Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Libya

Libya’s connections to al-Qaida and global Salafi-jihadi networks stem from the so-called Libyan ‘Afghan Arabs’ who travelled to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, in many cases fighting for, or alongside, al-Qaida and its founders.

These connections were renewed across subsequent generations and many of the powerful revolutionary militias that formed during the 2011 uprisings against the regime of Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi (1969 – 2011) had strong links to global jihadi networks in general and al-Qaida specifically.

Libya’s eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi had strong links to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Iraqi Sunni al-Qaeda affiliate founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999, which later evolved into ISIS under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s leadership in 2013. Both cities had been associated with key Islamist movements aimed at regime change in eastern Libya and faced radicalizing persecution as a result during the 1990s.

Groups with links to al-Qaida such as Ansar al-Sharia Libya (ASL) were able to take advantage of the insecurity, instability and lack of governance that has plagued Libya since the country split into several competing factions in the summer of 2014 and were able to establish jihadi statelets in several locations. However, it is important to note that there is little evidence that the leader or deputies within the central al-Qaida command structures directly control the activities of ASL or any other al-Qaida-linked group in Libya. Rather, ASL is linked to al-Qaida, in particular al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), through a loose network of shared ideology, training camps, support structures, and personal connections, with each entity lacking the power to compel the other.

As of March 2021, the UN designated AQIM as dormant in Libya, although cells still exist in, for example, Sabratah. On 5 June, French forces killed the Emir of AQIM, Abdul Malek Droukdal, in northern Mali and on 28 November 2020, the 116th Tarek Ibn Ziyad battalion arrested seven members of an AQIM cell in Awbari, including AQIM Commander, Hassan Al-Wash.

For more information on how al-Qaida-linked groups exploited Libya’s local dynamics, read our report Al-Qaida’s Strategy in Libya: Keep it Local, Stupid