The Sect Quietly Uniting a Divided Libya — Under Salafism

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The Madkhalists are growing in influence across Libya’s different warring factions, promising security and an Islamist future. 

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The defeat of the ISIS appears imminent in Iraq and Syria, sparking celebrations in Baghdad and triumphalism in Washington. But the first signs of a new wave of Islamic radicalization, war and displacement are already emerging, shaping distant regions and posing fresh threats. From a conservative Salafist group quietly taking control of Libya’s multiple warring groups to the emergence of radical Islam in Sufi West Africa and a deepening crisis on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, OZY takes you to the frontlines of the coming extremist threats. This is Life After ISIS.

Tripoli lawyer Walid Mansur doesn’t mind that an armed force which is only semi-legal polices his city, stopping crime suspects on the streets and unraveling terrorist plots in Libya’s capital. That the force is made up of a Salafi sect that brooks little opposition doesn’t worry him either. In a country torn by a seven-year-long civil war, the group is effective in maintaining some law and order. To Mansur, that’s what matters.

The Rada, an armed militia composed of fighters from the Madkhalist group that has increasingly emerged as the unofficial security provider in Tripoli over recent years, may soon gain formal legitimacy. A draft decree from the U.N.-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, leaked in May, proposes creating a new special force that will officially include Madkhalist fighters. But that growing influence isn’t limited to Tripoli.

Libya has three governments vying for power. Apart from Sarraj’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord, there’s a much-weakened, rival Government of National Salvation under former Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell, also based out of Tripoli. Another former prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani, leads a third administration from the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda. And the Madkhalists are the partners Libya’s multiple power brokers increasingly want.

From Tobruk near the Egypt border to Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, and from Misrata — located in the middle of the country’s long Mediterranean coastline — to Sirte, nearer to Tripoli, the group is spreading where it previously had limited presence.

Were it not for them, Tripoli would be far worse than it actually is.

Walid Mansur, Tripoli-based lawyer

In Benghazi, the sect’s al-Tawhid Brigades fight for the Egypt-backed self-proclaimed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who in turn provides the military support that keeps al-Thani’s government in the east alive. Haftar’s sons, Khaled and Saddam, now themselves lead Madkhalist militias. The sect’s 604 Brigade led the rout of the Islamic State in Misrata and Sirte in late 2016, and has since spread its influence, gaining recruits from city after city in eastern Libya. Madkhalists own more mosques than any other group in Libya, and they run schools, hospitals and a wide network of charities in cities all along the country’s coast, where more than 90 percent of Libyans live, say international agencies and analysts monitoring the country. For many ordinary Libyans in Tripoli, they’ve become synonymous with security.

“They are good; they bring justice,” says Mansur. “Were it not for them, Tripoli would be far worse than it actually is.”

Founded by an 85-year-old Saudi clergyman called Rabee al-Madkhali, this Salafist movement isn’t totally new to Libya. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in the 1990s invited al-Madkhali to the country, seeking his help to counter the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadi outfits the Madkhalists have traditionally opposed. That bond deepened, and in 2011, al-Madkhali even issued a fatwa condemning the uprising that ended the rule of Gaddafi, who was killed.

Gettyimages 462338832

Security forces from the Libyan militia group Rada, along with emergency services, surround Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel (right) on Jan. 27, 2015. Islamist gunmen detonated a car bomb in front of the hotel, which is popular with foreigners, and then rushed inside, killing a guard.

Source MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty

But the cleric has since shifted allegiances, asking his followers in 2016 to join Haftar — who originally emerged as an anti-Gaddafi power player in Libya — in fighting the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood. Madkhalists aren’t known for their tolerance or liberalism. They’re calling Libya’s grand mufti, Sadiq al-Ghariani — a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Saudi Arabia’s rivals, Qatar and Turkey — an apostate. And the militias that Haftar’s sons head up in Benghazi have been accused of conducting public punishments and arbitrary executions.

That growing influence is sparking concerns within sections of Libyans worried about the country’s future. “Madkhalists are like a tree with its branches expanding all over the country,” says an anxious Misrata official, requesting anonymity because of security concerns.

The spread of the sect’s authority is also reflective of Saudi Arabia’s growing efforts at pulling more and more regional nations into its sphere of influence, says Fathi Ben Khalifa, leader of Libo — a political party focusing on secularism, gender equality and minority rights. “They pop up literally everywhere,” he says of the Madkhalists. “They are very well organized; they have money, weapons … I have been warning for some time of the threat they pose to all of us Libyans.” To him, the movement is the “latest version of the most radical Islamism.”

But for those in power — or hoping to stay in power — in the Middle East and North Africa, Madkhalists are almost dream partners.

“They never put into question the political authorities of the country where they take root in,” says Yarub Ali, an Iraqi researcher and historian of Salafism based in Norway. “Moreover, they despise Western democracies as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, and they fight jihadism both in the ideological and military fields.” At the moment, the West won’t mind them too much either, suggests Ali, as long as they can keep youth from joining the Islamic State.

What’s good for a country’s ruler isn’t always what’s best for the nation’s future, however. Khalifa, the Libo leader, fears “some kind of Egyptian scenario” for Libya, with Haftar emerging as a military strongman in the mold of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s president. As it is, Haftar is a close ally of Sisi’s.

It won’t be easy for Madkhalism to emerge as a leading religious doctrine in a decentralized, fractured society like Libya’s, says Sergio Altuna, associate researcher at Spain’s Elcano Institute specializing in the Maghreb and the Sahel. But he also points to the proposed May decree, saying it “grants plenipotentiary powers to Rada in the field of security.”

For now, the sect is broadcasting its influence in other ways, including as a peace broker between warring groups. Misrata police sources confirmed to this reporter that members of the Farjani tribe — Haftar’s clan — recently visited the city as well as Tripoli. Sarraj and Haftar met twice in May, in Paris and in Benghazi, just two months after Haftar said he would not recognize the U.N.-backed government.

The photos from those meetings focused on the two leaders. But for Libyans, it didn’t take photos to spot the hidden Salafi hand behind both. They see it every day.

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