Foreign Policy Essay

Who Counts as al-Qaeda: Lessons from Libya

By Alex Thurston
Sunday, May 7, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Ties to a terrorist group are rightly a stigma. However, given the nebulous nature of many groups, such connections are often easy to overstate. Alex Thurston, my colleague at Georgetown, argues that in Libya the United States has set the bar too high regarding ties to al-Qaeda. Instead, the United States and its allies should try to disaggregate the threat, recognizing that "ties to al-Qaeda" is a description that is often so loose as to be meaningless in the Libyan context. Instead, there are actors the West can work with to bring peace and stability to Libya.


From Syria to Yemen to North Africa, affiliates of al-Qaeda have rebranded themselves. Some have even formally broken with al-Qaeda. With this diffusion, the network of fighters who have at one point or another run in the same circles as al-Qaeda has expanded. This convoluted structure makes it more difficult than ever to draw the line between who belongs to al-Qaeda and who does not.

Many local jihadist groups have priorities that differ from, or even contradict, al-Qaeda’s. These groups are embedded in their societies in ways that transnational jihadists are not. Because they care about their communities, some local groups are eschewing hardline jihadism in favor of more pragmatic approaches. Viewing such groups from Washington, London, or Paris, it is easy to see them all as dangerous terrorists. But if every group with ties to al-Qaeda is viewed as part of al-Qaeda, policymakers will exclude pragmatic groups from political settlements and miss opportunities to resolve conflicts.

There is no better illustration of these complexities than the Benghazi Defense Brigades, an armed group in eastern Libya. The Brigades are fighting the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Although the Brigades and their allies are losing territory within Benghazi, they challenge the LNA elsewhere. In March, the Brigades temporarily seized oil ports from the LNA. From the Brigades’ perspective, they are fighting to get their homes back. But for some Western security analysts and for their Libyan enemies, the Brigades are merely jihadists “aligned” with al-Qaeda.

In Libya and other conflict theaters, it is important not to give al-Qaeda a foothold. But it is also vital to grapple with the politics that drive complex conflicts—politics that are irreducible to neat narratives of “good guys” versus “terrorists.”

A Multi-Layered Civil War

To understand the political role of the Benghazi Defense Brigades, it is helpful to review the players in Libya’s civil war. Round one of the war, in 2011, was the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Qadhafi by a loose coalition of rebels, dissidents, youth, and regime defectors. Round two of the civil war began in 2014, when the post-revolution political settlement collapsed following disputed elections. In the northwest was “Operation Dawn,” an alliance led by forces in Misrata, an economic hub. Islamists and ultraconservative Salafis dominated many of Dawn’s militias. In the northeast was the internationally-recognized House of Representatives and the Libyan National Army, led by a retired general named Khalifa Haftar. The LNA’s “Operation Dignity” targeted both Islamists and jihadists, making no real distinction between the two.

In late 2015, the international community added a third major player to the conflict: the Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by the United Nations, Western powers, and—to varying degrees—the Arab states. The GNA was meant to reconcile Dawn and Dignity by representing Libya’s many geographical and political constituencies. But the GNA only won the conditional backing of certain factions in Misrata, Tripoli, and other western Libyan areas. In the east, the House of Representatives has repeatedly delayed a vote to recognize the GNA. Haftar, benefiting from Egyptian, Emirati, and Russian support—and perhaps the quiet support of the United States and France—continued conquering Benghazi and positioning himself as Libya’s strongman.

The Islamic State’s strategy in Libya—openly controlling territory—was blunt. Al-Qaeda’s has been subtler.

Meanwhile, Libya’s jihadist groups alarmed the West. With the 2011 revolution, old jihadists were released and younger ones were empowered. Jihadist militias emerged in northern cities, and transnational jihadists saw opportunity. In 2014, the so-called Islamic State moved in. From May to December 2016, Misratan militias loosely aligned with the GNA waged a hard-fought campaign against the Islamic State in the coastal city Sirte. The GNA’s eventual success re-emphasized the country’s divisions: As the Misratans fought in Sirte, Haftar seized oil ports in a bid to boost his power.

The Islamic State’s strategy in Libya—openly controlling territory—was blunt. Al-Qaeda’s has been subtler. But herein lies the analytical problem: When al-Qaeda lets local jihadists take the lead, does that signal al-Qaeda’s strategic brilliance or its weakened brand? And is there a way, as the International Crisis Group urges, to “disaggregate, not conflate” different jihadists?

Six Degrees of Al-Qaeda?

It is not hard to show that someone in the Brigades knows someone who knows someone in al-Qaeda. Some members of the Brigades stand two degrees of separation away from al-Qaeda. The Brigades draw support from jihadist Shura (Consultative) Councils in eastern cities. One of the Brigades’ leaders, Saadi al-Nawfali, is a leader of the Adjabiya Revolutionaries’ Shura Council. The councils include militias with ties to al-Qaeda, such as Ansar al-Sharia. Follow this part of the web and it leads to figures such as Sufyan bin Qumu, an Ansar al-Sharia leader in Derna who is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and who likely knew Osama bin Laden.

The problem with connecting too many “dots,” however, is that virtually everyone in Libyan politics is just three or four degrees of separation from al-Qaeda. Should one view mainstream political actors as unforgivably tainted by jihadist connections? Adopting that position would make a national political settlement even harder. The Western powers either understand this and quietly make arbitrary decisions about where the al-Qaeda “taint” begins and ends, or the West is willfully naïve.

Few of the Brigades’ leaders can easily be classified as jihadists, let alone al-Qaeda sympathizers. One is Ismail al-Sallabi, who hails from a prominent Benghazi family. Sallabi’s better-known brother, Ali, helped broker a reconciliation between Qadhafi and Libyan jihadists in the mid-2000s. During Libya’s 2011 revolution, Ali al-Sallabi became known as Qatar’s man in Libya. A mainstream Islamist, he moved in mainstream circles. Ismail al-Sallabi, for his part, spent 2011-2012 commanding part of a militia called Rafallah al-Sahati, which had ties to jihadists but which was recognized by the Libyan government as part of the security forces, along with dozens of other militias.

If [Rafallah al-Sahati] was an “al-Qaeda front group,” the Americans who interacted with it in Benghazi prior to the attack were completely fooled.

The September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi merits mention here; it too exemplifies the problems with trying to decide who counts as al-Qaeda. Blame for the attack has centered on Ansar al-Sharia, particularly the sub-commander Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was captured by U.S. Special Forces in Benghazi in 2014. Abu Khattala’s connections to al-Qaeda are indirect at best—he was reportedly a “loner” among Libyan jihadists with “no known connections to international terrorist groups.” Retroactively, the attacks have come to be understood as an al-Qaeda plot. But the New York Times found that the attack “involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias that the Americans had taken for allies,” including Rafallah al-Sahati. If that militia was an “al-Qaeda front group,” the Americans who interacted with it in Benghazi prior to the attack were completely fooled.

Returning to the present and the question of the Benghazi Defense Brigades, another leader is Colonel Mustafa al-Sharkasi, who was spokesman for the chief of staff in the Islamist-dominated government in Tripoli prior to the GNA’s arrival. Sharkasi is a military man rather than a jihadist. In an early video for the Brigades, he said, “We represent the military revolutionaries” in the east. The video was a far cry from typical jihadist propaganda: This was not Osama bin Laden brandishing a Kalashnikov and threatening the West. More than simply speaking in the name of Islam, Sharkasi invoked Libya’s revolution, accusing Haftar’s camp of being “remnants of Qadhafi’s battalions.” Both Sallabi and Sharkasi are Islamists, not hardcore jihadists. They are making alliances of convenience to combat the existential threat that Haftar poses for them.

Consider, too, the Brigades’ allies. Spiritually, the Brigades place themselves under the authority not of al-Qaeda, but of Libya’s Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gharyani, who was selected by Libya’s interim National Transitional Council in 2012. Another ally appears to be Mahdi al-Barghathi, the GNA’s Defense Minister. International Crisis Group has credibly accused Barghathi of ordering the Brigades’ operations against oil ports to weaken Haftar. If the accusations are true, one might say that the internationally-recognized defense minister of Libya is indirectly “aligned” with al-Qaeda. One might also recall Libyan press reports that during the 2011 revolution Barghathi fought “side by side” with future members of Ansar al-Sharia, a group closer to al-Qaeda than the Brigades are. Does this make al-Barghathi a jihadist?

To play six degrees of al-Qaeda with the Brigades and Barghathi would ultimately mean that not only the GNA, but even the United Nations and the U.S. government, are part of the web.

No. Rather, Barghathi personifies the complexity of Libyan politics. The revolution threw together people of different ideological persuasions as they found common cause against Qadhafi. The present civil war conjoins various bedfellows and then tears them apart—Barghathi was aligned with Haftar against the Islamic State before joining the GNA against Haftar. The total victory that Haftar seeks has alienated many former allies. If Barghathi finds the Brigades’ vision of eastern Libya more palatable than Haftar’s, he is not alone among Libyans.

To play six degrees of al-Qaeda with the Brigades and Barghathi would ultimately mean that not only the GNA, but even the United Nations and the U.S. government, are part of the web. After the Brigades retook Libya’s oil ports, they handed them to the Petroleum Facilities Guard, a militia aligned with the GNA. The Italian government praised the move, and the Brigades praised the Italians. But it would be absurd to suggest that this “aligns” the Italian government with al-Qaeda.

Re-assessing al-Qaeda’s Role

For years, analysts have debated what al-Qaeda is. As Steve Coll told the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, there is “confusion about whether Al Qaeda is best understood as a centralized organization; a network of like-minded organizations; or merely an Internet-enabled ideology.” Since the Arab Spring, another option has been to understand al-Qaeda as a snake willing to shed its “brand” when it becomes toxic.

In practice, that means al-Qaeda has been willing to support local groups that have dropped the al-Qaeda name. In Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, it is easy to see how Ansar al-Sharia advances al-Qaeda’s ideology: Ansar al-Sharia promotes the implementation of a hardline version of Islamic law. It periodically controls territory and provides services.

It is much more difficult to see how the Benghazi Defense Brigades advance al-Qaeda’s aims. The Brigades refer to themselves not as “mujahideen” but as “revolutionaries.” They invoke the Quran to justify their actions and they call dead fighters “martyrs,” but so do a range of actors in Libyan politics. Even if one argued that the Brigades are a front group for Ansar al-Sharia (a debatable contention), at what point does the tie to al-Qaeda become so far removed, so abstract, that it loses meaning? Moreover, the Brigades might be leery of a strong partnership with al-Qaeda. The Brigades have only to look to Ansar al-Sharia’s fate—banned in Tunisia, its Tunisian leader killed in a U.S. drone strike targeting an al-Qaeda commander—to see how the image of “al-Qaeda front group” can bring down the West’s fury.

Finally, to the extent that al-Qaeda participates in mainstream politics, its own “purity” is compromised. Even if one believes al-Qaeda controls the Brigades, the Brigades’ politics—particularly their dealings with the GNA—suggest that their limited jihadist proclivities will be further diluted. Eventually, the hardcore al-Qaeda sympathizers might break away in disgust. After that, the more malleable jihadists could find themselves transformed into relatively mainstream politicians, a trajectory that other Libyan jihadists have followed.

A Realistic Approach to Libya

Officially, Western powers want a unified Libyan government that includes the GNA, the House of Representatives, and Haftar—who, together, marginalize the jihadists. Western powers acknowledge—for now—a difference between mainstream Islamists and al-Qaeda. But unofficially, many policymakers seem comfortable with Haftar’s vision of a Libya where Islamism is anathema, and where Salafis are tolerated only when they never question the strongman.

Pursuing such a vision would be a mistake, because not enough Libyans will accept it. Moreover, it is unwise not only to conflate Islamists and al-Qaeda, but also to jumble together different kinds of jihadists. The Brigades work with the GNA, the internationally-recognized government of Libya. They should be incentivized to break whatever contacts they have with al-Qaeda and move closer to the GNA. Indeed, with recent talks between the GNA and Haftar raising the possibility, however slight, of a political settlement for Libya, it is important to incentivize as many actors as possible to work with the GNA and participate in mainstream Libyan politics.

In Libya and around the world, defeating al-Qaeda’s brand and rupturing its alliances will require accepting certain other expressions of Muslim politics. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are unacceptable to the West. So are local jihadists who insist on a totalizing vision of Islam. But if jihadist-leaning militias are willing to work with more mainstream actors, they should be tolerated. Because if Washington targets all groups with loose ties to al-Qaeda, the United States risks wasting resources—and creating new enemies.