Mr.Bilgehan Ozturk, the co-author of the book entitled "Countering Violent Extremism in Libya: A Peacebuilding Perspective" talks to Terrorism Analysis Platform.

What is the project about?

Countering violent extremism in Libya is just a pillar of a wider project which is called the Bina Initiative. It is about the development of Libya, stabilizing Libya as well as countering and struggling against the ills that Libya has been undergoing since 2011, especially after 2014 which is the second civil war. It tries to come up with certain capacity building programs and entails some research projects. The “Security Sector Reform for Libya” was also conducted by our fellow researchers within the same scope. This project is about exploring the root causes of violent extremism and the way to counter it.

Would you clarify the definition of violent extremism?

There are many different definitions of violent extremism in the literature. However, we embraced a certain definition of violent extremism, as the motivation and drive to change the society; to achieve a rapid and fundamental societal change through violent means. So, this entails a state of mind as well. It does not mean a violent act without a cause and ideology behind it. For violent extremism, there has to be an ideology, cause, and an unhealthy state of mind in mental terms as well as engagement in violent acts targeting a fundamental change in the society. 

Obviously, there are differences between radicalism and violent extremism. What are the main differences between radicalism and violent extremism?

There are nuances among sister categories such as radicalism, extremism, and violent extremism. The violence deployed by violent extremists differs from the violence deployed by the state. We can take the firepower as an example. National armies might use higher fire powers, thereby, they might use greater levels of violence having legitimacy and professionalism compared to that of violent extremists. On the other hand, we have ideologically motivated groups and actors employing violent extremist acts in order to achieve a result and/or a stated cause serving their ideology targeting a wide-spread change in society. A radical or extremist mind can remain as such without violence. Nevertheless, what makes radicalism and extremism different than violent extremism is the employment of violence by the latter. Most of the time, we tend to see them as a lineage starting from radicalism and ending in violent extremism, perhaps in terrorism. Clearly, there are differences in the intensity of the drives/motives. Violent extremism can be considered as the most active and extreme end of this continuum. We chose violent extremism among these for this project since it is the most problematic issue as well as an urgent one to be tackled as it causes real trouble for the stability of the Libyan society.

"What makes radicalism and extremism different than violent extremism is the employment of violence by the latter.Most of the time, we tend to see them as a lineage starting from radicalism and ending in violent extremism, perhaps in terrorism. Clearly, there are differences in the intensity of the drives/motives."

What are the origins of violent extremism in Libya?

Root causes of the violent extremism in Libya trace back to the Muammar Qadhafi era. We interviewed many people witnessing this era. The first instances of radicalization and violent acts emerged as a reaction to some unnatural interventions by Qadhafi in social, religious life, etc. For instance, he closed down a number of religious institutions, which educated the leading traditional Islamic generation of scholars in society for a long time once he took the power through a coup in 1969. 

Furthermore, he even pestered regular Libyans who were not part of any organized movement but only observing their daily prayers at the mosque and also he attempted to change some verses of the Holy Qur’an. Here, I remember a striking excerpt on Qadhafi’s plugging of organic religious channels in Libya from one of my interviewees: “Religion is like bread. You will get it from the black market when you cannot find it in the market.” This was confirmed by many interviewees. This ‘religious vacuum’ was filled by foreign and inorganic understandings of Islam. When Libyans visited Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage, they encountered with an inorganic and foreign interpretation of Islam. Hence, some of those Libyans embraced and then imported the Saudi/Wahhabi teachings into Libya, which led to the first organizations of radical networks. Afghan jihad then became a turning point for Libyans who came back with a hardened mentality and combat experience. These were compounded by Qadhafi’s repressive practices such as mass executions even in holy periods such as Ramadan.  Overall, Qadhafi crossed some lines when it comes to repression and the level of violence he used. Consequently, the extreme interventions as such have caused widespread anger and backlash from the Libyan society. Consequently, a vicious cycle of violence was created when the first anti-Qadhafi violent organisations formed, which aimed to kill or topple him and in return he used extreme levels of violence against them. 

Qadhafi era provided the breeding ground of the phenomenon of violent extremism. This background has been exacerbated after 2011. The toppling of Qadhafi resulted in the lack of proper state authority, which provided a very suitable environment for chaos, insecurity, self-help, conflict, armament, external interventions and so on.  State collapse was the offspring of Qadhafi’s years-long engineering to undermine state institutions, which had been subject to periodical changes in every three to five years during his rule. 

People with a hardened mentality in prisons, where many massacres had been undertaken by Qadhafi regime, went out with vengeance and acquired weapons -which were omnipresent in huge amounts after the revolution-.  Some others enjoyed serious external support especially after 2014. Hence, in this environment tribal conflicts were also further fueled around the country. Additionally, in 2014, during the second civil war, again extreme levels of violence were deployed by various actors such as Khalifa Haftar in places like Derna and Benghazi, which also played an influential role in snowballing the chaos conducive for the rise of violent extremism. 

Which actors played a role to seed violent extremism in Libya?

Based on the definition we provided, we asked the interviewees which organizations they considered as violent extremist organisations (VEOs) and they selected three of them: DAESH, Ansar-al-Sharia, and the Madkhali-Salafis. A novelty revealed by this project was evidently the finding that people classified and focused on Madkhali-Salafis -the only active one among the selected organizations in Libya- as a VEO.

On the other hand, as a Turkish who witnessed the phenomenon of the Gulenist Terrorist Organisation (FETO) I find some similarities between Madkhali-Salafis and FETO. They are both supported by external actors. Also, Madkhali-Salafis like FETO, targets all aspects of life such as media, religion, state institutions, education and so forth. They both pose as civilian and religious movements, yet they have their armed branches and engage in violence through them. 

"Madkhali-Salafis like FETO, targets all aspects of life such as media, religion, state institutions, education and so forth.They both pose as civilian and religious movements, yet they have their armed branches and engage in violence through them."

Why is countering violent extremism in Libya important? 

Libya has had many ills to deal with for the past decade. They have been obviously exacerbated since 2011. Violent extremism has been one of these. Also, the recipe that we came up with to counter the violent extremism in Libya has some reverberations for almost all aspects of social and political life. Therefore, whatever Libya has been undergoing as a crisis, violent extremism is just one symptom of a bundle of crises. Coping with violent extremism would be a part of this rehabilitation project. Libya has to be rehabilitated, stabilized, and consolidated in many respects. So, dealing with violent extremism is just one pillar of that. Coping with violent extremism in line with the recipe we came up with would also have positive implications for other areas as well. Dealing with Madkhali-Salafis will be a huge gain for Libya not just in terms of extremism issue but also political consolidation and societal peace when it gains the capability to put a halt to destructive external interventions by certain regional countries. Libya must have a functioning state apparatus in order to fight against violent extremism and having a functioning state, would also help overcome many other challenges that are being faced by Libyans.

What are your suggestions as solutions and methods to counter violent extremism in Libya?

Every single case requires its own tailored recipe. Countering violent extremism is a field that is already subject to many criticisms. It has its own shortcomings and weaknesses and there is no perfect solution. Many tools are used by VEOs such as offering benefits and capitalizing on the people’s victimization. Countering violent extremism requires multitask and a multidimensional program. Grievances are the key to this process. You must address the grievances of people who have gone through so many traumas. Also eradicating the channels of manipulation used by the violent extremist organizations is needed by offering people a way out so that they would not be attracted by those organizations. Therefore, we have to come up with a program in which people would be convinced that they do not have to join violent extremist organizations in order to meet their needs and there are other ways to satisfy their needs. On the other hand, the security dilemma all around Libya remains an issue to deal with. As people follow the acts of vengeance in an environment where there is no proper state authority, they are concerned for their own safety. Therefore, they all end up arming themselves and some join violent extremist organizations to protect themselves against those organizations. You also have to fight violent extremist organizations with physical counter terrorism operations, police, and judicial operations and processes. Moreover, an education reform that provides education on peace and conflict resolution to students and teachers is required. In this project, we came up with a novel scheme including the synthesis of three grand programs to counter violent extremism: peace-building, state-building, and nation-building. 

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