Paul Pillar

The Libyan Islamist Problem

The region-wide political drama in the Middle East has so far mostly been bad news for al-Qaeda and its friends and affiliates—one of the reasons the regional upheaval has been good news for the rest of us. Major political change has been accomplished without resort to terrorism and with the jihadists being irrelevant. And to the extent the region becomes a more politically open place where grievances can be pursued through democratic means, the jihadist terrorist message about the need for violence will lose even more of its appeal.

The “so far” caveat is important and encompasses two possible problems up the road. One would be a dashing of hopes amid the perception that revolutions had been cut short—a particular worry as the world watches whether the Egyptian military comes through on its promise of greater democratization. The other is the exploitation of chaos and power vacuums. This latter possibility varies greatly from country to country, with Libya being easily the most worrisome case. Well worth a read in this regard is an informative report by Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment about the status of radical Islamists in Libya. 

For years before the current revolt, the jihadists, and especially the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, posed the biggest internal threat to Muammar Qaddafi's regime. Scores of LIFG and Libyan security personnel died in clashes. Libyans also have been disproportionately represented in al-Qaeda, among foreign fighters in Iraq, and elsewhere in the jihadist movement. These two patterns were the basis for the Qaddafi regime and the United States realizing they had a shared interest in cooperating against jihadist terrorism.

The Libyan regime largely succeeded, by about 2007, in subduing the LIFG. More recently the regime, partly to burnish further its counterterrorist credentials, tried to get into the business of rehabilitating radicals. There was nothing wrong with that in principle; the problem was that the Libyans did not do a very competent job of it. They paid insufficient attention to follow-up guidance and support when individuals were released from confinement. The Libyan program resembled the unsuccessful rehabilitation efforts in Yemen more than the far more carefully designed and relatively more successful efforts in Saudi Arabia. And now amid the disorder of revolt and civil war, more unreconstructed militants have walked out of prison.

Having many people of this ilk at large, coupled with the weakness of alternative Libyan institutions credible enough and capable enough to become the basis for a new political order, makes for a troublesome mix. As pressures mount on U.S. and western policymakers to stir the Libyan pot even more, they need to keep several hazards in mind. One is the mere fact of extremists on the loose . Another is the greater chance in Libya, more so than in Egypt or most other countries of the region, that radicals may acquire some share of power and influence. And if this happens, there is the further hazard of souring others—not least of all ourselves—on further political change in the Middle East, even though in the region as a whole such change is still likely to be good for U.S. interests.