On 23 October 2020 Libya’s warring factions signed a ‘permanent’ ceasefire in Geneva. The UN described the agreement as ‘historic’, but while the Special Envoy and sundry representatives stood smiling in front of the cameras, it was business as usual for the militias of Tripoli.
Since the agreement was signed there have been clashes between the Tarhuna Protection Force and RADA Special Deterrence Forces; between the Ghneiwa Brigade and the 301st Brigade, and between Syrian mercenaries and Volcano of Anger militiamen. All of these groups had been fighting on the same side for the Government of National Accord (GNA) against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), but since his defeat, their weapons have been now pitched against each other.
Security sector reform (SSR) processes are central to the October ceasefire accord. The agreement stipulates that within three months all military units and armed groups must leave the frontlines and return to their camps. Mercenaries and foreign fighters must depart from the Libyan territories. The agreement also outlines steps to be taken to achieve the longer-term goal of demobilising Libya’s armed groups. While there have been signs of capitulation with some militiamen returning to their camps, SSR has generally been met with resistance. Libyan armed groups are deeply embedded within the political, social, and economic fabric of Libyan society – their institutionalisation frustrating SSR efforts from the outset. This piece will examine the GNA’s reliance on militias for security, assess its SSR endeavours, and explore some of the future challenges to SSR.
Eastern Libya and the LNA
Before attending to Tripolitania’s armed groups, it is first necessary to understand the military dynamics of eastern Libya. Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s LNA based in the east is a single military entity- the like of which does not exist in GNA-controlled western Libya. The LNA is predicated upon alliances between local and tribal forces which have been bought under the leadership of Haftar. Even though the Field Marshall finds himself in a newly relegated position, (he is no longer the east’s chief negotiator having overseen the failed Tripoli offensive), the coalition of armed forces in eastern Libya remains under his control.
Despite the LNA being itself an amalgam of militias, Haftar is vociferously anti-militia. His anti-militia narrative has been central to his military campaign against the GNA, liberating the capital from ‘the militia state’ was the primary justification for his Tripoli offensive. In its propaganda, the LNA presents itself as a unified and cohesive security force- in contrast to the fragmented nature of the pro-GNA camp. Clashes between eastern armed groups do take place in Benghazi, but it is difficult to obtain information about the social and political reality of Libya’s eastern capital – described by one journalist as a ‘police state’.
Tripolitania’s armed groups
The majority of armed groups were formed towards the end of the popular uprising that ousted Ghaddafi. In the absence of an effective national army or police force, the militias provided localised security. Many of these groups are the same communities that supported the 2011 uprisings against Ghaddafi. They self-identify as guardians of the ‘true revolution’. Hyper-localism has defined Libya’s post-Ghaddafi political and social landscape, and the GNA military apparatus comprises militia groups from key cities in Tripolitania, such as Zawiya, Zintan and Misrata. Western Libya’s armed groups are characterised by their shifting allegiances: groups are often created, merged, and dissolved.
Criminal gangs and extremist groups are part and parcel of western Libya’s security apparatus. In October 2020, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued a statement calling for the release of 60 migrants being held in captivity by armed men in Sabratha. MSF reported that the group, which included 24 children, were abducted from their homes and were being held in a former military base in appalling conditions. Local media claimed that the infamous human trafficker, Al Ammu, was behind the abduction. Al Ammu or ‘the Uncle’ is commander of the Anas al-Dabbashi militia, wanted by Interpol, the UN has imposed a travel ban and on him and frozen his assets. The Uncle’s militia is known for cultivating relations with terrorist groups.
No doubt many of Tripolitania’s militias behave like venal thugs – kleptocrats who profiteer from their control of infrastructure and resources. However, there is room for nuance and others are de facto guardians of localities, defending their communities in the absence of the state. Libyan women interviewed as part of a Chatham House project said it mattered to them that armed groups were local and had a close relationship with their community.
Relationships between pro-GNA armed groups
Tripolitania’s security sector is inherently fissiparous. Clashes between armed groups take place daily, ranging from skirmishes between individuals to firing rockets in densely populated urban areas, resulting in civilian casualties. These clashes are almost wholly unreported in English-language media.
During Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, the pro-GNA front was characterised by the tacit co-existence of its heterogeneous leadership. Even while fighting the LNA, pro-GNA groups were known to turn their guns on each other. Fallouts between GNA leaders and militia commanders were a public affair. Colonel Faraj Al-Khalil, Head of the Artillery Corps of Misrata’s city forces, and a senior commander in the GNA’s Volcano of Anger Operation described armed groups from Tripoli as “semi-men”, the GNA Defence Minister as having a soul of “asphalt” and the GNA Prime Minister as “human scrap”. The presence of Turkish operatives and Syrian mercenaries also caused resentment among the pro-GNA camp. Militias resented the fact that Syrian mercenaries were often better paid and perceived the Turkish intervention, even though it was in support of the GNA, as part of a neo-Ottoman project.
Tripolitania’s armed groups always represented an anti-LNA alliance rather than a pro-GNA one. However now that the battle for Tripoli has been won and the threat from the east has subsided, the anti-LNA sentiment which had united Tripolitania’s armed groups against a common enemy has lost its potency. There is a very real concern that the rival factions which united to fight Haftar could now turn on each other, reigniting the civil war.
Security Sector Reform (SSR)
The proliferation of militia groups in Libya is perceived as the stumbling block to good governance, democracy, and the healthy functioning of the economy. The 23 October ceasefire agreement outlined steps to demobilise armed groups: a joint subcommittee is to be set up to identify and categorise armed groups and a mechanism will be established to integrate armed groups into state institutions. For those that do not meet the requirements or are unwilling to integrate into the state, the United Nations Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) said that it will “find solutions”.
Prior to this, the GNA Minister of the Interior, Fathi Bashagha, had developed SSR plans involving the cataloguing of pro-GNA armed group members into a traffic light system. He had also arrested criminal elements within the GNA security apparatus. On 14 October the GNA announced it had arrested the human trafficker Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, known as “Bija”. He headed the coast guard in Zawiya and was notorious for using firearms to sink holes in migrant ships. Bija was detained by RADA (one of Tripoli’s most influential armed groups).
The events that followed Bija’s arrest were straight from the militia playbook. Clashes erupted between militias loyal to Bija from Zawiya and RADA forces. Militias from Zawiya reportedly closed roads in west Tripoli and threatened to turn off power supplies to Tripoli via the Zawiya refinery base unless Bija is released.
Obstacles to SSR
Bija’s arrest exemplifies some of the difficulties associated with SSR in Libya. Firstly, and most significantly, that arms groups will use their control of public infrastructure and resources as leverage to achieve their goals. Second, within Libya’s current military and political structures, the arrest of criminal and extremist elements is likely to be met with resistance. Finally, the importance of place. Despite Zawiya and Tripoli being geographically close, Libya’s small population relative to its vast territory intensifies local divisions and loyalties.
A further challenge for SSR is that Libyan armed groups benefit from political patronage. Libya’s most senior politicians rely on armed groups for their personal protection. After the Misrati-born Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha was suspended in August armed groups from Misrata took to the streets in protest. When Bashagha was reinstated he returned to Tripoli flanked by Misrati militiamen.
SSR of the LNA military apparatus in eastern Libya is equally problematic. Analysis from Crisis Group poses a question mark over whether LNA commanders will agree to dissolve armed groups that have been integrated into its security forces. Indeed, at this stage, the 23 October agreement does not specify if the demobilisation applies to both sides or solely to GNA security forces.
For almost a decade weapons have continued to flood into Libya in disregard of the 2011 arms embargo. The stockpiles of small-arms, anti-aircraft missiles and rockets built up from years of conflict hamper SSR and disarmament efforts. The level of foreign interference in this most recent iteration of the Libyan Civil War means that Libya’s militias have more weapons, and more technologically advanced weapons than ever before.
Future international support for the GNA is likely to be dependent on the success of SSR. For the US, the ties between some armed groups and Islamist extremists are troubling while the EU is particularly concerned about the role of armed groups in human trafficking and organised crime. SSR processes will, and have been, resisted in western Libya; armed groups are too closely entwined with political elites and their grip on economic institutions is too firm. Political actors and local constituencies have been jockeying for power ever since the GNA’s long-time Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, announced his resignation. The danger is that this turmoil will trigger an escalation in clashes between Tripolitania’s armed groups, making SSR an increasingly dim and more distant prospect.
*photograph by Sarah Firth