The Role of Salafi Madkhalis in Libya’s Civil War
The conflict in Libya has created over 200,000 internally displaced people, 43,000 refugees, and wealth inequality that’s taking a toll on the middle-class. There are currently three rival centers of power in Libya: the Presidency Council in Tripoli, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj; the Government of National Salvation, headed by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell; and a group of authorities based in Tobruk and Bayda. Various local players also contribute to the conflict, including armed groups, city-states, and tribes.
Another element of the conflict comes from Saudi-backed Salafis. This particular group of Salafis, called the Madkhalis, follow the Saudi Salafist scholar Rabee al-Madkhali, and believe that the person or group in power must be obeyed, regardless of unjustified violence used against the leader’s subjects. Muammar Qaddafi initially invited the Madkhalis into Libya to counteract the Salafi-Jihadism of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that was attempting to overthrow him in the 1990s.
One group of Madkhalis now help to maintain the power of Qaddafi’s former ally, Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army in Tobruk and Bayda. But another Madkhalis group forms part of the security forces of the al-Sarraj’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. State-affiliated armed groups, many of which subscribe to Salafi-Madkhali ideology, are increasingly taking charge of the security sector in Libya. A worker at the Mitiga Airport in Tripoli claimed that the Madkhali “control the prisons and the security forces” and “accuse [people] of being a terrorist or….trafficker.”
A UN report on Libya noted that certain segments of the Libyan population seem to be particularly targeted by Madkhali ideology, such as internally displaced people from Benghazi and families with members belonging to revolutionary or Islamist armed groups or Sufi followers; the Salafis oppose Sufism on the grounds that it promotes the idea of an intermediary between man and God.
Madkhali military control is enabling the group to gain a foothold in other aspects of Libyans’ lives. The Madkhalis recently began broadcasting live lectures on Facebook, and one recent broadcast featured twelve Saudi sheikhs compared to only four Libyan sheikhs. Furthermore, the Madkhalis are restricting access to certain types of literature, particularly Shia Islam, Christianity, or witchcraft related-novels. Haftar, under the influence of the Madkhalis, issued a decree prohibiting women under 60 years-old from traveling without accompaniment by a male relative. Libyan researcher Bashir al-Zawawi says that the “Madkhalis are running 17 Islamic schools in Tripoli, three in Misrata, one in Kufra and recently some in Derna. They have their own books and also a particular niqab for girls.”
Efforts to reduce the conflict in Libya must focus on recognizing the role of various individual groups. The Madkhalis are especially significant because they have members fighting on both sides, which reflects the contradictory aspects of the war that are difficult to address. It will be increasingly important to mitigate the Madkhali’s influence on the conflict as they continue targeting groups like the Sufis and disseminating anti-democratic propaganda.