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.
Towards a militia oligopoly—April 2016 to date
On the night after the PC’s arrival, a confrontation between armed groups affiliated with the Ghwell government and the Nawasi Battalion was only narrowly avoided. Various influential figures worked intensively to dissuade PC opponents from escalating the situation. Senior Misratan figures engaged with a key former Libya Dawn commander from their city, Salah Badi.
During the same night, an armed group commanded by Haitham al-Tajuri attacked al-Naba TV, the leading voice of the PC’s adversaries in Tripoli, after it had screened Tajuri’s previous declaration of opposition to the PC, creating the (incorrect) impression the declaration had been issued that same day. Tajuri therefore aligned himself with the pro-PC camp by default.
The PC began working in Tripoli, though Serraj rarely ventured outside the naval base. Many armed groups in the capital initially maintained their ambivalence towards the body.
The PC’s initial association with the Suq al-Jum’a-based SDF and Nawasi Battalion derived from necessity and was due to the fact that the naval base fell within these two groups’ area of influence.
Tajuri’s alignment with the pro-PC forces was (as noted above) the result of his spontaneous attack on al-Naba TV during the night of the PC’s arrival. But the GNA’s entrance into Tripoli under these circumstances had far-reaching consequences for the perception of the GNA among political factions, and has defined the divides within Tripoli’s security landscape ever since.
The GNA’s adversaries seized on the fact that the government placed
itself at the mercy of the militias controlling Tripoli. The Zintanis, in particular, were furious. Influential actors in Zintan had supported the Skhirat agreement and appointed Omar al-Aswad as their representative in the PC, in the expectation that an agreement on new security arrangements in Tripoli would either allow Zintani forces to return or enable neutral forces to assume control.
This would have, in turn, established the basis for the return of around 20,000 civilians of Zintani origin who had fled the capital during the 2014 war. 26 The PC’s acquiescence to the status quo meant that there was no prospect of the armed groups who had fought the Zintanis in 2014 re-linquishing their control.
In Tripoli itself, the lines of conflict were partially structured along the divide between principled opponents of the new government and its supporters, who were frequently more opportunistic .
Many opponents regarded the PC and the Skhirat agreement as a foreign imposition.
These included Badi’s largely Misratan forces, several local armed groups in the eastern district of Tajura, parts of the Amazigh-dominated National Mobile Force, armed groups led by former members of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and members of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) who found refuge in Tripoli.
Many members of such groups continued to respect the religious authority of the Mufti, al-Sadeq al-Gharyani, who fiercely opposed the PC.
This fault line was hardened by an ideological divide. The Nawasi Battalion and Kara’s SDF included followers of the Saudi Salafist preacher Rabi’ al-Madkhali—the so-called Madakhila—who considered political Islamists ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadi currents to be apostates.
As a result, the SDF and Nawasi were declared enemies of the BRSC, former LIFG members, and the Mufti.
These rifts were further exacerbated by suspicions among some Tripoli factions that Kara, Kikli, and Tajuri were secretly in talks with Haftar, which could allow him to gain a foothold in the capital.
Haftar deliberately exploited these fears by making seemingly offhand comments about his willingness to cooperate with the three militia leaders (Al-Marsad, 2016).
Even armed groups that were open to engagement with the government were driven into opposition. This was often because they were competing with pro-PC militias for territory and economic assets (banks in particular).
In southern Tripoli, for example, Kikli’s forces in Abu Slim competed for territory with various Misratan armed groups and the local Salah al-Burki Battalion. As Kikli sought Tajuri’s support against Misratan groups, he associated with the pro-PC militias; the Burki Battalion, in turn, found itself on the opposing side almost by default.
A similar dynamic occurred in western Tripoli, where Kara and Tajuri sought to encroach on areas controlled by armed groups that were affiliated with the National Mobile Force. As a result, the latter joined the GNA’s opponents. The PC made little effort to engage such groups.
With rivalries developing along these ideological, political, and territorial lines, the arrival of the PC ushered in a period of intensifying confrontations. The Rixos Hotel and its adjacent Hospitality Palaces, which were the seat of the GNC, provided a key focus for these rivalries.
Shortly after the PC entered Tripoli, Misratan GNC member Abderrahman al-Sweihli persuaded a majority of GNC members to join him in establishing the High Council of State (HCS)—the GNC’s new incarnation under the Skhirat agreement—and elect him president of this body.
The HCS initially met at the Radisson Hotel, as the Rixos was controlled by units that were loyal to the GNC, including factions from the Misratan Mahjub and Marsa Brigades.
Three weeks after the PC arrived, Sweihli engineered the defection of these groups, which operated under the label of Presidential Security Force, and moved the HCS to the Rixos, ejecting the remnants of the GNC.
In October, these same armed groups switched sides again, allowing GNC loyalists and Khalifa al-Ghwell—who continued to claim to be heading Libya’s legitimate government—to return to the Rixos (Al-Wasat, 2016).
The struggle over the Rixos Hotel was compounded by conflict along ideological lines, between the Madakhila and their enemies. Shortly after Ghwell’s and the GNC’s return to the Rixos, Nader al-Omrani, a moderate religious scholar and a member of the Mufti’s Fatwa Authority, was kidnapped in Tripoli. By late November, reports spread that Omrani had been murdered.
Although his body was never found, a suspect in the case confessed, alleging that Kara’s SDF and a Madkhali preacher from Egypt were implicated in the killing (Howiya Press, 2016).
Escalating tensions pitted the Madkhali-dominated SDF and its allies against a diverse range of armed groups who were opposed to growing Madkhali influence.
In early December 2016, Kikli and Tajuri attacked the Ihsan Battalion, which was based in the Nasr park adjacent to the Rixos Hotel, accusing it of plotting terrorist attacks.
The group was led by former LIFG member Tareq Durman and included some BRSC elements; it had ties to individuals from Benghazi that had been imprisoned by Kara’s SDF as terrorists and was therefore staunchly opposed to the Madakhila.
There was a widespread perception in Tripoli at the time that the operation had at least the tacit backing of the PC, which remained silent over the aggressive expansion of the armed groups affiliated with it. After heavy clashes, mediators brokered a deal that resulted in Durman’s group leaving the area.
Tensions escalated again in February 2017 after a convoy carrying Sweihli came under fire near the Rixos, allegedly from elements of the Presidential Security Force (Al-Marsad, 2017a). The following
month, Kikli, whose territory directly bordered the Rixos, joined with Tajuri to dislodge the remnants of the GNC, the Ghwell government, and affiliated armed groups from the area.
Several days of heavy fighting ensued (Al-Wasat, 2017a). By that point, Kikli had, subsequent to several rounds of heavy fighting, emerged victorious from several confrontations with the Burki Battalion in al-Hadhba and a number of Misratan armed groups along the airport road.
Meanwhile, Tajuri and Kara had gradually prevailed over smaller armed groups affiliated with the National Mobile Force in the western district of Hay al-Andalus.
By March 2017, militias affiliated with the Presidency Council dominated central Tripoli. The overwhelming perception on both sides of this struggle was that the aggressive expansion of pro-PC militias enjoyed at least the tacit backing of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Western governments.
Militia leaders and officers associated with the PC even actively promoted the notion that this expansion was unfolding in accordance with the planned designs of UN-SMIL’s senior security advisor, the Italian General Paolo Serra.
According to one senior international official, hands-on backing for the militias’ expansion did not come from UNSMIL but from the Italian government. At the very least, there was a widespread sense that, as a former senior security official in the GNA observed, UNSMIL tacitly approved of these operations.
In May, Misratan armed groups affiliated with Ghwell and led by Salah Badi twice tried to advance into the southern districts controlled by Kikli. The second such attempt, in late May, provided a pretext for Tajuri and Kikli to remove the only major remaining obstacle to their
dominance in the capital—the Hadhba prison, which was controlled by former LIFG leader and former deputy defence minister Khaled al-Sharif, who was the prison’s director. Sharif had no links with Badi’s operation and had cooperated with the GNA’s general prosecutor in releasing inmates who had served their sentences or were never convicted.
But he was critical of the aggressive expansion of militias affiliated with the PC. Tajuri, in turn, coveted the Hadhba prison’s highly-prized inmates, who included Qaddafi’s son (Saadi) and intelligence chief (Abdallah al-Senoussi).
Tajuri and Kikli attacked the prison, captured it after heavy fighting, and then forced Sharif’s family to leave their private home before razing it to the ground (Afrigatenews, 2017). A triumphant PC openly celebrated the operation, which it said had been carried out by ‘forces belonging to the government’s security institutions’ (Presidency Council, 2017).
With the capture of Hadhba prison, an oligopoly of four large militias emerged in Tripoli: Tajuri’s, Kikli’s, and Kara’s forces, as well as the Nawasi Battalion. A number of smaller armed groups that were closely allied with at least one of these four large militias remained active in central Tripoli; notable examples include the Misratan-led Special Operations Force and the Bab Tajura Battalion in Suq al-Jum’a.
In the capital’s west and south, the four large militias maintained cordial relations with the Misratan-led Brigade 301 (in southern Tripoli) and the Knights of Janzur (in the eponymous western district).
The eastern district of Tajura was the only area that continued to host armed groups with an ambivalent or hostile attitude towards the four militias.
By May 2017, central Tripoli, with its state institutions, banks, businesses, and the capital’s only functioning airport, was divided between four large armed groups, clearly contrasting with the previous situation, in which a plethora of armed groups had directly competed for influence.
This complex patchwork of contested spheres of influence increasingly consolidated into discrete and clearly identifiable areas in which particular armed groups exerted exclusive control.
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.