LIFG and Al Qaeda: A Response to Zelin

On Friday, I had a post at G&L questioning the field’s conventional wisdom that a) there is currently no relationship between the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and al Qaeda, and b) LIFG is almost entirely nationalist in orientation, or else regionally focused, rather than embracing an ideology of global jihad. My contention is not that there is more likely than not a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda at present, nor that there are more likely than not large parts of LIFG that embrace an ideology of global jihad, but rather that I am unpersuaded by the assertion that neither of these are true. Aaron Zelin took issue with my post on Twitter, and Will McCants also disagreed for the same reasons that Zelin provided. I respect both Zelin and McCants enormously, but I think they are both over-interpreting the available evidence while giving insufficient weight to contradictory data — which was my critique of the field’s understanding of this issue in the first place. This entry will be devoted to answering Zelin’s objections.

But first, I would like to say a word or two about what I mean by “LIFG.” As noted in my last post, there is a serious question of what LIFG is today, and whether it even exists. Jihadi groups go in and out of existence, or adopt new names, frequently. A good example of a group that was significantly disrupted, and became defunct in name, but wasn’t truly gone, is Somalia’s Al Ittihad al Islamiya (AIAI). The noted Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus explains in his 2004 volume Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism that after Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, AIAI attempted to seize “targets of opportunity” throughout the country. The only location it held for a sustained period was the town of Luuq, near the border with Ethiopia and Kenya. From there, AIAI carried out a string of attacks into Ethiopia, including assassinations and bombings from 1996-97 that reached Addis Ababa. In response, Ethiopian forces intervened and smashed AIAI. Soon, Menkhaus writes, AIAI was regarded as ”a spent force, marginal if not defunct as an organization.” But, it would have been wrong to simply hold that AIAI no longer existed at that point, had become irrelevant. Indeed, the old leadership of AIAI would resurface as a critical part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), such that analysts correctly note a continuity between those two groups. The question “what is AIAI up to today?” would have been highly relevant in 2004, and indeed could have helped analysts to anticipate significant developments in 2006, such as the ICU’s seizure of Mogadishu.

Another jihadi group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has used different names and different banners in an effort to confuse its foes. As V.S. Subrahmanian and his co-authors write in an interesting new study about LeT, the group used this strategy just before Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf banned it in January 2002. Subrahmanian et al. note that “weeks before on December 24, 2001, LeT leader Hafez Saeed declared that LeT and MDI [the Markaz al-Dawa Irshad] were now separated and that he no longer had any affiliation with LeT. Further, MDI reverted to the name Jamaat ud-Dawa (Society for Preaching–JuD).” This was an organizational split in name only, as LeT continued to use JuD offices as its own.

So when I speak of what LIFG is doing today and what it believes, I am not referring to what an entity that calls itself LIFG is doing. Nor am I asking what a few stragglers from the organization are doing. Rather, I am interested in critical leaders from LIFG, and their followers, and LIFG’s militant apparatus. And for my money, we don’t know enough about them to say they are definitely, or even overwhelmingly likely to be, unconnected to al Qaeda and an ideology of global jihad. While one could object to my entire question on definitional grounds, and claim that there is no longer a LIFG so the question is irrelevant, the implication of this argument should be clear: if there is no longer a LIFG, there is also no longer a group that would feel itself bound by LIFG’s 2009 revisions.

So, turning to Zelin’s specific objections:

Zelin’s first objection: Ex-LIFG members that joined AQC [al Qaeda core] did so in an individual capacity. The so-called “merger” was rejected by LIFG leadership.

This response is overly focused on a single event, the merger that Abu Layth al Libi and Ayman al Zawahiri announced of LIFG and al Qaeda in 2007, and that was later repudiated by the organization’s imprisoned leadership when it issued revisions in 2009. But a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda preceded the revisions by about two decades, as this report that Evan Kohlmann wrote for the NEFA Foundation in 2007 makes clear. To highlight a few (though by no means all) of his data points:

  • LIFG members were present in Afghanistan shortly after al Qaeda was founded in 1988, and were considered an early affiliate (pp. 3-4).
  • LIFG was present in Sudan from 1992-95 during Osama bin Laden’s time in that country, and about twenty LIFG members were part of the Islamic Army Shura that bin Laden formed (p. 5). This was not always a warm and friendly relationship; as is often the case within jihadi circles, it included its share of arguments and tensions.
  • After bin Laden was forced from Sudan and returned to Afghanistan, LIFG began to view that country, by 1998, as “the preferred venue for LIFG recruits seeking extremist indoctrination and military training.” During this time, “LIFG leaders managed to put aside some of their past frustrations with al Qaeda.” John Negroponte noted, during his time as the U.S.’s director of national intelligence, that during this period LIFG “expanded its goals to include anti-Western jihad alongside Al Qaeda.”
  • LIFG fought beside al Qaeda in Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded. Illustrating this, Kohlmann writes, “In 2002, Khalden training camp manager Abu Zubaydah was captured by security forces in a residence in Faisalabad, Pakistan alongside at least three LIFG operatives and a fourth individual also ‘known to have ties to the LIFG.’ Other LIFG members were captured by U.S. forces on the battlefield in Afghanistan and subsequently transferred to the U.S. prisoner camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
  • LIFG’s alleged involvement in 2003 terrorist attacks in Morocco illustrate that at that time, ambitions outside of Libya and also a general anti-West orientation may have been prevalent within the group. Kohlmann writes, “In May 2003, senior LIFG leaders based in Europe allegedly conspired with their North African allies in the GICM to help plan and facilitate a wave of suicide bombing attacks on targets in the Moroccan city of Casablanca that killed over 40 people and caused more than 100 injuries. The attacks focused on Western and ‘Jewish’ interests, including community centers, a restaurant, and a hotel. British-based LIFG Shura Council member Abdelrahman al-Faqih—who ‘has a history of GICM-related activity’ and has served as a key liaison between the LIFG and the GICM—was convicted in absentia by the Rabat Criminal Court of Appeals in Morocco for his alleged involvement in the Casablanca bombings.”
  • LIFG commanders, including Abu Layth al Libi and Abu Yahya al Libi, held prominent positions within al Qaeda prior to the 2007 merger.
  • LIFG also strongly supported the jihad in Iraq. Kohlmann writes, ”Eager to continue its war against the West as the battlefield shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the ‘LIFG has called on Muslims everywhere to fight the U.S. in Iraq,’ according to U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. In October 2004, al Qaeda supporters in Libya posted an open request on Arabic-language Internet chat forums to the chief of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s media wing regarding Libyan national Khalid al-Zaidi—who allegedly survived combat with U.S. forces in Iraq only to be subsequently killed back home in Libya. According to the message, ‘we think you have heard about [his martyrdom]… the most important thing we want from you, the Tawheed wal-Jihad Movement, is to name one of your upcoming operations in his name in order to show support for your brothers in the land of Libya.’”

Focusing only on Abu Layth al Libi’s merger of LIFG into al Qaeda in 2007, and its subsequent repudiation by another wing of LIFG, ignores the fact that a relationship had long existed between the two groups prior to the merger. This relationship was sometimes tense, but generally cooperative. Since a cooperative relationship had existed for such a long time, it is not impossible, nor even particularly unlikely, that it would continue in a real way even after one LIFG wing issued its revisions.

Further, neither Abu Layth al Libi nor other LIFG leaders who became part of al Qaeda can be written off as low-level individuals. They were prominent within LIFG, and when they joined al Qaeda, they brought their followers along. Nor is the fact that it took the imprisoned LIFG leadership two years to reject al Libi’s attempted merger with al Qaeda wholly irrelevant: Abu Layth al Libi purported to speak for all of LIFG in his merger announcement, so if this merger were completely out of character, and seen as outrageous by others within LIFG, shouldn’t the repudiation have come much earlier? Available evidence suggests that there might be significant LIFG factions who were both dedicated to the ideology of global jihad and also desired a working relationship with al Qaeda, even if other LIFG factions did not. It is not clear to me (though not necessarily wrong) that the imprisoned leadership that issued the revisions in 2009 should be held up as the “real” LIFG while Abu Layth al Libi’s faction is written off as marginal.

Zelin’s second objection (combining two tweets): The former LIFG leader first changed the name of the group in spring ’11 to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change. Since then former LIFG members split into two political parties al-Watan and al-Ummah led by Belhaj and Sa’adi, respectively.

The Libyan Islamic Movement for Change was a shift adopted by LIFG’s European expatriate and historic Libya-based leadership, the same ones who supported the earlier revisions. They claimed to speak for the whole of LIFG — but then again, so did Abu Layth al Libi and his followers during the 2007 merger. It isn’t clear that the former should be given preeminence over the latter, other than the fact that the former was trending in a direction that the U.S. wanted it to — particularly given that Abu Layth al Libi’s contingent definitely had access to significant amount of resources and personnel. The question of who has a greater claim to legitimacy isn’t trivial, particularly given the salafist attacks that have erupted across Libya.

This wave of attacks on sufi shrines is unprecedented in Libya’s recent history, and suggests that whomever is carrying it out embraces an extreme for of takfirism. Who is responsible for the attacks is an open question, but it’s certain that they’re dangerous enough that the state is hesitant to openly confront them. The New York Times recently quoted Libya’s interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Aal: “If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons. We can’t be blind to this. These groups are large in power and number in Libya. I can’t enter a losing battle, to kill people over a grave.” This is a remarkable quote: Libya’s interior minister feels powerless to stop the destruction of sufi shrines and sites, in large part because these groups are “large in power and number,” and also well armed. Did the groups carrying out these attacks derive their organizational structure or leadership from LIFG? To be sure, we don’t know the answer, but can we say that it’s more likely than not that they didn’t?

Zelin references the emergence of al Watan (Hizb al Watan) and al Ummah (al Ummah al Wasat) as political parties. This splintering raises the question of whether or not there is still a coherent group. If not, as I asked before, should LIFG’s revisions still be considered operative? (Surely some in the group would still likely adhere to them, but could we consider them binding on all the factions that existed within LIFG?) But moreover, in Libya engaging in the political process is not inconsistent with maintaining a militia capable of undertaking violent actions outside of it. Abdal Hakim Bilhaj is a good example, as he continues to head the Tripoli Military Council (TMC) despite his official resignation on May 15, 2012. According to open source reports, the TMC, one of Libya’s most powerful militias, has a large number of former LIFG members. Estimates of its total size range from 5,000 to 25,000 members.

Zelin’s third objectionIndeed, there are former LIFG elements around Libya that didn’t buy into politics, see al-Qumu, but it’s not under the LIFG banner.

It is true that they aren’t operating under the LIFG banner at this point, but I assess that as less important than Zelin thinks it is. The fact is that in Libya:

  • There are a large amount of takfiri attacks being carried out against sufi targets, and we don’t know to whom those attacks should be attributed.
  • There are credible reports of an al Qaeda presence inside Libya (as detailed in my previous post), and we don’t have a great deal of granular knowledge about it.
  • We don’t have a good idea of what became of a large portion of the fighters within LIFG (although some are accounted for, such as those who are now in the TMC).

There is, in essence, a lot that we don’t know, and hence the need for a great deal of analytic humility about what might be happening. I think the banner that a group operates under is less relevant than where its structure and members came from. If I wrote a post about Somalia in 2004 arguing that AIAI might be trying to consolidate power, one could reasonably object that they weren’t doing so under the banner of AIAI. That would be true enough, but also somewhat beside the point: for practical purposes, AIAI was trying to consolidate power then, but we didn’t really know what to call them. Asking about AIAI in 2004 would not only not be wrong, but would in fact be the exact right question to ask if you wanted to understand Somalia’s future. Until we can name the specific factions that have emerged from LIFG, I think it is fair to ask what LIFG is up to now, and also to question whether its revisions in fact represent the overwhelmingly dominant view among LIFG members/former LIFG members.

So, to highlight my points of difference with Zelin:

  • I believe that focusing only on Abu Layth al Libi’s attempted merger with al Qaeda and the subsequent 2009 revisions ignores a history between LIFG and al Qaeda that covers about two decades. There is much more to the connection between the two organizations than just the attempted merger.
  • I don’t think it’s self-evident that we should find that legitimacy lies only with the imprisoned leaders who issued revisions in 2009, and not with Abu Layth al Libi’s faction that also claimed to act in the name of LIFG when it merged with al Qaeda. I think it is reasonable to say that it seems LIFG has been somewhat fluid, possessing more than a single faction, and that both nationalist and also global jihad-oriented factions have existed within the group. Given the dearth of information we have about Libya, I don’t see how we can conclude that the overwhelming majority of LIFG members endorse the positions expressed in the revisions.
  • Further, in my previous entry, I noted that other aspects of LIFG’s revisions, such as the pledge not to fight Qaddafi’s regime, were abandoned. This calls into question, at least in a small way, how binding the totality of the revisions will be.
  • The best objection to my argument (which Zelin seems to hint at) is that LIFG simply does not exist at this point. (This entry makes clear that the question what is LIFG? does not have a straightforward answer.) But this argument begs the question: what do we call armed groups whose structure and leadership is inherited from LIFG, if we don’t have another name for them at this point? And should their history within LIFG be seen as irrelevant to their current form, function, and logic?
  • Further, to the extent that one argues that LIFG does not exist, that undermines the importance of LIFG’s revisions. If there is no LIFG, there’s also no longer a group that has endorsed the revisions.
  • I believe that the banner a group is operating under is relevant, but we cannot view it as absolutely determinative. If a group’s leadership and structure derives from a previous organization (i.e. LIFG), then that group can sometimes be functionally seen as a continuation of the previous organization rather than a wholly new thing.

The bottom line is that there is a hell of a lot that analysts don’t know about violent non-state actors operating in Libya. And the more we don’t know, the more we should be open to possibilities that defy the conventional wisdom. That is particularly the case for LIFG and al Qaeda: the two groups’ fairly long relationship should make it difficult to say with confidence that any working relationship is only a thing of the past.

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