6]  Mahan Abedin, “From Mujahid to Activist: An Interview with a Libyan Veteran of the Afghan Jihad,” Spotlight on Terror 3:2 (2005).

[7]  Camille Tawille, Al-Qa’ida wa Akhawatia (London: Saqi Books, 2007).

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Personal interviews, former Libyan militants, 2008.

[11]  “Bin Al-Haj: Murajat al-Islamiyeen fi Libya wal Jazair wa Misr Harb Nafseer,” al-Quds Press, September 9, 2009.

[12]  For example, data provided to the author in 2007 and 2008 by local human rights groups in North Africa regarding those arrested on terrorism charges reveal that the vast majority have extremely poor education levels with many only educated to primary school level. Although many of the LIFG rank-and-file were also poorly educated, the group also comprised graduates and those who had received an Islamic education in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.

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