Libya: A Controversy Around an Anti-Ibadi Fatwa

Libya has multiple governments and as such it has multiple poles of would-be official religious authority. One such body is the Supreme Committee for Issuing Fatwas (Al-Lajna al-‘Ulya li-l-Ifta’) connected to the Libyan Interim Government. That government is based in the northeastern city Al-Bayda and is associated with Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Committee kicked off a tremendous controversy by issuing a fatwa (Arabic) that denounces the Ibadis, a non-Sunni, non-Shi’i Muslim sect prevalent in Oman and with a small but significant presence in parts of North and East Africa. The fatwa comes in response to a question about the permissibility of praying behind an Ibadi imam – effectively, a question about whether Ibadis should be considered genuine Muslims or not. The response reads, “Ibadism is a deviant, misguided sect. They are Kharijite Batinists. They hold infidel beliefs, such as their belief that the Qur’an is a created object, and their belief in denying that we will see [God in Paradise], so do not pray behind them and don’t esteem them.”

For context, “Kharijites” is a pejorative term that can refer to a specific early Islamic sect but that also can be used widely as a term of abuse. Describing the intricacies of the historical relationships between Ibadism and Kharijism is, I think, a task best left to specialists, so I won’t attempt it here. “Batinism,” meanwhile, is used here as a pejorative term meaning people who claim to see hidden messages in the Qur’an.

Turning back to the fatwa’s reception, negative reactions came immediately from Libyan Amazigh/Bergers, who saw the fatwa not just as a religious provocation but an ethnic one. Ibadism is sometimes associated with the Amazigh in Libya and vice versa. The Amazigh Supreme Council called the fatwa “a direct incitement for a genocide of the Amazigh people in Libya.” (Read a little background on the Ibadis in Libya here.)

Another negative reaction came from a rival governmental religious body, the Dar al-Ifta’ (House of Issuing Fatwas), whose legal status under the Government of National Accord is now somewhat unclear (it’s been reportedly shut down, but it’s still issuing statements). Although the Dar al-Ifta’ and Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gharyani have a reputation in many quarters as divisive and even extremist, in this context the Dar al-Ifta’ presented itself as a non-sectarian force working for Libyan unity. In a statement (Arabic), Dar al-Ifta’ denounced the “sectarian chaos that simple-minded idiots and youngsters are trying to ignite among the Muslim citizenry.” (See also here.)

Other Libyan commentators have seen the fatwa as evidence of creeping Salafism/Wahhabism (Arabic) in Libya – for all that the eastern Libyan government and the forces of Haftar are often seen as anti-Islamist and even “secular,” there is a strong Salafi influence on those bodies.

Those are just a few of the reactions in an ongoing domestic controversy. It will be interesting to see whether the pressure and criticism elicit any changes on the part of the Supreme Committee or the eastern government.

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Libyan National Army Slowly Conquering Benghazi

Back in January, I wrote about the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s slow territorial conquest of Benghazi. The LNA is the military force commanded by Khalifa Haftar, an ex-Qadhafi general turned eastern Libyan warlord (and recently profiled by Mattia Toaldo here). As of January, two main neighborhoods in Benghazi remained outside the LNA’s control: Suq al-Hout and Sabiri/Sabri.

Over the weekend, the LNA took much of Suq al-Hout. The slow speed of the advance is partly due to the numerous land mines (Arabic) and improvised explosive devices in the remaining neighborhoods. The LNA has launched numerous airstrikes targeting both Suq al-Hout and al-Sabiri (Arabic).

Haftar’s military enemies in eastern Libya appear to be weakening. Inside Benghazi, jihadist groups like the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council are losing territory and fighters. Meanwhile, as Reuters notes, the anti-Haftar Companies for Defending Benghazi/Benghazi Defense Brigades, a force based outside Benghazi, are now stating their willingness to “disband and be integrated into national security forces.” Al Jazeera (Arabic) adds that the Companies are accusing France and the United Arab Emirates of pressuring the United States government to declare the Companies a foreign terrorist organization, i.e. to blacklist them. (I’ve explained, here, why I think it’s simplistic to consider the Companies a part of al-Qaida.)

With the Companies unable to mount a successful offensive against the LNA in Benghazi and with the LNA slowly expanding its control of the city, Haftar’s position there – and in eastern Libya generally – is looking stronger and stronger.

New Blacklists, External and Local, Clarify Faultlines in Libyan Politics

Amid the dispute between Qatar and a group of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain), Qatar’s opponents released a list last week of fifty-nine individuals and twelve charities accused of involved in terrorism and extremism. The United Nations, which operates its own influential blacklist of proven and alleged terrorists (as does the United States), has essentially rejected the list, and so the list’s influence may have real limits. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see who made the list, and it is notable that the list is already being amplified by those on one side of Libya’s complex civil war.

First, I think it’s worth noting the breakdown of the fifty-nine individuals by nationalities:

  • 26 Egyptians (of whom the most famous is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most famous living Sunni Muslim scholar)
  • 18 Qataris
  • 5 Libyans
  • 3 Kuwaitis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Saudis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Bahrainis
  • 2 Jordanians
  • 1 Emirati
  • 1 Yemeni

Here are the Libyans:

  • Al-Sadiq al-Gharyani, Libya’s Grand Mufti
  • Ali al-Sallabi, a religious leader from Benghazi strongly associated with Qatar and with political Islamism
  • Ismail al-Sallabi, Ali al-Sallabi’s brother and a leader in the Benghazi Defense Brigades/Companies for the Defense of Benghazi*
  • Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former jihadist in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and currently an Islamist politician
  • Mahdi Harati, a former militia commander who served as mayor of Tripoli in 2014-2015

There is no question that these individuals are connected to Qatar, but the question of whether they are “terrorists” or not is essentially political.

The blacklisting has already evoked complex responses inside Libya. One major response has come from the House of Representatives, the internationally recognized, anti-Islamist parliament in eastern Libya. The House of Representatives is aligned with Khalifa Haftar, a retired general who commands the would-be Libyan National Army, a major force in northeast (and increasingly, southern) Libya. The House of Representatives and Haftar strongly oppose a variety of Islamist and jihadist-leaning currents in Libya; Haftar considers all of them “terrorists,” even figures and movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) that have participated in mainstream politics in Libya. In terms of how these sides line up with the political splits in the Gulf, the House of Representatives and Haftar receive strong backing from the UAE, Egypt, and to some extent Saudi Arabia, while many Libyan Islamists receive backing from Qatar.

Given that context, it is perhaps no surprise that the House of Representatives’ National Defense and Security Committee not only welcomed the Saudi/Emirati/Egyptian/Bahriani list, but also issued its own list (Arabic) of 75 Libyan individuals and 9 institutions that it alleges are associated with terrorism and with Qatar. The list includes numerous Muslim Brotherhood leaders, various figures associated with Qatar-backed media channels, individuals close to the Grand Mufti, people in the anti-Haftar Benghazi Defense Brigades, and prominent members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

If the list, as proposed, were accepted by the Government of National Accord (the GNA, the internationally recognized executive government backed by the United Nations, although not yet endorsed by the House of Representatives), then the resulting designations would effectively ban Islamism as a mainstream political force in Libya. I do not expect the GNA to accept the list, but its circulation gives a very clear snapshot of whom the House of Representatives and Haftar consider their main political enemies. The list also gives an initial sense of how the Qatar/Saudi split (to use a shorthand) is playing out even more explicitly in Libyan domestic politics now than it was before.

*I’ve written about the Brigades here.

Libya: On al-Qaida and the Benghazi Defense Brigades

I have a post at Lawfare examining the Benghazi Defense Brigades*, a Libyan militia with very loose ties to al-Qaida. I make a broader point about how analytically sloppy, and politically misguided, it is to interpret these kinds of loose ties as evidence for the claim that al-Qaida core is somehow brilliantly controlling all kinds of essentially local armed groups around the world. I welcome your feedback on the piece in the comments section below.

*Probably better translated as “the Companies for Defending Benghazi,” but the name above has stuck in English.

Khalifa Haftar Launches “Operation Moving Sands” in Southern Libya

Al Jazeera (Arabic) reports that Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) and rival of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), has launched a new military campaign in southern Libya. The campaign is called “Operation Moving Sands.” It will target militias around Sabha (map). Leading the campaign is the LNA’s 12 Brigade under Colonel Muhammad bin Na’il. Their immediate goal is to capture the air base at Tamanhint (map), slightly northeast of Sabha.

“Operation Moving Sands” represents a continuation, and probably an escalation, of a series of conflicts between the LNA – including the 12 Brigade – and the GNA-aligned Third Force, a southern-based militia originally from Misrata, the economic hub on the coast. The conflicts between the Third Force and bin Na’il’s men date to early 2015, according to one account. Most recently, Al Jazeera says, the Third Force repelled an LNA attack on the air base on March 23. Each side depicts itself as a force for stability in the south and accuses the other of causing chaos in the region.

Something like 90% of Libyans live in northern coastal cities, but what happens in the south matters a great deal: southern towns are key nodes in commerce, smuggling, and migration, and the south has significant security infrastructure. Observers are also warning that the so-called Islamic State is attempting to regroup in southern Libya after its recent defeat and expulsion from Sirte. Finally, it’s worth adding that some southern politicians are frustrated with the GNA: Musa al-Koni, representative of the Tuareg (a major ethnic group in southwestern Libya) on the GNA’s Presidency Council, resigned in disgust in January. It’s not surprising that Haftar sees an opportunity, politically and militarily, in the south.

Libya: LNA Captures Ganfouda, Looks Toward Sabiri and Suq al-Hout

Last week, the forces of Khalifa Haftar, leader of the unrecognized Libyan National Army (LNA), made advances in the eastern city of Benghazi against various jihadists, including the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (BRSC). The LNA recaptured the Abu Sneib district and surrounded another, Ganfouda/Qanfouda, both on the western side of the city. Yesterday, the LNA took Ganfouda. Reuters:

“The liberation of Ganfouda is complete,” LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari told Reuters. He added however that the army was yet to secure a separate area known as the “12 Blocks” which lies between Ganfouda and Bosnaib, another neighborhood recently taken by the LNA.

[…]

The fate of civilians trapped in Ganfouda had been a major point of contention, with the United Nations and international human rights groups calling for them to be granted safe passage amid allegations of human rights abuses by both sides.

Here is Human Rights Watch, back in November, on the civilians trapped in Ganfouda:

Ganfouda is one of the few remaining holdouts of militant Islamist groups in Benghazi. The LNA, which has Ganfouda under siege, has said it will not allow any evacuation of males between ages 15 and 65 and has set a series of other conditions. The Islamist coalition controlling the neighborhood has also set conditions for evacuation of civilians.

[…]

Human Rights Watch spoke by cellphone with six Ganfouda residents, as well as with relatives abroad, activists, commanders, and representatives of the LNA and the BRSC. Residents said they live in constant fear of air strikes and have had no access to fresh food for months, no access to medical care with exception of one doctor with limited capacities, and limited drinking water. Electricity had been cut off for months, and only those residents who had a generator and fuel had access to some electricity. They said the intense fighting made them afraid to try to leave their neighborhood to get food and other necessities. They said they could not use a sea route in the coastal city, due to the LNA’s expansion of the siege to include coastal areas.

Turning back to the military struggle, what happens next? As the LNA’s Special Forces commander, Colonel Wanis Boukhamada (Arabic), explained, the LNA now plans to pursue the jihadists in three zones of the city: the “twelve blocks” area, the Suq al-Hout neighborhood, and the Sabiri neighborhood. These areas have been in the LNA’s sights since last summer. At that time, “The LNA has been quoted saying that it would not make its final move against the militants holed up in Suq Al-Hout and Sabri until the battle for Gwarsha and Ganfouda were over.” Gwarsha was captured in November. The LNA’s plan is proceeding slower than it had hoped, but is proceeding nonetheless.

Meanwhile, a car bombing occurred elsewhere in Benghazi yesterday, adding to “fears…that cells of militants still in the city would continue their fight with assassinations and car bombs.”