Yesterday I was quoted in a Spencer Ackerman article over at Wired, saying, “We don’t know whether there is a current relationship between LIFG [the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group] and al Qaeda.” I wanted to expand upon that quote here, because I feel that it represents a minority opinion within my field: I believe that most analysts with an opinion on the matter would argue that we do know whether there is a current relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda, and that the correct answer is that there is none.
The argument for the lack of relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda is pretty straightforward. I also believe that it is wrong: not that the opposite is true, but that analysts are drawing too strong a conclusion based on the available evidence. First, let me outline the case for LIFG and al Qaeda having no relationship as clearly as possible. The case is rooted in a series of revisions that LIFG published in September 2009, which Paul Cruickshank discusses in this CTC Sentinel article. Among other things, the revisions contained a repudiation of al Qaeda’s ideology. Cruickshank argues that the revisions constitute “the most significant critique of al Qaeda that has yet emerged from jihadist circles.” He provides a number of reasons that observers should be optimistic about the impact that these revisions might have. One reason is that, while “LIFG never joined al Qaeda nor shared its ideology of global jihad, the close personal ties between its leaders meant that al Qaeda still considered the LIFG’s leaders brothers in arms.” Another reason is that LIFG’s critique of al Qaeda still came from a jihadi perspective, which in Cruickshank’s view meant that it was more likely to resonate with the target audience (those who might otherwise be receptive to al Qaeda’s message). Those arguing that there is no relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda point to the rejection of al Qaeda contained in the revisions, and conclude that it precludes a relationship between the two groups.
Fair enough. Now, in approaching questions like whether there is a relationship between al Qaeda and LIFG, definitional questions loom large. There are various debates about what al Qaeda means, but let us stipulate an answer that I believe analysts who think there is no LIFG/al Qaeda relationship would agree with: that in saying there is no LIFG/al Qaeda relationship, they are saying a) that LIFG does not have links to al Qaeda’s core leadership, and b) that it is now a regionally focused or nationalist group rather than one with global ambitions. (The revisions explicitly reject al Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad.)
The definitional questions become more difficult, though, when we ask what LIFG is today. Does it even exist? Fox News noted this summer that LIFG is “purportedly moribund,” which is accurate, but that doesn’t mean that no organization that we could describe as LIFG exists. There is a long tradition of jihadi groups shedding old names and adopting new ones (Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates provide a great example of this practice): if an organization remains that is comprised of high-profile members of the old LIFG, it would be fair to see it as a continuation of LIFG even if it goes by a new name. If LIFG or a successor organization currently exists, who is its emir? What does its organizational structure look like? Does it make decisions in a centralized or decentralized manner? Abdal Hakim Bilhaj is frequently described as LIFG’s “former emir.” Does that mean he can still be considered a LIFG leader? The answers one can discern from open-source information are less than clear. Thus, one reason it is difficult to answer the question of a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda should be apparent: what LIFG means in this context is far less clear than the sometimes perplexing question of what we mean by al Qaeda.
Let’s sidestep this question entirely without diminishing its importance, and turn to a more basic problem with the argument that the revisions preclude a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda: I think it is, in fact, rather apparent that they do not. The revisions, after all, did not just contain a repudiation of al Qaeda: they also contained, as Cruickshank notes, a pledge to end LIFG’s campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Yet when the opportunity arose, LIFG leaders — quite prominent among them its former emir, Bilhaj — joined the fight against the regime. Is the repudiation of al Qaeda more fundamental than the promise not to fight Qaddafi’s regime, such that key LIFG leaders would turn back to fighting the regime when the opportunity arose, yet are sure to keep their distance from al Qaeda and global jihadism? Based on where analysts fall on the issue, I think most would answer yes, but I don’t see that as self-evident.
And thus we have the point that I wanted to make about epistemology. Much of what happens in the world of violent non-state actors occurs in the shadows, such that analysts have to be very modest about what they know, and what they do not. This is even truer in the case of LIFG, for whom there are very real questions about whether it even exists, and if it does, what its leadership and organizational structure look like. I find that areas where I most frequently disagree with others in the field — and where the field often gets its answers wrong — are those where relatively broad conclusions are drawn based on only a few data points. I believe that analysts often overreach in their conclusions because they like to be able to provide answers: not knowing is a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. Thus, when most available data points suggest a certain conclusion, they will put forward the conclusion that the data points suggest they should.
That is fair, I suppose, except for one problem: when an analyst is dealing with an extremely limited set of available data points, and he knows that there is a lot more to answering the question that he simply cannot see, he should be aware that the limited data points he possesses may well have pushed him to the wrong conclusion. I recently had a similar critique of the report that West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) produced about the documents recovered from the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden: CTC reached broad conclusions that go far beyond what the documents actually demonstrate. Sometimes all you can say is that you have some suggestive data points, but that the data points do not answer the question. And I think this is the case here: that the conclusion that LIFG has no globally-oriented faction, and no relationship with al Qaeda, does not follow from the fact that the revisions exist. The revisions are not irrelevant, but neither do they provide a definitive answer to the question.
That is the epistemological point that I wanted to make before inundating readers with my own evidence. If you were more interested in the broad argument, you can stop reading. But if you’re actually interested in LIFG, global jihadism, and al Qaeda, the following data points will be relevant:
- There appears to still be a pro-al Qaeda faction within what can currently be described as LIFG. Old leaders such as Abu Layth al Libi, Abdal Ghaffar al Libi, Abdullah Sa’id al Libi, Urwah (Abu Malik al Libi), and Abu Yahya al Libi are dead, but a review of open source information reveals that such figures as Anas al Libi, Abu Shahin al Darnawi, Abu Raghad al Libi, Abu Ishaq Hamzah al Libi, Abu Hafs al Darnawi, and Sufyan bin Qumu remain active in Libya.
- Those figures within LIFG who publicly sided with al Qaeda after LIFG’s revisions were never expelled from the group. Overlapping membership does not mean LIFG was cooperating with al Qaeda, but it suggests that the distinction many analysts now draw — that within LIFG there is only a regional focus — is too sharp.
- The aforementioned Urwah, a senior LIFG commander, was killed in April 2011 while fighting to retake Al Burayqah. His background prior to returning to Libya is suggestive of al Qaeda connections. He had been detained in Iran in 2004, and was released from Iranian custody in late 2010. A large number of al Qaeda figures were held in Iran during this time period, and released around the time Urwah was released.
- There have been multiple reports of an al Qaeda presence in Libya. Within the Algerian press, sources making this claim include El Fadjr Online (Aug. 3, 2011, describing al Qaeda’s presence in eastern Libya), El Khabar Online (Sept. 3, 2011; Sept. 12, 2011); and Echourouk El Youmi Online (Oct. 2o, 2011). Lest one think this is nothing more than Algerian propaganda, Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, has noted that “the terrorist threat has become more complex with some changes in the region, particularly in Libya.” If there is in fact an increasing al Qaeda presence in Libya (something that these reports do not prove with absolute certainty), where is it coming from? It’s unlikely that the increasing al Qaeda presence would come entirely from foreigners who migrated there; and if you’re looking at Libyan groups containing factions that might lean toward al Qaeda, LIFG would at the top of your list of suspects.
- Further underscoring this point, Algeria’s Echourouk El Youmi reported on Aug. 29, 2011, that AQIM was attempting to find new allies among Libyan rebels, “particularly since among them there are some old elements who were active in the so-called the Libyan Combat Group.”
- According to an October 2011 post on the jihadi web forum Ansar al Mujahedin (that was subsequently removed) the former head of the jihadi media group Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), Ahmad al Wathiq Billah, was serving as Bilhaj’s media adviser. Billah was freed from a Libyan prison earlier in 2011.
- Writing in London’s Al Hayah in June 2012, Kamil al Tawil noted that there are likely three types of jihadis in Libya. The first is the “old guard” — and he includes Bilhaj in this category — who “seem to have adopted an explicit decision to abandon the armed action.” The second type is “second generation” jihadis who feel no loyalty to LIFG, and objected to the dialogue with the Qaddafi regime that produced the group’s revisions. Tawil writes that this group “is extremely enthusiastic to join what it considers to be ‘jihad,’” and that this is the type of jihadi who would gravitate toward the Syrian conflict. (A number of Libyan fighters have gone to the Syrian front.) And the third type of jihadi is former LIFG members “who now consider themselves as part of al Qaeda, whether through its central command at the Afghan-Pakistani borders, or through its branch in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb. These jihadis could be considered as a part of the branch of the Islamic Fighting Group, which joined al Qaeda in 2007, and which was led by the late Abu Layth al Libi in Afghanistan.”
None of this constitutes a smoking gun proving there is a global jihadi faction within LIFG or a LIFG-al Qaeda relationship. However, I consider these data points suggestive, enough that they make me skeptical of the definitive answer that many analysts have adopted based upon a single data point.