Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Mar. 15, 2016, 11:53am

Last week the Islamic State’s Arabic propaganda magazine al-Nabaa featured a two-page interview with Abdulqader al-Najdi, the new commander who will fill the leadership gap left by the death of former ISIS leader in Libya, Abu Mughirah al-Qahtani (also known as Abu Nabil al-Anbari), who was killed during the December 2015 American air strikes in Derna.

Excerpts from the interview with Najdi were first translated by the Italian media, who are closely monitoring the latest developments in the Libyan theater especially in light of ongoing discussions on Italy’s potential role in the African country.

Probably due to security reasons - speculates Giordano Stabile, the Israel-based Italian foreign correspondent for La Stampa - no image of the new leader appears in al-Nabaa. His words resonate with jihadi tradition in predicting the conquest of Rome by Libyan ISIS fighters, whom Najdi generously praises as the “vanguard of the Caliphate.” In the al-Nabaa column, Najdi condemns general Khalifa Haftar and his successful offensives in Benghazi, lashes out at the coalition of the Tripoli-based militia Libya Dawn for its “too democratic” approach, and lauds Libya’s abundant oil resources as a “gift of God.”

ISIS' growing presence in Libya
ISIS' growing presence in Libya | Stringer/Reuters via Landov

Ultimately, it is not the content of his words as much as it is his calculative tone in revealing important details about the new mysterious ISIS leader. Political Islam expert Marco Arnaboldi remarked on the strong religious dimension of his discourse, which stands out even when compared to the standards of ISIS’ publications. Arnaboldi stressed that Najdi is assertive, clearly masters classical Arabic, and seems well-versed in Islamic sciences. “The choice to present himself as a well-educated and resolved figure” seems deliberate, Arnaboldi says, and appears to be “functional to the style and tone of the magazine [al-Nabaa]”.

Middle East expert and prominent Il Foglio columnist Daniele Raineri speculates that Najdi may have followed the example of his predecessor, who changed his name once he rose to become ISIS’ top commander in Libya, which could explain why there is no record of his enterprises before last week’s interview. Yet Raineri observes that Najdi’s Saudi nationality (as indicated by his nom de guerre referencing the Saudi region of Najd) along with his theological expertise point to the profile of a well-known Saudi commander, Abu Habib al-Jazrawi.

Al-Jazrawi arrived in Libya in September 2014 as an emissary from ISIS along with the Yemeni Abu al-Bara al-Azdi. Together, the two commanders collected pledges of allegiance to ISIS from the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC) brigades based in Derna on October 31, 2014, and eventually rebaptized eastern Libya – which has now become a province under ISIS control - “Wilayat Barqa” or “Cyrenaica Province.”

The new Islamic State leader takes power in a crucial moment in the rise of ISIS, which has greatly extended its control over Libyan territory and is widely perceived as able to pose a transnational terrorist threat. “Any effective action against ISIS will require local Libyan allies,” posits International Crisis Group analyst Claudia Gazzini. Economic stability and profits from an increased oil and gas production may be the only reason why Libya’s two governments and the plethora of militias competing in the country could succeed in putting aside their differences. Ironically, ISIS’ rhetoric has become increasingly “nationalistic” and the group has started to portray “itself as the most important bulwark against foreign intervention.” The new leadership may be decisive for ISIS’ future positioning and potentially influence the group’s current inability to generate “direct revenue from the exploitation of oil in Libya”.

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