A senior commander of a Libyan extremist group was killed alongside a dozen other militants in clashes with the Libyan army south of Derna, eastern Libya, last Wednesday.
About a dozen militants affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia, a UN-designated Libyan terrorist organization, died when the army ambushed their convoy in the area of Aziyat, about 40 km south of Derna, near the so-call “200 Road” that links eastern Libyan cities, according to our correspondent in Derna. The survivors of the ambush fled into the Buhindi Valley, also south of Derna. According to security sources three soldiers were injured in the offensive.
One of the militants killed, Abdelhamid al-Shaari, was a leading figure of Ansar al-Sharia and based in Derna.
Ansar al-Sharia is a Salafi militant group that emerged in 2012 seeking to implement Sharia law and opposing the emergent civilian state, including through violent action. More recently the group split into supporters of the Islamic State Group and those who follow a more “old-fashioned” approach in allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
Derna witnessed the confrontation of these two visions back in June, when the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council – a grouping of local militias including the Martyrs of Abu Slim Brigade as well as the larger part of Ansar al-Sharia – rose up against the local IS branch with the help of local residents taken aback by IS’s public displays of brutality.
In a tactical alliance with the Libyan army led by General Khalifa Haftar, which carried out airstrikes on IS positions, the Derna Mujahideen chased IS militants out of Derna and have since been in control of the town. Wednesday’s fighting in Aziyat showed the limitations of this tactical alliance, given that the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council supports the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, a coalition of militias in Benghazi that is fighting the army.
Tellingly, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM published a statement condemning the killing of Al-Shaari, a “leader of the knights of Islam”, by the “soldiers of the tyrant [Khalifa] Haftar”, who ambushed the fighters as they were on their way to “help the people of Benghazi to victory”.
In spite of the internal divisions, Libyan extremists are often perceived as one bloc owing to their collective fight against the army. Initial reports claimed that the militants killed in Aziyat were members of the Islamic State Group. Following their defeat against the Derna Mujahideen, IS militants are in fact trying to push back into the town from the southern and eastern suburbs such as Area 400 and Fataih. Adding to the confusion, Abdelhamid al-Shaari is said to have been involved with the Bittar Brigade, a Libyan militia that has fought alongside IS in Syria and has recently redeployed to Benghazi to assist the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council in their fight against Haftar’s forces.
Whether affiliated with IS or Al-Qaeda, militant groups in Libya are increasingly linked to networks abroad. Three of the four men taken prisoners on Wednesday are foreigners, from “other Arab countries”, according to our correspondent.