Magharebia (Washington DC)

Libya: Al-Qaeda Seeks Libya Foothold

The security situation in Libya seems darker than ever. Armed groups become more ferocious with each passing day. They bare their teeth in the face of a society that aspires to get out of chaos, build state institutions and achieve development and prosperity.

Libyans in 2013 lived daily to the beat of kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings. The headquarters of ministries, parliament, political parties, media organisations and foreign diplomatic posts came under attack, and protestors shut down ports, oil installations and power plants.

Security forces, from soldiers to border guards, bore the brunt of the terrorist onslaught. Even the president of the Libyan government was kidnapped and the head of the General National Congress escaped assassination.

The year from hell ended with the country's first suicide bombing.

For Tripoli resident Manar Warfali, the pivotal moment of 2013 was the Gharghour massacre in November. Dozens were killed when unarmed demonstrators demanded that militias vacate the capital.

"We are living in a permanent nightmare," he says. "At any moment, we risk a stray bullet, or shrapnel from an explosion, or an assassination attempt, not to mention the armed conflicts that erupt every now and then between various groups."

The problem began, he argues, when Libyan political forces maintained their military wings after the revolution and refused to let them integrate into the national army.

Another bad move was the decision by the National Transitional Council to disburse financial grants to all combatants, the Tripoli resident adds.

"Everyone started asking for money, while hampering and disrupting government services. What we are experiencing today is due to mistakes from the recent past," Warfali says.

"Within the General National Congress, there is a struggle between blocs and political parties, each with its own private agenda. Most of them are supported and financed from abroad," he tells Magharebia.

"Political parties created the right ambiance for the emergence of radical Islamist groups, using religion as a cover for their activities. They excommunicate anyone who opposes their opinion. Now they are trying to impose themselves on the scene under the pretext of the application of Islamic law, most notably the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia and the so-called Islamic Army of Libya," Warfali adds.

Ahmed Essam Marghini from Tripoli agrees that Gharghour was the most prominent event in Libya of 2013.

"Despite the bloody bill that Tripoli paid, the result was positive," he says. "This battle ended with the expulsion of all armed illegal militias from the city, and the army became the sole controller of the situation in the capital."

Asked about the present security situation, Marghini responds: "We need time. This chaos we are experiencing is a natural result of the legacy of Kadhafi's system, who sowed selfishness and egoism. He also worked on disseminating dissent and took advantage of tribal sensitivities and prejudices."

Marghini blames the assassinations and kidnappings on radical Islamists seeking to settle old scores with the Libyan army.

"In the mid-nineties, Kadhafi bombarded and arrested and tortured Islamists in Derna," he tells Magharebia. "So they are taking their revenge by assassinating all those whom they believe responsible, officers and pilots and the security services."

Benghazi resident Hassan Tajouri offers another explanation for the unrest: "What we are experiencing in Libya is the pursuit of terrorist groups to fight against everything that symbolises the modern state to which Libyans aspire."

"They want constant and overwhelming chaos," Tajouri adds. "They know that a strong army and police mean their end. So it's no coincidence that their focus is on security personnel. What is new this year is that terrorists moved from killing members of the military and police to killing their families, even children."

"Al-Qaeda made the city of Derna its headquarters and became the dominant force in Sabratha, Ajilat and Sirte," the Benghazi man tells Magharebia. "Anyone who does not submit to them or who disagrees with them is either kidnapped or killed."

Under these circumstances, it requires a lot of faith and courage for Libyan youth to join the army and police, he says.

It gets worse. The word on the Benghazi street is that the perpetrators of crimes are known, Tajouri says. "Yet in the absence of state authority and given the spread of weapons, it is difficult to capture or track them."

Some security experts say that al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri sent operative Abd al Baset Azzouz to Derna to oversee the restructuring al-Qaeda in Libya and co-ordinate between the terror organisation's various branches in the Maghreb region.

A YouTube video that circulated in 2012 shows Azzouz preaching to Derna residents. In the clip, he is seen trying to convince a small crowd gathered in a square that the Islamists would bring security to the city.

The sermons of Azzouz, however, soon gave way to the sound of explosions and gunfire, and citizens were no closer to achieving peace.

"Libya has become a key stronghold for al-Qaeda and the hub of the operations in the North African region," Moroccan researcher Abdullah Rami says.

Libyan jihadists were the first to go to Syria. Libya also hosted the recent co-ordination meeting between jihadist movements in Maghreb countries. All these are considered indicators of the role played by Libya in al-Qaeda's strategy in the region.

Libya provides unprecedented conditions for the revival of al-Qaeda, primarily because of the absence of the state and the lack of military power.

Libya is also a bridge between North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, which makes it an ideal conduit for the movement of men, money and weapons.

Such advantages are not available to al-Qaeda of the Sahel-Sahara region, Rami adds.

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