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From Raqqa to Derna: Exceptionalism in Expansionism

[Image courtesy of Al-Wasat] [Image courtesy of Al-Wasat]

In early November, militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria took full control of the Libyan city of Derna, festooning government buildings with the familiar flag bearing the shahada and celebrating their victory over their opponents within the city. A coastal settlement of around 100,000, less than two hundred miles from the eastern city of Benghazi and hours from Tobruk, where the internationally-recognized House of Representative rules from, the loss of Derna aroused fears within the West of further Islamist and ISIS domination over restive and ungoverned Libya. As news outlets and Libyan watchers across the ideological divide pointed out, a bastion of ISIS power could be used as a spearhead into other parts of Libya and as a stronghold in an eastern Libyan emirate. Under the administration of the Islamic Youth Shura Council (Majlis shura shabab al-iIslam—MSSI), who manipulated the courts, governance structures, education, and local media, Derna soon resembled ISIS’ capital of Raqqa, with hudud public executions, the vigilante enforcement of punishments for outlawed Islamic practices, assassinations of civic activists, and educational segregation.   

The Islamic Youth Shura first announced its formation on 4 April 2014 when its members marched through the streets of Derna in an armed rally, flaunting grenade launchers and advanced military equipment. The militia declared, unequivocally, that it would act as the security force for the city of Derna, as it concurrently instituted Islamic law. This culminated in the late August high-profile case of extra-judicial sentencing, when an Egyptian man was shot in front of a crowd at a football stadium (video). The group’s stabilization of public services, most notably through its protection of the al-Huraysh Hospital, soon followed the imposition and codification of sharia within Derna. Throughout this time, the organization vied with other armed actors within Derna for supremacy, superiority, and legitimacy, particularly with the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade. In early October 2014, the Islamic Youth Shura Council formally announced its allegiance to ISIS and its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, commemorating the occasion with a series of celebrations at the al-Sahaba Mosque, that were heavily draped in ISIS symbolism.

It was not until 13 November 2014 that Derna was officially integrated into ISIS’ territory, when al-Baghdadi asserted “the expansion of the Islamic State to new countries, to the countries of the Haramayn, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, [and] Algeria.” Libya was included as a province—Wilayat Barqa—with an ISIS-appointed provincial governor. In the same speech, al-Baghdadi abolished all of the local jihadi groups within the provinces, inviting them ceremoniously under the auspices of ISIS. ISIS also appointed its gubernatorial appointee, Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, as Derna’s foremost religious judge. It is estimated that Derna currently hosts eight hundred ISIS fighters, including veterans of ISIS’ Mesopotamian-based al Battar Brigade, as well as training camps outside of the city. Furthermore, in the wake of the entrenchment of ISIS’ Derna affiliate, additional chapters have been noted in Bayda, Benghazi, Sirte, al-Khums, and Tripoli, underscoring the rising tide of ISIS-Libya. However, the fears of its rapid succession bear the hallmarks of other Western exaggerated and panicky reporting. In reality, ISIS’ Libyan foray is idiosyncratic to Derna’s historical jihadi inculcation, the battle for the mantle of jihadism within Libya and across the Islamic world, and the peculiar circumstances of the post-Gaddafi security environment.   

With its nearby mountains, the city of Derna has served as a stronghold of opposition to centralized rule since the Ottoman Empire. It was local troops from Derna who prevented the passage of the French to buttress Napoleonic Egypt and the city’s Ottoman governor, Mustafa Bey, who defiantly battled American marines during the First Barbary War. In addition, it was among the principal cities that fought against the Italian invasion in a major battle at Wadi Ash-Shwaer. Furthermore, Derna is located at the eastern side of the mountainous and forested Jebel Akhdar, which Libya’s most infamous anti-colonial figure, Omar al-Mukhtar, used as a base to resist Italian occupation for over twenty years. The cemetery in Derna, known as the Sahaba, contains graves of Libyans who fought not only against the Italians, but also against the Romans and the Byzantines of the premodern era.

Under Gaddafi, Derna suffered heavily from the dualistic nature of Gaddafi’s authoritarian and clientalistic state, with its heavy-handed securitization and its policy of balancing patronage with marginalization and neglect. Derna was also the victim of collective punishment by Gaddafi’s internal security apparatus, such as the massacre of political prisoners in the Abu Salim jail in Tripoli that included dozens of residents of Derna, and door to door searches in the city to root out support for the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The LIFG, which briefly threatened the Gaddafi-era state, had a leadership core that was from Derna. The general deterioration of the city, while other parts of the country flourished from the Libyan state’s largesse, encouraged alternative ideologies as the city’s inhabitants grappled with little opportunity, destitution, and imprisonment. Gaddafi was more than amenable to having the fighters go abroad to air their grievances and become martyrs for the Islamic cause. The rise of extremism and radicalism that fighters from Derna in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq epitomized was most pronounced when records from al-Qa'ida recovered in Iraq showed that out of the towns or cities that produced foreign fighters, Derna supplied the highest amount, and around half of Libya’s total. 

The Islamic State, however, is not the first group that the Islamic Youth Shura Council has solicited, as the group, and its predecessor, Ansar al-Sharia Derna, pledged its commitment to another infamous jihadi group: al-Qa'ida. That the first demonstration of MSSI’s power in Derna in early April sought to brand itself with the global mark of al-Qa'ida is unsurprising, given Derna’s track record. In addition to the amount of fighters from the city that fought alongside the organization, senior members of al-Qa'ida, such as Abdulbasit Azuz and Sufian al-Quma were based in the city, and there were unsubstantiated claims that others like Ahmed Boukhtala were there too. As one resident said to Magharebia in late February 2014, “Derna is captive to al-Qa'ida.” That ISIS appeared and sprouted unnaturally from a conservative, Libyan city ignores the following truth: that the victory of ISIS in Derna is also a victory of the al-Qa'ida brand. That MSSI changed its oath from al-Qa'ida to ISIS not only demonstrates a willingness to capitalize on the changing contours of global jihadi networks, but it also demonstrates an apt understanding of its local context. Not only does it allow for MSSI to make a clean break from its progenitor, Ansar al-Sharia, but it also provides an ideological counterbalance to the group’s chief opponent, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and its own al-Qa'ida imprint. It is pragmatic marketing being used for one group’s ascension over another in Libya’s volatile politicking.

Most important however, given the city’s unique trajectory after Gaddafi’s coup and its history of international jihadism, is to contextualize ISIS’ rise within Libya’s broader civil strife. Since the rebellion against Gaddafi, the proliferation of militias and the weakening of any accepted national security force has reinforced divisions and forced armed factions to seek legitimacy. A series of contrasts broadly define the current conflict: Islamists opposed to the nationalists, revolutionaries versus Gaddafi-era elites, and East versus West, with a host of smaller, competing city- and tribal-based loyalties. This is most openly displayed in the contest between the Tobruk-aligned forces of General Khalifa Hifter and allied Zintani militias, and the dual Islamist coalitions of Libya Dawn (Fajr Libya) in Tripoli and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries in Benghazi. International and regional actors have cast their lots within this system, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates openly supporting Hifter and the “nationalist” forces against the ascension of any type of political Islam. ISIS has not been absent within this wider context, and an ISIS-linked Twitter page claimed the recent dual attack on the Egyptian and Emirati embassies in Tripoli.

Within this byzantine system of shifting alliances and rival interests against the breakdown of law and order, a reversion to an Islamic foundation is not an anomaly, and it is a phenomenon that has repeated itself in conflict-prone and failed states across the Islamic world, as was the case in Somalia with the rise of the Islamic Courts Union as a response to the country’s violent anarchy and absentee governance. This is not an attempt to alleviate any group from their egregious human rights abuses, but a connection between Libya’s instability and the predilections of one Mediterranean town. The imprinting of familiar iconography—both Islamist and more specifically, the preponderant international terrorists—roots factions competing for power in a local context, with the veil of a wider, pan-Islamic agenda. 

Alarmists within the Western media want to portray the seizure of Derna as the awakening of dormant jihadists who are flocking to the black banner of the Islamic State and its purported, continent-spanning caliphate. The fall of Derna to these forces follows teleologically in a domino effect as the West contends with ISIS’ gains in the Mashreq, the Maghreb, and the Arabian Peninsula. This analysis posits that Derna was previously, before the rise of the Islamic State, a piece that the West and its Middle Eastern allies in the war against ISIS’ expansion have subsequently lost. But this framing fails to account for Derna’s historical indoctrination to violent jihadism, its avowal of past jihadi affiliations, and most importantly, its search for legitimacy in the lawlessness of post-Gaddafi Libya. Derna’s fighters, radical extremists no doubt, are searching for a flag, rather than the flag, that is now hoisted over them.

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The photography page aims to provide a space for reflection on photography in its various forms and uses in the Middle East. We showcase the work of photographers active in the region and cultivate critical thinking about photographic practices, representations, and history. The page publishes photo essays, articles, interviews, reviews and more. It also provides information on photographic archives, agencies, and institutions, exhibits, events, and publications.

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