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State of origin? Libyan stability versus global jihad

Libyan guards outside the Tripoli prison holding former Gaddafi era intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. EPA/Sabri Elmhedwi

In October Libya will officially celebrate its first anniversary of independence, though in fact it has been more than a year since Tripoli was overrun.

In the same month the West will mark 11 years of involvement in Afghanistan, the first step in the global War on Terror. And unfortunately for Libya, its chances of marking future birthdays may very much be dependent on the prosecution of the latter.

In Libya the challenge is to build on the shaky constitutional foundation while keeping a lid on the possibility of an Islamic insurgency. This is going to become increasingly difficult given the fact that radical Islamist groups are gathering strength across the region in a broad campaign of resistance that includes parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger and Chad. Being sucked into the vortex of such Salafist conflicts will be all too easy for a state that is still struggling to find an anchor point.

If you join the dots, fragile transitional democracies such as Libya and Tunisia are squarely in the zone of a violent ideology that spreads across two continents. There is a dogmatic affinity and element of co-operation between North African groups and the original al-Qaeda organisation and its Middle Eastern and Asian franchises, as well as al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

The key players for Libya are Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is mainly focused on deposing the Algerian regime, and Ansar Dine, which is now in control of half of Mali. The two groups have links with other regional Islamist and/or separatist movements, and in the case of AQIM, some of its members fought in the Libyan rebellion.

Like the proverbial tree roots finding a crack and splitting the rock, these ideologues find adherents in regional, ethnic, economic and sectarian discontent. By offering some sort of easy solution, they gather strength and erode the legitimacy of the government. In Libya, that means exploiting provincial rivalries between Benghazi and Tripoli, as well as mounting a campaign against Sufi Muslims.

In August, hardline Sunnis used heavy machinery to demolish a Sufi shrine right in the middle of Tripoli in broad daylight, without any apparent interference from authorities. This sort of action corresponds with Ansar Dine’s exploits in Mali, where Sufi sites in Timbuktu and elsewhere have been levelled. (In the worldview of al-Qaeda type groups, the Sufi practice of venerating saints, scholars and their tombs is idolatrous and heretical.) By exploiting such existing divisions, the radical Islamists destabilise the community and widen the “security gap”, causing a loss of legitimacy for the government and, potentially, an increasing spiral of violence, brigandry and population displacement.

A Sufi shrine in Libya being destroyed by Sunni fighters. EPA/Str

Overcoming a creeping Islamist influence is not only a challenge for any future Libyan government, but also for those other players who would like to see a stable and democratic state emerge from the wreckage of Gaddafi’s [Jamahiriya]( That includes Western powers who want to showcase a working example of an Arab democracy and establish steady access to the country’s natural resources.

But do we have the mind-set to deal with a challenge that is not really made in Libya?

Part of our inability to grapple with such predicaments is the Western focus on the nation state and how it should operate - Ruritania exists within this set of borders, has the ability to enforce them and has total political, economic and security control within them. Therefore if Ruritania is our friend, no enemies should originate from it.

This sort of logic breaks apart when we consider North Africa, a place where vast swathes of inhospitable terrain are demarcated only by imaginary lines and inhabited by some groups with an ancient culture of itinerancy. Even when there is a strong national government, it may be concentrated in the capital and exert only weak, or even no control at all over the provinces. So how do we deal with the fact that an armed group can easily slip across a border that we have no right to cross, or even operate from the territory of a friend?

Given the experience of Afghanistan, we don’t seem to cope very well.

State-centric thinking also translates into a tendency to place territorial aspirations onto insurgent groups. The Kurdish PKK wants this bit of territory, the Tamil Tigers want this bit and the IRA wants reunification with the Republic of Ireland. By thinking of this in terms of capturing or holding territory, which suits our own military tradition, we ignore the fact that Islamist insurgencies can be more about ideology than terrain.

Having a chunk of Yemen or Algeria is fine to use as a base, but if the organisation is really all about defeating the Great Satan or enforcing a particular interpretation of Islam, real estate is a flexible commodity.

Such global or regional ideologies also offer the possibility of co-operation amongst like minded-groups, further blurring the territorial assumptions. That an Indonesian can wander off to Yemen to work with Al-Qaeda or a Libyan can join an Islamist faction in the Syrian uprising challenges our Western imagining of nationalism and citizenship. The importance attached to sub-national identities across the Greater Middle East and Africa is also difficult for us to grasp.

The balancing act of helping or hindering any new Libyan leadership is a tricky one. Exerting too much obvious authority delegitimises the government, opening it up to accusations of being a Western puppet. Too little assistance and an insurgency can gain momentum; and history shows that putting such a genie back in the bottle is seldom possible.

A fighter stands guard over former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s car. What kinds of future does Libya face a year on? EPA/Mohamed Messara

For the West, accepting that Islam will have a place at all in the politics of Libya and its neighbours will be a tough pill to swallow, but supporting the moderates is the best hope for short and medium-term stability. Collaboration between the transitional states is also important, because regional co-operation is the only way to deal with regional threats.

Finally we have to get better at appreciating the inter-connectedness of these threats. That so many of us are not able to point to Mali on a map or are surprised to find that Timbuktu is a real place is an indictment on our pretensions to fight terrorism.

And such ignorance really removes the right for us to wail and gnash our teeth over Islamist insurgencies appearing in countries we apparently care more about.

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