This week, one of the Islamic State’s so-called “provinces” began to battle its jihadist rivals for control of Derna, Libya. The animosity between the two sides had been brewing for months.
Although some press reports claimed last year that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men had taken over the entire city, other jihadist groups remain entrenched and are opposed to the Islamic State’s designs.
The Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in Derna, which was established in December 2014, is an alliance of several groups brought together to fight General Khalifa al Haftar’s anti-Islamist forces. But the MSC has served another purpose as well, acting as a barrier to the Islamic State’s expansionist plans.
Just weeks before the current fighting broke out, the MSC issued a “final warning” to Baghdadi’s men, describing them as “extremists.” The statement contained echoes from the conflict in Syria, where the Islamic State moved in behind its jihadist rivals to claim territory as they went off to fight the “tyrants.” The MSC blasted a Baghdadi follower, who used his sermon in a local mosque to criticize the “mujahideen” serving on the “front lines.” Baghdadi’s man, according to the MSC, claimed that the only legitimate authority in Derna is the Islamic State. This was a direct affront to all of the other jihadists fighting against Haftar.
The MSC and its constituent groups have consistently refused to join Baghdadi’s “caliphate.”
During a recent interview posted online, the MSC’s spokesman said his group would not join any “caliphate” that was formed without taking the necessary steps. He added that they did not recognize any caliph who comes to power without a proper shura [consultation] of Muslims — a reference to the fact that Baghdadi appointed himself the “caliph” without garnering the approval of his fellow jihadists. Al Qaeda and its allies have repeatedly made this same argument.
While the rivalry in Derna has become more heated in recent weeks, the animosity between the two sides has periodically boiled over since last year. In June 2014, the Al Battar Battalion, which is openly loyal to the Islamic State, alleged in a post on its official Twitter feed that the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB) had killed Al Mahdi Abu al Abyad, who served as Al Battar’s chief military leader. Al Battar described the ASMB as “apostates” in its eulogy for the slain jihadist.
The ASMB is one of the main factions behind the MSC in Derna.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the Islamic State’s fighters have killed two senior leaders in the MSC: Nasir Atiyah al Akar and Salim Derbi. (Derbi can be seen on the right, with Akar on the left, in the image above.)
Some senior Islamic State figures have been reportedly killed in retaliation, although their deaths have not yet been confirmed.
The MSC has issued a statement confirming Akar’s death. As of this writing, the jihadist coalition has not done the same for Derbi, but credible reports say he was killed.
There are multiple indications that both Akar and Derbi had ties to al Qaeda’s international network.
In its eulogy, the MSC described Akar as a veteran jihadist in his 50s who had dedicated his life to dawa (prosyletizing) and jihad.
Akar was so dedicated to jihad, according to the MSC’s eulogy, that he “emigrated to join the mujahideen in Afghanistan.” He traveled to the UK, but “was captured” and imprisoned. While behind bars, Akar met Abu Qatada al Filistini, a notorious ideologue who has been connected to al Qaeda since before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The MSC says Akar was “very close to” Abu Qatada.
On his own Twitter account, Abu Qatada, who lived in the UK for years before being deported to Jordan, mourned the loss of his friend. Abu Qatada is one of the most well-known jihadist critics of the Islamic State and its supporters. And in his tweets concerning Akar’s death, Abu Qatada did not hold back, blaming “extremists” for the slaying.
Initial reports indicate that Akar was killed first, and Derbi then perished in the subsequent fighting.
Derbi is a veteran member of the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which opposed Muammar Qaddafi’s regime for years.
After the uprisings against Qaddafi began in 2011, Derbi co-founded the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB).
Under Derbi’s leadership, the ASMB and MSC have opposed the Islamic State’s expansion in Derna. This opposition is likely rooted in the groups’ ties to al Qaeda. The Libyan publication Al Wasat describes the MSC as “close to al Qaeda.” And in July 2014, Al Arabi al Jadid, a London-based publication, described the ASMB as the Libyan militia “closest to Al Nusrah Front,” which is an official branch of al Qaeda. The Al Nusrah Front is the Islamic State’s staunch rival in Syria.
The ASMB’s (and therefore the MSC’s) ties to al Qaeda’s network could also be seen in an episode that occurred last year. A group called the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC) in Derna announced its allegiance to the Islamic State’s emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and almost immediately began causing trouble for Derbi and his men.
In particular, Baghdadi’s supporters objected to the ASMB’s decision to grant protection to a Libyan politician. The Islamic State’s youth group in Derna argued that dealing with politicians violated the jihadists’ strict interpretation of sharia law.
The ASMB reached out to Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi for a ruling on the dispute. This was a thumb in the eye of the Islamic State’s supporters in Derna, as Maqdisi is a prolific critic of Baghdadi’s organization. Maqdisi has frequently partnered with the aforementioned Abu Qatada to rebut the Islamic State’s theological arguments. Maqdisi has also defended Ayman al Zawahiri, and even admitted that he has been in touch with the al Qaeda emir.
Maqdisi ruled that the ASMB should abide by its agreement to protect the Libyan politician. The decision was, in effect, a rejection of the Islamic State’s claim to authority.
A screen shot of an image posted on the ASMB’s Twitter feed, which recorded Maqdisi’s ruling in the matter, can be seen on the right.
DIA analyses connect Zawahiri’s man to Akar
Two reports authored by the DIA in September and October of 2012 connect the ASMB and Akar to Abdulbasit Azzouz, who served as Zawahiri’s chief representative in Libya at the time. Judicial Watch first obtained the DIA analyses and released them in May of this year.
In September 2012, the DIA fingered Azzouz as both the head of a group called the Brigades of the Captive Omar Abdul Rahman, which has claimed responsibility for attacks on Western targets in Libya, and as a “member” of the ASMB. The analysis pointed to significant overlap between various groups in Libya, including ASMB and Ansar al Sharia, saying that they shared common training facilities established by Azzouz. The report also noted that Azzouz had been sent to Libya by Zawahiri to “set up” al Qaeda bases. This fact has been subsequently confirmed by other sources, including the US State Department.
A separate DIA analysis published in October 2012 contains considerable detail on various jihadist actors inside Libya. The analysis also directly connects Azzouz to Akar.
According to the report’s authors, Akar had assumed control of the Al Noor Battalion in Derna. And Azzouz had filled in as deputy head of the battalion. (Some jihadists on social media referred to Akar as the head of Al Noor upon learning of his death.)
After a shake up in the leadership in Derna, Azzouz reportedly assumed a more influential role, becoming the “real mover and shifter.” The DIA described Azzouz as the “military commander” of the jihadists in the area. “Most of the jihadists in the [nearby] mountains are from” the ASMB, with a “small number” from Ansar al Sharia. Both ASMB and Ansar al Sharia “work for and receive orders from” Azzouz, the DIA reported.
The DIA analysis goes on to describe Azzouz as being from “one of the most famous families in Derna,” and as being known for his “courageous,” or “reckless,” decisions. The DIA also concluded that Azzouz had “established a secret militia” to “perform” jihadist activities “according to the request of AQ command back in Pakistan/Afghanistan.” The DIA blamed this “secret” al Qaeda group for a string of attacks, including the Sept. 11, 2012 assault on the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi.
A separate paragraph of the DIA’s October 2012 report deals with Akar, whose name is spelled as “Naser El-Eker.”
Akar’s group was “responsible for protecting and securing the western part of” Derna, but “more importantly [Akar’s] group is being assigned assassination tasks within the city which targeted a number of anti-Islamists, former regime elements, and others…considered as infidels.”
As of September 2012, the DIA attributed “72 attacks” to Akar and his men.
It is not publicly known how much of the intelligence in the DIA’s assessments made it into the US intelligence community’s final analytic products. Both DIA analyses are labeled “Information Report, Not Finally Evaluated Intelligence.” Some of the details in the reports (for example, Azzouz’s role in Libya on behalf Zawahiri) are known to be true from other sources. But other details cannot be independently verified.
Azzouz was reportedly captured in Turkey in November 2014 and then turned over to Jordanian custody. Press reports at the time of his capture fingered Azzouz as a suspect in the September 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi. Interestingly, the DIA’s analyses from two years earlier similarly asserted that Azzouz had a role in the raids on the US Mission and Annex, which left four Americans dead.
Another prominent jihadist discussed in the 2012 DIA assessments is an ex-Guantanamo detainee named Sufian Ben Qumu, who is a known al Qaeda veteran. Ben Qumu and his men belong to the MSC in Derna. Some of Ben Qumu’s fighters took part in the 9/11/12 Benghazi attack as well. [For more on Ben Qumu, see LWJ reports: Ex-Gitmo detainee training Libyan rebels in Derna, Ex-Gitmo detainee reportedly tied to consulate attack, Al Qaeda’s plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report, Ex-Guantanamo detainee remains suspect in Benghazi attack and State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders.]
The ASMB, MSC and Ansar al Sharia
There is another connection between the MSC and al Qaeda’s network. The MSC was modeled after the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), which is led by the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia Libya.
The MSC’s founding statement, which was published on the group’s official Twitter feed in December 2014, noted that everyone has witnessed the events in Benghazi, where General Haftar’s forces have supposedly demolished houses and burned mosques. The new group said it would stand up to Haftar’s fighters in Derna, just as the BRSC has in Benghazi.
Ansar al Sharia Libya played a leading role in establishing the BRSC. Ansar al Sharia’s first emir, Mohammed al Zahawi, was an al Qaeda loyalist and had personally met with Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Ansar al Sharia’s ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahreb (AQIM), an official branch of al Qaeda, have been recognized by the United Nations. AQIM has, among other things, supported Ansar al Sharia’s suicide operations.
There have been occasional reports of clashes between the ASMB’s jihadists and Ansar al Sharia. But in June 2014, the ASMB released a statement denying that its members had fought Ansar al Sharia’s members. The ASMB referred to Ansar al Sharia’s men as its “brothers.”
In a video published online on Dec. 12, 2014, Derbi announced the formation of the MSC in Derna. Derbi stressed that the alliance was focused on fighting General Haftar’s forces and not the people of Derna. He explicitly connected the MSC to the Ansar al Sharia-led BRSC.
“Oh, you who are the valiant members of Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, we fight alongside you against Haftar and his soldiers, and you will see our acts that will please you and make you happy,” Derbi said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. “Moreover, we will not harm you, God willing.” Derbi called on the people of Benghazi to be patient, promising that they would persevere in the face of Haftar’s forces.
The BRSC and MSC share similar branding in their propaganda. And other shura councils have popped up elsewhere in Libya.
Ben Qumu, whose forces have, at a minimum, fought alongside the MSC, has also been identified as the head of Ansar al Sharia in Derna. Like Ansar al Sharia’s branch in Benghazi, Ben Qumu’s group in Derna has been “associated” with, and “linked to” AQIM.
Reactions to Islamic State’s assassination
The Islamic State’s assassination of Nasir Atiyah al Akar has set off a new round conflict in Libya. And the reactions to Akar’s death reveal much about the dynamics within the country. Protesters took to the streets in Derna to protest the Islamic State’s actions.
The MSC in Derna immediately declared jihad against the Islamic State’s followers. In one statement, the MSC warned citizens to stay away gatherings organized by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s supporters. In another, issued earlier today, the MSC claimed to have captured a neighborhood of Derna from Baghdadi’s men.
As the MSC goes to war with the Islamic State’s so-called “province,” it can count on the backing of some prominent Islamists and politicians. One of them is Abdulhakim Belhaj, himself a former a leader of the LIFG, which Derbi also belonged to.
A Twitter feed attributed to Belhaj, who is a prominent politician, posted two tweets mourning the deaths of Akar and Derbi. One of the tweets included a picture of Belhaj with Akar. The picture can be seen on the right, with Belhaj in the middle and Akar on the reader’s right.
Some have tried to portray Belhaj as a reformed jihadist, because of his participation in politics. In fact, the Islamic State’s eight edition of Dabiq, an English-language magazine, even criticized Belhaj for engaging in the political process. But Belhaj’s ongoing relationship with men such as Akar and Derby is sure to generate additional scrutiny.
The General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s democratically-elected parliament until mid-2014, has also issued a statement mourning the loss of Derby and Akar. The GNC is aligned with various Islamist parties in Libya.
Recent events in Derna, therefore, make it all the more clear that the Islamic State’s “province” is attempting to take on several opponents at once in Libya — just as the mother organization has done in Iraq and Syria.