Terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East is widely portrayed as the domain of violent Islamist groups. This conclusion is reasonable given the record of political violence in North Africa since the colonial period. Libya’s experience with terrorism before the 2011 uprising was consistent with this paradigm. There was a campaign of violence in the 1990s against the Mu`ammar Qadhafi-era authorities led by groups inspired by radical, violent interpretations of Sunni Islam,[1] predominantly in the northeast of the country. The authorities at the time used this threat to justify violence and repression against the population, which was also sometimes explained in terms of counterterrorism, and certainly after 9/11 in terms of the U.S. narrative of the global war on terrorism.[2]

Terrorism, and other forms of political violence, has changed starkly since the end of the 2011 conflict. A myopic focus on Islamist radicalism as the sole driving force of terrorism misses the complexities of Libya’s politics and society, and the challenges facing Libya’s stability, security and internal cohesion.

This article seeks to demonstrate that the range of actors with the capability—and, more importantly, the potential intent—to pursue political violence in forms that could be described as terrorism have increased in Libya, encompassing Islamist extremists, marginalized Arab tribes, and non-Arab ethnic minority groups. This article assesses each of the main groups of actors to demonstrate how their evolving capabilities and degrees of intent to use terrorism as a political tactic are products of a set of interrelated legacies of Qadhafi’s capricious ruling system and the 2011 conflict. These legacies include: the lack of functioning state institutions, the atomization of political power, and cleavages and changing power dynamics between Arab tribes and ethnic minorities that were exploited by Qadhafi. These factors have been exacerbated by the realities of conflict and the post-conflict competition for power and influence. Recognizing that the evolution of terrorism in Libya will be inherently linked to the trajectory and inclusiveness of politics, the article also identifies the common factors driving these actors’ intent to adopt extremist violence.[3]

Islamists and Violence
Domestic Islamist groups with a range of political affiliations, ideological positions, degrees of engagement and cooperation with state institutions, and attitudes toward the use of violence have been implicated in terrorist-type incidents and other forms of political violence, most regularly in the northeastern towns of Benghazi and Derna.[4] Ansar al-Shari`a was implicated in the September 2012 attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, although it has denied responsibility.[5] The Brigade of the Imprisoned Shaykh `Umar `Abd al-Rahman, a group about which little is known, claimed responsibility for the rocket attack against the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Benghazi in May 2012, accusing the non-governmental organization of attempting to convert internally displaced members of the Tawergha ethnic minority to Christianity.[6]

Aside from these incidents, in the vast majority of cases responsibility is not claimed by any group. Unclaimed attacks include a number of assassinations against members of the Qadhafi-era security services, which now exceed 100 deaths since mid-2012.[7] These incidents are attributed to Islamist groups in the northeast who allegedly seek retribution for repression and violence committed against them under Qadhafi.[8] Although this claim is not proven, it is an eminently plausible explanation. The changing relationship between new power centers, in this case Islamist militias, and Qadhafi-era power centers, such as his security forces, is one of the key fault lines in Libya. This fault line has driven political violence between a range of actors in the post-conflict period.[9] It is not the only possible motivation, however, for Islamist groups to adopt violence. Other explanations include fears of political marginalization by other actors, and—particularly for the more ideologically zealous groups, such as Ansar al-Shari`a and those with ideologies comparable to al-Qa`ida—perceptions that their interpretation of Islamic principles is not being respected in the forthcoming constitutional process, or, at a further extreme, their interpretation of Islamic principles is being rejected in favor of political systems perceived as secular or threatening.[10]

Nevertheless, ideologically motivated Islamist groups are just one set of actors whose grievances and perceptions of their interests—be they commercial, political or ideological—being marginalized are likely to drive terrorism. Libya is characterized by the proliferation of local and regional power centers that emerged during and after the 2011 uprising. New power centers are competing for influence and resources with established groups that formed the backbone of Qadhafi’s patronage networks and his security forces. This struggle for influence has the potential to increase these groups’ intent to engage in violence to highlight grievances, put pressure on or disrupt national-level politics, or pursue ideological and other goals. While these dynamics affect Islamist groups—as outlined above—these clashes between pre- and post-conflict power centers affect a broader range of actors.

Manipulation and Evolution of Relations Among Tribes
Shifting power dynamics among tribes have been among the primary drivers of violence since the end of the 2011 conflict.[11] Many of the factors fueling the violence have political overtones. Local tribes and ethnic groups competed for resources and political influence following the 2011 uprising, during which tribes that had been powerful under King Idris (1951-1969) and earlier attempted to regain their ascendancy over those that had been influential under Qadhafi. Despite initially attempting to reduce the influence of tribes under the banner of “modernization,” Qadhafi fell back on the support of tribal groups to strengthen his political position.[12] He used patronage to promote certain tribes while marginalizing others. In simplified terms, three tribes emerged as key to this strategy: Qadhafi’s own Qadhadhfa tribe, which is based primarily in Sebha and Sirte; the Warfalla, which is Libya’s largest tribe and whose members are spread throughout the country; and the Merghara, whose members tend to be found largely in the southwest.[13]

Tribes marginalized by Qadhafi have attempted to supersede groups that he favored. In Sebha, for example, the Awlad Suleiman attempted to supplant the Qadhadhfa and other tribes in the city, leading to intermittent outbreaks of violence.[14] Furthermore, tribes have been subject to political stigmatization and reprisal attacks resulting from perceptions that their members were loyal to Qadhafi. Forces from Misrata, for example, have engaged in violent reprisal attacks against the town of Bani Walid—traditionally home to the Warfalla tribe—because of its association with Qadhafi, perceptions that it stands against the 2011 uprising, and long-standing enmity between these communities that pre-dates Qadhafi.[15]

Tribes empowered by the uprising will probably continue attempts to remove Qadhafi-era networks from positions of influence, or seek retribution for past injustices. In turn, these tribes are likely to express discontent to the interim authorities due to their fears that they will become economically marginalized and politically disenfranchised. There is clearly a risk that the exclusion of these groups from the transition could lead them to resort to violence as a political tactic to express their grievances, but also as their sole means of being politically relevant. The recent violence in Sebha appears to be an example of this dynamic.[16]

Relationships Between Arabs and Ethnic Minorities
Comparable to how relationships among Arab tribes were manipulated, Libya’s three main ethnic minorities—the Amazigh (Berber), Tubu and Tuareg populations—were also marginalized and instrumentalized to different degrees by Qadhafi. Unsurprisingly, these groups have taken advantage of their newfound freedom and political space to cement their influence and guarantee their interests. When these groups perceive that their interests are not being adequately represented or respected, or that they are being actively marginalized by the majority Arab population, their intent to engage in violence may increase.

There are important differences between Libya’s ethnic minorities, but their political demands are fairly consistent: cultural and linguistic rights and recognition in the new constitution, with mechanisms to guarantee that these are preserved and protected. At the same time, these groups have attempted to increase their enfranchisement in the formal and informal economies, for instance through employment in the energy sector and control of the smuggling trade.[17] These dynamics have caused significant violence, as well as disruption affecting the state and other non-state actors.

Some notable examples of violence occurred in the southeastern town of Kufra between the Tubu and the Zwai tribe, in the southwestern town of Sebha between various Arab tribes and ethnic minorities, and in Ghadames between the local Arab and Tuareg populations.[18] Such violence reflects competition between different actors for political and commercial influence, particularly it seems with the Tubu, who achieved ascendancy in the regions south of Sebha through their control of the southern borders and cross-border smuggling.[19] Competition for control of lucrative smuggling networks and informal economic activity has been a major cause of violence.[20] Another example is the violence between the Amazigh residents of the northwestern town of Zuwarah and the Arab residents of the neighboring towns of Jmail and Rigdalin.[21] This reflects Qadhafi’s repression of Libya’s Amazigh population, and the perception among the Amazigh that people from Jmail and Rigdalin took part in this repression and benefited from preferential employment patterns in the energy sector under the former leader.[22]

Libya does not have a history of ethno-nationalist uprisings or rebellions comparable to countries in the Sahel, such as Mali and Niger. Political violence linked to ethnic minorities’ marginalization and disenfranchisement, however, occurred both before and after the 2011 uprising.[23] As such, perceptions of marginalization would encourage groups to engage in violence, or potentially increase separatist sentiment. The process of drafting Libya’s new constitution will be a key indicator as to whether the minorities’ demands for cultural and political rights will be respected; an exclusive focus on Libya’s Arab identity or a lack of protection for non-Arab culture and languages will be indicators that these demands are being ignored.

The fragmentation of post-conflict Libya means that there is a broad range of actors that have the capability to engage in political violence. Such violence has taken forms that can be labeled terrorism. Capacity shortfalls in centralized security provision, coupled with the widespread availability of weapons, means that these groups can act with relative impunity while the state struggles to gain a monopoly over the use of force. Despite the legacy and complexity of relationships among the state, Islamists, tribes and ethnic minorities, there are commonalities behind the factors driving these different groups to engage in violence. Most importantly, intent to engage in violence will be tied to political developments in the transitional process, and the extent to which the process is inclusive. If groups perceive that their interests are not being adequately represented or that they are being actively marginalized by others during the constitution-drafting process, then they might resort to violence as a political tactic.

It is for this reason that the motivations for Islamist groups to commit violence will not be too dissimilar to the motivations for marginalized tribes and ethnic minority groups, and it would be misguided to focus analysis or policy solely on the former actors. Despite these comparable motivations, these different actors do not currently show many signs of cooperation or coordination. It is plausible, however, that shared discontent among marginalized Arab tribes, ethnic minorities and Islamist groups could encourage their collaboration as the transitional process stutters along. Such a development would be destructive to the nascent Libyan state.

Geoffrey Howard is a Libya analyst with Control Risks. He leads analysis of political and security risk in Libya, conducting in-depth research into risks affecting organizations operating and investing in Libya and other countries in North Africa. Mr. Howard travels regularly to the region and has lived in both Libya and Syria. Prior to joining Control Risks, Mr. Howard worked in Tripoli for a number of leading Libyan financial institutions.

Henry Smith is a senior consultant, Middle East and North Africa, for Control Risks. He coordinates Control Risks’ political and security risk consulting projects in the Middle East and North Africa. He previously led Control Risks’ analysis of North Africa, and has traveled to Libya on regular occasions since early 2010. Mr. Smith contributed to an edited volume published in July 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan on the 2011 Libyan uprising and the subsequent civil conflict. He is a member of the UK’s Institute of Risk Management, achieving the International Certificate of Risk Management with distinction.

[1] Dirk Vanderwalle, Libya Since Independence; Oil and State-Building (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1998).

[2] Douglas Birch, “Moammar Gaddafi Offered to Help U.S. Fight Against Terrorism,” Associated Press, February 25, 2011; Ronald Bruce St John, Libya From Colony to Revolution (London: Oneworld Publications, 2012).

[3] This article does not seek to apportion blame for past incidents. It also does not assess the potential role of the state’s security forces in terrorism.

[4] Alison Pargeter, “The Capture of Abu Anas al-Libi: Reactions and Militancy in Libya,” CTC Sentinel 6:11-12 (2013).

[5] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Libyan Militia Blamed for Attack on U.S. Consulate Denies Responsibility,” New York Times, September 19, 2012.

[6] “Red Cross Says One Wounded in Attack on Office in Libya,” Agence France-Presse, June 12, 2012.

[7] See the various articles in the Libya Herald.

[8] See Maha Ellawati, “Dead Intelligence Officer Names,” Libya Herald, September 2, 2012; Pargeter, “The Capture of Abu Anas al-Libi: Reactions and Militancy in Libya.”

[9] Wolfram Lacher, “Fault Lines of the Revolution,” SWP Research Paper, May 2013.

[10] Some of Ansar al-Shari`a’s statements have reflected an agenda that is hostile toward Libya’s political transition and Western interests. One of the group’s commanders, Mahmoud al-Barasi, in early December 2013 criticized protesters in Derna as secularists, liberals and proponents of democracy, and attacked Western values and political structures. See Ansar al-Shari`a’s twitter feed, available at www.twitter.com/AnsarShariaa_ly, and “Ansar Al-Sharia Threatens Bloodshed in Libya,” Libya Herald, November 25, 2013.

[11] Wolfram Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics” in Jason Pack ed., The 2011 Libyan Uprising and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

[12] Dirk Vanderwalle, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[13] Hanspeter Mattes, “Formal and Informal Authority in Libya Since 1969” in Dirk Vandewalle ed., Libya since 1969 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[14] “Tense Calm in Sebha After Six Days of Clashes,” Libya Herald, January 4, 2013; “Four Die in Sebha Clashes,” Libya Herald, March 11, 2013.

[15] Government-aligned militias in effect laid siege to the town for around a month from early October 2012, and launched rocket attacks and other military strikes against it. The offensive was fueled by tensions between the town and neighboring Misrata, which worsened following the death in September 2012 of Omran Shaban, the Misratan militia member credited with capturing Qadhafi in October 2011. Shaban had been abducted in July 2012 and was subsequently tortured by elements from Bani Walid. See “Clashes in Ex-Gadhafi Bastion Bani Walid,” BBC, October 21, 2012.

[16] “Clashes Leave 88 Dead in Libya,” Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2014.

[17] Jamal Adel, “Demonstrators Quit Sarir Power Station After Successful Negotiations,” Libya Herald, January 16, 2014.

[18] Rebecca Murray, “Tribal War Simmers in Libya’s Desert,” Inter Press Service, October 11, 2012; “Uneasy Calm in Sebha After Clashes,” IRIN, May 14, 2012; Marcus Rhinelander, “Distrust in Ghadames as Tuareg Dream of a New City,” Libya Herald, April 7, 2012.

[19] See Henry Smith, “The South” in Pack.

[20] These details are based on the authors’ interviews and research conducted in Libya since July 2011.

[21] “31 Claimed Dead as Fighting Around Zuara Intensifies,” Libya Herald, April 3, 2012.

[22] “Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts,” International Crisis Group, September 14, 2012.

[23] A notable pre-2011 conflict example of ethnic violence in Libya was in 2008, when the Tubu and the Qadhafi-era security forces clashed in the southeastern town of Kufra.

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