A House Divided: Jihadis Battle for Derna


A House Divided: Jihadis Battle for Derna

Rhiannon Smith

10 Jul 2015

ISIS is fighting with other jihadi groups for the Libyan city of Derna. But while the rivals differ, hopes that an ISIS defeat will mean the decline of its ideology are sadly misplaced, writes Rhiannon Smith.

On 3rd July, six people were killed and many more injured when three suicide bombers blew themselves up in Derna, a coastal city in eastern Libya which has long been synonymous with extreme Islamism. Forces loyal to ISIS have been blamed for the attacks, which come in the wake of the group's expulsion from the city following clashes in mid-June between ISIS and jihadi groups fighting under the umbrella of Derna's Mujahadeen Shura Council (MSC).

The clashes began when ISIS killed Nasser al-Aker, leader of a rival jihadi group. Angered by the killing, the MSC rose up against ISIS, declaring jihad against the group and, after days of fighting, driving them out of the city. Unarmed protestors who took to the street to demonstrate against the group's repressive rule were shot down by its militants, their deaths further fuelling anger against ISIS.

The Western media's reaction to ISIS' apparent defeat in Derna has been one of cautious celebration – yet such a reaction is based on the assumption that defeating ISIS-aligned groups equates to defeating its extreme Islamist ideology and the violence with which it is associated. Unfortunately this does not stand up to scrutiny.

When Derna was declared an official ISIS 'province' by the self proclaimed 'Caliph' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2014, following a pledge of allegiance from Derna's Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC), the group's strict and invariably brutal social code came into effect. Smoking and music were banned, the marriage of child brides to foreign fighters was encouraged and public executions, beheadings and even crucifixions were sanctioned.

Derna was under the control of hardline Islamist militias long before it became an ISIS stronghold.

However, while many of these practices were considered alien to local interpretations of Islam, Derna had been under the control of hard-line Islamist militias long before it became an ISIS stronghold. Successive post-Gaddafi governments failed to wrest control of the town away from al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups such as the Abu Saleem Martyr's Bridge (ASMB) and Ansar al-Sharia Derna, which imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic ideology on the town. Since 2012, elections have been banned, Libyan courts suspended, and political activists and journalists intimidated, kidnapped, and even killed. Indeed, although it was ultimately jihadi groups who drove ISIS out of the city last month, it was not the group's religious ideology which proved the tipping point for the militias, but rather its top-down operational strategy.

The MSC was established in December 2014 to spearhead efforts against General Khalifa Haftar whose 'Operation Dignity' forces have been leading an offensive against Islamist groups in Benghazi and Derna since May 2014. Within the context of the current Libyan conflict, the MSC is allied with Libya Dawn, the umbrella group of militias controlling Tripoli and much of western Libya, while Haftar is allied with the House of Representatives (HoR), the internationally-recognised government in Tobruk. The Libya Dawn alliance includes many jihadi groups including Ansar al-Sharia, the group accused of killing the American ambassador to Libya in 2012, while Haftar has consciously (and often successfully) employed vehemently anti-Islamist rhetoric to attract the support of key regional and Western actors under the 'war on terror' narrative. Nevertheless, the overarching ideology uniting the diverse range of Libyan actors on both sides is not inherently religious in its origin but rather political.

Under Col Muammar Gaddafi's rule Islamists were brutally repressed, giving them more reason than most to hate the Gaddafi regime. Indeed the Abu Saleem Martyrs Brigade takes its name from the infamous 1996 Abu Saleem prison massacre in which over 1,000 inmates were slaughtered, most imprisoned for being suspected Islamists or political activists. Derna was a hub of Islamist activity under Gaddafi, with systematic neglect and marginalisation of the city leading to the radicalisation of large swathes of the town's population.

The eviction of ISIS from Derna does not mean an end to Islamist rule.

After the 2011 uprisings in Libya, the number of armed militia groups mushroomed and although they represented a complex web of different regional, tribal, and ideological interests, they became increasingly polarised into two key groups. There were those who supported the removal of all members of Gaddafi's regime from power, and there were others who believed only those who had committed atrocities while working for Gaddafi should be prevented from holding positions of power. As a result, while Derna's jihadi history means the MSC contains a disproportionately high number of groups who are linked to al-Qaeda and advocate terror tactics, their principle objective in battling Haftar's forces is not to establish a Libyan state that conforms to their vision of Islam, but rather to ensure that Gaddafi's allies do not have a say in that state.

MSC has consistently rejected calls to pledge its allegiance to ISIS and in recent months tensions have emerged between the two groups in Derna over their conflicting governance priorities. ISIS wants to consolidate its territory in Derna, implementing top-down state-building which tolerates no deviance from its own designs, no matter the local context. On the other hand, although the religious dogma espoused by many groups within MSC is as violent and unforgiving of that of ISIS, their modus operandi is based on a more bottom-up approach which allows certain local grievances and cultural sensitivities to be addressed within the framework of their religious ideology, as a means to winning local support.

As well as reflecting the complexity of Libya's conflict, this battle for control of Derna also echoes the growing tensions at a global level between ISIS and al-Qaeda. While both groups advocate similarly extreme religious ideology, their tactics and aims are very different. ISIS focuses on expanding its territory within the Middle East, fuelling sectarianism in order to strengthen its appeal and consolidate its brutal rule. In comparison, al-Qaeda-aligned groups have traditionally been less concerned with state-building, focusing more on attacking Western interests and allies in the region, and seeking to strengthen their legitimacy at the local level. (The operations of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's al-Qaeda franchise, may stand in contrast to this trend.)

The eviction of ISIS from Derna does not mean the end of strict Islamist rule in Derna, nor does it mean an end to the violence and destruction the city has suffered. Indeed, as the 3 July suicide bombings indicate, it is likely that ISIS will continue to terrorise the population in an attempt to regain control of the 'province.' Furthermore, Haftar's forces have used the infighting between the jihadi rivals to make advances on the city, turning Derna's conflict into a theatre for a three-pronged battle which at its heart is not over religion but over governance: over who has the right to rule and by which rules.


This article was originally published on 9 July 2015.


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The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.