TRIPOLI, Libya — The pious 35-year-old sitting before me sports a luxuriant dark beard streaked with gray and offers up a prayer to Allah before answering my questions. He is wary, but his dark eyes maintain contact with mine, trying to judge whether he was right to meet me. He rarely agrees to see journalists—and shies away from Western ones especially. For many Libyans, this soft-spoken man who gestures with soft, chubby hands as he talks represents much of the violence and fanaticism that has destroyed their country as it has failed time and again to establish the rule of law since the ouster four years ago of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Yet in the West’s search for allies against the marauding, expanding so-called Islamic State, even this man might prove an ally.
Mention Abd al-Rauf Kara to his countrymen and many will grimace—or look frightened. And not only those opposed to the mainly Islamist upstart Tripoli-run government—the rival to the internationally recognized administration now in exile in the eastern Libyan towns of Tobruk and Beida. They will accuse him in a low voice, so as not to be overheard, of being the personification of the militiamen who have derailed Libya’s transition to democracy with their menacing protests and blockades and guns, all justified by a literalist interpretation of the Quran.
And now, oddly, I am talking with Kara about the rule of law, the need for central authority, the restoration of order and the struggle to keep Libya out of the hands of the encroaching Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, which is growing fast in Libya and already has seized a strategic swath of territory.
Many in the West might assume that hardliners like Kara and ISIS would be aligned. Libya’s legal government sees them as cut from the same cloth. Its army chief, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, has sworn to rid Libya of all supporters of political Islam, Muslim Brothers, Salafis, and jihadis as well.
Certainly Kara is as ruthless as he is zealous. He quickly took it upon himself after Gaddafi’s toppling to hunt down former regime security officials and to police an unruly Tripoli according to ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islamic principles. His Nawasi Battalion became notorious for targeting alleged alcohol traders and drinkers and drug dealers as well as gays and also single women unaccompanied by male relatives or husbands, even those frequenting the more up-market coffee houses in affluent districts of Tripoli.
Several abductions have been laid at the battalion’s door, as have slayings of criminals that smack of summary justice.
In one especially ugly incident in late 2012, the battalion was accused of abducting a group of men suspected of being gay, beating them, and posting photographs on the brigade’s Facebook page, of detainees with accompanying captions reading “flog them hard,” “ride them like camels,” and “let’s see the bullets fly.”
Nawasi militiamen were accused of colluding in the destruction of a Sufi mosque in Tripoli. These Salafists, who try to identify with the earliest followers of the Prophet Muhammad (salaf meaning predecessors), abhor the supposedly heretical trappings and less austere practices of Sufi Muslims, who often use music and dance in their worship.
For people in the lawless inner-city neighborhoods of the post-Gaddafi Libyan capital, however, the Nawasi, which morphed into the 700-strong Special Deterrence Force (SDF), has been the only battalion to turn to when violent drug dealers or kidnappers strike, or thugs decide to seize the homes of rightful occupants. Through three different legislatures and several prime ministers, authorities have been impotent to uphold basic law and order. At one time, ministers who had just assured the public they would clip the wings of the militias turned to the Nawasi to clear out drug dealers from a particular Tripoli district.
Last August, soon after Libya’s House of Representatives was elected, members of the SDF raided a public television station to stop the staff from broadcasting the inauguration of the new parliament, ordering them instead to support mainly Islamists militias determined to throw the elected body out of Tripoli. The SDF wasn’t alone—other Salafi-oriented militias were key in chasing the House of Representatives out of town, setting up the year-long conflict that negotiators tried unsuccessfully to resolve at UN-sponsored talks in Morocco this week.
But I am not sitting with Kara to discuss his men’s role as vigilante moral guardians or backers of the Tripoli-based rebel government, but their role in trying to keep the capital safe from the growing threat of the Libyan affiliate of ISIS.
Hard-core Salafis like Kara detest ISIS as much as the West does—and fear the group, too. They have every reason: Last month ISIS sent a small team to car-bomb the SDF’s headquarters at Tripoli’s Mitiga air base, where I interviewed Kara for this article. The SDF learned of the plan and ambushed the attackers on the highway eight miles from Tripoli in the seaside town of Tajoura, which was famous, once upon a time, for its fish restaurants. Two of the bombers were killed.
As some of Kara’s aides show me pictures of the ambush, another limps in with coffee—his injury was caused by a gunshot wound sustained in the battle with ISIS fighters who stormed Tripoli’s landmark Corinthia Hotel in January. The aide has only just returned from treatment in neighboring Tunisia. Those who were sent to car-bomb Kara’s base at Mitiga airport, he believes, were members of the same seven-man ISIS team involved in the Corinthia attack.
Kara’s men were among the first to arrive at the Corinthia after two gunmen forced their way in, killing 10 people as they went looking for Westerners to slaughter. A U.S. security contractor was killed before one of the assailants triggered an explosive vest. At the start of the assault, a third man detonated a remote controlled car bomb nearby and Kara told me they have that bomber—a Canadian-born Libyan. Kara also says his group has detained 22 other suspected ISIS members and through interrogations and intelligence gathering are trying to map the jihadi leadership and structure in Libya. He suspects the names being bandied about as the affiliate’s leaders in some Western media outlets are wrong.
They say you need a thief to catch a thief… and so maybe you need a Salafi hardliner to combat the Salafi jihadis. Not that Kara accepts that description of the bloodthirsty followers of ISIS—he won’t concede they are Salafists at all.
“They are takfiris,” he insists—in short, a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy (the word is derived from kafir, or infidel). “Just to be clear, there is no such definition as a Salafi jihadist—they are against all legitimate [religious] authority. They have gone outside the fold. You can’t be a Salafi and a jihadist,” he says quietly but firmly, using his hands to emphasize his words. But he accepts “it probably takes a Salafi to understand the takfiris.”
There are, of course, ironies within ironies here. On a range of issues Salafis like Kara would agree with ISIS interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. But on some crucial esoteric theological matters they diverge sharply—hence me being able to sit opposite Kara across a low coffee table swatting away flies to discuss the danger ISIS poses to Libya, North Africa, and Europe.
“We are trying to deal with this threat through force; but we also have to try to engage them ideologically,” says Kara, who prefers to use the Arabic acronym Daesh for ISIS. He says his people have noticed that a large proportion of the Libyans who join Daesh are the sons of Libyan exiles and either born overseas in Europe or North America or were raised there. Not that he and his lieutenants are saying that Daesh can’t appeal to young Libyans born and raised here, and they fear if the chaos in Libya continues more of them will be seen in ISIS ranks.
Over in the east, such distinctions are lost on the Tobruk-based Gen. Khalifa Haftar. When he set up his “Operation Dignity” force, which predates the House of Representatives fleeing Tripoli, he declared he was doing so to wage a war on terrorism and was focused on clearing the eastern city of Benghazi of extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia, the militia implicated in the 2012 assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound and death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
But one year on, Haftar is still bogged down in his battle in Benghazi, where his forces are fighting Tripoli-supporting brigades known as Libya Dawn as well as Ansar al-Sharia. For him they are all Daesh—and many of his fervent supporters in the east agree with him. In Tripoli, though, and among militias backing the upstart government here, there are two enemies: Haftar and Daesh.
And increasingly ISIS is frightening them more.
Kara doesn’t accuse Haftar of being in league with Daesh—or at least he doesn’t say that to me. But commanders with Libya Dawn forces who have been battling ISIS in the coastal city of Sirte remain angry that Haftar has sometimes exploited their clashes with Daesh and had his warplanes bomb their positions.
Indeed, ISIS’s takeover of the coastal city of Sirte last month was a grave setback. The town boasts some of the country’s largest oil-drilling operations and a major seaport. It was Gaddafi’s hometown and is a favorite point of departure for people wanting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Last week, ISIS extended its territorial gain along the Mediterranean coast by seizing the town of Harwa to the east of Sirte, adding to its partial control of the eastern city of Derna.
“Daesh now has a 70-kilometer stretch of the coast,” says Kara. “It is a key stretch for launching people-smuggler boats and Europe should be worried that Daesh can disguise their people as migrants.” The terrorists played on that fear when they released a video of 21 Egyptian Christians being beheaded at Sirte and pointed a knife across the water at “Rome.”
Earlier this year, the UN envoy to Libya, Bernardino León, warned that the country was “very close to total chaos.” With the emergence of ISIS there, Libya’s civil war is now more complex and chaotic than ever. Kara, too, warns Daesh’s numbers will increase exponentially unless Libya restores order quickly. He estimates Daesh has about 2,000 fighters now—although one of his key lieutenants, Mustafa, puts the number closer to 3,000.
“In a six-month period, if we don’t deal with this, it will become a grave problem,” Kara warns. “Daesh is focusing on Libyan youth and they are doing a great deal of recruiting online. Tunisians dominate Daesh here now—and they are three or four times the number of Libyans in the group, but that could change.”
He says the ISIS field commanders are mostly Libyan. But he says he believes the jurists and strategists are reporting back to ISIS leaders in Syria and Iraq. He says they are not Libyan, but from Gulf and other Arab countries. His intelligence officers have determined that one is Egyptian. “We presume that they receive their orders from Syria or Iraq,” he says. Of the young Libyans among the ISIS ranks, he puts their numbers in the low hundreds but says they are veterans who have returned from Syria. The overall Daesh numbers can be boosted, he says, by assistance from Ansar al-Sharia. “There are clear connections between Daesh and Ansar al-Sharia—their fighters cooperate, they fight alongside each other.”
Commanders from the 166th battalion in Misrata, three hours drive east of Tripoli, echo the portrayal of ISIS fighters in Libya as veterans of other wars. The commanders received me in an out-of-the-way base on the outskirts of a city that is a key backer of the Tripoli-run government and which supplies a large number of Libya Dawn forces. Misrata boasts it can muster 50,000 fighters, but the city’s militias are spread across Libya fighting the Tripoli government’s opponents in the south, west, and east. The commanders’ morale isn’t high and they look tense and hollowed-out. The battalion was in the vanguard of the defense of Sirte and although the commanders claim they effected a “tactical withdrawal” it was clearly, judging both by their description of the fight and their obvious nervous exhaustion, a retreat forced on them by ISIS.
I see them in a dark guardhouse with banks of CCTV screens—they don’t want me deeper into the base, which has tight security and is protected by sand berms. They are worried about being car-bombed and say there are Daesh cells in the city. One commander, Khaled Abu Jazy, who acts as the battalion’s spokesman, says that although the 166th is composed mainly of veterans from the uprising against Gaddafi they were opposed in Sirte by “highly trained and effective fighters.” He says their foes were drawn from across north and sub-Sahara Africa—from Mali, Mauritania, Tunisia, Algeria, and Ethiopia. He says there were also Syrians.
The front line was confused, he says. And the Daesh fighters were quick to carry out flanking movements. They often mounted nighttime attacks. “We struggled to cope with the improvised explosive devices they used—and they used a lot,” he says. The devices were jury-rigged using 122 mm and 155 mm howitzer shells. “They fight a very different war from us, very different tactically and I don’t think we understand fully yet the threat of ISIS,” Jazy says.
He adds sorrowfully: “They are an invisible enemy.”
Certainly ISIS on paper shouldn’t have won in Sirte. According to 166th battalion commanders, when the battle for the city started ISIS forces only numbered about 500 or 600, and at the height increased to about a thousand. They wouldn’t tell me how many Libya Dawn forces were defending the city—but the 166th numbers just over 600 alone and there were other allied units there as well. Some commanders complain that the government in Tripoli wasn’t quick enough to send re-supplies and reinforcements; others maintain the front line was so squiggly that getting supplies to the defenders was a challenge in itself.
Knowing that I have reported on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the commanders ask me what I suspect the jihadis will do next. They believe ISIS will focus on oil installations, especially on the fields in the Gulf of Sidra. “Expect the unexpected,” I responded. On Jazy’s face there was a look of dread.