According to a Library of Congress report, dated August 2012 and titled Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile, Libya appears to be in the midst of a transition from dictatorship chaos to becoming an Islamist state based on a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law. The 54-page report makes for disturbing reading.
The Library of Congress Federal Research Division undertook the study to assess al Qaeda in Maghreb’s presence in post-Gaddafi Libya. In the preface, the report says “Al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have sought to take advantage of the Libyan Revolution to recruit militants and to reinforce their operational capabilities in an attempt to create a safe haven and possibly to extend their area of operations to Libya. Reports have indicated that AQSL is seeking to create an al-Qaeda clandestine network in Libya that could be activated in the future to destabilize the government and/or to offer logistical support to al- Qaeda’s activities in North Africa and the Sahel. AQIM has reportedly formed sleeper cells that are probably connected to an al-Qaeda underground network in Libya, likely as a way, primarily, to secure the supply of arms for its ongoing jihadist operations in Algeria and the Sahel.”
The report finds that the political situation in post-Gaddafi Libya is following the path of other Arab Spring states, only worse. While many local Libyans reject Salafism, in June 2012 “Ansar al-Sharia staged a large-scale rally and military show of force involving dozens of military vehicles, with Islamists wearing the Afghan mujahidin’s traditional outfit. Some leaders described themselves as Islamists and called for implementation of sharia similar to that which the Taliban had implemented in Afghanistan or al-Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen. The military show of force consisted of a parade in which some 30 battalions from Benghazi, Darnah, Misrata, Al-Nufilyah, Ajdabiyah, and other Libyan towns took part in the first meeting in support of sharia in Benghazi.”
A battalion is typically formed of about 300 fighters at the low end, and more than 1,000 at the high end. At the low end, then, the Islamists showed from 9,000 to 30,000 fighters. The LoC report says that the purpose of the widespread demonstration was to terrorize local Libyans into supporting the jihadist cause. The United States has made a public point of not placing any American “boots on the ground” during or after the war that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The juxtaposition of a nationally visible and robust Islamist force and a reticent United States could not have been lost on the average, undecided Libyan civilian.
According to the report, Libya’s democratic liberals are outnumbered in the government elected in the country’s July 2012 elections. “Although early electoral results show that liberals of the Alliance of National Forces won a sizable portion of the seats reserved to political parties—40 out of 120 seats—the final new political configuration will be determined by independent individuals who are disproportionately in favor of the Islamist agenda, according to Mohamed Swam, the leader of the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing. The elected national assembly will draft a new constitution, which is expected to institute sharia as the supreme source of law.”
Building on its success in Libya and across the Arab Spring nations, al Qaeda may be in the process if re-branding itself. According to the report, “Ansar al-Sharia may become the new brand name under which jihadist groups in the Arab world seek to organize. In a June 2012 essay, published on Minbar al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shingiti, a prominent Mauritanian Salafist-jihadist cleric, called on Islamist jihadists to adopt the name as a vehicle for unity. This new designation appears to be an attempt to create a new framework of activism that expands the concept of jihad beyond armed confrontation to include traditional forms of proselytism, know as da’awa. Such an expansion would allow jihadists to take advantage of the new freedom that the “Arab
Awakening” has provided in many Arab countries to organize and to build popular support.” The report notes that the Ansar al-Sharia groups in Libya and Tunisia appear to be communicating with each other and coordinating their messaging.
On page 43, the report states “Al-Qaeda’s message is actually close to the mainstream Islamic discourse that emerged from the Libyan Revolution and may indicate its attempt to blend into the Islamist movement that is expected to dominate Libyan politics.” The Islamist movement already dominates post-Mubarak Egypt, where elections propelled the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the legislature and the presidency.
On page 44, the report concludes that al Qaeda constitutes a serious threat to the process of creating a state from the chaos in Libya. The national government, according to the report, is “is not likely to succeed, at least in the short term, in disarming former rebels or ensuring that radical Islamists do not infiltrate the state security services in order to sabotage future counterterrorism efforts. So far, the army and the police have reconstituted their ranks by incorporating whole militias regardless of the militants’ backgrounds. The government has yielded to the pressure of the militias, which categorically rejected recruitment into the army and police on the basis of individual qualifications.”
It’s in this context that the US State Department consistently rejected requests from the field security officers in Benghazi to enhance security for the US consulate there. In fact, according to Lt Col Andrew Wood and security officer Eric Nordstrom, the Libya operation found itself consistently fighting just to keep the assets that it had. They were told by State officials in Washington not even to request more support. Increasing security support would have come, according to Nordstrom, at too high a “political cost.” The New York Times reports today that the State Department was focused on security in Tripoli, 400 miles away from Benghazi. As attack after attack occurred in Benghazi, and the British and Red Cross pulled their personnel out of a deteriorating security environment, State continued to deny requests for more security in Benghazi. According to the Library of Congress report, al Qaeda had shown at least battalion-strength in Benghazi months before the attack that left four Americans including Ambassador Stevens dead.
Near the end, the Library of Congress has this to say about the relationship between the Libyan government and its local al Qaeda affiliates: “The extent of the Salafists’ popular support, however, remains so far unknown, as do their connections with the al-Qaeda clandestine network, whose existence the transitional government continues to flatly deny.”
Libya’s weak transitional government is not alone in its denial regarding al Qaeda. During the 2012 Democratic National Convention, supporter after supporter of President Obama’s re-election talked up the point that under Obama’s watch, al Qaeda has been “decimated.” Vice President Joseph Biden has used a simple talking point on the campaign trail: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
Bin Laden is dead, but even before the 9-11-12 attack in Benghazi, it was clear that al Qaeda is very much alive. As of August 2012, the Library of Congress found that its strength in Libya and other Arab Spring nations is growing. But within weeks of that report’s finalization, President Obama and his top lieutenants would blame the 9-11-12 Benghazi attack not on al Qaeda, but on a YouTube movie, until the facts forced them to change their story.
On Friday Oct 12, 2012, Secretary of State doubled down on the Obama administration’s support for pushing the Arab world toward more revolutions. She requested Congress spend more than $700 million to that end. During her speech, Secretary Clinton said ““Throughout all of this we must not only focus on the headlines. We have to keep in mind the trend lines. It is important to look at the full picture, to weigh the violent acts of a small number of extremists against the aspirations and actions of the region’s people and governments. That broader view supports rather than discredits the promise of the Arab revolutions.”
It is important to look at the full picture beyond the headlines. What is that full picture, and what are those trend lines, telling us?
h/t Tatler commenters