By Mary Fitzgerald
In Libya there are very few truly national actors. The vast majority are local players, some of whom are relevant at the national level while representing the interests of their region, or in most cases, their city. Many important actors, particularly outside of the largest cities, also have tribal allegiances.
The terms “army” and “militia” mean different things to different Libyans and this is one of the consequences of the political power struggle that has roiled Libya since 2014.
While Khalifa Haftar is recognised as general commander of the armed forces by the HoR in eastern Libya, his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) is a mix of military units and tribal or regional-based armed groups, and is not recognised as a proper army by all military personnel across the east or west of Libya.
A number of senior military figures refused to join Haftar’s Operation Dignity against Islamists when it launched in May 2014. Some of these have since joined forces with his adversaries, whether cooperating with militias that comprised the now defunct anti-Haftar Libya Dawn coalition in western Libya, or joining with local jihadist-led groups to drive ISIS out from the eastern town of Derna.
Haftar’s opponents claim his irregular forces include Sudanese mercenaries, particularly from the Darfuri rebel group JEM.
Haftar’s LNA has different degrees of control in the area of central and eastern Libya that stretches from Ben Jawad to the border with Egypt. In this part of the country, LNA’s colonel Nadhuri is the military governor and he has replaced elected officials with military figures to head most municipalities across the east.
The Libya Dawn militia alliance that formed partly in response to Haftar’s Operation Dignity in summer 2014, and which drove then Dignity-allied militias from the western town of Zintan from Tripoli, no longer exists.
The coalition was made up of both Islamist and non-Islamist militias, armed groups from Tripoli and the port city of Misrata, and fighters from other parts of western Libya, including from the Amazigh minority. It had fractured long before the UN-brokered deal aimed at establishing a unity government was signed late last year, with tensions growing between Misratan factions and Tripoli-based groups in particular.
At present, Tripoli’s armed groups can be broadly categorised in terms of whether or not they support the unity government led by Fayez al-Sarraj that is currently trying to find its feet in the capital. For now, most are either explicitly supportive of, or ambivalent towards, the unity government. Those in the latter category have been waiting to see if their interests will be maintained under the new dispensation.
One of the most important figures supporting the new government is AbdelRauf Kara, leader of the Special Deterrent Force (or Rada) which is based in the Maitiga complex, also home to Tripoli’s only operating airport. Kara’s Salafist-leaning forces – which number around 1,500 – once sought to present themselves as a type of police force for the city, targeting alcohol and drug sellers in particular. Now they focus their efforts on tackling ISIS cells and sympathisers in the capital.
Kara’s men are currently forming a counter-terrorism unit with members of army special forces in western Libya who refused to join Haftar.
Armed groups from the Suq al-Jumaa area of Tripoli, including the Nawasi brigade, are also key to securing the unity government.
Another powerful figure in Tripoli is Haitham Tajouri, who heads the city’s largest militia. Tajouri, whose forces have threatened and intimidated officials since 2012, is not a particularly political figure. His priority is protecting the considerable interests he has accrued in the capital, and for now he remains largely ambivalent about the unity government.
A number of other Tripoli militias, some of which have links to figures from the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), are sceptical of the unity government and recently clashed with Kara and Tajouri’s forces.
Long-standing tensions between associates of the Tripoli-based Mufti Sheikh Sadeq al-Gheriani, and adherents of a particular strand of Salafism inspired by a Saudi sheikh called Rabee al-Madkhali, have increased in recent months. Colloquially known as Madkhalis, they detest the Muslim Brotherhood and all forms of political Islam.
As a result, many Madkhalis joined Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity in eastern Libya. Their critics suspect they may be a Trojan horse for Saudi influence in Libya. Kara’s Rada force contains a large number of Madkhalis, as do a number of other militias in Tripoli.
The disappearance and presumed killing in October of Nader al-Omrani, a member of the Mufti’s Dar al-Ifta, was blamed on Madkhalis, who have made clear their doctrinal disagreements with the Mufti.
The prosperous port city of Misrata is home to Libya’s largest and most powerful militias. Misrata is not as cohesive as its residents sometimes claim. Local rivalries feed the power-play between the city’s constellation of armed groups.
Several prominent political and business figures in Misrata support the unity government, which includes Misratan businessman Ahmed Maiteeq, as deputy prime minister. This has helped secure the backing of a number of the main armed groups from the city, including the two biggest – the Halbous and the Mahjoub brigades.
A wildcard in Misrata is Salah Badi, a controversial former parliamentarian and militia leader who was a key figure in the Libya Dawn alliance in 2014 and who opposes the UN-backed unity government.
Misratan forces comprise the largest component of Bunyan al Marsous (BAM), the coalition formed in May to take on ISIS in Sirte. It declared victory against ISIS in early December. Hundreds from Misrata have been killed in the battle for Sirte. BAM forces also include the 604 Battalion, formed mostly by Madkhali Salafists from across western Libya, including Sirte.
The small mountain town of Zintan enjoyed outsized influence in western Libya from 2011 until summer 2014 when its militias were driven from Tripoli by Libya Dawn. As a result, Zintani forces lost control of key strategic sites, including Tripoli’s international airport which was destroyed in the fighting.
Some later joined with the so-called Tribal Army – comprising fighters from the Warshefana region on Tripoli’s hinterland and other tribal elements from western Libya – to confront Libya Dawn-allied factions. Fighting later subsided due to local ceasefires.
Zintan’s militias, in light of the losses they suffered in 2014, have been assessing how they might fit into the changing order, and the town has maintained an ambiguous relationship with the PC. A number of Zintani forces have distanced themselves from Haftar – particularly those close to former defence minister Osama Juwaili – while others remain supportive. For example, the Sawaiq militia, led by Emad Trabelsi, turned up in the oil crescent in late 2016 where they are working with Haftar’s LNA.
Militiamen from Zintan have been responsible for the shutting of vital pipelines linking the Sharara and El Feel oil fields in southwestern Libya to coastal terminals since late 2014, costing over $20 billion in lost revenues, according to the National Oil Corporation.
Haftar, the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council and ISIS
Fighting continues in Benghazi between the forces that joined Haftar’s Operation Dignity and their opponents, though the latter have been squeezed into a handful of districts after Dignity forces recently took control of more territory in the city’s western flank, including the symbolic Gwarsha checkpoint.
Key to the anti-Dignity camp is the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), an umbrella group comprising a number of Islamist and self-described revolutionary factions, which is supported by patrons in Misrata. It also includes the UN-designated jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia. The BRSC fights alongside ISIS against Haftar’s forces. It has experienced internal tensions over its relationship with ISIS, and some of its backers have pushed for the BRSC to distance itself from the group.
The BRSC’s ranks have been fed by youth radicalised by Haftar’s scattergun campaign, which sought not only to eradicate Islamists of all stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood, but also took on an ethnic character at times, targeting families of western Libyan – and particularly Misratan – origin in the city.
Similar grievances led to the formation of the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB) in May 2016. The BDB is comprised of a number of anti-Haftar army and police personnel plus militiamen of various political stripes including hardline Islamists. The group – which has been endorsed by Tripoli-based Mufti Sheikh Sadeq al-Gheriani – has engaged with Haftar’s forces around eastern oil fields and infrastructure.
It faces accusations that some within its ranks maintain ambiguous links with extremists despite attempts to present a “moderate” face while fighting under the national flag. The BDB draws support from Benghazi residents who have been driven from the city or lost property, land and businesses as a result of Haftar’s operation.
Both the Dignity and anti-Dignity camps in Benghazi continue to experience internal rifts. Within the Dignity camp, which comprises army units, militias and armed civilians, the most important actor is the military special forces unit, known as Saiqa. The Saiqa is led by Wanis Bukhamada, a popular figure in the city.
Some Dignity commanders in Benghazi have been critical of Haftar’s leadership, including Mahdi al-Barghathi, the designated defence minister of the unity government.
Also of concern to many residents are the hardline Madkhali Salafist fighters that joined Haftar’s coalition in 2014 and have been empowered as a result, taking over mosques and other institutions.
The Petroleum Facilities Guards
Once present in several regions of Libya, the PFG has fallen apart as a national entity and until September the term was mostly used to refer to the forces in eastern Libya under the command of Ibrahim Jathran, a former revolutionary fighter.
The PFG remains ostensibly under the Ministry of Defence, though in reality its various local units – whether east, west or south – operate their own laws, and relations with the National Oil Corporation have been strained for several years.
In 2013, Jathran’s PFG took control of the main oil export terminals in eastern Libya and later attempted to sell oil. The almost year-long episode cost Libya billions in lost revenues. Before the LNA drove him from the ports in September, Jathran had alternately allied himself with both the HoR and its opponents in western Libya.
Many of the PFG in eastern Libya defected to the LNA following the latter’s outreach to tribal leaders, but a number have remained loyal to Jathran, who is trying to gather allies in a bid to recapture the terminals.
Mary Fitzgerald is the Irish Times award-winning foreign affairs correspondent. She is a journalist and researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya.