ISIS’ May 4 attack on a Libyan National Army (LNA) outpost in southern Libya killed nine and briefly captured the world’s attention, if only to signal that ISIS is very much still around and has recently gained strength in Africa.
But the target of the attack, the army of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, maintains a complicated relationship with extremist Salafist ideologies like the one ISIS espouses. Haftar is now the target of ISIS, but at one point he appeared to be helping them survive an onslaught against them.
Haftar himself is often billed as the country’s preeminent anti-extremist, capable of purging militant Islamism from the country’s troubled deserts. On the ground however, his strategic relationship with an emergent group of Salafists, called Madkhalists, threatens to cement a hard-lined, Saudi-styled extremism in the political and cultural fabric of Libya.
Madkhalists fill the ranks of the LNA, constituting some of the army’s most zealous fighters. They also form a formidable portion of the LNA’s local outreach: Madkhalist imams are leading old mosques in Libya’s LNA-controlled east and building new ones.
The rise of Haftar’s LNA is becoming synonymous with the rise of Salafist Madkhalism inside Libya.
Haftar, the Anti-Extremist Incubator of Extremists
Forces loyal to Haftar’s LNA (AFP/FILE)
To international observers, a defining feature of Libya’s political landscape is that it is marred by insatiable chaos and a range of nefarious actors keen on sabotaging any sense of stability. Even if this perspective is mistaken, Haftar opportunistically sold his power-grab to the east as a cure for Libya’s chaos, billing his army as the only anti-extremist agent capable of restoring order to the war-torn country.
The LNA’s most public offensives involved ousting various extremist groups and ISIS cells from Libyan towns, and won him the praise of the international community, even if many powerful players still officially backed the GNA, based in Tripoli.
“If I’m an agent, I’m an agent for the Libyan people only," Haftar said in a radio interview in 2014, when he emerged as a prominent national force. In the same year, he launched an indefinite operation marketed to be against Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups: he called it Operation Dignity. Its latest target is the heart of GNA-controlled territory, Tripoli, though Haftar’s forces appear bogged down on the southern outskirts of the city.
The LNA has justified the assault by saying the GNA harbors Muslim Brotherhood members and is actively helping terror cells around the country.
Haftar’s PR has even won him favor with U.S. President Donald Trump, who recently praised his purported efforts to undermine extremism even as the U.S. still formally backs the GNA. A White House spokesperson described a phone call between Trump and Haftar as one “"to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” virtually mirroring Haftar’s own propaganda.
In this context, ISIS’ attack on a LNA outpost in southern Libya is simultaneously a tactical loss and a marketing boon, as it confirms the Haftar is indeed fighting extremists and having to pay the consequences for that struggle.
But Haftar’s past treatment of ISIS complicates this narrative. Though his forces had laid siege to ISIS-controlled towns, he also reportedly gave some of its fighters safe passage from Derna to Sirte.
When ISIS was surrounded in Derna, Haftar’s forces allowed them to escape the city and traverse hundreds of kilometers through LNA-controlled territory, representatives from the Derna Shura Council alleged.
Disregarding the LNA’s encounters with ISIS, Haftar’s militia maintains a more consistent relationship with another hard-lined group of Salafists, the Madkhalists.
The Madkhalist Element of the LNA
LNA troops during a training exercise (AFP/FILE)
Madkhalism is a little-known strain of Salafism originated by Rabee al-Madkhali, an ultra-conservative Saudi cleric currently living inside Medina, Saudi Arabia. Madkhalists reject multiculturalism and tribalism in favor of a fundamentalism reading of Islam. Many, if not most Madkhalis in Libya are 20-30 year old males.
Because Rabee al-Madkhali is still alive, adherents to Madkhalism closely follow his fatwas, or Islamic jurisprudential decrees. Lately, many have revolved around backing Haftar and the LNA. In 2016, al-Madkhali released a fatwa declaring his support for Haftar and the warlord’s ongoing mission to purge Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom al-Madkhali described to be “more dangerous to the Salafis than the Jews and the Christians.”
As nascent Madkhali elements came to join Haftar’s LNA in fighting across Libya, Haftar rushed to formally integrate them into the LNA. Shortly after al-Madkhali’s fatwa, Haftar dissolved a Madkhali militia and had his 210st Ingrant regiment and 302nd Sa’iqa Special Forces absorb the Madkhali members. The move to integrate Madkhalists into his ranks may have been an attempt to minimize their presence, but it appears to be cementing it in insidious ways.
While Haftar was seeking to play-up his credentials as an anti-extremist, he was quietly relying on Madkhali fighters, who were often described as his “most dogged fighters,” that formed that “backbone” of his offensives, according to interviews with eastern Libyan residents.
They were “Haft’s shock troops.”
A former adviser to Haftar said, “It was the Madkhalis who carried out the real fight for Haftar. They suffered huge casualties.”
Madkhalis are also reportedly involved in spearheading his assault against Tripoli, for which they are likely suffering some of the greatest losses, since the assault has stalled for several weeks.
Beyond Haftar’s military reliance on Madkhalist fighters, he has also shown a penchant to give them cultural and religious authority in the territory he controls.
Madkhalist imams have begun preaching at mosques in Libya’s eastern, LNA-controlled cities, and are currently building a new series of Madkhalist mosques. Madkhalist ideology prevents women from traveling without a male guardian, and have explicitly banned public assemblies or demonstrations as a form of “Western evil.”
This elevated position has given Madkhalists the ability to issue fatwas that have a real impact on the daily life of Libyans under their control.
They have taken advantage of decentralized and fragile local orders by imposing themselves on populations as “morality police,” confiscating contraband books and other times they denounce as un-Islamic.
While some inside Libya have welcome the rare order Madkhalists bring, others decry their rule as overly authoritarian. A resident of the Libyan city of Benghazi, which is under the influence of Madkhalists to some degree, said “we supported Haftar to get rid of Ansar [al-Sharia] and now we see these people empowered as a result. They are armed, they are hardline Salafi and they are trying to force their ideas on us. What is the difference between the two?”
Strangely enough, Madkhalists also enjoy support in the U.N.-backed GNA government as well. Key Madkhalist imams have been appointed to key religious positions inside the government, where they are responsible for interpreting and administering Sharia law.
Madkhalists have taken advantage of the political disorder the Libyan Civil War of 2011 wrought, and have since solidified their positions in both the LNA and GNA.
They are a resilient group that knows how to opportunistically climb into positions of authority and stay there.
Their presence should be registered not only against the claim that Haftar is an anti-extremist, but within the changing cultural and political dynamics of Libya, within which they are planting themselves and from which they are gaining power.
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