Libya Tribune

By Wolfram Lacher

The 17th February Revolution has fundamentally reshaped Libya’s political landscape.


The Influence of Islamist Currents in the Security Sector

While the Muslim Brotherhood cannot compete with Ghariani’s broad appeal and religious authority, it does exercise considerable influence in important areas. The Brotherhood dominates the local council in Benghazi, elected in May 2012, and its non-elected counterpart in Tripoli, and is strongly represented in the new security organs set up after the fall of the regime.

In September 2011 Abderrezak al-Aradi, a leading Muslim Brother and NTC member, helped set up the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) in Tripoli. Other prominent representatives include Deputy Interior Minister Omar al-Khadrawi and the deputy head of the Benghazi SSC, Fawzi Wanis al-Gaddafi. 35

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood also led revolutionary brigades. The 17th of February Brigade from Benghazi, which appeared in the first weeks of the revolution, and the Union of Revolutionary Brigades that emerged from it were coalitions commanded by figures from the Islamist spectrum. But they could not be regarded as the Brotherhood’s military wing, because they were heterogeneous in composition.

Their leaders included the Muslim Brothers Fawzi Bukatef, Mohammed Shaiter and Fawzi Wanis along with individuals from the spectrum between the Brotherhood and the LIFG milieu, such as Ismail Sallabi or Mohammed al-Gharabi. 36

Since the end of 2011 a number of prominent leaders of these brigades have set up the Warriors’ Affairs Commission (WAC), which plans to reintegrate the revolutionaries in civilian life with a programme potentially costing billions. 37

Islamist influence in the security apparatus extends far beyond the networks of the Muslim Brotherhood and the LIFG. Numerous leaders of the Der’ Libya and the SSCs, particularly in the east and in Tripoli, can be identified with Islamist currents. 38 Even where they do not belong to particular political organisations, many explicitly seek to use their influence in the security sector to create an Islamist state of some kind. 39

Extremist Groups

A series of anti-Western attacks, 40 as well as repeated incidents in which Sufi shrines were destroyed, point to the emergence of organised extremist groups following different radical Salafi currents. While they mostly operate outside the framework of the new official institutions, some of them can apparently count on support within them.

The well-armed brigades that have been destroying Sufi shrines largely in the west of the country evidently have good connections in the Supreme Security Committees. SSC elements on several occasions sealed off the vicinity and allowed the extremists to operate with impunity. 41

The shrine destroyers represent a current loyal to the Saudi preacher Rabi’ al-Madkhali, who is highly influential among Salafis in the north-west. During the revolution, the Madkhalia groups remained neutral, and in some cases even openly supported the regime. After Gaddafi’s fall they were apparently able to draw on massive financial support of unknown provenance to establish an impressive arsenal. 42

The Salafi Jihadi spectrum, which – unlike the Madkhalia – played a significant part in the revolution, has also been able to organise. In June 2012, Salafi Jihadi brigades from across Libya held a heavily armed “forum for the victory of sharia” in central Benghazi. 43

The rally would not have been possible without tacit acceptance by and – in the case of elements from the Der’ Libya – participation of leading brigades in the city, which are formally under defence ministry control. The Jihadi spectrum’s extremist fringe, which is responsible for carrying out attacks, is small but increasingly well-organised, and particularly strong in Darna. Dozens of fighters from Darna, and some members of Ansar al-Sharia from Benghazi, are known to have joined the struggle of Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali against French forces. 44

It remains unclear to what extent former LIFG members, some of whom are now in government, the GNC and the security apparatus, may be complicit in the activities of the radical Jihadi fringe. The milieu surrounding the former LIFG has fragmented into several currents, and as a whole should not be associated with violent extremism.

Some of the more prominent LIFG figures have moved into the political mainstream, and display commitment to state institutions and civilian politics. Others, such as the leaders of Darna’s Abu Slim Martyrs brigade, use their military weight to exert pressure on civil institutions. The diverging paths taken by LIFG veterans go some way to explaining why moderates have failed to prevent radical elements from resorting to violence.

Local and Regional Forces: Local Councils, Tribes, Militias

Apart from the Islamist movements, most political actors today identify and organise on a local or regional basis. The reasons for this lie in the trajectory of the civil war and the strength of local and tribal loyalties.

In the early days of the revolution, local councils formed in the north-east, in the Nafusa Mountains and in Misrata, to protect the population and ensure supplies of vital necessities. Over the course of the conflict, small units created to defend communities against regime forces developed into a multitude of revolutionary brigades and military councils, all based at the local level.

After the regime fell and its arms depots had been looted, the number of armed groups calling themselves revolutionary brigades proliferated, even in cities and regions (such as many parts of Tripoli) where there had been little fighting. Local military councils formed almost everywhere.

The local dynamics varied from region to region. Strong local structures emerged in the revolutionary centres of the north-west, closely linking civilian councils, tribal leaders and military units.

In the north-western region of Tripolitania the fall of the regime brought conflicts between revolutionary strongholds and tribes whose members had formed the backbone of Gaddafi’s security apparatus. Here, civilian/military structures arose even in cities that had taken the side of the regime or abstained from the struggle – to defend against attacks by revolutionary brigades.

In the north-east, which had not been under military threat since the start of the NATO intervention in March 2011, no local structures with comparable internal cohesion emerged, nor did conflicts flare between individual cities or tribes. Tensions arose principally between the revolutionary Islamist camp and members of the armed forces and security apparatus. But local and regional interests still play an important role for political mobilisation in the region. These include demands for decentralisation and the movement for federalism and regional autonomy.

The south (Fezzan) joined the revolution in its last month, largely without fighting. After the fall of the regime, serious conflicts erupted between newly formed tribal militias. These struggles have not yet been overcome, and civilian and military councils in the south are often controlled by a single faction.

Local groups define themselves above all in terms of ethnic or trial identity.

In many places the councils remain an important forum for local politics and the main channel for representing local interests to the central government, although their influence has decreased since the end of the war – since they have (as of May 2013) no formal institutional basis and thus no regular budget. 45

Their form of organisation and legitimacy varies from city to city. Only a handful of cities held local elections on their own initiative before the GNC in November 2012 decided to postpone further elections until a local administration law has been adopted.

Everywhere except the cities of the north-west the rise of local institutions increased the importance of tribal leaders. Councils of “wise men” (majalis hukama’), as both tribal leaders and respected urban community leaders are referred to, emerged in almost all cities during and after the revolution. But they did not appear from nowhere, as tribal leaders had been institutionally integrated under Gaddafi and not a few of the members of the new institutions had already served in similar functions under his regime. 46

Moves to create a national body for the new councils led to two competing initiatives. 47 Leaders of these national organisations and the local councils sought to mediate the conflicts that broke out in many places, but the success of these efforts was limited. Mostly the problem was the state’s inability to back agreements negotiated by tribal leaders by deploying security forces and prosecuting crimes. 48

Revolutionary Strongholds

Cities that were strongholds of the revolutionary struggle have become local power centres in the postwar phase. The political and military heavyweight in this respect is the north-western coastal city of Misrata, where 40,000 members of revolutionary brigades are registered in a city of 300,000 residents. 49

During the final months of the civil war Misrata’s brigades gained control over large parts of the army’s stocks of arms and munitions between Tripoli and Sirte. Months of fighting against regime forces created cohesive civilian and military institutions. In the immediate post-revolutionary period, the majority of Misrata’s revolutionary brigades stood under the control of the local military council and the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, which cooperated closely with one another and with the local council. 50

Despite a lack of clarity over its powers, the local council initially possessed broad legitimacy through elections that Misrata held on its own initiative in February 2012. Since then, however, support for the local council has declined and the Union and military council have lost much of their previous influence, as divisions within the city’s political and business elite have come to the fore and the security situation has deteriorated. 51

Nevertheless, the city’s representatives in the government and the GNC continue to push the interests of the revolutionary camp. Misratan leaders played a decisive role in establishing security institutions parallel to the old structures, in the form of the SSC and the Der’ Libya. Chief of Staff Youssef Mangoush and Kib’s interior minister, Fawzi Abdel ‘Aal, under whom these units emerged, are both from Misrata. The city dominates the Central Division of Der’ Libya, to which about seven thousand Misratis were recruited. 52

The division’s offensive against Bani Walid in October 2012 therefore possessed a strong local dimension, with both sides reviving the memory of historical conflicts between Misrata and the Warfalla tribe of Bani Walid in the early twentieth century.

The capture of the city underlined the military power of Misrata and its leading role in the revolutionary camp.

Zintan in north-western Libya, whose leaders regard themselves as rivals of Misrata, takes second place.

In contrast to urban Misrata, the strong internal cohesion that developed here has a tribal dimension, because Zintan is both tribe and city. Tribal leaders played a central role in political and military decision-making, with their shura council becoming the highest instance, to which the local civilian and military councils deferred. 53

Like the revolutionaries of Misrata, the Zintan brigades also succeeded in gaining control over large stocks of weaponry. 54

In summer 2012 Zintan’s brigades launched several artillery attacks on nearby villages of the Mashashiya tribe to force its members to flee or to prevent their return. 55 Some Libyan observers regarded the failure of these efforts as a sign of military weakness, and believe that the fighting decimated Zintan’s munitions stocks.

Zintan’s reputation also suffered from its brigades’ notoriety for arbitrary arrests and other transgressions in Tripoli. Zintani ambitions to consolidate their influence via their representative in the Kib cabinet, Defence Minister Osama al-Juweili, remained unfulfilled. But while Juweili was largely sidelined by Chief of Staff Mangoush and Deputy Defence Minister Mabrouk, 56 he still succeeded in turning a number of revolutionary brigades from Zintan into formal army units and entrusting them with important tasks. 57

This reflected the aspirations of Zintan’s leaders to secure the city’s predominance over parts of south-western Libya. During the civil war a “military council for the western region” composed largely of Zintanis was set up in the city and when the regime lost the Fezzan, brigades from Zintan recruited Tuareg and Toubou and took control of oil fields and border posts in the region. They remain present in strategic positions in the south-west.

Local structures with closely interconnected civilian and military leaderships also formed in other revolutionary strongholds, including Zawiya, the Souq al-Jum’a and Tajoura districts of Tripoli, and the Berber towns of the Nafusa Mountains. In all revolutionary cities, a political and military elite has emerged that claims to defend local interests.

This revolutionary elite includes civilian brigade commanders as well as army officers who defected at the beginning of the revolution, like the leader of the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, Colonel Salem Jouha, and the leader of the “military council for the western region”, Colonel Mokhtar Fernana. In Misrata, a port city with a well-established commercial elite, representatives of prominent families play an important role. Members of the Swehli, Fortia, al-Dharrat, Beit al-Mal and other leading families funded the revolutionary struggle during the early months and operated as the city’s political representatives. Tripoli business networks played a similarly important role in funding the brigades that seized control of the capital.

In the Nafusa Mountains tribal leaders were crucial, while in Zawiya and Tripoli representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi currents gained prominence. The elites of the revolution thus owe their own advancement to their contribution to the struggle, their wealth, their traditional reputation, or a combination of these factors. Their present influence is closely tied to the military might of their cities and brigades.

To be contiued


Wolfram Lacher is an Associate in SWP’s Middle East and Africa Division



35- Khadrawi had been appointed by Kib and has retained his position under Zeidan, underlining his influence. Fawzi Wanis was initially the leader of SSC Benghazi, but stepped down in September 2012 to become deputy leader.

36- Al-Gharabi is the leader and Ismail Sallabi was the deputy leader of the Rafallah Sahati Brigade, which split from the 17th of February Brigade after the fall of the regime but joined the Der’ Libya under strong public pressure in October 2012; its militia structure remains unaltered even after Ismail Sallabi’s return to civilian life. Individual units of the 17th of February Brigade joined the Der’ Libya, the military police and the intelligence service but retained their internal structures. Discussions with Mohammed al-Gharabi and a leading figure in the Warriors’ Affairs Commission, Tripoli, November 2012.

37- Two former leaders of the 17th of February Brigade, Mustafa Saqizli and Mohammed Shaiter, are now director and deputy director of the WAC.

38- The leadership of the Tripoli SSC is strongly dominated by Salafis – including its head, Hashem al-Bishr, and the commander of its support units, Abderraouf al-Kara. The former head of the national SSC, Abdellatif Qaddour, also had a clear Salafi stance. Within the Der’ Libya, the units based in Benghazi comprise several former revolutionary brigades with an explicit Salafi outlook.

39- Discussions with SSC leaders in Tripoli, as well as Ismail Sallabi, Mohammed al-Gharabi and other figures associated with the Rafallah Sahati brigade, Benghazi and Tripoli, June and November 2012, as well as March and April 2013.

40- The series included attacks on the US liaison office in Benghazi, convoys of the British ambassador and the UN special envoy, and the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Benghazi and Misrata. The most serious incidents were the attack on the US liaison office in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, in which the US ambassador was killed, as well as the car bomb that partially destroyed the French embassy in Tripoli on 23 April 2013. For an overview of incidents until December 2012, see US Department of State, Accountability Review Board Report, 18 December 2012, 15–16, .

41- Such as in the destruction of the al-Shaab mosque opposite the al-Mahari Radisson Hotel in central Tripoli in August 2012 and the destruction of the tomb of Zubeida in Bani Walid in October 2012. Discussions with eye witnesses, Bani Walid, November 2012; “Magariaf Calls Destruction of Tombs Illegal, SSC Denies Any Participation in Shrine Destruction”, al-Watan al-Libiya, 25 August 2012, .

42- Discussions with businesspeople from the Salafi milieu,Tripoli, November 2012; Sadeq al-Raqi’i, “Islamists in Libya: History and Jihad (3)”, al-Manara, 14 January 2012, .

43- Groups that attended the forum included – among many others – the Abu Obeida Ibn al-Jarrah, Ansar al-Sharia and Abu Slim Martyrs brigades from Benghazi and Darna, elements of the Der’ Libya forces based in Benghazi, the Faruq brigade from Misrata, as well as a brigade from Sirte. Author’s observations, “Forum for the Victory of Sharia”, Benghazi, 7 June 2012; “First Rally of Supporters of Sharia in Benghazi: Show of Strength by Armed Demonstrators, Fears of Libya Turning into Extremist State”, Quryna, 14 June 2012, .

44- Discussions with Benghazi residents with direct knowledge of the individuals involved, Benghazi, March 2013.

45- The local administration law passed by the Transitional Council in 2012 has yet to be implemented, because the Transitional Council preferred to leave this responsibility to the GNC and an elected government, but the GNC was long preoccupied with setting up a government. An attempt to pass the law with decisive amendments (governors and mayors to be appointed by the government rather than elected) was blocked in early 2013 by the GNC and the local councils. Besides organising local elections, implementing the law is likely to require further negotiations, as the government continues to insist that the local executive should be accountable to the central government, which will supply local budgets.

46- Wolfram Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics”, in The 2011Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future, ed. Jason Pack (London, 2013) (in press).

47- The Majlis Hukama Libya and the Ittihad Majalis al-Hukama wal-Shura. An attempt to create a joint structure at a conference in Tarhouna in November 2012 failed to achieve results.

48- International Crisis Group (ICG), Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts (Brussels, 2012).

49- Brian McQuinn, After the Fall: Libya’s Evolving Armed Groups,Small Arms Survey Working Paper 12 (Geneva, 2012), 13.

50- Ibid., 20–21.

51- Discussions, Misrata, April 2013.

52- Brian McQuinn, After the Fall (see note 49), 12.

53- Discussions with members of the shura council and the local council, Zintan, November 2012; Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics” (see note 46).

54- As late as May 2012 brigades from Zintan seized twentytanks and brought them to the city. “Military Source: Revolutionaries Take Twenty Requisitioned Tanks to Zintan”, Quryna, 28 May 2012, .

55- Zintan accuses the Mashashiya of having fought on Gaddafi’s side and failed to hand over suspects accused of participating in crimes of the regime. The origins of the conflict between Zintan and the Mashashiya lie in disputes over land rights that already led to repeated skirmishes between the two tribes in the early twentieth century. These tensions grew under Gaddafi when the state gave the Mashashiya rights to land claimed by Zintan. “New Decision by al-Shgeiga: Zintan Leader Demands Handover of Suspects to State Prosecutor”, Quryna, 14 June 2012; “Several Thousand Displaced in Jebel Nafusa: ICRC Claim”, Libya Herald, 12 June 2012; Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics” (see note 46).

56- Juweili repeatedly expressed his frustration over this. See his undated memo on the situation in Bani Walid and “Defence Minister Juwaili Launches Scathing Attack on NTC”, Libya Herald, 27 June 2012.

57- These include guarding the detained Gaddafi son Saif al-Islam in Zintan and controlling arms depots and large sections of the western border. Defence Ministry decrees 168, 188 and 189/2012, Tripoli, 21 July and 2 August 2012.