Libya’s Islamists and Their Qatari Backers Under the Gun

"Libyan National Army" commander Khalifa Haftar

by Giorgio Cafiero and Dr. Theodore Karasik

Six years ago, Qatar’s “pro-Arab Spring” foreign policy helped shape Libyan history. As a member of the NATO-led military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, Qatar attacked the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’s targets with its air force, deployed hundreds of forces to strengthen rebels, and ferried in arms and humanitarian supplies to rebel-controlled bases in Eastern Libya. Financially, Doha guaranteed NATO that it would bankroll operations against Qaddafi’s forces if the conflict were to continue. Politically, the symbolism of having an Arab/Muslim state fully behind the campaign decreased the Obama administration’s concerns about Libyans seeing the military intervention as exclusively Western. Indeed, it was highly illustrative of Qatar’s extended influence in Libya when an Islamist rebel raised the Arabian emirate’s flag from the balcony of Gaddafi’s presidential complex in Tripoli in 2011.

However, Qatar’s reputation in post-Qaddafi Libya suffered considerably once a growing number of secular Libyans grew resentful toward Doha, viewing the Qataris as meddling in their country in order to empower Islamists, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2012/2013, street vendors in Benghazi stopped selling merchandise with the Qatari flag, and some Libyans burned the country’s flag in public.

In recent years, Qatar’s support for Islamists in Libya has also angered a host of Sunni Arab states, and was a contributing factor to the ongoing crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that erupted earlier this month when three Council members (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) plus Egypt and some other Arab/African governments severed diplomatic and economic ties with Doha. The UAE has waged a proxy war against Qatar in Libya. Since Libya’s ongoing civil war erupted in mid-2014, the UAE and Egypt have supported the Tobruk-based government, known as the House of Representatives (HoR), and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s HoR-aligned Libyan National Army (LNA), which is combatting Qatari-supported Islamist groups fighting under the internationally recognized Tripoli-based Government of Accord (GNA)’s umbrella of loosely aligned forces.

Currently, a tripartite axis—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—seeks to pressure Qatar into severing ties with Islamists in Libya while simultaneously increasing support for Haftar’s Operation Dignity. Emboldened by Trump’s speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit last month in Riyadh, the Egyptians, Emiratis, and Saudis aim to reverse the influence that Qatar has exerted in Libya. From Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh’s perspective, Libya’s “Arab Spring” dangerously shifted into an “Islamist Winter,” and Qatari involvement in the North African country was a root cause of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS or IS), and other Islamist actors’ ability to gain power and influence since 2011.


The LNA’s most important foreign military ally is Egypt. Cairo’s commitment to Haftar is on display as the Egyptian military strikes Shura Council of Revolutionaries in Derna (SCRD), a Salafist militia that emerged out of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (an armed jihadist group active against the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in the 1990s) and al-Bunyan al-Marsous, a coalition of militias loosely aligned with the GNA and mainly from Misrata.

From Cairo’s perspective, Haftar is the local actor most realistically capable of and committed to effectively fighting Islamist militias seeking to carve out their corners of power within post-2011 Libya. Egypt’s strikes in late May and early June signaled Cairo’s commitment to fighting Islamist militias, particularly those with a presence near Egyptian territory, even though some of the Islamists targeted by Egypt’s military played a crucial role in defeating IS in Sirte and Derna last year.

While still battling an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s military also faces a crisis on its western side and depends on Haftar’s forces to prevent violent Islamists from entering Egypt across its border with Libya. Since 2011, Egypt’s security forces have captured Libyan arms in the Sinai, underscoring the link between terrorist activity in both Egypt’s northeastern part of the peninsula along the borders of Gaza and Israel, and the country’s North African neighbor to the West. Eliminating such corridors of illicit supplies operated by extremists is an Egyptian security policy necessity that has largely contributed to Cairo’s strong support for the HoR/LNA.

UAE and Saudi Arabia

Since August 2014, Abu Dhabi has joined Cairo in the direct military intervention in Libya against Islamist forces. Last fall, the Emiratis established a forward-operating base within approximately 60 miles of Benghazi, operating light attack aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles from this military facility. On June 9, the UN’s Libya Sanctions Committee published a report exposing how Abu Dhabi has supplied the LNA with military aircraft including attack helicopters in violation of international sanctions. According to the findings, Belarus sold the UAE four helicopters in 2014 (which the UAE delivered to the LNA), Abu Dhabi “most probably” provided the LNA with drones, and in April 2016 the Emiratis shipped 93 armored personnel carriers to Tobruk.

Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy in Libya reflects the UAE’s concerns about Islamists shaping the Maghreb’s future. Emirati officials worry about Islamists, regardless of label and affiliation, using Libya as a launching pad for advancing their regional aims. There there has been a history of Muslim Brotherhood activism in the Gulf sheikhdoms, and the movement still has its supporters in the GCC. Since the 1990s, Abu Dhabi has seen the Muslim Brotherhood’s Emirati branch as a grave threat to the UAE royals’ legitimacy.

Although Saudi Arabia has not intervened militarily in Libya, the kingdom has played an important role in supporting Tobruk by seeking to legitimize Haftar’s Operation Dignity from an Islamic standpoint. In February, Osama Ataya Al-Otabi, a Saudi cleric with Palestinian roots, went to Eastern Libya to deliver sermons in various cities and towns in support of Haftar and the LNA’s operations. With backing from Riyadh, Haftar has sought to exploit Libya’s Salafist groups that oppose other Islamist factions (especially those which participate in “sinful” elections) in an effort to weaken the LNA’s enemies.

The “Riyadh Consensus” Supports Haftar

Given the extent to which Haftar and officials in Tobruk have pointed their finger at Qatar and accused the emirate of fueling instability across Libya, it came as no surprise that the HoR joined Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in severing relations with Doha. For the Tobruk-based government, the action against Qatar signaled growing support for the LNA. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Manama’s recently issued terrorist sanctions list of 71 Qatari-linked organizations/individuals contained one group, the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), and five individuals from Libya: Ali Salabi (a preacher and Muslim Brotherhood member), Abdel Hakim Belhaj (the chairman of Libya’s Watan Political Party and former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group member), Mahdi al-Harati (a Libyan-Irish national who joined the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade’s ranks in the 2011 revolution and was previously mayor of Tripoli), Ismaeel Mohammed Salabi (a BDB member), and Al-Sadiq Al-Gharyani (a mufti).

With Haftar’s continued refusal to recognize the GNA’s legitimacy and the LNA’s gains on the ground across central and southern Libya, many are expecting the “renegade general” to launch an invasion (or ‘liberation’ depending on one’s perspective) of Tripoli later this year. Unquestionably, given the staunch Islamist resistance to the LNA in parts of Western Libya, an extension of Operation Dignity to Tripoli would inevitably cause much bloodshed. Yet in light of the LNA’s regional backers taking action against Qatar and stepping up their support for Haftar’s agenda by targeting the BDB and certain Islamist figures opposed to Haftar, the field marshal may well begin his push for ousting what HoR officials consider Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda affiliates from power in the Libyan capital.

Theodore Karasik is the senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics. Photo: Khalifa Haftar

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.