A released prisoner from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is greeted by relatives outside a jail in Tripoli on Feb. 16
Moammar Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, raised the specter of Islamism in a Feb. 20 speech. It is difficult to say at present whether Islamists have been able to establish any strongholds in Libya due to the ongoing unrest. However, if the demonstrations result in anarchy, they would create the kind of chaotic environment in which jihadist movement thrives. Jihadists could take root in a Libya with no clear governmental authority, though this prospect represents a possibility rather than an eventuality.
In his Feb. 20 speech, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s more prominent and reform-minded son, Seif al-Islam, blamed Islamists (among other actors) for the unrest that has brought his father’s regime to the brink of collapse. Seif al-Islam said efforts were under way to create small Islamic emirates in various parts of the country, such as al-Bayda and Darna. Since then, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was quoted as saying, “I’m extremely concerned about the self-proclamation of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Benghazi. Would you imagine having an Islamic Arab emirate at the borders of Europe? This would be a really serious threat.”
Amid the chaos that has engulfed Libya, it is difficult to determine whether certain Islamist elements have been able to establish their authority in enclaves in the country’s east. Given the conditions, the possibility cannot be ruled out. After all, there are reports that Benghazi is no longer under the control of the Gadhafi regime.
Since the opposition is not a coherent force — it is more a coalition of actors waging an insurrection inspired by their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere — unlikely are the prospects that disparate groups of Islamists have been able to take advantage of the power/security vacuum in some parts of the country, albeit temporarily. But this is very different from the idea that Libya will be divided into small fiefdoms, which Seif al-Islam mentioned in his speech. He is trying to use the Islamist threat to deflate the unrest, which could grow into an insurgency (given that the opposition is reportedly armed), and to dissuade regional and international players from supporting the opposition against Tripoli. In the past, the United States received much-needed support from Libya on al Qaeda, and Washington would not want to deal with another jihadist breeding ground.
Historically, the Gadhafi regime has had a zero-tolerance policy for Islamists at home, suppressing a number of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir, Salafists and, more recently, armed groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Given the general suppression of political dissent (even in secular forms), social and political Islamist groups do not appear to be in a position to take advantage of the current uprising, which appears to be a general popular uprising.
In sharp contrast with Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan state is more vulnerable to collapse. The situations in Tunis and Cairo are such that the military is the state, and the fall of sitting presidents has not resulted in regime change. Tripoli, on the other hand, could descend into anarchy because the military does not seem to be in a position to oust the Gadhafis and impose its own order. Regime changes assume that there are coherent alternative forces that can replace the old regime, which is not the case in Libya.
This means energy-rich Libya could spiral into chaos — the ideal environment for jihadists to flourish. Jihadists have never been able to topple a sitting government in the Muslim world. They have risen in places where state collapse led to anarchy, such as Afghanistan (1992); Iraq (2003) and Somalia (1991). In Libya, two different types of jihadists could try to exploit chaos to their advantage.
First is the LIFG, with which the Gadhafi regime has been trying to strike a deal in recent years. LIFG prisoners have been released in exchange for the group’s disavowing violence and pledging allegiance to the state, with the most recent batch of prisoners being released Feb. 18, an initiative very publicly backed by Seif al-Islam. But now that the state is crumbling, there are no means by which it can ensure the LIFG’s compliance with its prior agreement. In fact, the current chaos is an opportunity for the group to revive itself as a force to contend with.
Furthermore, the LIFG could link up with the North African jihadist node, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with which it has prior ties. A power vacuum in Libya presents a significant opening to jihadists, who have thus far been non-players in the unrest that has spread across the Arab world. To a large degree, the jihadists have not been involved in the protests because the opposition forces are pursuing goals that run counter to jihadists’ objectives, and because jihadists are not geared toward mass uprisings. The Libyan situation creates a potential — but not inevitable — opening that al Qaeda and its allies would want to exploit, especially since the overall regional momentum has not been in the jihadists’ favor.