Libyan Salafists fight alongside ‘secular’ Hifter

Libyan military strongman Khalifa Hifter’s westward offensive, which began last month, has dramatically heated up the Libyan civil war. In a statement issued today, European Union foreign ministers warned that the attack could further destabilize the country and said it threatens international peace.

“The LNA military attack on Tripoli and the subsequent escalation in and around the capital constitutes a threat to international peace and security and further threatens the stability of Libya,” the statement read.

Fighting between his Libyan National Army and its enemies since early April has killed roughly 400 Libyans, displaced at least 50,000 and severely damaged several of Tripoli’s southern districts. Despite the EU warning and calls earlier this month from the United Nations for a weeklong cease-fire on humanitarian grounds, Hifter does not believe that the holy month of Ramadan is reason for a temporary truce. In fact, the eastern commander is now invoking Islamic references in calling for a “jihad” against the Libyan National Army’s enemies in order to rally his forces for an intensified period of fighting during Ramadan.

This religious language from Hifter, who is allied with Libya’s “secular” Tobruk-based House of Representatives, must be largely understood within the context of the commander attempting to reach out to and mobilize more Salafists/Madkhalis against militias in Misrata and Tripoli that are loyal to the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. Hifter’s rhetoric and alignments are illustrative of the countless contradictions and complicated dynamics shaping the Libyan civil war. That a host of states — namely the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — have backed Hifter on the premise that only his forces can counter violent extremism is unquestionably paradoxical. Important to note is that there are major differences between Libyan Salafi groups, with some in Hifter’s camp and others against him.