Category Archives: Libya

Why Tom Ricks’s Fox Appearance Was Less Impressive Than You Think

You’ve probably already seen Tom Ricks’s Fox News appearance from yesterday that has created so much buzz on social media. His buzz-inspiring line came at the end of a short debate about Benghazi, when Ricks said, “I think the emphasis on Benghazi has been extremely political, partly because Fox is operating as the wing of the Republican Party.” The interview promptly ended after that remark. Since then, Ricks’s interview has been hailed in many quarters as a minor act of heroism, particularly by liberal commentators and others who simply don’t like Fox. And Ricks seems to agree, judging from his comments on the incident to the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple:

I also have been thinking a lot about George Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II, and one of the heroes of my new book. He got his job by speaking truth to power, and I have been thinking that we all could benefit by following his example as much as we can.

After I went off the air I saw some surprised faces in the hallway. One staff person said she thought I had been rude. My feeling was that they asked my opinion and I gave it.

Put bluntly, Ricks’s Fox appearance is far less impressive than his supporters believe, and in fact I think it’s clear that he was out of line if people assess the appearance objectively. To provide some context before I bear out this point, I am speaking as someone who thought Benghazi was overblown as a campaign issue on the Republican side, and did find the coverage overly politicized. Don’t just take my word for this: this appearance on a conservative talk radio show, The Jon Justice Show, does a fairly good job of illustrating where I stood on the issue. So this critique isn’t the product of sour grapes by someone who disagrees about Benghazi. But describing Fox as a “wing of the Republican Party” during the course of the interview is weak stuff.

The first reason: it’s nothing more than an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem attacks are recognized as logical fallacies because they distract from the argument, instead turning attention to the person making the argument. But someone’s bad character, lack of intelligence, etc. does not speak to the truth or falsehood of their argument. As Bill James, the idol of baseball nerds everywhere, has said, “If an undergraduate with a C average can show by clear and convincing evidence that leading scientists are wrong about something, the scientists will not say, or should not say, ‘Who are you to argue with Jonas Salk?’ What counts is evidence, not the authority of the person making the claim.”

So let’s turn this particular case around. What if Jon Scott, the anchor, had said to Ricks: “Of course you’d take that position, since you’re a Democrat”? Is there any way in which that would be a proper question or line of argument? Virtually nobody, other than the most partisan observers, would think that was proper, precisely because it is attacking his character and motivation. But that is essentially what Ricks was doing to Fox. Rather than contributing to a conservations, ad hominem attacks are conversation-enders.

Incidentally, this makes the early termination of Ricks’s interview utterly unsurprising. Wemple writes, in his blog, “What happens when you agree to come on Fox News and then proceed to hammer the network for serving as a ‘wing of the Republican Party?’ Answer: You don’t stay on the air too long.” Wemple thus implies that this is either surprising or sinister. But come on: it’s really not. Try going on MSNBC and slamming them as a wing of the Democratic party, or going on Al Jazeera and hammering them for serving Qatari state interests. You’re probably not going to stay on the air too long there, either.

The second reason: Ricks’s attack on Fox is hypocritical. There are two layers to this hypocrisy. The first is that, though Ricks is no shill, he hasn’t made a habit of insulting every media outlet whose bias shows through in a segment. For example, Ricks utterly confounded Keith Olbermann during Olbermann’s MSNBC days, when the anchor had brought Ricks on with the expectation that he would slam John Boehner. But Ricks got through the entire segment without insulting either the network or Olbermann: instead, he respectfully but firmly refuted Olbermann’s extremely biased presentation of facts. Ricks defended his practice of insulting Fox by saying that “they asked my opinion and I gave it.” Then why not similarly insult MSNBC? He certainly had time to do so. If Ricks is going to make a practice of “speaking truth to power” by insulting networks who bring him on, he should be sure to insult his hosts whenever he senses bias.

I might even respect, in some perverse way, a public commentator who habitually insulted networks and hosts of all political stripes during appearances. I still wouldn’t find it particularly useful: not only would doing so still constitute needless ad hominem attacks, but also it’s not like we need a Tom Ricks on the air to know that Fox skews conservative in its coverage and MSNBC liberal. But, anyway, the available evidence suggests that while Ricks is not a shill for one political party, he also isn’t the guy who will insult all comers.

The second layer to Ricks’s hypocrisy: why did he appear on Fox in the first place, if he has so little respect for the network? I mean, you can’t avoid insulting the network when confronted with a line of questioning with which you disagree, but they’re good enough to appear on to pimp your new book?

Third, does Fox News represent “power”? You might have noticed that in the last election the Democrats won the presidency and retained the Senate. I think Ricks’s statement that Fox is a wing of the Republican party is hyperbolic, just as it would be hyperbolic to call MSNBC a wing of the Democratic party. But even if the relationship were what Ricks claims, isn’t there more of a need for a network that will consistently try to hold the party in power accountable rather than a network that will tend to defend the party in power? In other words, isn’t Ricks’s calculus backward? Wouldn’t Fox have represented “power” during the eight years of the Bush administration, and wouldn’t MSNBC now be the network representative of “power”?

Further, it isn’t at all clear that the administration is blameless in the Benghazi fiasco. I tended to avoid this issue during the election precisely because the reporting was far too politicized for me to get a good sense of what had actually gone down. But to consign Benghazi to being an issue that only a wing of the Republican party might care about seems awfully incurious for a former journalist.

Fourth, rather than “speaking truth to power,” Ricks seems to be “kicking the fat kid.” I have always liked the idea of speaking truth to power, but in practice often (though not always) find that those claiming to do this are in fact exercising power by extending discursive norms in a direction that delegitimizes their opponent’s opinion without actually refuting it. Let’s face it: among liberal intelligentsia, Fox is the proverbial fat kid, and no news organ is more consistently mocked and disrespected. Ricks’s comments were sure to find a ready audience within the preexisting and rather widespread sentiments that hold Fox, and the viewpoints it represents, to be illegitimate in some fundamental way. For a guy like Ricks, Fox is a very easy target. Sure, his segment gets cut short, but he then gets to boast about how he spoke truth to power and spend the next few days basking as a minor hero.

You may enjoy what Ricks did. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s particularly courageous, nor should we pretend that it has in some way enhanced the public sphere.

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Terry Jones and U.S. Foreign Policy

Today, a lot of attention was devoted to an anti-Islam film that may have played a causal role in recent anti-U.S. protests in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. For the record, I am skeptical that this film actually motivated the attack in Libya, which seems to have been planned in advance, but its role in motivating the Egypt and Tunisia protests is more plausible. The U.S. military is taking the anti-Islam film seriously enough that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Florida pastor Terry Jones on Wednesday and “asked him to withdraw his support” for the film. Jones didn’t serve as the film’s producer, as was erroneously reported early on, but had planned to show it on his website. Dempsey’s major concern is the possibility for the film provoking violence in Afghanistan: when Jones was responsible for the burning of a Qur’an in March 2011, it caused deaths at a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif.

It’s unclear if Jones will withdraw his support for the film. However, it is clear that one otherwise inconsequential man holding American foreign policy hostage (albeit to a small yet deadly degree) through his actions is going to be an ongoing part of twenty-first century diplomacy, something that has been enabled through advances in communication technology. I wrote about Jones, and his previous stunt, in Bin Laden’s Legacy. My analysis there remains applicable in light of this new incident:

There are, of course, many clear advantages to advances in communication technology. Important voices that would have been marginalized or ignored two decades ago have been able to play a role in public debates. At its best, access to numerous competing sources of information can produce instantaneous fact-checking and expose one to a diversity of perspectives, thus producing more accurate and nuanced analysis. But there is also a clear dark side to these advances. They not only empower deserving voices that illuminate otherwise neglected aspects of an issue, they can also empower the voices of those who don’t really deserve a podium: the bigots, the demagogues, and the charlatans.

Even one individual can hold America’s foreign policy hostage to some degree. This was the case with Terry Jones, an obscure Florida pastor who became a major international news story in September 2010 when he threatened to burn a Qur’an. Even General David Petraeus weighed in on Jones’s threats, arguing that burning Islam’s holy book would endanger U.S. forces. Although Jones didn’t follow through on his threat in 2010, in March 2011 he organized a mock trial of the Qur’an in which he served as the judge. (This “trial” also featured attorneys for the prosecution and defense, as well as witnesses.) At the end, Jones declared the Qur’an guilty, and it was set aflame.

Less than two weeks later, an angry crowd in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, attacked a U.N. compound and killed at least eight people. Although there were multiple responsible parties for this outbreak of violence—not least the crowd itself, as well as President Hamid Karzai—this illustrates how one lone extremist can cause deaths halfway around the world and threaten critical U.S. foreign-policy objectives. One aid worker in Afghanistan commented at the time, “This is not the beginning of the end for the international community in Afghanistan. This is the end. Terry Jones and others will continue to pull anti-Islam stunts and opportunistic extremists here will use those actions to incite attacks against foreigners. Unless we, the internationals, want our guards to fire on unarmed protesters from now on, the day has come for us to leave Afghanistan.”

It will be virtually impossible to stop rogue individuals like Jones from igniting similar controversies. Their impact can be mitigated, but one reality of life in the early twenty-first century is that lone nuts can influence geopolitics in ways they couldn’t have twenty years ago. In 1991, Jones would most likely have been consigned to the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper, his Qur’an-burning antics earning no more than local exposure.

Stunts like this will have international ramifications again in the future, and lives will be lost as a result. This new dynamic needs to be understood, and deserves serious discussion.

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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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The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Al Qaeda, and Epistemology

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.

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A Preliminary Evaluation of the U.S. Intervention in Libya

We’re just over a year past the beginning of the uprisings in Libya that ultimately produced (along with, of course, NATO’s intervention) Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster. And there are now increasing calls for some form of military intervention in Syria. As such, this seems like an important time to evaluate the aftermath of NATO’s intervention in Libya, and how it intersects with American interests.

Essentially, there is a dearth of information publicly available about the state of affairs in Libya, but we nonetheless know a number of facts unambiguously:

  • The TNC has yet to establish its authority within Tripoli. However well-meaning its endeavors may be, they are not being executed or enforced outside a very small geographic area.
  • The overwhelming majority of the country is ruled by local militias under commanders with no accountability or common code of conduct.
  • Several towns (including Zintan, Misrata, and Benghazi) are dominated by local warlords who have power equal to, or greater than, the capital. Indeed, the emergence of a western council in the Nafusa Mountains that directly opposes the TNC is a testament to its weakness.
  • Qaddafi loyalists (more tribal than ideological in nature) have successfully retaken Bani Walid, and have not been displaced.
  • The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is well established in parts of Tripoli and Derna. Its rise is directly correlated to attacks against Sufi shrines, and the movement of foreign volunteers going to fight in Syria.
  • There has been a rash of ongoing retaliatory ethnic and tribal fighting against communities perceived to be pro-Qaddafi, most notably Tuaregs, Berbers, and black Africans.
  • The influx of weaponry and returning Tuareg mercenaries after Qaddafi’s fall has helped to destabilize a not-inconsiderable part of Mali. Violent incidents occurring in Algeria, Niger, and Tunisia have also been traced back to Libya.
  • Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara emir, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claims to have absconded with a considerable amount of Qaddafi’s arsenal. The U.N. has claimed that this has been used to outfit Boko Haram.

Qaddafi’s last enclaves fell in September, so it has been less than five months since the (first phase of?) major fighting ended. If you’re drawing a parallel to Iraq in 2003, there was more violence in Iraq in terms of high-profile attacks by what would later become Al Qaeda in Iraq against the U.N., U.S. forces, and Shia religious leadership. There is also no parallel to countries like Iran or Syria that are  actively trying to export instability and violence into Libya at present. A better parallel is perhaps Afghanistan, which in 2002 was more or less carved up between various warlords, then severely neglected by the U.S. and its allies as America’s focus shifted to Iraq. The Taliban wasn’t able to resurge until 2005, and it took quite a while before Afghanistan’s cracks began to show. In Libya, conflict may well become more severe once the TNC tries to seriously enforce its authority, or one of the various factions gets organized enough to try to either declare autonomy or take over the country.

While there was a good deal of waxing Churchillian about stopping the violence and toppling the Colonel’s government, nobody seems interested in cleaning up a growing mess in Libya. The result is that a lot of rapid changes have come to the country, particularly in terms of reducing it to a balkanized state, and infusing the Maghreb (and other parts of Africa) with a significant amount of weaponry that is readily available to the highest bidder. The argument that an intervention in Libya was in the U.S.’s strategic interest was tenuous from the outset, and it remains unclear that a single American interest was advanced by this military commitment. At this point, the intervention doesn’t appear to have bought us any tangible goodwill in the Arab street, and may have helped to severely destabilize the northern region of a country that, as of 2006, produced 1.8 million barrels of oil per day.

Of course, we still don’t know precisely how things will turn out in Libya. As Ann Marlowe rightly points out, “Americans should not be too quick to judge how the country will evolve in the coming years.” But, particularly in an age of limited resources, we do need to evaluate our strategic interests, particularly where lessons from the Libyan intervention are applicable to other actions that some observers believe the U.S. should undertake abroad. And the early picture of Libya in February 2012 is not particularly positive.

Posted in Libya, Syria | 9 Comments