The latest edition of the Islamic State’s English-language Dabiq magazine, which was released online on September 9, contains the usual litany of horrors. Two men, Norwegian and Chinese nationals, are offered for sale as slaves. The group proudly advertises the destruction of ancient archaeological sites in the Syrian city of Palmyra. The September 11, 2001 hijackings are celebrated as the “blessed operations.” Child soldiers are glorified as “lion cubs” of the “caliphate.” And on it goes.
But look behind the usual gore and there are some details that are useful for understanding the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda-affiliated groups and other Islamists, especially in Libya.
Dabiq features an interview with Abul Mughirah al Qahtani, who is publicly identified for the first time as the “delegated leader” of the Islamic State’s Libyan “province.”
Qahtani surveys the Islamic State’s current operations in Libya, demonstrating that the “caliphate’s” representatives are fighting just about anyone who disagrees with them. The same is true, of course, for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s mother organization in Iraq and Syria.
Whereas al Qaeda and like-minded jihadist organizations are attempting to build more popular support for their cause, modeling their operations after successful bottom-up insurgents of the past, the Islamic State’s strategy is totalitarian even with respect to its ideological cousins. Thus, anyone who does not fall in line and pledge allegiance to the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the supposed “Emir of the Believers,” is deemed a foe.
Several organizations, in particular, draw Qahtani’s ire. They are: Ansar al Sharia, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade (ASMB), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and the Libyan Dawn coalition.
Ansar al Sharia is an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that became notorious for its role in the September 11, 2012 attacks on the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi. The ASMB, which is based in Derna, is a jihadist organization that is also allied with al Qaeda and has been engaged in heavy fighting against the Islamic State. The LIFG waged jihad against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime during the 1990s, but some of the group’s key leaders fled for Afghanistan, where they mixed and mingled with al Qaeda. A number of LIFG members were imprisoned by Qaddafi’s government, only to be released during and after the Libyan uprisings. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership viewed their release as a boon for its efforts in the country. The Libyan Dawn (“Fajr Libya”) is an alliance of Islamist groups that is, in turn, aligned with one of Libya’s two rival governments.
Qahtani confirms The Long War Journal’s analysis of Ansar al Sharia. While the Islamic State has successfully poached some of the organization’s members, including a high-profile sharia official, Ansar al Sharia’s senior leadership refuses to fall in line with the Islamic State’s exclusionary demands.
“Many of the leaders and soldiers of [Ansar al Sharia] were from the first to pledge [bayat] in Libya to the Islamic State,” Qahtani says. And Ansar al Sharia “continues to have men who wish to implement” sharia law in the manner advocated by the Islamic State, Qahtani claims. But the group supposedly prefers “division to unity,” which has been made “most clear in its lack of a [bayat] to the [caliphate] and in its unity with ‘revolutionary’ movements linked to the apostate regime of Tarābulus [Tripoli] in some regions, as well as its acceptance in other regions of suspicious aid from filthy hands.”
As Qahtani indicates, the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia does not seek to alienate other Islamist and jihadist groups in Libya in the same manner as the Islamic State. The organization prefers to embed itself within the “revolutionary” milieu.
Qahtani also blames the “closeness” of some of Ansar al Sharia’s “leaders” with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official branch of al Qaeda, for its supposedly “contradictory stances.” Qahtani notes that AQIM is “present in Libya.” Multiple other sources, including the United Nations Security Council, have confirmed that AQIM supports Ansar al Sharia’s operations.
The Islamic State’s main man in Libya also blasts the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in Derna, describing it as a joint venture between the ASMB and LIFG. In June, the Islamic State targeted the MSC’s leadership in Derna, sparking a jihadist feud. The Islamic State suffered significant losses in the weeks that followed and was pushed out of some of its strongholds in the eastern Libyan city. Qahtani confirms that the Islamic State “withdrew from the city center of Derna in the beginning of the battle and made the eastern entrance to the city (the area of al-Fatā’ih) a launch ground for its operations.” Since then, the MSC has announced the “Battle of Nahrawan,” targeting the Islamic State’s forces in that eastern area. Qahtani claims that his men “retook areas of the eastern coast side of Derna” in the “last few days.”
Qahtani argues that the problems in Derna began when the ASMB deviated from the true path by, among other things, providing security for Mustafa Abdul Jalil, then the chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council, “when he visited [Derna] and called to democracy.” Indeed, the ASMB referred the controversy over Jalil’s visit to Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, a jihadist ideologue allied with al Qaeda who is also a staunch critic of the Islamic State. Maqdisi ruled that it was permissible for the ASMB to ensure Jalil’s safety given the circumstances.
After the Islamic State announced its official expansion into Derna, Qahtani says, the “caliphate’s” court “ruled” that the ASMB had “committed apostasy and called its individuals to repentance.” But a “number of” the ASMB’s “followers and leaders repented whereas the remaining gathered together with the [LIFG] to form what they called” the MSC. (Although Qahtani doesn’t say it, AQIM has openly backed the MSC in its fight against the “caliphate’s” soldiers.)
Qahtani and Dabiq’s editors are especially critical of the LIFG, which they allege has fallen into disbelief “due to its participation in the Tarābulus [Tripoli] government and the democratic process under the leadership of Abdelhakim Belhadj.” The Islamic State’s animosity for Belhadj has been made clear in the past, including in other editions of Dabiq.
Belhadj is one of the LIFG’s historical leaders. His actions have been controversial in jihadist circles because he decided to play the political game in Libya after Muammar al Qaddafi’s fall from power. This is completely rejected by the Islamic State, which eschews anything remotely resembling elective politics, even if Libya’s dysfunctional political system is a far cry from Western-style democracy.
Qahtani inveighs against the “Libyan Dawn” Islamist coalition, which he describes as the “military wing” of the General National Congress’s (GNC) “democratic government.” He says the GNC is “represented” by the Muslim Brotherhood and the LIFG, with Belhadj as the former’s leader.
“These apostate forces wage war against Allah’s religion by abandoning the sharia laws and replacing them with manmade laws in addition to waging war against the people of tawhīd [the oneness of God], dragging them to prisons, and handing them over to the crusaders,” Qahtani says. It is for these reasons that the Islamic State “rose to repel their attacks against the Muslims and to implement the sharia, spread justice, and save the prisoners from harm.”
A separate article in Dabiq lists jihadists around the globe who have supposedly abandoned their beliefs by working in national governments. A whole paragraph is devoted to the LIFG leaders, including Belhadj, who went from fighting Qaddafi to taking part in Libya’s political process.
Former members of the LIFG, “whose leadership was based in Afghanistan before September 11th and whose fighters executed numerous operations in Libya against” Qaddafi and “his apostate regime,” have now joined a Libyan parliament, the Islamic State complains. “Many of these leaders had once accompanied Sheikh Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.” But now men such as Belhadj are “murtadd,” or apostates who have turned their back on Islam. A photo of Belhadj with a derogatory caption inserted by Dabiq’s editors can be seen on the right.
The “caliphate’s” propaganda consistently describes its jihadist and Islamist opposition as belonging to the “sahwat,” or awakenings. For instance, the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, has described the MSC as being part of the awakenings, which received crucial assistance from the US during the fight against the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Qahtani repeats this allegation in Dabiq. Contrary to Islamic State’s claims, however, the MSC and other Islamists in Libya hardly belong to any “sahwat” effort.
Regardless, Qahtani says the Islamic State’s opposition in Libya “will continue to be a target for our swords, which we will not hold back until they repent.”