Libya’s Islamists and Their Qatari Backers Under the Gun

Co-authored by Dr. Theodore Karasik

Six years ago, Qatar’s “pro-Arab Spring” foreign policy helped shape Libyan history. As a member of the NATO-led military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, Qatar attacked the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’s targets with its air force, deployed hundreds of forces to strengthen rebels, and ferried in arms and humanitarian supplies to rebel-controlled bases in Eastern Libya. Financially, Doha guaranteed NATO that it would bankroll operations against Qaddafi’s forces if the conflict were to continue. Politically, the symbolism of having an Arab/Muslim state fully behind the campaign decreased the Obama administration’s concerns about Libyans seeing the military intervention as exclusively Western. Indeed, it was highly illustrative of Qatar’s extended influence in Libya when an Islamist rebel raised the Arabian emirate’s flag from the balcony of Gaddafi’s presidential complex in Tripoli in 2011.

However, Qatar’s reputation in post-Qaddafi Libya suffered considerably once a growing number of secular Libyans grew resentful toward Doha, viewing the Qataris as meddling in their country in order to empower Islamists, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2012/2013, street vendors in Benghazi stopped selling merchandise with the Qatari flag, and some Libyans burned the country’s flag in public.

In recent years, Qatar’s support for Islamists in Libya has also angered a host of Sunni Arab states, and was a contributing factor to the ongoing crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that erupted earlier this month when three Council members (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) plus Egypt and some other Arab/African governments severed diplomatic and economic ties with Doha. The UAE has waged a proxy war against Qatar in Libya. Since Libya’s ongoing civil war erupted in mid-2014, the UAE and Egypt have supported the Tobruk-based government, known as the House of Representatives (HoR), and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s HoR-aligned Libyan National Army (LNA), which is combatting Qatari-supported Islamist groups fighting under the internationally recognized Tripoli-based Government of Accord (GNA)’s umbrella of loosely aligned forces.

Currently, a tripartite axis—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—seeks to pressure Qatar into severing ties with Islamists in Libya while simultaneously increasing support for Haftar’s Operation Dignity. Emboldened by Trump’s speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit last month in Riyadh, the Egyptians, Emiratis, and Saudis aim to reverse the influence that Qatar has exerted in Libya. From Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh’s perspective, Libya’s “Arab Spring” dangerously shifted into an “Islamist Winter,” and Qatari involvement in the North African country was a root cause of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS or IS), and other Islamist actors’ ability to gain power and influence since 2011.

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