While the Islamic State has grabbed headlines as it tries to regain its footing in war-torn Libya, a less-known, fundamentalist Islamist movement is quietly extending its influence across the country.
The Madkhalis, an ultraconservative Salafist movement from Saudi Arabia, have been taking advantage of Libya’s post-revolution chaos to impose their hardline interpretation of Islam through force and coercion, patrolling the streets and using their control over mosques to dramatically alter Libyan society.
To that end, the Madkhalis have aligned themselves with nearly every self-proclaimed government and warlord in Libya over the past three years, silencing liberal and Islamist critics in the process.
The Madkhalis have consistently opposed the anti-Western Islamic State (ISIS), which has sought to set up a new base of operations in Libya after being mostly driven out of Iraq and Syria. But unless a peaceful solution is reached and state institutions provide services in Libya soon, long-time experts and observers warn that the Madkhalis may devastate civil society and impose an undeclared theocracy.
Who are the Madkhalis?
The Madkhali movement reveres and follows 85-year-old Saudi Arabian cleric Rabee al-Madkhali, who is currently based in Medina.
The apolitical group, formed largely as a religious response to the politically active Muslim Brotherhood, gained in popularity in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab regimes in the Gulf in the 1990s. The states sought to use the new Salafi strain as a counterbalance against Islamist opposition groups and solidify their own religious legitimacy.
The Madkhalis’ unquestioning support of dictatorships, aversion to politics, and antagonism toward both democracy and the Muslim Brotherhood made the group a perfect partner for the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, who opened Libya to the group in the early 2000s.
Sure enough, the Madkhalis were the last group to abandon Qaddafi despite his regime’s violence against its own citizens, urging citizens to obey the ruler until the waning days of the 2011 revolution.
Now unbound by a dictatorship or government for the very first time, the formerly passive movement has quietly formed its own fighting forces and vice squads and aligned itself with warlords and governments in eastern, central, and western Libya, with its eye on complete control over Libyan society.
What is their ideology?
The Madkhalis’ central tenet is a near-slavish loyalty to whatever regime, ruler, or group is in power in a particular country, known as wali al amr, literally the one who rules.
Unlike other Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood, who demand that governments be influenced by Islam or impose strict sharia law, Madkhalis freely throw their support behind secular Arab regimes. The group, as articulated by Mr. Madkhali himself, argues that these secular and undemocratic regimes have “divine” authority to rule over their subjects – otherwise, God would not have put them in the position of power in the first place.
So fierce is their defense of whatever regime or ruler they serve, the Madkhalis make it their mission to attack any critic or opposition, using Islamic scholarship to portray them as heretics or unbelievers.
The second core concept in Madkhali ideology is an aversion to politics and a fierce opposition to democracy, arguing that politics by nature creates divisions among Muslims, encourages loyalty to groups other than God, and allows un-Islamic movements to creep into society.
On the social front, there is little to differentiate Madkhalis from the ultraconservative Wahabi strain of Islam that until recently has governed daily life in Saudi Arabia and which the House of Saud has exported across the Muslim world.
Madkhalis believe women have little role outside the home and must require male guardianship to move or travel. They view music, television and any non-Islamic literature as “sinful,” and mixing with non-Muslims as a threat to lead Muslims “astray.”
What role do they play in Libyan politics?
Although the Madkhalis shunned the ballot box in Libya’s two post-revolution elections, the group has quietly formed its own forces and institutions and made alliances on the ground to become one of the most influential players in the country.
In western Libya, Madkhalis have formed a policing force to patrol the streets of Tripoli, break up crime and un-Islamic “vice,” and even disrupt ISIS cells and attacks. The Madkhali force has been so successful, the UN-backed government in Tripoli relies on it as an official policing force under the interior ministry.
In central Libya, Madkhalis formed an effective fighting force numbering in the thousands that in 2016 was instrumental in driving ISIS from Sirte and other strongholds along the coast. Since driving out ISIS, the Madkhali militias have remained behind, patrolling many towns and villages.
But perhaps the Madkhalis’ biggest power play has been in eastern Libya, where a branch of the movement has made an alliance with the Egypt- and Russia-backed strongman, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
In return for using its forces and pulpit to support Mr. Haftar and urge loyalty to the strongman as an Islamic duty, Madkhalis have been given free reign over mosques, endowments, and religious institutions across eastern Libya. Crucially, Madkhalis have been given the power to issue official fatwas.
In each part of Libya, Madkhalis have had a consistent strategy: attack, silence, and delegitimize all rivals, including liberals, democrats, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadists, and rival Salafi groups. It is a campaign that has strengthened whichever faction it is serving and has put every other actor and civil society group on the defensive.
How will they use their rising influence?
Longtime observers and researchers say the Madkhalis have built up goodwill in communities by providing security services at a time there is no functioning government, providing it a gateway to impose their ideology.
“Madkhalis are pushing the narrative ‘We are Salafis, we are not corrupt, we are cleaning up drugs and alcohol, we are providing security,’ and there is a certain attraction to that for local communities,” says Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has interviewed Libyan Madkhalis.
Last November, Madkhali security forces acting on behalf of the Tripoli government shut down a comic book convention in the capital, accusing it of “exploiting the weakness of religious faith and fascination with foreign cultures.”
Earlier, in March, Madkhalis in the east arrested three young men preparing an Earth Day celebration in Benghazi for promoting immoral “freemasonry.”
Also last year, a military governor, under the directives of a Madkhali fatwa, issued a ban on women travelling without a male guardian in eastern Libya – though it was later overturned after unprecedented public opposition. Meanwhile, Madkhalis have reportedly organized multiple book burnings in Benghazi, while the movement’s supporters run some two-dozen radio station across the country.
Madkhalis have also reportedly been given free control within prisons in both western and eastern Libya, proselytizing and “rehabilitating” detainees.
Madkhalis’ lasting impact on the course of the Libyan conflict may be their silencing and targeting of opposition and political groups. Many Libyan civil society leaders and human rights activists have been targeted, silenced, driven abroad, or killed, according to Human Rights Watch – a process that has been accelerated and blessed by the Madkhalis.
Libyan human rights activists say they fear criticizing the group, who in turn “denounce you at the minbar [in the mosque], on the radio, and arrest you the same day.”
Without a counter-balance to the Salafis, longtime Libya experts and officials warn there will be little resistance to the fundamentalist group’s control over daily life once militias lay down their arms for good.
“More liberal voices are in retreat if they haven’t disappeared altogether,” says Ben Fishman, a former White House official who worked on Libya under the Obama administration.
“The longer it takes to have a functional unity government, the deeper these roots will enmesh themselves into the daily norms of local communities and the more difficult it will be to untangle them.”