Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Libya's Diverse Islamists Seek Political Role

From moderates to radical jihadists, Islamic groups need to buy into democratic process, leading analyst says.
By Michael Klimes
  • The Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Bayda. What role will Islamists play in a post-Gaddafi Libya?
    The Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Bayda. What role will Islamists play in a post-Gaddafi Libya?

Noman Benotman is a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Islamist group which sought to unseat Muammar Gaddafi and establish an Islamic state. Now a senior analyst with the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, he discusses the role Islamists might play in post-Gaddafi Libya.

When we talk about the Islamists in Libya, what groups are there – and are any of them dangerous?

There are three main groups. The Muslim Brotherhood has a significant presence among the Libyan intelligentsia. There are a lot of Libyans who are influenced by them, even if they are not members of the Brotherhood.

Then there are the Salafists – they are a movement, not an organisation. They lack experience of the political process. They are attached to a religious agenda, performing outreach activities in the daily lives of people, and preaching from the mosques. So far, the Salafists have not set up their own political party, as they have done in Egypt.

Thirdly, you have the jihadists. In numerical terms, they are in the minority, but during the revolution they grew very fast. Politically, it is hard to understand their identity and ideology. Their main presence is in the armed brigades, some of which are controlled by jihadists.

Up until now, the main feature of the Libyan jihadists has been that they have nationalist goals; they do not have any agenda outside Libya’s borders. However, that could change.

Are there any Islamists who could engage in the democratic process?

Yes. It’s a very broad group of people, and there are different kinds of Islamists. Some of them are moderate, others are radical. It’s a mixture of people.

Islamists believe they are doing God’s work on earth, which is a very dangerous formula. I think the West should help the Islamists engage in the political process and adapt to more democratic values. Any western ally which can help, through non-governmental organisations, would be appreciated.

Do you think the Islamists will give up their weapons?

Islamist groups which hope to establish a legitimacy based on their weapons and not their arguments or through democratic processes are the most dangerous people in Libya now…. In a democratic system, we know who ordered what, and what happened where, but with all these brigades and leaders, it is very hard to keep track of what they are up to.

If they don’t give up their weapons and join the legitimate system, I think they will start to pose a threat to the security of the nation.

Would you say that comparisons made in the western press between Libyan Islamists and al-Qaeda are fair?

I wouldn’t use the word fair, but understandable. The West is our partner and not our enemy. They have a right to ask us questions based on certain pieces of information, and confirm any issues they have, so that they can help the right people in Libya. It’s our duty and responsibility to answer those questions.

However, on the question of al-Qaeda, I would like to say that it has never been present in Libya. We have no evidence of that. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has never been part of al-Qaeda. It was a jihadist group, but a nationalist jihadist group, and its aim was to establish an Islamic state. It was completely different from al-Qaeda.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has been disbanded. What are its members doing now?

They are still searching for their new identity. There are many questions about their motives and intentions. An unhealthy ambiguity surrounds them.

Most of the members of this group do not spend much time discussing problems of government. They believed that Gaddafi’s authority should be toppled and an Islamic state established by force. This was a typical top-down model, which does not work in Libya or the Middle East anymore. Now they have to work on producing something that reflects their values. They have also thought about creating a coalition among Islamists, giving it an identity as a national coalition, so as to be involved in the political process.

Michael Klimes is an editorial intern with IWPR in London.