The legacy of Libya’s foreign fighters remains and spreads
TUNIS - As worshippers were leaving the mosque January 23 in Benghazi’s al-Sleimani neighbourhood, two car bombs exploded, killing more than 35 people.
Units of the Libyan National Army, under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, quickly exacted bloody and arbitrary revenge, summarily shooting prisoners at the site of the bombing.
Responsibility for the mosque blasts, like others in Libya’s chaotic war, has not been claimed but it could be attributed to any of the jihadist groups and their fronts that compete for influence in Libya’s fractured political landscape.
Jihadism didn’t arrive in Libya in 2011. It existed long before the first shots were fired against former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s troops in February of that year. However, it anchored itself within nationalist groups that revolted against the country’s long-time dictator and flourished in the chaos that followed his ouster.
Foreign fighters, by their very presence within Libya, serve as marketing tools for the groups they support, with jihadist networks characterising their presence as international validation for their cause. West African recruits were culled from the rump of the Qaddafi regime’s transient workforce who converted to Islam and held up as examples of the power of their vision.
As Libya’s lawlessness grew, so too did the numbers of foreign fighters who travelled there to fight or train for jihad elsewhere. They exerted virtual hegemony over cities such as Derna, Sirte and large parts of Benghazi.
In Sabratha and elsewhere, training camps flourished, providing fighters to the wars in Iraq and Syria. Now, with the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate in ruins, many have returned — pariahs within their countries of origin — seeking safe harbour in the country that trained them.
Accurate figures for the number of fighters in Libya are difficult to determine. A recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated that 2,500-3,500 foreign fighters have made their way to Libya since the conflict began. The bulk — approximately 1,500 — were from neighbouring Tunisia but others travelled to Libya from countries as unlikely as Nepal and United States.
“The Islamic State was probably the largest group,” Aaron Zelin, the author of the Washington Institute’s report, said by phone, “However, after sustaining heavy casualties during recent conflicts, [it is] probably on a level playing field with the various fronts for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). We’re seeing potentially new networks taking shape within these groups, spreading their reach elsewhere.”
Wherever foreign fighters go, networks inevitably follow. The historical ties between Manchester and the membership of Libya’s formerly pre-eminent jihadist force, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, allowed Mancunian Salman Ramadan Abedi to return to Libya — as much a foreigner as any visitor to the country — and establish links that would lead him to Manchester
Arena and the killing of 23 people, with more than 500 injured in his May 2017 attack.
Anis Amri, the Tunisia-born militant who, in December 2016, drove a truck into a busy Berlin marketplace, had been in regular contact with handlers in Libya since February of that year.
In Tunisia, the 2015 attacks at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and the resort of Sousse, as well as the March 2016 assault on Ben Guerdane in the country’s south, were planned and carried out by Tunisian fighters trained or living in Libya.
Those networks are extending their influence from Libya to locations as diverse as Senegal, the Philippines and Sudan. Though the numbers aren’t thought to be high, their significance shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Nobody’s suggesting that they’re hoping to gain territory in those countries.” Zelin said. “However, they’re giving us a pretty clear idea of what trajectory they’re taking and, if nothing happens, what we can expect.”
With Haftar consolidating his grip on many of the country’s major urban centres, incidents such as the bomb attack on Benghazi, rather than territorial conquest, are likely indicators of travel for Libya’s jihadist groups and their foreign cohorts.
“I think terrorist attacks in Libya are going to be with us for some time, with the groups using the country’s (desert) south as a base from which to launch and train for them,” Zelin said.
Though the violence may be receding, Libya looks no nearer to a political settlement than it did the day after Qaddafi fled Tripoli. Within the chaos of rule by army and militia, Libya’s foreign fighters and their networks fester and grow and, in the absence of any agreement, look to continue to do so.