The apprehension of Libyan militant Nazih al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Libi, by U.S. forces from outside his Tripoli home on October 5, 2013, shook Libya to its core. Not only were many Libyans outraged at what they perceived to be an infringement of national sovereignty, but many also turned their wrath against their own government, assuming that it must have played some kind of role in the operation.[1] The government’s notably muted response to the incident, as well as assertions by al-Libi’s wife that some of the commandos who seized her husband had local accents,[2] only fueled such perceptions and prompted a proliferation of angry responses.

Predictably, some of the most vocal responses came from within the Islamist camp. The ultraorthodox Dar al-Ifta—Libya’s most senior official religious authority—issued a statement condemning the capture and hinted at possible government collusion.[3] The Muslim Brotherhood and its Justice and Construction Party took a similar line, both condemning the operation, but also demanding that the government explain rumors that it had prior knowledge of the incident. Indeed, it was notable that the criticisms by these organizations were directed more against the Libyan government than at the United States, suggesting that they saw in al-Libi’s apprehension another means by which to attack the prime minister.

Wider and more forceful condemnations emanated from those of a more militant bent. Most notably, Libya’s Ansar al-Shari`a[4] issued a strident statement on October 8, asserting, “we must seek to free the captive brother Abu Anas Nazih al-Ruqai from those unjust disbelievers who have seized the lands and violated the sanctities, with every legitimate way allowed by the pure Shari`a.”[5] The group also attacked the government, stressing, “The Libyan government today seeks only to strengthen its existence and power through presenting loyalty to these belligerent countries and offering them facilities in the country…Their planes watch us and violate our sanctities and spy on the private lives of Muslims without supervision as if this government forgot what happened to Qadhafi after he abandoned the Shari`a and allied with the disbelievers and fought against Islam.”[6]

This article examines the response of Ansar al-Shari`a and other Libyan Islamists to the apprehension of Abu Anas al-Libi. It finds that while much of the international focus has been on Ansar al-Shari`a, there are in fact many different groups and brigades operating across the country whose ideological outlook is not altogether dissimilar. More importantly, some of these groups are bound deep into the tapestry of the Libyan state. While these elements may have condemned al-Libi’s seizure, their main preoccupation—for the time being, at least—is with entrenching themselves deeper in their own local areas, a development that may have serious repercussions for the country as it struggles to pull itself through the political transition.

Ansar al-Shari`a’s Local Preoccupations
Ansar al-Shari`a members staged a demonstration in Benghazi against al-Libi’s capture, and the group dedicated its Eid al-Adha charitable drive to the former al-Qa`ida operative. The Benghazi branch erected a large tent sporting a banner emblazoned with al-Libi’s name above it in the city, to which impoverished locals were expected to come to pay their respects in return for receiving a sheep.[7] The group also posted videos dedicated to al-Libi on its Twitter feed and Facebook page showing its members distributing sheep, as well as foodstuffs and glossy leaflets packed up in branded plastic bags, to the poor.[8] In some ways, therefore, al-Libi’s capture seemed to serve primarily as a tool in Ansar al-Shari`a’s latest publicity drive.

Indeed, given the forcefulness of Ansar al-Shari`a’s rhetoric over al-Libi’s seizure, it is perhaps surprising that it has not launched a more robust response to the incident, especially given that it is operating in such a lawless environment. It is true that a bomb exploded outside the joint Swedish-Finnish consulate in Benghazi on October 11; however, there is no evidence to suggest that the attack was the work of Ansar al-Shari`a or that the blast had any direct link to al-Libi’s capture.[9] In addition, like many of the other bomb attacks carried out in Libya in recent months, this explosive was detonated around 11:30 PM—suggesting that it was not meant to inflict mass casualties. Its likely purpose was to serve as a message, reminding foreign entities that they could be targeted at any time.

Ansar al-Shari`a’s limited response may be attributable to the fact that while still a symbolic figure, al-Libi did not appear to be an active member of the Libyan militant scene or al-Qa`ida. He returned to Libya at the time of the 2011 revolution, but according to his family had not been involved with militant groups since his return. Rather, he seems to have wanted to put his militant past behind him. Former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) amir-turned-politician Abdelhakim Belhadj told the media in November that after Libya’s liberation, al-Libi went to the general prosecutor to inform him that his name was on the list of those wanted by the U.S. government and that he wanted to hand himself over to the Libyan authorities so that his file could be closed.[10] According to Belhadj, al-Libi wanted to deal with his past and live a normal life.

More importantly, Ansar al-Shari`a appears for the moment to be far more preoccupied with developing its presence and entrenching itself further in the areas where it is dominant. While it has had bases in Benghazi and Derna more or less since the fall of the former regime, it has expanded in recent months into Qadhafi’s former hometown of Sirte. The group is clearly making use of the space it is being allowed to focus its activities on the kind of charitable and preaching work traditionally associated with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. It recently established a cultural and preaching center for women in Benghazi, for example, that runs courses in religious teaching, English and computing.[11] In an indication of the extent to which the group is accepted among some parts of the local community, more than 400 women are reported to have enrolled at the center on its first day.[12]  Ansar al-Shari`a has also set up a women’s and children’s health clinic behind the Jala’a hospital in Benghazi where services are provided free of charge, as well as a clinic for countering magic, jinns (genies) and infertility through use of the Qu’ran.[13]

Ansar al-Shari`a is also heavily preoccupied with issues of morality. It runs anti-drug and anti-alcohol campaigns in Benghazi and promotes “Islamically appropriate” behavior on university campuses. As the head of preaching of the Benghazi group explained, “We noticed a lot of people in the university not wearing proper clothes and violating what Allah has banned and not following religious rulings…We demand that women wear religious clothes, that the youth wear respectable clothes, and that women are segregated.”[14]

Ansar al-Shari`a, however, is going further than simply urging Libyans to conform to its rigid interpretation of the faith. The group is also fully engaged in running rehabilitation centers for those who have strayed from the “straight path.” This rehabilitation is generally undertaken with the agreement of the families concerned, who call on Ansar al-Shari`a to “arrest their sons” and “revive them from their drunkenness.”[15]

More interestingly, and in a further example of just how far Ansar al-Shari`a has been able to root itself in the local community, the group has allegedly even been tasked with rehabilitating some members of the official security establishment. According to one Libyan special forces commander writing in Libya al-Mostakbal, special forces personnel are being sent to Ansar al-Shari`a to be cured of their vices and to be “qualified religiously.”[16] The commander explained that these individuals are detained by Ansar al-Shari`a for a minimum of two weeks during which time they undergo intensive religious teaching.[17] The commander described, “We found amazing results. Those we sent told us about their psychological relief.”[18] It is unlikely that the Libyan government approves of such “rehabilitation,” and it highlights how the government does not effectively control its individual forces and brigades.

Thus, while the leaders of the various Ansar al-Shari`a branches in Libya may have a more transnational agenda, as reflected in the group’s official discourse,[19] it seems that on the ground its main focus is on expanding its presence locally and on pushing for the implementation of Shari`a—its primary concern. As one witness attending a graduation celebration for 150 “reformed” individuals at the group’s al-Dawa Wal Ihsane Rehabilitation Center in Derna declared, “Their main demand is that Libya is ruled by Islam.”[20]

It is not clear whether the bloody clashes that erupted between Ansar al-Shari`a and members of Libya’s special forces in Benghazi on November 25, 2013, will have any sustained impact on the group or the extent to which it is tolerated.[21] It is still too early to determine exactly what sparked the violence. If the violence heralds a new push by Libyan authorities to try to curtail Ansar al-Shari`a’s activities, then the group may decide to strike back, creating further instability in the east.

Ansar al-Shari`a Not Alone in Calls for Shari`a
Ansar al-Shari`a is not alone in its calls for Shari`a. Libya’s chaotic Islamist scene is full of groups demanding the full implementation of Islamic law. Some of these groups are waiting to see what will happen in this respect when Libya’s constitution is finally crafted, which is proving to be a long, protracted process.[22] While there is a broad consensus across the country that Shari`a should be the main basis of the new legislation, some Islamist groups are demanding that Shari`a be the sole source.

The Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade in Derna, for example, which was established by former LIFG militant Salim Derbi but brought itself, nominally at least, under the command of the Interior Ministry in 2012, is still intent on seeing Shari`a implemented in its fullest sense. In an uncompromising statement issued on October 29, 2013, the brigade declared, “You patient, courageous people, in this critical stage you have to embrace your genuine jihadist sons and real revolutionaries…Take support from your Lord, put support for Shari`a at the front of your mind and be prepared for death for the sake of its implementation, not just in the punishment side, but in every field. Only by Shari`a can we rise with the country and preserve blood, honor, wealth and sovereignty.”[23]

Likewise, the recently established Army of the Islamic State of Libya in Derna that is headed by Yousef Ben Taher, which the Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade dismisses on its Facebook page as “fighters mounted on donkeys rather than horses,” aspires to an Islamist state under Shari`a law.[24

Even some of the Libya Shield brigade, forces that come nominally under the Ministry of Defense and that receive huge amounts of state support and funding, are open about their desire to see Shari`a as the sole source of legislation. Wissam Ben Hamid, the Islamist commander of the Libya Shield One brigade that is based in Benghazi and that in June 2013 opened fire on a crowd of allegedly unarmed protestors calling for its dissolution,[25] is alleged to have declared in October 2011, “The Islamic Shari`a is a red line, we will not cede one rule of it, and Islam is the only law-giver and not (merely) the foundation (of the law).”[26]  Although the Libya Shield brigade may not have such a rigid ideological outlook as some of the above-mentioned groups, and may, for pragmatic reasons, be more willing to work within the framework of the state than groups such as Ansar al-Shari`a, some of their leaders, such as Ben Hamid, are clear that they want Shari`a to be the sole source of legislation for the new state.

To this end, some of these groups in the east are working to prevent the establishment of a national armed forces. Islamist brigades and groups are widely believed to be behind the weekly assassinations of official security personnel in Benghazi.[27] This is certainly the view taken by some Libyans. In October 2013, members of the Barghathi tribe in Benghazi attacked and torched the home of Wissam Ben Hamid after gunmen assassinated a member of their tribe, military police chief Colonel Ahmed al-Barghathi.[28]

Others, however, hold the view that more shadowy, takfiri-style[29] groups are carrying out these attacks. Ultraconservative member of the General National Congress, Shaykh Mohamed Bu Sidra, who is from Benghazi and is allegedly close to hard line Islamist groups in the east, spoke of the presence of a rejectionist group that he described as “extremist” that had a list of names of military personnel that it wanted to eliminate. Bu Sidra is quoted as having remarked, “If they worked their way through that list… Libya wouldn’t stand on its feet.”[30]

It is not only in the east that Islamist brigades are asserting their authority on the ground. Other cities, including the capital, are also host to an array of brigades, some of which are Islamist in orientation. This includes the powerful Libyan Revolutionary Operations Chamber (LROC), a body comprising revolutionaries from across the country that was mandated by Head of the National Congress Nouri Abu Sahmaine in July 2013 to bring security to Tripoli.

The commander of the chamber is Shaykh Shaban Masoud Hadia, known as Abu Obeida Zawi, a jihadist preacher who lived in Yemen for many years.[31] According to Libyan sources, Hadia is a well-known Islamist extremist and is particularly influential among the revolutionaries of Zawia.[32] In an article in January 2012, Hadia insisted, “We won’t accept anything other than Islam. It is our life, our constitution and our leader.”[33]

Given the orientation of its leader, it is perhaps unsurprising that the LROC reacted to the capture of al-Libi in a fashion that was almost as extreme as that of Ansar al-Shari`a. The group declared a state of high alert in all Libyan cities “because foreign powers are infringing the sovereignty of the state.”[34] It also called on its members to “go into the streets to kick out all foreigners who are in Libya illegally,” warning, “whoever was complicit with foreign intelligence [services] has to bear full responsibility.”[35] It then threatened to go after all such accomplices.[36]

It is also perhaps unsurprising that it was elements from the LROC that were allegedly responsible for the kidnapping of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan from the Corinthia Hotel on October 10 (Hadia has denied that the leadership of the chamber had anything to do with the abduction).[37] While it is impossible to ascertain whether Zidan’s kidnapping was a direct response to al-Libi’s capture or whether it was simply part of the ongoing and bitter political struggle between Islamist and liberal forces, al-Libi’s seizure is likely to have served as an additional incentive to attack the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) that comes nominally under the Interior Ministry and whose Tripoli branch was headed until recently by Islamist Hisham Bashar, continues to comprise brigades that are militant Islamist in orientation. Some of these brigades are engaged in their own vigilante style practices. This includes the Nawasi Brigade that used to be headed by hard line militant Abdul Raouf Kara, who now heads the Support and Backing Battalions in the SSC and whose base is at the Mtigha Airport in Tripoli. In January, the Nawasi Brigade clashed with locals from the Souq al-Juma’a and Fashloum areas of Tripoli after a man it had arrested for dealing drugs was tortured to death.[38]

Following the events of Bloody Friday on November 15, 2013, however, when brigades from Misrata opened fire on protestors in Tripoli, the Nawasi Brigade along with other militias agreed to hand over their headquarters to the state. This followed the agreement by the Misrata brigades to withdraw from the capital in response to a public outcry. It is too early to tell whether this new realignment of forces in Tripoli will hold. It seems unlikely that any of these forces, including those of an Islamist bent, will be willing to remain outside of the heart of affairs for too long. It may well be that, just as occurred in Benghazi in 2012 after the Islamist brigades were chased out of their headquarters, these forces will also either return or re-invent themselves.

These hard line Islamist figures and forces are woven deep into the fabric of the new Libya and their presence demonstrates the complexity and fluidity of Libya’s Islamist scene. With power in post-Qadhafi Libya atomized to such an extent, it is still difficult to make sense of these different forces and their agendas, as well as their relationship to each other. For the most part, however, these groups appear preoccupied primarily with their own local issues. That is not to say that some of these groups are not involved in training and sending recruits to the Syrian conflict. Evidence suggests that there is a flow of recruits to the Syrian opposition that have come through Libya.[39] In general, though, these Islamist brigades and militias appear to be focused mainly on entrenching themselves further in their local areas and in playing out local power struggles.

Yet while many of these elements do not have a transnational agenda or do not voice support for al-Qa`ida in the same way that Ansar al-Shari`a does, they continue to pose a serious challenge to Libya and its future. This challenge is likely to become all the more apparent when the constitution writing process finally begins and when the role of Shari`a in the new state is decided.

More importantly, if the state collapses, an outcome that is not unimaginable in light of the crises that are fast closing in on the political arena, there is a real risk that some of these militant groups may seek to demonstrate their power in an ever greater fashion. Given that they are so embedded in their own areas and that they are determined to see nothing short of an Islamic state, this could spark serious conflict, dragging Libya even deeper into the quagmire.

Alison Pargeter is a Middle East and North Africa analyst who specializes in political Islamist movements. Her books include: The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power (2013), Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qadhafi (2012), The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (2010), and The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (2008). She is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI and a Senior Research Associate at the global consultancy firm Menas Associates.

[1] Condemnations came from an array of groups and individuals. The National Council for Public Freedoms and Human Rights—a civil society organization—for example, condemned the incident, which they described as a violation of national sovereignty and for which they held the government responsible. Abdelbaset al-Shehaibi, a senior member of the Libyan intelligence service, meanwhile, accused the government, declaring, “I can’t imagine that America would do such a thing without the knowledge of the Libyan state.” The spokesman of the General National Congress read a statement on behalf of the 200-seat parliament, describing the incident as “a flagrant violation of national sovereignty.” See Libya Focus, Menas Associates, October 2013.

[2] “Libya Demands Explanation for US ‘Kidnapping’ of al-Qaida Leader al-Liby,” Guardian, October 7, 2013.

[3] “Libya: Dar Al-Ifta Demands that the Transitional Government and the GNC Protect Libyans,” al-Manara, October 10, 2013.

[4] Ansar al-Shari`a (Partisans of Shari`a) has emerged as a significant force in eastern Libya since the toppling of the former regime. It is more of a group or current than a specific militia or brigade. Like its counterparts in Tunisia and Yemen, its adherents follow an extremist ideology. Although the Libyan group insists it is not linked to al-Qa`ida, its leader in Benghazi, Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, has expressed his approval of al-Qa`ida’s strategy as well as statements issued by Ayman al-Zawahiri. See “Meeting Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi of Libyan Ansar al-Sharia,” BBC, September 18, 2012.

[5] The statement, dated October 8, 2013, is available at

[6] Ibid.

[7] Personal interview, former Libyan Islamist, London November 2013.

[8] For Ansar al-Shari`a’s Twitter feed, see

[9] Esad Mohamed, “Car Bomb Hits Swedish, Finnish Consulates in Libya,” Associated Press, October 11, 2013.

[10] “Belhaj: The Absence of the Government Contributes to the Proliferation of Al-Qa’ida,” Correspondents, November 6, 2013.

[11] This was posted on the Ajwa al-Bilad Facebook page in October 2013, available at

[12] Ibid.

[13] “The Absent Fact,” Libya al-Mostakbal, September 11, 2013.

[14] This was posted on the Ajwa al-Bilad Facebook page in October 2013, available at

[15] “The Absent Fact.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] In some of its official discourse, Ansar al-Shari`a and its members voice support for Usama bin Ladin and maintain a typically anti-Western stance.

[20] “A Report About the Situation in Derna,” Aroos El-Bahr, August 15, 2013.

[21] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Militia in Benghazi Flees After Deadly Gun Battle,” New York Times, November 25, 2013.

[22] Elections have still to be held to select the 60-member committee that will draw up the draft constitution. These elections are proving fractious already given that the country’s Amazigh population is boycotting them on the grounds that they have not been given a guarantee that their linguistic and cultural rights will be enshrined in the text.

[23] See the Facebook page for the Abu Slim Martyrs’ Brigade, available at

[24] Ibid. While both of these Derna-based groups are calling for Shari`a, they are engaged in a kind of turf battle for local influence. This is reflective of the relationships between many of the brigades and forces operating in post-Qadhafi Libya.

[25] “Benghazi Libya Shield Protests: At Least 27 Dead,” Libya Herald, June 9, 2013.

[26] John Rosenthal, The Jihadist Plot (Jackson, TN: Encounter Books, 2013).

[27] See the many articles in the Libya Herald detailing these attacks.

[28] “Benghazi Tense as Shield Commander’s Home Torched Following Barghathi’s Assassination,” Libya Herald, October 18, 2013.

[29] In this instance, “takfiri” refers to hard line Islamist groups that act as political rejectionists.

[30] “Is Ansar Al-Sharia Behind What is Happening in Benghazi?” Libya al-Mostakbal, November 10, 2013.

[31] “Libya: Militias, Politicians Meld in Explosive Mix,” Associated Press, October 22, 2013.

[32] “The Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Chamber and Anti-Crime Commission…Mysterious Entities in the Libyan State,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 11, 2013.

[33] “The Danger of Scarecrow Islamists,” al-Manara, January 8, 2012.

[34] This is from statement #12 issued by the LROC and posted on their official Facebook Page on October 7, 2013, available at

[35] Ibid.

[36]  Ibid.

[37] Although both Nouri Abu Sahmaine and Shaban Masoud Hadia have denied that the leadership of the chamber had any involvement in Zidan’s apprehension, elements from this chamber identified themselves to hotel staff and were also present when Zidan was being detained. See “The Prime Minister and the Militant: Two Kidnappings Spark Crisis,” Libya Focus 16:10 (2013).

[38] “Fashloum Youth Demand Government Action against Nawasi Brigade; Others Support It,” Libya Herald, January 12, 2013.

[39]  “Rami Bil Tayebi: 100 Tunisian Terrorists Trained in Libya in Abu Ayadh’s Camp,” al-Jarida, November 12, 2013.

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