After a period of relative calm coexistence and apparent unity against the Libyan army, the assassination of Derna’s Shura Council leader Nasser al-Aker on June 9 triggered an unprecedented armed conflict between the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda affiliated Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade in Derna leading to the death of the brigade’s leader Salem Derbi and unleashing what observers believe could be the beginning of a war between rival jihadi groups.
The activist and sociology professor S. Abed told Al-Chourouk on June 4 that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi met with the Tunisian Abu Iyad and the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Derna back in March in an effort to unify the main jihadi organizations in North Africa and declare war against the “apostates” in “Libya Dawn”. According to the report, the meeting resulted in Abu Iyad’s Ansar al-Sharia and the Nigerian Boko Haram’s declaration of loyalty to al-Baghdadi, while Al-Mourabitoun under the leadership of Belmokhtar, who has repeatedly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, refused to follow suit. Regardless of whether a meeting really did take place and of whether its participants were the above mentioned high-ranking jihadi leaders, it stands undisputed that the Islamic State organization is taking extreme measures to unite the different jihadi groups under its leadership. Whether it be for financial, religious, influential, survival, or strategic reasons, the Islamic State has been fairly successful in luring other jihadi groups to join its organization. However, the terrorist organization rarely hesitates to terrorize, threaten, or kill fellow jihadis who disagree with its interpretation of jihad and its implementation of sharia.
Long before the Islamic State took control over Derna in 2014, Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade, a prominent armed faction within Derna’s Mujahideen Shura Council that is ideologically linked with al-Qaeda, held power in Derna. An expert in jihadi organizations told libyan website Bawabat-al-Wasat on June 9 that despite their core differences, the militant groups in Derna found themselves similarly categorized as terrorists and often joined forces against the Libyan army, but ever since May 2014, these groups’ differences have turned violent in the form of assassinations. Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade disagreed with IS’s radical way of imposing sharia and rejected the organization’s terrifying use of force to gain followers among Derna’s Muslims.
An informed source close to Derna’s Shura Council told morocco newspaper Assabah on June 10 that the disputes between IS and Derna’s original mujahideen had become so big that Nasser al-Aker issued a fatwa calling IS takfirists and proclaiming jihad against the group. Preceding this fatwa was “a final warning to the takfirists” given by Derna’s Council to ISIS, an organization they blame for distorting sharia and killing Muslim mujahideen.
Bawabat-al-Wasat’s report on June 11 said that the Shura Council leader Nasser al-Aker held a meeting on Monday, June 8 with IS members in Derna to discuss removing the obligation of taraweeh prayers enforced by ISIS on Derna’s citizens who would not accept such imposition. Taraweeh are special evening prayers performed during the month of Ramadan where verses of the Quran are recited until the early hours of the morning. On Tuesday June 9, Nasser al-Aker was assassinated, and violent armed clashes immediately erupted in Derna between the Mujahideen Shura Council and ISIS militants leading to the death of Salem Derbi, the leader of Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade.
On the same day, Derna’s Mujahideen Shura Council released a statement declaring a holy war against the Islamic State and vowing to eradicate the group in Derna. Libyan well-informed website Akhbar Libya 24 reported on June 10 that the fighting led to the death of four ISIS leaders, three Shura Council leaders, and tens of armed militants. Observers quickly associated the armed clashes currently raging between the al-Qaeda affiliated Shura Council and the ISIS in Derna to the war between al-Qaeda’s Al-Nusra Front and ISIS in Syria.
On Thursday, June 11, Bawabat-al-Wasat reported that a leading ISIS figure in Derna handed himself in to Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade. Thirty-four year old Saed al-Dorsy aka “Bashar” told Derna’s mujahideen that a number of ISIS prominent figures have left Derna to nearby valleys outside town. A leader in Derna’s Shura Council Mohammed Deeska told Bawabat-al-Wasat on Friday, June 12 that his forces control an IS prison that contains several hostages and that they have located Abu Ali al-Anbari, the Iraqi appointed by ISIS to govern Libya. Deeska said that calm will be restored in Derna by Ramadan, adding that the only centers still under ISIS control were the Hisba and Religious Court buildings. On the other hand, Bawabat-al-Wasat reported on Friday, June 12 that ISIS released an audio message to the members of the Shura Council and Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade telling them to repent and give up their weapons so their lives would be spared.
An informed source told Bawabat-al-Wasat on Saturday, June 13 that Shura Council’s members have gained full control of the coastline after seizing Derna Pearl Hotel that was occupied by ISIS fighters and snipers. The source added that fighting was still ongoing and that the Shura Council fighters have succeeded in taking over strategic locations in Derna and its outskirts.
In an unexpected turn of events in which terrorism is being fought by terrorism, it remains to be seen whether the Islamic State will maintain its superiority over the other jihadi groups in Derna or if al-Qaeda will make a comeback.