Libya’s Ansar al-Shari’a Declares the Islamic Emirate of Benghazi

Andrew McGregor
August 7, 2014

Only weeks after Sunni jihadists in Iraq declared the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate covering parts of Syria and Iraq, Libya’s Ansar al-Shari’a movement has declared an Islamic Emirate in eastern Libya after driving government forces and their allies from the city of Benghazi. The defeat of the strongest pro-government forces in eastern Libya has provided the Islamists with an impressive victory, but Ansar al-Shari’a and its allies are still struggling to obtain the support of Benghazi’s urban population and the powerful tribes dwelling in its hinterland.

The Libyan Emirate in the Modern Era

As the provinces that eventually formed modern Libya began to fall to British and French military forces following a string of defeats suffered by Italy, the colonial power in Libya, there were several abortive attempts to create a modern Emirate in eastern Libya. In anticipation of post-war independence in return for supporting the Allied cause, the Libyans agreed to the formation of a joint Tripolitanian-Cyrenaican Emirate with Sayyid Idris al-Sanusi as leader in 1940 (the third province, Fezzan, remained under French military administration from 1943 to 1951). This plan, however, began to disintegrate after liberation from Italian occupation in 1943 as the two Libyan provinces jostled for control of the new state. Sayyid Idris foresaw the emergence of Britain as the main power-broker in a post-colonial Libya (unlike the Tripolitanian leaders, who had incorrectly foreseen an Axis victory) and raised five battalions of the “Libyan Arab Force” to assist Allied operations in the North African desert campaign. A 1945 U.S. plan for a Cyrenaican emirate under British and Egyptian supervision failed to gain support, but in 1949 Britain decided unilaterally to create a Cyrenaican emirate under the leadership of Sayyid Idris, with foreign affairs, defense issues and military bases all remaining under British control. By the time independence arrived in 1951, plans for an emirate had been abandoned in favor of a federal constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament. [1]

Ansar al-Shari’a in Libya

The Islamist militia, established in post-revolutionary Libya in 2012, has a power-base in the eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi. It was in the latter city that the movement was deeply implicated in the September 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate. Ten days later, the group was driven from Benghazi by mass protests, but by March 2013 it was back in Benghazi, this time with a greater emphasis on providing social services to city residents.

New tensions began to arise in Benghazi in June, when General Haftar’s forces began launching attacks on armed Islamist militias in Benghazi and Derna and preliminary results of the parliamentary election revealed a massive rejection of Islamist candidates (all seats were contested on an individual rather than party basis). Afraid of being shut out of the political process, the Islamist militias in Benghazi (including Ansar al-Shari’a, the Libya Shield Brigade no. 1, the 17 February Brigade and the Rafallah Sahati Brigade) united under an umbrella structure known as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (Daily Star [Beirut], August 1). Many of these groups are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in Misrata. The restructuring at first helped limit Haftar’s successes in the region before allowing the united Islamists to push back against Haftar’s outnumbered “National Army” and its allies.

In June, Ansar al-Shari’a leader Muhammad al-Zawahi reasserted his movement’s opposition to both the government and democracy in general, while warning the United States to forget about military intervention in Libya in view of America’s “despicable defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” promising it would “face worse from Libya” (BBC, June 13).

Wanis Bu KhamadaColonel Wanis Bu Khamada

Expelling al-Sa’iqah

On July 29, Ansar al-Shari’a and its allies in the Shura Council mounted a bold attack on the Benghazi base of the pro-government al-Sa’iqah (Thunderbolt) Special Forces, an elite unit led by Colonel Wanis Bu Khamada that is allied to Libyan Major-General Khalifah Haftar, but not under his direct command. Haftar’s ongoing Operation al-Karamah (Dignity) is an attempt to eliminate Islamist militias in Libya and restore order in the lawless cities. The Islamist attack succeeded in taking the main camp of al-Sa’iqah, located in the Bu-Atni district of Benghazi.

With the capture of most of the city (excluding a part of the airport still controlled by Haftar’s forces), Ansar al-Shari’a leader Muhammad al-Zahawi declared on July 30 that “Benghazi has now become an Islamic Emirate” (Radio Tawhid, July 30; al-Jazeera, July 31). Haftar insisted that his forces had only conducted a “tactical withdrawal” from parts of Benghazi and that the Islamist claimi to control the city was “a lie”: “There is a difference between control and looting and thefts. After the Special Forces withdrew from the Special Forces’ camp, [the Islamists] tried to steal what they could steal” (al-Arabiya, July 30; July 31). Since mid-July, the Shura Council has taken five military bases in the Benghazi region, including the main Special Forces camp in Benghazi, overcoming strikes from Libyan jet-fighters and helicopters in their advance (al-Jazeera, July 31). Benghazi’s main police station was also abandoned after being shelled by Shura Council forces.

Ansar al-Shari'a FightersAnsar al-Shari’a Fighters Pose After Taking the Libyan Special Forces Base

Losses were heavy, with at least 78 soldiers killed in the assault on the base. Large quantities of arms, rockets, ammunition and even armored vehicles were seized from the stockpiles of the Special Forces, AFP/al-Akhbar [Beirut], July 30; Daily Star [Beirut], August 1). A video released soon after the battle showed Ansar al-Shari’a commander Muhammad al-Zawahi touring the battered Special Forces camp with Libyan Shield Brigade commander Wissam Bin Hamid, who declared: “We will not stop until we establish the rule of God.” [2] Bin Hamid no doubt took satisfaction in having expelled al-Sa’iqah, having been driven from his own headquarters in June 2013 by Special Forces units.

A Libyan National Army spokesman, Colonel Muhammad Hijazi, denied rumors of differences between Colonel Bu Khamada and General Haftar, adding that the withdrawal of al-Sa’iqah from its Benghazi base was “a military strategy. We are fighting against international intelligence organs like the Qatari and Turkish intelligence services” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1).

Following the Islamist victory, Muhammad Sawwan, the leader of Libya’s Hizb al-Adala wa’l-Bina (Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood), condemned Haftar’s Operation Dignity as armed interference with the political process and insists the poor showing by Islamists in parliamentary election results has nothing to do with the violence in Benghazi and Tripoli: “The parliamentary elections were held on the basis of the individual system. Therefore, talking about progress of one current and the defeat of the other is baseless” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1).

A Libyan National Army spokesman, Colonel Muhammad Hijazi, denied rumors of differences between Colonel Bu Khamada and General Haftar, adding that the withdrawal of al-Sa’iqah from its Benghazi base was “a military strategy. We are fighting against international intelligence organs like the Qatari and Turkish intelligence services” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1). There is a general belief in the forces allied to Haftar that the Islamists are materially and politically supported by Qatar and Turkey. However, despite the defeat, Colonel Bu Khamada insisted that his forces “still have the capacity to repel any attack on state institutions” (Al-Ahrar TV, August 2).

The Fallout

The Shura Council’s offensive forced the cancellation of a meeting of the new parliament to be held in Benghazi on August 4, forcing it to meet in Tobruk instead (BBC, July 30; AP, August 6). The new parliament immediately issued an order for an unconditional ceasefire in Benghazi and Tripoli (where similar clashes are underway) and promised, without the force to carry it out, that action would be taken against any group that failed to observe the ceasefire (Libya Herald, August 7).

While Haftar’s ground troops failed to reoccupy military facilities that had been abandoned after looting by the Islamists, his air assets launched air strikes against the compound of a Chinese construction company in Ajdabiya that had been taken over by Ansar al-Shari’a forces (Libya Herald, August 1). Haftar’s National Army has offered to protect further civilian demonstrations in Benghazi, though it is not clear how this would be possible without a presence in Benghazi (Libya Herald, August 1).

While there is some consensus that foreign jihadists are arriving in Libya in substantial numbers, exact figures are impossible to obtain. According to General Haftar, the Islamists “are aided by renegade groups like them from all around the world. Unfortunately, in the absence of a government or police, those groups use this opportunity to come from Algeria, Mali, Niger, and even elsewhere. They even come from overseas. Many of them came from Afghanistan and many other areas” (al-Arabiya, July 30).

For now, the oil-fields of eastern Libya remain in production, but as part of a much diminished national rate of 500,000 barrels per day (b.p.d.), as opposed to a normal 1.4 million b.p.d. (Reuters, July 29). Oil accounts for some 95% of state revenues in Libya.


Ansar al-Shari’a’s declaration of an Emirate was met with popular anger rather than acclaim, with large crowds of angry civilians taking to the streets of Benghazi. The protesters ignored a pair of warning volleys from Ansar militiamen and forced the gunmen from the Jala’a hospital it occupied in Benghazi, tearing down the black-and-white rayat al-uqab banner also used by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and replacing it with a Libyan flag (Libya Herald, July 30). There were also reports that the demonstrators torched the home of Ansar al-Shari’a leader Muhammad al-Zahawi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 31). The failure of forces belonging to Haftar’s Operation Dignity to capitalize on this unexpected civilian triumph allowed the Islamists to re-assert themselves in an even stronger position in Benghazi by July 31.

Haftar’s National Army, still without official recognition from the government, has managed to gain the allegiance of a number of pro-government armed groups (some of which are probably reconsidering their position at this point), but has failed to get the all-important support of Libya’s tribes, which continue to withhold their commitment to one side or the other of the ongoing conflict. For now, both Ansar al-Shari’a and Haftar’s National Army claim to be receiving new weapons, promising another round of the urban warfare that is beginning to inflict severe damage on some neighborhoods of Benghazi (Libya Herald, July 29). Unless and until General Haftar and/or the new Libyan government can bring both trained troops and the nation’s influential tribes on board with the anti-Islamist program, Libya will remain a gathering point for international jihadis and Libyan fighters returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, something the defeated forces allied to the national government may find themselves powerless to prevent.


1. Alison Pargeter, Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi, Yale University Press, 2012, Chapter 1; John Oakes, Libya: The History of a Pariah State, History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2011, Chapter 6.
2. See

This article first appeared in the August 7, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Libyan Special Forces Expel Ansar al-Shari’a from Benghazi

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2013

There are conflicting accounts of how the clashes began, but some sort of minor contact between gunmen of Benghazi’s Ansar al-Shari’a and soldiers of the Libyan Saiqa Special Forces Brigade early on November 25 set off heavy fighting that left nine dead and 49 wounded but saw the long-desired expulsion of Ansar al-Shari’a from the city by the end of the day. Ansar al-Shari’a is believed to have been responsible for the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. After being previously driven from its Benghazi bases by public demonstrations in September 2012, Ansar al-Shari’a returned quietly five months later, promoting themselves as providers of humanitarian aid, public services and security in a city still struggling to establish an effective administration.

Saiqa Special Forces in Benghazi, November 25

There was a danger during the fighting that Islamist reinforcements might arrive from other Ansar al-Shari’a bases in nearby Derna (where an ongoing assassination campaign has targeted everyone from judges to traffic police) or Ajdabiya, but security officials issued a warning that any convoy attempting to enter or leave Benghazi would be treated as an illegal militia and targeted by military aircraft. The Ansar al-Shari’a militants in Derna are led by Abu Sufyan bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who was released to Libyan custody in 2007. A column of ten Ansar al-Shari’a “technicals” (gun-mounted 4x4s) attempting to leave Derna for Benghazi were turned back by Libyan Army units from al-Marj and Beida. Two other Islamist militias in Derna, the Abu Salim Brigade and the Army of the Islamic State of Libya, remained at their bases (Libya Herald, November 26).

Ansar al-Shari’a’s detachment in Ajdabiya was forced out of the town on the same day by armed civilians (Libyan News Agency, November 25). Armed civilians also joined the effort to expel Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, but were asked to return home by Saiqa commander Wanis Bukhamada (Libya Herald, November 25). Ansar al-Shari’a also has bases further afield in Misrata and Sirte, but access to Benghazi from the latter base was prevented by a roadblock set up at Wadi Ahmar by the newly created Barqa defense force, the armed element of autonomy-seeking Cyrenaicans in eastern Libya (Libya Herald, November 25; for the Cyrenaican autonomy movement, see Terrorism Monitor, October 31).

Violence returned to the streets of Benghazi on the evening of November 26 – 27 as gunmen threw grenades and clashed with the Libyan Army in three parts of the city. The situation was brought under control as reinforcements were sent to the affected areas. Ansar al-Shari’a elements were suspected, but security spokesmen admitted they were unsure who was responsible (Libya Herald, November 26; Reuters, November 27). Three soldiers were assassinated in Benghazi the same day by unknown assailants.

Laws 27 and 53 of Libya’s ruling General National Council (GNC) call on all Libya’s militias to disband or join the national army by the end of the year. However, this raises the possibility of large numbers of new additions bringing an extremist ideology with them as they are integrated into a national military. Saiqa commander Wanis Bukhamada has promised his Special Forces would use force against any militia that failed to disband and attacked the police and army after that date (Libya Herald, November 26). Bukhamada is a former officer under the Qaddafi regime who defected to the rebels during the revolution and led the liberation of Brega.

There are signs that the security situation in Libya’s two major cities may be shifting in favor of those seeking the removal of the militias from the streets. Most of Tripoli’s warring militias left the city after the Misrata militia discredited its claims to be protecting the people of Tripoli when its fighters opened fire on peaceful demonstrators calling for their removal on November 15, killing 46 and wounding more than 500 more (Ahram Online [Cairo], November 26).

On the same day as the Benghazi clashes, a representative of Ansar al-Shari’a appeared on Libyan TV to announce that all those who chose not to comply with Shari’a in Libya would be fought and killed, as would the French and anyone seeking democracy or secularism. Derna-based commander Mahmoud al-Barassi fueled the GNC’s efforts to disband the militias by saying the GNC and the Army are apostates, insisting Prime Minister Ali Zeidan knows “nothing about Islam” and claiming that all opponents of Ansar al-Shari’a are “enemies.” Other elements of Ansar al-Shari’a were believed to have gone into damage control after al-Barassi’s remarks (Libya al-Ahrar TV, November 25; Libya Herald, November 25). 

This article first appeared in the November 28 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.