By Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski & Christopher K. Lamont
The battle for control over critical infrastructure shows who might win the civil war.
On April 4, the Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army launched an assault on the country’s capital, Tripoli.
The move was the culmination of several years in which they had gradually acquired Libyan territory. Several days later, when Haftar’s warplanes carried out airstrikes on Mitiga, the Libyan capital’s last functioning airport, United Nations envoy Ghassan Salame warned of “a serious violation of humanitarian law.”
Haftar’s militias also briefly took control of Tripoli International Airport, the capital’s main airport, located about 15 miles south of the city.
Although the airport has been closed to civilian air travel since 2014, when it was damaged by fighting between rival militias, Haftar’s forces wanted to use it as a staging ground for further advances on Tripoli. But they never got the chance: Militias loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) recaptured the facility just two days later.
This is not the first time that Libya’s airports have been the epicenter of the country’s civil war. Since the 2011 ouster of the dictator, airports—as well as other critical infrastructure, including oil terminals, weapons depots, military barracks, bridges, and major roads—have become vital strategic assets for the many militias vying for Libya’s vast natural resources and, ultimately, control of the country.
On the eve of the 2011 uprising, Turkish contractors were hard at work building gleaming new terminals there—work that has never been completed.
In August 2011, a group of militias, including brigades from the western mountain town of Zintan and the central coastal city of Misrata, liberated Tripoli from Qaddafi’s forces.
The powerful Zintani militia took control of the airport and subsequently profited handsomely from the customs and smuggling revenues it provided.
Anyone who flew through Tripoli in the early post-Qaddafi years would be welcomed by Toyota pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.
The militiamen who ran the airport wore state insignias to create the illusion of legitimacy, but nobody doubted who was really in control.
In July 2014, fighting erupted in Tripoli between the Zintanis and militias from Misrata. The value of the airport quickly became apparent: The Zintanis set it ablaze rather than allow it to fall into the hands of rival militias.
The Misrata militias nonetheless took control of the smoking remains of the airport by August 2014, forcing the Zintanis to withdraw.
In turn, a smaller airport, Mitiga International Airport, located five miles east of Tripoli, became the capital’s de facto international airport, though foreign carriers almost never used it.
On the eve of the latest fighting, the facility served only three Libyan airlines, with around 10 flights daily, mostly to Tunisia or Turkey, along with a handful of other destinations in the Middle East and Africa.
Over Libya’s nearly century-long history, who controls Mitiga controls the country. In the early 1920s, Italy built an airfield there. During World War II, Mitiga became a German air base, only to be captured by the British in 1943 and then transferred to the U.S. military.
The Americans renamed it Wheelus Air Base, and for about 25 years, U.S. personnel and their families lived and worked there. Over time, the U.S. military presence became a despised symbol of the West’s exploitation of Libya’s oil resources.
When a young Libyan army officer named Muammar al-Qaddafi carried out a coup against the ruling monarchy in 1969, one of his first acts was to expel the Americans from Wheelus.
Qaddafi renamed the facility Okba Ben Nafi Air Base, and for some time Libyan and Soviet air forces operated from there. In 1995, the airport became Tripoli’s second civilian airport and was given its current name, Mitiga.
During the 2011 revolution, Mitiga fell under the control of a Salafi militia led by a young commander named Abd al-Rauf Kara. Kara and his fighters were given political cover and salaries by Libya’s fragile transitional authorities.
The payments were part of a broader attempt to empower militias as security providers in post-Qaddafi Tripoli. Kara’s militia, the Nawasi Brigade, was tasked with fighting drug trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism.
Kara, using the airport as his base, took this mandate much further: His militias went on a revenge killing spree after 2011, hunting down Qaddafi security officials and others associated with the former regime.
In 2018, the United Nations-recognized GNA, which nominally controls Tripoli and patches of western and southern Libya, subsumed Kara’s militia and others, rebranding them as the Special Deterrence Force—a key part of the national security apparatus.
Despite nominally operating under the authority of the Interior Ministry, the force maintains its own command structures and operates with a significant level of autonomy as one of four powerful militias vying for control in Tripoli.
From his base at Mitiga, Kara has also become a low-level warlord. He’s dabbled in Islamist extremism, too, although under the guise of the so-called quietist branch of Salafism, which is ostensibly opposed to violent jihadism.
The Special Deterrence Force has been implicated in trafficking and other crimes. Mitiga’s detention facility, which is administered by the militia as perhaps the largest such prison in western Libya, allegedly houses 2,600 men, women, and children, and is the site of arbitrary detentions, torture, denial of medical care, and deaths in custody.
Christopher K. Lamont is an associate professor of international relations at the Institute for International Strategy of Tokyo International University.