January 10, 2012

January 10, 2012 | Commentary on Libya, Terrorism

Libyan Islamists Gaining Strength

Although Libya has rid itself of the Moammar Gadhafi regime, it faces an uncertain future endangered by radical Islamist factions, warring militia commanders, tribal rivalries, a lack of democratic traditions, and a civil society ravaged by decades of authoritarian rule. Last week, two militias clashed violently in a turf war in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

Catherine Herridge, the chief intelligence correspondent for Fox News, noted the rise of Libyan Islamists in an article earlier last week. She cited a recent report by Kronos, LLC, that assessed the prominent role in the Libyan rebellion played by Islamist militants affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a revolutionary Islamist group that merged with al-Qaida in 2007.

Abdul Hakim Belhaj, the former leader of the LIFG who traveled to Afghanistan and joined forces with the Taliban, has emerged as one of the most powerful leaders in post-Gadhafi Libya. Belhaj led one of the strongest militias in the uprising against Gadhafi and was appointed as the head of the Tripoli Military Council. Belhaj, who asserts that he never joined al-Qaida, was arrested in Malaysia in 2004, jailed in Libya, and released in 2010 when he ostensibly disavowed terrorism.

Belhaj and other Libyan Islamists have been boosted by aid from foreign Islamist movements and Arab regimes, particularly Qatar. Qatar, a small but wealthy Persian Gulf kingdom endowed with enormous natural gas resources, played a leading role in supporting the anti-Gadhafi opposition with financial aid, arms, and military advisers. It gave sanctuary to Ali Sallabi, the Libyan Islamist cleric who has emerged as a "likely architect" of the new Libya. Qatar's support for Libya's Islamist factions has earned it the resentment of many Libyans who fear the imposition of an Islamist dictatorship.

The opaque nature of the Libyan opposition and the important role within it played by Islamists were two reasons that The Heritage Foundation recommended last spring that the United States adopt a cautious policy towards the Libyan rebel coalition. It would be a shame if Gadhafi's authoritarian regime, as bad as it was, is replaced with a totalitarian Islamist regime that poses even greater threats to the United States, its allies, and the Libyan people.

Jim Phillips is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The Orange County Register