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.
Massive fraud through letters of credit was part of a broader trend in which the large militias in Tripoli divided state resources among themselves. To a much greater extent than before, profits derived from the capture and misappropriation of state resources are now concentrated within a small group of actors who are mostly from Tripoli itself.
The influence of armed groups within the administration is more pronounced now than at any point since 2011. The large militias controlling Tripoli are not loyal to the government, which is entirely at the mercy of these armed groups.
In interviews, leaders in the main armed groups consistently described the GNA as a ‘façade’ whose decrees were dictated by the militias. An SDF commander defended the group’s practice of arresting people first, then obtaining the corresponding arrest warrants from the general prosecutor:
The government cannot take decisions. Serraj’s decrees are not made by Serraj. The interior minister’s decrees are not made by the interior minister. We cannot act as if the government was in a position to give us orders.
The physical location of an institution plays an important role in an armed group’s ability to exert influence over that institution, whether through direct threats against senior officials or the infiltration of the administration.
A leader in the Nawasi Battalion summed it up: ‘If you control an area, you control the ministries in that area, and you issue the orders there.’ The Nawasi Battalion, Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB), and Special Deterrence Force (SDF) control the areas of central Tripoli in which most ministries, major state institutions, and headquarters of state-owned companies are located.
Commanders within Brigade 301, the largest Misratan-led militia based in Tripoli, are the most influential non-Tripolitanian stakeholders—but the peripheral districts they control host few important bodies.
Since 2011, it has become common practice for armed groups based in Tripoli to threaten officials in order to pursue their demands. But formerly, the presence of armed groups from a wide range of geographical and political backgrounds ensured a balance of power; officials might enjoy protection from one faction against the others and, in general, the benefits from extortion were more evenly distributed.
Under the cartel, the four large militias can extort officials at will.
In October 2017, two notorious TRB commanders briefly kidnapped the transportation minister, only releasing him after he agreed to sign over part of an Italian company’s EUR 78 million contract for the rebuilding of Tripoli International Airport to a company owned by a well-connected Misratan businessman.
In February 2018, one of the two commanders unsuccessfully tried to extort a senior official in the National Oil Corporation (NOC) to force him to sign a contract. The following month, the same commander forced the chief executive of the stateowned Afriqiyah Airways to sign an insurance contract for the company’s aircraft.
Kikli’s men, the SDF, and TRB all arrested senior Afriqiyah executives at various points in 2017, holding their captives for months seeking to force the appointment of their allies to senior positions in the company or obtain other favours.
The SDF also detained the chief executive of the other main state-wned carrier, Libyan Airlines, for eight months, in contravention of a release order by the general prosecutor. He was eventually freed in April 2018, though the price of his release remains unclear.
As in the case of letters of credit, the use of force by armed groups is only their most obvious form of influence. They can also increasingly rely on accomplices within state institutions. From the GNA’s establishment, the top security positions were dominated by officers from Tripoli’s Suq al-Jum’a district with close ties to the Nawasi, SDF, or TRB.
Examples of such representatives include: Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil, who played a key role in negotiating the entry of the PC to Tripoli and later became chief of staff of the army; the head of the Presidential Guard, Najmi al-Naku’; and the interior minister, Aref al-Khuja, who was dismissed in February 2018.
Since then, however, accounts from bureaucrats, politicians, and leaders of armed groups consistently claim that the large Tripolitanian militias are placing a large number of allies in the top and middle ranks of the government. The vast majority of these agents are from Tripoli.
One career bureaucrat said: I’m against thinking in terms of geographical background. But these groups are stuffing the ministries with Trabelsia [Tripolitanians]. You cannot operate a national unity government like this.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is particularly affected. Postings to embassies abroad are attractive for their high salaries. Some postings also offer significant influence due to the administrative procedures they control, such as the position of consul in Tunis.
The Consul is currently a former TRB leader, an arrangement clearly attesting to the group’s aggressive infiltration of the MFA. In May 2017, when foreign minister Mohamed Siala described Haftar as the ‘head of the army’, the TRB and Nawasi Battalion protested by deploying tanks and heavy weapons around the MFA and the seat of the PC.
The foreign ministry building is controlled by a TRB unit, which has a large base just behind the ministry; a Tajura-based group allied with the TRB also has a presence in the ministry. The ‘protest’ was only resolved after Siala agreed to appoint more than two dozen militiamen to embassies abroad. Since then, TRB leaders have placed even more allies and clients in Libyan embassies.
Other ministries offer more significant prizes, including positions that offer influence over the disposition of state assets, allowing for their misappropriation. The health supplies administration, for example, imports medicine and has an annual budget of around LD 700 million (USD 510 million at the official exchange rate).
In mid-2017, TRB leaders emerged victorious from their struggle with a Misrata-based political lobby and placed their candidate at the head of the body. And the corrupt networks associated with Tripoli’s armed groups are increasingly able to defraud the state by coordinating their actions across different state institutions.
Nawasi Battalion leaders, for instance, allegedly placed agents in both senior and mid-level positions in the finance ministry and the civil registry office, allowing them to inflate salary payments and invest the difference in their armed group.
In sum, the degree of state capture by Tripoli’s armed groups is unprecedented, and the group of people benefiting from fraud and embezzlement, while also occupying legitimate administrative positions, is drawn from a narrower section of society than ever before.
The situation subverts the notional purpose of the ‘Government of National Accord’. Should the political deadlock be broken anytime soon, it has the potential to present a major challenge to the installation of any meaningful unity government. It is also unsustainable due to the military balance of power in the greater Tripoli area: in Tripoli’s outskirts and western Libyan cities that host powerful military forces, discontent over the state of affairs in the capital is rising fast.
The cartel’s future: negotiated settlement or violent collapse?
Internal rivalries within the militia cartel and violent opposition by those who are excluded from it pose serious threats to the cartel’s survival. A combination of factors has prevented military action against the cartel.
A few selected power-brokers from cities such as Misrata and Zintan have stakes in the Tripoli government, and most actors in the Tripoli area fear that an open conflict over the capital would present an opportunity for Haftar to gain a foothold in the area. But the likelihood of a violent collapse of the cartel increases in equal proportion to its stranglehold upon state institutions.
It appears now that only a negotiated settlement regulating territorial control over key locations and facilities in Tripoli might avert another war over the capital.
Tensions within the cartel
Leaders of the armed groups that are part of the cartel acknowledge that tensions are increasing both within and between these groups. On the one hand, the competing local political networks associated with each of the four groups risk drawing the militias into their rivalries.
Kikli and TRB leaders, in particular, are increasingly alarmed about the SDF’s investment in intelligence and surveillance capabilities, as well as the role of Madkhali ideology in driving its actions.
One TRB commander described the SDF as a ‘dangerous extremist organization’ that had eyes and ears in all state institutions. While fully acknowledging the scale of the criminal activities of fellow TRB commanders, he stressed that the threat from the Madakhila was far more serious.
An advisor to Kikli said that the problem in Tripoli ‘is with Haitham and Kara—particularly with Kara, who is trying to grab it all’.
On the other hand, the rapid enrichment of some militia leaders is fuelling animosities among different leaders of the same group and between these leaders and their former brothers-in-arms.
During interviews, several current and former TRB and SDF commanders expressed their dismay at what they described as brazen acts of extortion, pillage, and self-enrichment by their former colleagues. Several pointed to evidence presented by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya that Tajuri had extorted LCs worth dozens of millions of dollars.
An influential businessman who was formerly closely aligned with the SDF expressed alarm over the unchecked power of the large militias in general, and the SDF in particular which, he maintained, detained many innocent people in its Mitiga prison, including businessmen whom it would only release in return for ransom payments.
Tripolitanian armed groups are not tightly structured and neatly bounded organizations. The core leadership and founding members of groups such as TRB, SDF, and Nawasi are linked by strong social ties forged in the 2011 conflict, often on the basis of pre-existing neighbourhood or family ties.
Social ties also connect several of these groups, such as the Suq al- Jum’a-based SDF and the Nawasi Battalion, and they link leaders of these groups to businessmen and politicians. But the rapid ascent of a handful of militia leaders and their changing political alliances is testing the cohesion of these groups.
The majority of these militias’ members are now foot soldiers whose affiliation with the group owes more to salaries than to loyalty or longstanding ties. As the economic crisis has deepened over the past three years, a pool of unattached labour for militias developed in the greater Tripoli area. Cartel militias and those excluded from the cartel can and do recruit among former members of armed groups which were pushed out of Tripoli.
Other recruits include internally displaced persons from eastern Libya, Tuareg and Tubu soldiers from southern Libya, and fighters from Chad. 75 The emergence of this ‘militia proletariat’ increases the potential for sudden and dramatic shifts in the balance of power between the groups.
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.