A top Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) leader was reported to have been killed in an ambush by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s forces earlier this month. The LIFG leader, known as Urwah, was detained in Iran in 2004 but allowed to return to Libya to participate in the fighting against Qaddafi’s regime earlier this year.
Urwah was actually released from Iranian custody in late 2010, according to Al Hayah, a Saudi-owned publication based in London, but was allowed to stay in Iran “for a period of time after his release until he was able to arrange his travel back to Libya.” A former senior member of the LIFG told Al Hayah in 2007 that Urwah was one of several influential leaders within the LIFG.
The reporting on Urwah’s demise does not specify what sort of detention the Iranians placed him in prior to his return to Libya, or if he had been allowed to meet with other al Qaeda and LIFG operatives inside Iran.
Iran, al Qaeda, and the LIFG
Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda and affiliated organizations is more complicated than most reporting lets on. Although Iran does crack down on small-time al Qaeda operatives from time to time, it rarely deports them to their home countries. And while some operatives are detained, others are allowed to operate.
Moreover, high-ranking al Qaeda operatives have been kept in a loose form of house arrest in Iran and allowed a degree of operational freedom. “House arrest is a good cover for holding meetings,” one senior US intelligence official recently told The Long War Journal.
Senior al Qaeda terrorists have also made their way back from Iran to multiple jihadist theaters in recent years, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Libya. [See LWJ report, Osama bin Laden’s spokesman freed by Iran.]
During a Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, General Petraeus discussed the al Qaeda network operating inside Iran. Al Qaeda “continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates,” Petraeus explained. “And although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehran’s policy in this regard is often unpredictable.”
The LIFG’s network inside Iran fits this description well. Although Urwah was reportedly “arrested” by Iranian authorities, he was allowed to leave when a good opportunity to participate in jihad against Qaddafi arose.
And while some LIFG operatives have reportedly been detained by Iranian authorities, others have repeatedly used Iranian soil to conduct their business. The US Treasury Department has pointed to LIFG members operating on Iranian soil, with some of them being detained at times, in a series of designations.
In February 2006, the Treasury Department designated Mohammed Benhammadi for being a “key financier for the LIFG” and also a member of the LIFG’s economic committee. In early 2002, Benhammedi had been detained by “Iranian officials when he attempted to illegally enter Iran from Afghanistan.” But that same year, according to the UN’s sanctions committee, Benhammadi “may have sent more than USD 100,000 from Iran to the United Kingdom in his capacity as an LIFG financier.”
The Iranians did not keep Benhammadi in custody. Instead, he was reportedly allowed to make his way to the UK, and as of late 2010 he was wanted by Interpol.
In June 2007, the US Treasury Department designated Nur al Din al Dibiski as an al Qaeda terrorist. Dibiski “traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1990s, where he joined al Qaeda and received military training in al Qaeda’s camps,” Treasury explained. Dibiski “is believed to be a senior member of the LIFG and a member of that terrorist group’s military committee.” As of August 2005, Dibiski “was identified as a member of the LIFG in Iran.”
In June 2008, the Treasury Department designated Adil Muhammad Mahmud Abd al Khaliq for providing “financial, material, and logistical support to al Qaeda and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” Treasury noted that in 2004 Khaliq “was recruited by al Qaeda to access sources of funding and to procure reliable equipment to expand al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan – ultimately to carry out larger attacks there.”
In addition to training in northern Pakistan, Khaliq “traveled to Iran five times on behalf of al Qaeda and the LIFG for his facilitation duties” between 2004 and 2007. “During each of these trips,” Treasury reported, “he met with senior al Qaeda facilitators.” Khaliq provided al Qaeda and the LIFG “with electrical parts used in explosives, laptop computers, jackets, GPS devices, and other equipment,” as well as “arranged the transportation of fighters, money, and material to LIFG camps in Pakistan.”
Khaliq was arrested in the UAE in 2007 and convicted of terrorism charges. In 2008, Khaliq was transferred to his native Bahrain to serve out the rest of his sentence.