Tripoli’s Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State
By Wolfram Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi
This Paper examines the rise of a militia cartel in Tripoli, and concludes that the situation is untenable, as it risks provoking a major new conflict over Tripoli fought by those who have been excluded from access to the state and impedes efforts to establish a meaningful unity government.
Capital without government — July 2014 to March 2016
On 13 July 2014, a loose alliance of armed groups began attacking Zintani positions in Tripoli (see Map 1, p. 6). The coalition, which subsequently became known as Libya Dawn, was largely made up of Misratan forces but also included Ghaniwa al-Kikli’s forces (from Abu Slim), the ‘Knights of Janzur’ (who had already clashed with the Sawai’q during the preceding week), the National Mobile Force (a group whose members mostly hailed from Amazigh towns), and armed groups from Zawiya (Lacher and Cole, 2014).
In contrast, several large Tripolitanian militias, while supportive of the operation, refrained from participating—examples included Haitham al-Tajuri’s Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion and Abd al-Rauf Kara’s Special Deterrence Force. Others, including groups from Tajura and Fashlum, were suspected by Libya Dawn leaders of harbouring sympathies for the Zintanis, even though they did not move to support them.
After Libya Dawn forces successfully expelled the Zintanis from the capital in late August—destroying Tripoli’s International Airport in the process—wide-ranging changes in Tripoli’s security landscape began. Groups from Misrata took over former Zintani positions along the airport road, as well as the Islamic Call Society compound formerly held by the Sawa’iq.
Other components of Libya Dawn also significantly expanded their influence in the capital. Forces suspected of retaining ties to Haftar or the Zintanis were gradually driven out, with armed groups from Tajura and Fashlum withdrawing from the capital by as late as April 2015 after heavy clashes.
Misrata’s Mahjub Brigade deployed a force to the prime minister’s office in central Tripoli, where Omar al-Hassi headed a self-styled ‘National Salvation Government’ relying on remnants of the GNC to retain the appearance of legitimacy.
Leaders of armed groups who had participated in Libya Dawn exercised substantial influence on the composition of the Hassi government. Examples include the defence minister, Khalifa al-Ghwell— who had been nominated by Misratan leaders—and the interior minister, Muhammad Shaiter—who represented the armed groups from Benghazi who fought against Haftar’s forces and were allied with the Libya Dawn coalition.
Commanders from the Amazigh-dominated National Mobile Force nominated the ministers of Labour, Local Government, Planning, and Tele-communications, as well as several deputy ministers.
As Hassi sought to accommodate figures supported by the armed groups, the number of deputy ministers grew, by one count in January 2015, to 106.
After Ghwell replaced Hassi as prime minister in 2015, he appointed a leader of the Suq al-Jum’a-based Nawasi Battalion, Abd al-Latif Qaddur, as interior minister. These newly appointed ministers in turn reconfigured the institutional arrangements for armed groups in Tripoli.
During his time as interior minister, Muhammad al-Shaiter appointed Omar al-Khadrawi, who had been deputy interior minister in 2011–13, as head of the newly created Central Security Apparatus (CSA). Khadrawi oversaw the integration of armed groups into the CSA: this provided these groups with an institutional affiliation they had lacked since the SSC’s dissolution.
Tajuri’s Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB) became the CSA’s First Security Unit; the Abu Slim SSC unit, led by Kikli, became the CSA’s Abu Slim Unit; and the Suq al-Jum’a-based Nawasi Battalion became the CSA’s Northern Tripoli Unit.
Salah al-Burki, a militia leader in Abu Slim who had distinguished himself in the battle over the airport in 2014, was appointed head of the interior ministry’s General Investigations Apparatus. The National Mobile Force fragmented as its representatives in the Hassi (later Ghwell) government built up their own units.
In their attempts to refashion the loyalties of armed groups using financial incentives, the Tripoli authorities under Hassi and later Ghwell lacked two critical features of a government.
Firstly, the Tripoli government was ostracized internationally, after the failure of its plan to translate the Libya Dawn alliance’s control over the capital into international recognition.
Secondly, and this was also partially attributable to its lack of international recognition, it lacked regular access to budgets. The governor of the Central Bank, al-Saddiq al-Kabir, decided which expenditure items of the rival governments in Tripoli and the eastern city of al-Bayda he would fund.
This effectively meant that Kabir continued to allow payments of salaries based on pre-2015 payrolls, and allocated subsidies in accordance with the Central Bank’s own budgeting process, while refusing to fund the expansion of government payrolls and other expenditures (ICG, 2015).
The two rival governments were therefore forced to find other ways of mobilizing resources to allocate to the armed groups. In the case of the Hassi (later Ghwell) government, this mainly meant using funds left over from the 2014 budget of the Zeidan government and commandeering cash from state-owned enterprises such as the Post and Tele-communications Company (UNSC, 2017, pp. 230–31).
Hassi, Ghwell, and their ministers probably raised somewhere between LD 2 billion (USD 1.4 billion) and LD 3 billion (USD 2.1 billion) in this manner, but their purchasing power nevertheless lagged far behind previous governments.
The Hassi (later Ghwell) government was unable to accommodate the demands of key constituencies. For example, after the Misratan-dominated Central Shield’s temporary contracts ran out in August 2014, the Hassi government could not find a new arrangement that would have allowed former Central Shield members to continue receiving salaries.
Ghwell did, however, cut the salaries of the two largest Misratan groups—the Halbus and Mahjub Brigades—after they entered into local ceasefires in the Warshafana area, south-west of Tripoli, in
April 2015. When leaders of the two brigades visited him in November 2015, Ghwell offered not only to resume but to increase the payments if they renounced the ceasefire agreements.
While disruptions to the financing patterns of armed groups reshaped the financial strategies of Tripoli militias, political rifts within the former Libya Dawn coalition also fomented tensions in and around the capital.
The ceasefire negotiated by the Halbus and Mahjub Brigades in Warshafana reflected the emergence of a strong alliance of Misratan brigade leaders, politicians, and notables who supported the end of the war and the formation of a unity government.
They faced opposition from rejectionist politicians and militias from Misrata, Tripoli, and Zawiya who were associated with the Ghwell government or the GNC leadership, and opposed the UN-led talks over a unity government.
Halbus and Mahjub leaders also negotiated with the Zintanis, and in the summer of 2015 came close to an agreement that would have returned Zintan to the capital in support of a unity government. This raised the risk of open conflict with rejectionist elements in Tripoli.
Such a confrontation was ultimately avoided because Misratan and Zintani negotiators failed to conclude a deal. Meanwhile, leaders of some armed groups from Misrata and Tripoli kept visiting UN officials in Tunis to express their support for the Skhirat negotiations and the formation of a unity government.
In some cases, these leaders faced dissenting voices from their own ranks, leaving internationals guessing as to which elements would support or oppose the establishment of a unity government.
Uncertainty over whether a deal could be reached and whether the government could assume office in Tripoli prevented such tensions from escalating into open confrontation. When the Skhirat agreement was signed in December 2015, there was no detailed understanding over the arrangements needed to secure Tripoli for a unity government representing all key factions.
Indeed, no serious talks had been held with or between the armed groups. The agreement established a nine-member Presidency Council under the leadership of Fayez al-Serraj that would—its Western supporters hoped—soon relocate to Tripoli to establish the ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA).
But several members of the Presidency Council (PC), including the eastern representative Ali al-Qatrani and the Zintani representative Omar al-Aswad, rejected a move to Tripoli while it remained under the control of armed groups, many of which had supported Libya Dawn in 2014 (ICG, 2016).
Against the backdrop of this resistance, Serraj and the Misratan representative in the PC, Ahmed Maitig, engaged a narrow range of armed groups in order to prepare for the PC’s relocation to Tripoli. Serraj’s advisors primarily engaged with the Suq al-Jum’a-based Nawasi Battalion, as well as with Kara’s Special Deterrence Force (SDF), which controlled the capital’s only functioning international airport, Mitiga, along with the detention facilities within its perimeter.
Kara signalled to the PC’s security advisors that he would support the body but could not guarantee its arrival via Mitiga due to threats from Tajura-based factions that they would target the plane. Maitig reached arrangements with some Mahjub and Halbus leaders, including with Brigade 301, a Halbus offshoot that had been established by a decree from Ghwell in his days as defence minister.
Most armed groups in Tripoli refused to commit their support to the GNA or remained overtly hostile towards it. In mid-March 2016, only two weeks before the PC’s arrival in Tripoli, Haitham al-Tajuri led an armed convoy through central Tripoli to oppose the GNA and proclaim his support for re-establishing the monarchy, thereby cementing his reputation for unpredictability (Ewan Libya, 2016a).
When, on 30 March, Serraj and five other PC members arrived by boat from Tunisia at the Abu Sitta naval base in central Tripoli, with the exception of the Navy unit there and the Nawasi Battalion that controlled base’s perimeter, there was no detailed understanding on security arrangements in place.
To be continued
Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He has worked on and conducted research in Libya since 2007, including in a previous capacity as an analyst at a business risk consultancy, from 2007 to 2010.
Alaa al-Idrissi was an official at an interior ministry institution in Tripoli from 2012–14. He is active in mediating and resolving conflicts between armed groups in Tripoli.