Veteran jihadists killed by Islamic State’s ‘province’ in Derna, Libya

Libyan-jihadists

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.

Veteran jihadists

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.

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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.

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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.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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10 Comments

  • Oberron says:

    Well we can at least rest assured IS views Pool Parties as Haram and won’t pool party at our Embassy Annex. They’ll just loot the moveable stuff and blow it up.

    Well, Libya was always a fake country like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and well just about every nation in the Middle East and Africa.

    Thanks a lot Winston Churchill and San Remo Conference.

    Nation States in the Middle East and Africa are a failed and discredited concept to the people living there. We’re wasting our time trying to fix Winston Churchill’s dickery.

    Let them fight it out and settle it. Let everyone there reap what they sowed and disassociate ourselves from it. We can’t solve it and all we’re doing is strengthening our potential enemies or propping up backstabbing allies who are no real friends of ours.

    Space is America’s destiny, lets spend our money there, better in the long run than waging perpetual war that bankrupts us.

    • Adrian says:

      I couldn’t agree more! To space and leave the chaotic Middle-East!

      • Jake says:

        I agree too. Get out of the Middle East. It’s a money pit of life and treasure for us. Let them redraw their borders and governments as they see fit. Quit trying to fix past mistakes. Learn our lesson, and focus on strengthening our own country and allies for the future. Approximately 9 million dollars a day and thousands of lives and limbs spent on war and nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003-2011, and both countries are still on the brink of collapse. It’s not going to magically get any better if we just put our heads down and keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing.

    • David Ryan says:

      Well said! I would be ecstatic to see such a course of action.

  • mike merlo says:

    good information, news & quite revealing. Its interesting to read how these conflict zones/areas in Sahara/Mediterranean Africa & the Middle East degenerate into Jihadi/Mujahideen vs Jihadi/Mujahideen much in the same way Afghanistan following the evacuation of the Soviet Union succumbed to the same fate

  • Deej says:

    This idea of, “Let them fight it out, it isn’t our business.”, fails to note that this war is being fought within cities. Many people have been forced to leave their homes, children have been killed while at home and in parks, many people are in such economic difficulties that it is impossible for them to leave home to get away from the Both sides in this conflict are employing untrained young men using substandard weapons. The cost to civilians is incredibly high.
    Most people in Libya want nothing to do with this war. As a matter of fact, after over 40 years of living in fear, they want nothing more than a normal life. For everyone who thinks the lives of Libyan people, Libyan children are worth less because they were born in a country that few had ever heard of, I offer my mother’s words, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

    • Jake says:

      It is a humanitarian crisis like you say, but you’re assuming we can fix it. The West can’t bring lasting security to the region because we’ll always be viewed as outsiders. A fact that will be heavily harped on by a resistance movement’s propaganda arm to great effect, aside from the difficulties in understanding their culture. History has shown that foreign intervention-even if it’s mostly positive- is met with skepticism by many in the host country. This is easily exploited to help recruitment for resistance movements. All of those people you claim “want nothing more than a normal life” need to band together and fight for it themselves, or else they’re never going to achieve it. The West can’t win it for them, and our intervention only seems to prolong conflicts.

    • David Ryan says:

      @Deej, I appreciate the sentiment, but there is a difference between saying that these issues need to work themselves out for there to be lasting peace and we should turn our backs on our “neighbors.”

      In the first idea I would say that the “fake” political structures mentioned above in part cause these problems, and so must go to create stability that will allow peace. They will not give up power easily, and so must be fought. That is not our fight, but the people who think it is worth the long-term gain. If they do not, then they should live peaceably and quietly under that political structure.

      The second idea is, to your point, about our basic human calling to care for each other. This is a human calling, not a governmental one. I would encourage people broadly to support the innocents in these region through aid and support. I would not, however, like to see the government doing it. Not only is it against my non-interventionist principles, but I think that it cause more harm than good as it opens new possibilities for corruption, incompetence, and the US being made a scapegoat in a region it is trying to help.

    • irebukeu says:

      ‘Let them fight this out, it isn’t our business’ Is exactly what I think. At first I thought you were talking about Americans. The children of soldiers deployed to Iraq. From bad grades to increased abuse, depression and anxiety, economic difficulties all sound familiar from the 2003-2008 Iraq war.
      The cost to civilians in always high in war. It is why war should be avoided if possible, should be a last resort rather than a first course of action.
      It might be fair to mention that most Americans want nothing to do with this Libyan war, were never consulted as to what should be American policy, know that they and their children will pay the financial price for all of it including now the added burden of internal theft and corruption of the Libyan system. (We have already seen-paid for the Iraqi and Afghan system). These Americans want nothing more than a normal life.
      18 trillion in debt. Lets fix our house.

      Are Libyan lives worth more than an American life or european life? Its a fair question and the answer really depends on perspective and context but I will answer the question as best I can. No. A life is a life and an American life is equal to any other life in principle.
      Now having said that I would ask the question back (and answer for myself). IS EVERY LIFE WORTH DEFENDING?
      The answer for me is NO. This is why we have borders and elections. Everything inside the border is worth defending. Everything outside the border is open to debate.

  • Analyst says:

    “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.”

    This proves the validity of the Islamic State’s policy decisions.

    The Islamic State fares a war against nationalism and democracy. Obviously, the group formerly known as “Al Qaida” follows a nationalist-pseudodemocratic agenda as of today.

    The Caliphate, however, does not compromise in such issues.

    2015’s “Al Qaida” does not have any realistic aim, they lack a real purpose except “making Jihad”.

Iraq

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