Libyan Islamists Stand to Gain with or without Qadhafi

By James M Dorsey

An alleged dual British-Libyan jihadist has been paraded in front of the international media to support the regime’s claim that the revolt against Gadhafi’s 41-year rule was being directed by al-Qaeda.

Libya has put the spotlight on the fact that it may be one of the Middle Eastern and North African countries where militant Islamists emerge strengthened from the Arab struggle to throw off the yoke of authoritarian rule.

Salah Mohammed Ali Abu Obah, a 43-year old Manchester resident, said he was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an al-Qaeda affiliate founded by Libyan fighters in Afghanistan. He said he had been detained earlier this month by Libyan security forces in the town of Zawiya, west of the capital Tripoli. Abu Obah described himself as a low-level LIFG fundraiser.

Abu Obah’s statements did little to substantiate Qadhafi’s claim, but it did fuel Western concerns that jihadists and militant Islamists were playing a key role in the Libyan revolt unlike elsewhere in the world where they have largely been relegated to the sidelines. Abu Obah noted that the LIFG had broken its ties to al-Qaeda in 2007 around the time that its imprisoned leaders engaged in serious dialogue with the regime as part of the government’s rehabilitation program. “The part of the LIFG that I am with does not belong to al-Qaeda,” Abu Obah said.

The LIFG and dissident elements of the Libyan armed forces are the only two groups in the Libyan opposition with battle experience. The Libyan jihadists fought a bitter insurgency in eastern Libya in the 1990s.

Many of the Islamist fighters who are facing off against Gadhafi’s forces were released from prison last year as part of the government rehabilitation program that was overseen by Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, in which they repented their ways, but did not fully renounce violence.

Analysts said the jihadists’ role in the struggle to topple Gadhafi would strengthen their position irrespective of what the outcome is of the battle for Libya. They said the fighters’ attitudes once the battle is over would constitute a litmus test for government rehabilitation programs in several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Mauritania. The Saudi program has so far had an 80 percent success rate.

Western fears that many of the rehabilitated and escapees may revert to their old ways were reinforced by the recent refusal of Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, the prominent Libyan cleric who oversaw the LIFG’s ideological rehabilitation, to mediate an agreement between Qadhafi and the rebels. Al-Salabi’s refusal was backed by prominent Saudi cleric Salman al-Auda, a reformed militant, and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yousef Qaradawi, who both had earlier supported Qadhafi’s rehabilitation effort.

“The real threat to US security is flying under the radar. The fate of once-jailed Islamist fighters who are now at large should be among Washington’s top concerns. Islamists freed by Qadhafi and those who escaped from prison during the uprising are now able to operate in an environment of evaporating state control, abundant small arms caches, and under-guarded stocks of chemical warfare agents,” explains Christopher Boucek, an analyst with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Opposition leaders have stressed that their revolt is nationalist rather than Islamist in nature, irrespective of the fact that LIFG fighters have joined their battle. “If there’s one thing you should remember, it’s that this is a people’s revolution, a secular revolution,” said Khaled Ben Ali, a spokesman for the 13-member rebel national council.

Analysts concede that the Islamists participation in the fight does not necessarily change the nature of the revolt, but cautioned that it remained to be seen whether they had truly broken with their jihadist past.

“They may no longer feel obliged to keep up their end of the bargain with a weakened government – a government many never accepted as legitimate in the first place. Violent Islamists have long sought to bring down the hated Qadhafi regime – just as they have looked to topple other ‘apostate’ governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen – and some may now see this as their best opportunity to overthrow the government,” Boucek said.

A weakened or partitioned Libya could become a breeding ground for jihadists engaged in a low-level insurgency against the remnants of the Qadhafi regime, officials and analysts said, noting that jihadists flourish mostly in failing rather than failed states.

“There is … the risk of division within the country and the risk of seeing a failed state in the future that could be a breeding ground of extremism and terrorism, so obviously this is a matter of concern,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a recent meeting of NATO defence ministers.

Libyans constitute the third-largest contingent of jihadists in Iraq after Iraqis and Saudis. Several Libyans also graduated to senior positions in al-Qaeda, including Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group’s chief ideologue and a potential successor to Osama bin Laden. The LIFG, which attempted to assassinate Qadhafi on three different occasions, posed the greatest threat to the Libyan leader’s regime prior to the popular revolt.

A US diplomat noted in a US embassy cable disclosed by Wikileaks in 2008 after a visit to the eastern Libyan city of Derna, home to many Libyan jihadists, that they were focused less on attacking Western targets than on undermining the Qadhafi regime.

The diplomat said the militants believed that the US and Europe were supporting Qadhafi after his 2003 renunciation of weapons of mass destruction. They saw participation in the Iraqi jihad against US forces as “a last act of defiance against the Qadhafi regime,” the US diplomat wrote in the 2008 cable.

Noman Benotman, the London-based former LIFG leader who was one of the group’s negotiators with Saif al-Islam, warns that eastern Libya hosts a younger, more radical group of Islamist militants who see jihad as a religious obligation.

Nonetheless, Benotman suggested that Qadhafi’s pinning of the revolt against his regime on al-Qaeda meant that former LIFG fighters feared that they may be targeted by the Libyan leader’s forces.

“The last time I was in contact with some members was when I was in Tripoli on the 16th or 17th of February,” Benotman said. They themselves are afraid of their personal security, because they think they will be a target of the regime, and maybe assassinated or framed for some act of terrorism. So I think they are going to hide, because they start to believe they are a direct target for the regime’s security forces.”

James M Dorsey is a senior visiting research fellow at the Middle East Institute, a freelance journalist, and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. The views expressed herein are his own.

This article first appeared in Deutsche Welle.

Obama’s Middle East: The First Year

For internal circulation

18 February 2010

By Mary E. Stonaker and Chris J. Stonaker

SINGAPORE – Discussing President Obama’s performance on Middle East issues during his first year in office, Professor Michael C. Hudson offered a pessimistic assessment.  “On the Palestinian-Israeli issue, I would–regretfully–give him an F,” said Hudson.  “Obama came into office with a golden opportunity to move American policy in a more balanced direction, but unfortunately, so far, he has not lived up to that promise.”  

Dr. Hudson is a Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.  He was speaking in Singapore on 2 February 2010 at the Middle East Institute’s Seminar on “The Obama Administration’s Approach to ‘Networked Islamist Extremism’: Confronting Al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and Iran”.

Assessing Obama’s approach to the broader range of Middle East issues–Islamist extremism, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq – Hudson observed that there had been substantial continuity in content with the previous Administration, although the tone has been less abrasive and more accommodating.    

Despite his admitted pessimism, his seminar presented as realism, comparing election promises to actions fulfilled. Hudson’s sentiment reflects a greater trend in presidential approval ratings by the American public. Although approval rating variations exist across demographics, the overall opinion of Americans is one of great disappointment. Obama’s approval ratings have dipped from an overall approval of 67% on Inauguration Day (January 20th, 2009) to hovering around 50% since the beginning of July 2009, when Obama’s healthcare reform bill stirred up domestic tensions.1

Proceeding with Obama’s foreign policy critique, Hudson covered several points. He discussed the ongoing debate within the academic community over the meaning of ‘networked Islamist extremism.’ On one side of this debate, academics take the English translation of Al-Qaeda, the base, as the nature of ‘networked Islamist extremism.’ On the other side, intellectuals believe there are a series of disjointed organizations currently operating and continuously emerging. Although Hudson did not specify his stance in this particular debate, he gave credence to both sides, outlining proposals and actions taken by Obama’s administration against ‘networked Islamist extremism.’

Pointing to the difficulties facing the American president and his administration, Hudson highlighted the main Islamist extremist groups ranging from Southeast Asia to West Asia. Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyyah organizes bombings towards western populations across the archipelago, disregarding Muslims that may be victims of collateral damage. Another regional group with suspected ties to Al Qai’da, Abu Sayyaf, is experiencing a resurgence in Indonesia, spreading violence from the Filipino southern islands (threatening eastern Malaysian Borneo as well) to the mainland area of Mindanao.

A prominent figure in Abu Sayyaf, Abdul Basit Usman, is believed to have been killed in North Waziristan in late January 2010. If true, this could contribute to the base nature of terrorist networks operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Furthermore, Pakistan’s suspected support of the Taliban escalates that notion of a network.

The barely averted 2009 Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 283 “underlines the problem facing the Obama administration.” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabz, a Nigerian national, was trained in an Al-Qa’ida sponsored camp in Yemen to be sent abroad on this suicide mission. Using this example, Hudson called Yemen the ‘Arab Afghanistan.’ Geographical similarities between Yemen and Afghanistan provide a dangerously fertile breeding ground for these training camps which attract members from across northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the United States, Britain and Indonesia.

The information revolution within Arab and Muslim countries was mentioned as enhancing the rapid proliferation of these extremist groups. The Muslim Brotherhood (technically outlawed) still thrives in Egyptian society while exporting its ideas across the world.

Further north, Hamas and Fatah battle to win the hearts of Palestinians, at the cost of Arab and Israeli lives. Just a little further, Hizbollah in Lebanon, heavily supported by Iran and Syria, commits acts of violent attacks, with aims of creating an Islamic state.

Hizbollah’s aim brings us to a further expansion of this ongoing debate, questioning not only the structural organization but the ultimate goals of violence committed.

While many acknowledge a long standing aversion amongst Muslims to foreign domination as a driving factor for this violence, there also exists the cause of re-establishing a caliphate, one global in nature. How does a foreign leader focus his cross-hairs on movements that are continually and recklessly willing to sacrifice their own members’ lives, without knowing a clearly defined structural hierarchy (if one exists) and clearly defined objectives?

Hudson outlined the Obama administration’s attempts at accomplishing just this.

Hudson spoke of the overriding goodwill generated by the president’s speech on June 4, 2009 at Cairo University. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one which draws high emotional responses from all directions. On June 4th, Obama stated, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements….America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”2 Articulating a two-state solution implanted hope of real change in the hearts and minds of Muslims across the world, who see the Arab-Israeli conflict as a proxy to a greater conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim populations across the world.

Hope of real change that was nearly completing, reversed when Obama “blinked” in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to halt Israeli settlement construction in November 2009. Muslims across the world began to see Obama as a man of many words and little action. Hudson emphasized this with a political cartoon from an Arab newspaper depicting Obama in the forefront, “Blah blah blah,” while columns of smoke are rising from various points on a landscaped map of the Middle East.

Many are waiting to see Obama take more substantive action towards sustainable peace. The Nobel Peace Prize was given to President Obama in 2009 as a gesture – not the result of actions already taken but expectations of what should be done.  The weight of global hope is placed upon Obama.

Reviewing Obama’s election promises, Hudson discussed the inheritance given to him by former President George W. Bush – trillions of dollars in debt, originating mostly from “a war of choice in Iraq” and “a war of necessity in Afghanistan,” which Obama mentioned during his speech at Cairo University.2

To provide background to the audience, Professor Hudson also made reference to the mechanics of American policy-making. Although Obama may speak high hopes, the laws which enact these hopes must first be passed, as bills, through the House of Representatives and the Senate. Lobbyists have a heavy influence in the Congress before President Obama can sign a bill into law.

Although the President holds veto power, he does not hold the power to write into law anything not approved by Congress. These checks and balances, while ensuring stability, make law-making in America a dauntingly slow process. “Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can,” President Obama urged decision-makers during his State of the Union speech in January 2010.

To emphasize the slow rate of real transition, Hudson listed names of cabinet members, from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to General David Petraeus, who were carried over from the Bush administration.

Although change may not be coming quickly, there are signs that it is trickling in.  Hudson listed attempts at productive change in Middle East Policy from the White House:

  1. Obama reinforced the National Counterterrorism Center to collect and connect the pieces of the extremist puzzles that embassies and the Central Intelligence Agency fail to do. Furthermore, Obama appointed a Special Envoy to the Middle East within days of taking office to signal his level of dedication to this cause;
  2. Obama captured or killed more extremists in Afghanistan in his one year in office than Bush did in eight. These targeted killings and assassinations are a part of his “tough stance,” Hudson cited in support of real policy changes occurring in the White House;
  3. Washington has extended the hand of friendship to Tehran, rejected as it may have been. Hudson agreed with a comment citing the lack of any real steps taken by Obama to signify that friendship. As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to challenge America and their Allies in the ‘nuclear standoff,’ the world is left waiting to see what Obama’s next steps may be;
  4. although US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay remains open past his inaugural promise, Obama has taken several real steps towards his goal of full closure of that facility along with other CIA prisons. One such step was to appoint a Special Envoy to Guantanamo, a position equal in stature to that of an ambassador. This process was greatly slowed when US Congress essentially prohibited the transfer of military prisoners to a ‘Northern Gitmo.’ The closure stalls as prisoners deemed too dangerous to release linger in custody;
  5. Obama has announced troop surges to Afghanistan and troop removals in Iraq. He has vowed to stay in Afghanistan until the threat of networked Islamist extremists is eradicated and promised Iraq a partnership where Iraq would be an equal trading partner with the US, not a client state of the US. These carefully watched moves of Obama greatly affect the Middle East and greater Muslim sentiment towards the United States; and
  6. Hudson cited the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as testament to the changes Obama promised and continues to speak of in regards to these wars. In this congressional publication, the Department of Defense echoed Obama’s mandates to ‘trim the excess fat’ from the budget. One example given was the removal of an automatic request for dollars to buy C17 transport aircraft, when the military reached its goal of 108 aircraft four years ago.


Hudson cited the financial crisis as a factor that may have caused President Obama’s lack of attention towards Muslim populations. Perhaps, as the economy recovers, more attention will be given to foreign policy. Nevertheless, attention is only the first step; true pressures need to be put on the networked Islamist extremists to cease their violent activities.

Before assuming the presidency, Obama commented in 2007 that Reinhold Niebuhr, a proponent of ‘just war’ was one of his favorite philosophers. We will see how this notion plays out with respect to US involvement in the Middle East. Currently, the US is pumping aid and training into Yemen, a strategic geographical location. It borders the already unstable Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow strait shared with Eritrea and Djibouti, and the Gulf of Aden, where pirates have disrupted international trade routes for years. If Yemen were to devolve into a fully unstable nation, global stability too would be deeply shaken.

In his concluding remarks, Hudson restated the importance of incorporating academics’ knowledge within the Obama’s administration’s application of foreign policy. Hudson would like to see more reliance on regional specialists, drawing knowledge from the world’s top think tanks and universities. Hudson once again acknowledged the structural difficulties of American law-making facing Obama. Finally, Hudson reiterated the “tough, complicated global realities” affecting Obama’s treatment of networked Islamist extremists.

Professor Michael C. Hudson’s is an evaluation that will continue to evolve as US President Barack Obama develops foreign policy in the Middle East, Insha’allah.


1. Rasmussen Report, Obama’s Approval Index History, (February 5, 2010)

2. Obama, Barack, Remarks by the President on a New Beginning, Cairo University, June 4, 2009, (February 5, 2010)


Mary E. Stonaker, a teacher with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, volunteers with the Middle East Institute. She currently lives in Katong with her husband, Chris J. Stonaker, a writer with a developing interest in Middle Eastern Affairs.

“Iraq and the Middle East Order”: A Seminar by Dr. Ali Allawi

For internal circulation

20 Jan 10

By Mary E. Stonaker

SINGAPORE – “Most importantly, Iraqis must enjoy living together,” Dr. Ali Allawi stressed to his audience on Friday, January 15th. His message was clear: in order for the nation of Iraq to survive and thrive, the government and its people must forge a lasting national identity. A former Minister of Defense, Trade and Finance within the Interim and Transitional Iraqi Governments, Allawi’s first-hand experience lends his speaking and writing a true air of authenticity.


Dr. Allawi began his seminar, in the same manner as he did his highly acclaimed books, by providing the audience with a brief, relevant historical background. After receiving great acclaim for The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, Dr. Allawi’s follow-up The Crisis of Islamic Civilization landed on The Economist’s most influential books of 2009. Incorporating themes and ideas from these books, he further drew upon personal experience to outline the ‘2nd Iraqi state,’ created when the United States of America removed Saddam Hussein from power and its influence its neighbors.


Throughout his speech, Allawi continuously returned to his central theme of the components of Iraqi national identity. He outlined the historical ethnical and sectarian identities that still remain among Iraqis today. Iraq lacks the essential elements of nationhood, from lacking a shared historical monarchy or empire (centered in present-day Iraq) to lacking a binding constitution. Although Iraq is geographically positioned to serve as the ‘fulcrum of the Arab nation,’ it fails to do so because Iraq itself has a fragmented identity.


While Dr. Allawi provided a palatable history on the American military action, he openly acknowledged American involvement and further responsibilities. He equally acknowledged the importance of the removal of American forces as quickly as possible so that the Iraqis have the chance to build a cohesive government and national identity.


The going will certainly not be easy for Iraqis, as Allawi elaborated, corruption is status quo in the government and remnants from the ‘1st Iraqi state’ (pre-2003) have yet to accept the permanence of the changes. Generally speaking, Shi’a Arabs must be able to develop a ‘power-sharing’ government while Sunni Arabs must accept a shift in power. Furthermore, he proposed that the Kurds must be equally integrated in the political and social fabric of Iraq to prevent a full independence movement from shattering the current state of affairs in the emerging ‘2nd Iraqi state.’ However, Turkey’s domestic concerns over its Kurdish population (about 20%-30% of Turkey) suggest to Allawi that Turkey would step in to prevent an independent Kurdish nation, separate from Iraq.


Continuing to emphasize integration, Allawi stated that all ethnicities and sects must be able to feel the possibility of rising to the highest office in government and private sectors, without prejudice.


The current Iraqi government must also decide into which type of government it will develop; since the interim government, it has toyed with federal, centralized and bi-national structures. Currently, Kurdistan is operating as an autonomous state within Iraq but oil exports and further economic concerns may lead to conflict if these critical issues are not addressed now. Internally, Iraq must find ways to give insurgents, Al Qaeda and civil populations democratic means to negotiate as these fault lines lead to the 2006-2007/early 2008 civil war. At present, these issues still boil beneath the surface of Iraqi politics. Random violence and targeted assassinations are being conducted simply to undermine the Iraqi government’s stability and credibility to the public, to ‘influence the distribution of power within the parliament.’


Economically, Iraq must lessen its dependence on oil revenue. Allawi cites oil revenue to be 90% of the state budget and 75% of GDP. Reconstruction efforts have lessened unemployment but the economy will be seriously threatened if oil prices drop below, in Allawi’s opinion, US$50 per barrel. Allawi’s positive outlook on the future of Iraq’s current one-dimensional economy relies on the government’s future abilities to maintain oil prices while diversifying its holdings within other sectors of its economy friendly.


Regionally, Iraq needs to decide its role in a wide range of activities. The shift in power within Iraq has already lead to a host of positive and negative effects to its neighbors in the Middle East. The empowerment of the Kurdish population naturally concerns Turkey. Although, due to this same shift, Turkey has gained unprecedented access to ‘power corridors’ within the Middle East.


Saudi Arabia is threatened as the events will have ‘untold effects’ on Shi’a Arabs, challenging the prevailing Islamic rhetoric. Jordan and Syria may also feel threatened in the new Middle East order as nations who shared positive ties with the Iraq of Saddam


The regional winner in this monumental shift in the balance of power within Iraq, according to Dr. Allawi, is Iran. Iraq’s neighbor had been at odds with Iraq’s leadership prior to 2003, stretching back decades. However, within the ‘2nd Iraqi state,’ the balance of power has shifted back to the Shi’a population and the new Iraqi leadership has opened to the possibility of discourse with Iran.


Many questions remain. Will Iran and Iraq hostilities ease now that Hussein is out of power? What involvement will Iraq continue to have in the Arab-Israeli crisis and other nations with which Hussein’s Iraq was strategically aligned? Will Iraq ultimately be able to form a cohesive, happy nation?


In Dr. Ali Allawi’s words, “the jury is still out.”


Mary E. Stonaker, a teacher with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, volunteers for the Middle East Institute, Singapore. She currently resides in Katong, Singapore with her husband.