Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession
By Jason Pack
In early April 2019, General Khalifa Haftar instructed the Libyan National Army (LNA) to take Tripoli by force, initiating Libya’s Second War of Post-Qadhafi Succession.
Part III: The Libyan National Army
Despite its claim to be the “national army” of Libya, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) is a collection of truly discrete military/militia units and tribal/regional-based armed groups.
While having a total force of some 25,000, the LNA’s “Regular Army” or its core full-time militia, is made up of some 7,000 troops; it has a limited air force with approximately eight combat-ready aircraft, and its naval forces appear to be restricted primarily to coastal patrol vessels.
The rest of the LNA is composed of around 18,000 auxiliary troops. This includes Chadian and Sudanese forces, tribal militias, and other armed groups, such as the eastern and central branches of the Petroleum Facilities Guard.
The LNA claims on social media that it contains more than 85,000 troops. Although the current conflict may be facilitating recruitment of rank and file soldiers from recently occupied areas around Tripoli that have embraced the LNA, it is highly unlikely that its pronouncements of troop figures are accurate.
Stemming from a series of smaller armed units that were component parts of the Libyan Army under the Qadhafi regime, the LNA emerged as a nascent force in mid-2014, when General Khalifa Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” to eradicate Islamist militias in Benghazi.
The LNA’s Metanarrative
Haftar had announced a coup earlier in February 2014, but as the Zintanis failed to follow his lead in the West of the country, his momentum quickly dissipated.
When Haftar tried again in late spring/early summer 2014, dynamics had shifted significantly as various Islamist and Misratan-aligned groups sought to cancel the June 25 election results.
This was a propitious moment for Haftar: by seeking to defend “the will of the people” and their “elected body”, while purging “the enemies of the people” dubbed “Islamists”, Haftar had found a core metanarrative that would suit him well over the coming years.
This narrative has helped his popularity grow as it has more than a ring of truth to it: the political entities targeted by Haftar – first in Benghazi, then in Derna, and now in Tripoli, have in certain instances, opportunistically embraced support from extremist forces such as Ansar Al-Sharia, the Libyan Islamic Fighting group, and on certain occasions even ISIS.
By March 2015, the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) designated Haftar as the Chief of Staff of the Libyan Army – i.e. the remnants of the former professional army that remained affiliated to the then international-recognized HoR.
Over time, the LNA grew in cohesiveness and power, choosing to present itself as a “security sector reform project,” i.e. an attempt to build a national army capable of bringing order to a lawless country.
The LNA presented its main goals as purging Libya of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and jihadists as well as exercising control over the country’s other militias – either by eliminating them, demobilising them, or incorporating them into its patronage networks and command structures. These goals have remained constant from mid-2014 to the present.
Through these public objectives, Haftar seeks to fulfil his primary personal ambition: securing autocratic power for himself or for the LNA as an institution.
As of April 2019, the LNA’s power structure relies on traditional business families from the Eastern region, former Qadhafi-era top military brass, the nominally sovereign HoR legislature, and the Beida-based Abdullah Thinni government.
These groups embrace the metanarrative of a centralised command structure, which has gradually emerged as a reality via the LNA’s gradual coalition building, targeted payments, projection of power and public support for the emergence of a supreme authority – due to growing discontent from insecurity and lawlessness across the country.
The Narrative’s Adherents
In Eastern Libya, many young unemployed men are enticed by the LNA’s metanarrative as they are imbued with a deeply rooted longing for order, personal dignity, and a centralized control of force as a legacy from the statelessness and arbitrary use of force during the Qadhafi period.
Conversely in Western Libya, since the fragmented, Islamist-leaning or Islamist-accommodating factions have failed to deliver on their promises of restoring normalcy to the country, a portion of the public, especially those of an anti-Islamist bent, have turned their support to military-rule, even if this means authoritarian rule, which might offer a modicum of order to society.
A paper by Clingendael (Netherlands Institute of Foreign Relations), based on polling in mid-2018 whose method likely implicitly overrepresents the educated and media-savvy, found that the Libyan public gradually evolved greater confidence in the “protective capacity” of the LNA rather than the security institutions of the GNA.
Over the years, the LNA has capitalized on these psychological and structural factors to gain support from specific communities in the western region, although acquiring the loyalties of certain groups does not necessarily mean the whole community or other militias from these towns or regions have become similarly aligned.
For example, during the current fighting, some militias from southern Zawiyyah have aligned themselves with the LNA, while the city’s more prominent militiamen – such as those from the Nasr brigade (also known as the Martyrs of Victory Brigade) under Mohammad Kushlaf (which will be explored later in this article) – are fighting with the anti-LNA coalition in the capital.
Similarly, in Zintan a minor contingent of its armed forces headed by Idris Madi is under the command of the LNA, while a large portion of Zintan’s forces operating under Osama Juweili and Emad Trabelsi, have remained aligned with the GNA.
In some Western towns, such as Sabratha and Sorman, support of the LNA appears more unanimous.
The Libyan National Army advance in three stages
Stage 1: New Territorial Gains, New Challenges: The Siege of Derna
With the metanarrative fully in place to justify and rationalize any brutality against enemy combatants or civilian populations that might eventually surface in the public domain, in May 2018 Haftar launched a final assault on Derna with the stated objective of removing the city’s al-Qaeda linked Shura Council of Mujahedeen (SCMD).
He had sporadically besieged the city since 2016, without committing significant forces to the campaign.
These attacks, like those in Benghazi before them, had led to significant human rights violations occasionally shared on social media – particularly Facebook.
Days after the concerted 2018 assault began, the SCMD rebranded itself as Derna Protection Forces (DPF), likely in an attempt to distance itself from SCMD-linked Islamist groups connected with terrorism.
The LNA deployed as many as twenty-one, if not more, different brigades during the assault and received overt support (logistics, armaments, and airstrikes) from Egypt and the UAE.
After a “battle” that lasted nearly a year, the LNA announced the capture of Derna in February 2019.
This cemented its dominance over the whole of coastal eastern Libya and proved the group’s military capability of conquering and then incorporate originally hostile territories.
Stage 2: Cementing a National Role – Operation Southern Liberation
On 15 January 2019, weeks after Libya’s largest oil field had been closed by protesters, an LNA spokesman announced that its forces, including the Makdhali Salafist Khalid Bin Walid Brigade, would undertake an operation to liberate southern Libya from extremist groups, and to “ensure the public’s continued ability to maintain and control Libya’s oil and gas sector.”
This offensive marked the first time that the LNA was willing to extend its supply lines to undertake a major operation far away from its main base of operations in Libya’s northeast.
The LNA’s mobilisation into the southern region was on a much greater scale than the previous occasions from 2015-2018, when the LNA attempted quick southward forays to remove militant and extremist groups from the South.
Prior to the launch of the Fezzan campaign, there was a notable restructuring of LNA forces which saw brigades and battalions dissolve and amalgamate.
Clear lines were drawn between campaign forces and those of local patrols and guards.
The establishment of the 73rd Brigade, that had at least seven units come under its command, is a notable example of this phenomenon.
The LNA’s Social Media Supporters Up Their Game
The LNA went to great length to manage its perception and media coverage during their operations.
Indeed, the successful image carefully crafted by social media influencers concerning the LNA’s southern operations did not reflect the reality on the ground.
Despite the very real gains that were made which facilitated the reopening of Sharara and al-Feel fields, rebel and opposition forces remained – though they were ejected from the main civilian centres.
Regardless of this, the southern campaign was effectively utilised by LNA supporters on social media to present it as a supremely powerful and coordinated organisation, with the ability to guarantee genuine security free from oppressive tactics.
This image was meant to create a wave of positive support from local groups in the western region, which the LNA sought to capitalise on.
The southern campaign, which has never officially ended, now appears to have become an afterthought.
But the momentum that the narrative around it acquired enabled the LNA to channel its focus upon Libya’s ultimate prize: Tripoli.
In other words, the LNA leadership perceived that the moment had come to dominate the country’s domestic and international narrative and that their media apparatus was strong enough to project themselves as the overlords of Libya.
These lessons in projecting a narrative of effortless and continual victory, honed in the Southern campaign, were then deployed in the Tripoli campaign.
Yet in the battle for Tripoli, a full-on social media war was launched with the aim of influencing international coverage of the fighting. In this effort the LNA’s effectiveness was further enhanced by a coterie of Saudi-based and pro-LNA social media influencers.
Stage 3: The Battle for Control of Libya’s Major Militia Prize: The Tripoli Campaign
From the very start of Operation Dignity, Haftar stated that he intended to capture Tripoli – clearly demonstrating his understanding that no faction can truly be considered a “national army” without it.
He and LNA spokesmen have long couched their desire for domination via the narrative of “liberating” the capital from terrorist and extortive armed groups, thereby justifying a future assault on the city.
In truth, Haftar has had long-standing ambitions to lead Libya without civilian oversight and to oversee a militarisation of the state.
Haftar’s decision to launch the offensive in early April appears to have been influenced by multiple factors:
(a) his increased international profile;
(b) his possible perception of being given a green light from foreign supporters and benefactors;
(c) heightened confidence within the LNA leadership following its successful campaign to take southern Libya;
(d) improved reach and coverage on social media;
(e) a need for more cash to funnel through the LNA’s patronage networks; and
(f) a view that the National Conference would alter dynamics in the country in ways that were unfavourable to the LNA.
The LNA’s launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” followed mobilisation of its forces to Jufra, Sirte, and the northwest coastline over the preceding weeks.
This coincided with outreach efforts to develop relationships with local municipalities, tribes, and militias along with the southern and western entrances to Tripoli.
Moreover, as shown in the preceding section, the southern campaign helped the LNA bolster its image domestically and internationally as a “credible” national army-building project.
By presenting itself in this manner, it has worked to entice groups to operate local LNA “franchises,” by providing them with both legitimacy and resources if they fly the LNA banner.
For example, the LNA has successful co-opted Tarhuna’s Kaniyyat and Gharyan’s Adel Da’ab.
Despite these preparations and alliance shifts, the experience of Derna should have taught the LNA that an assault on Tripoli would not lead to a swift victory, but rather a long and protracted conflict.
However, during the long Derna siege, many of the LNA’s attacking forces were benefiting from “relatively” local and secure supply lines, enabling ready access to capabilities and fresh troops.
Conversely, during the current fight, the anti-LNA forces benefit from internal supply lines.
Given these logistical issues, the LNA has become a victim of overstretch. Areas it previously secured have been left vulnerable to spoilers and opposition groups sensing an opportunity to reassert themselves into the Libyan context.
Moreover, for it to succeed the LNA would need to secure its supply routes from Tripoli tracing all the way back to Jufra airbase in central Libya.
As a result, three approaches or axis towards Tripoli have governed the military logic of the current fighting:
(a) a southeast axis via Bani Walid (!!) and Tarhouna;
(b) a southern axis via Ghariyan; and
(c) a western axis via Zawiyya (!!) and Sabratha.
Jason Pack is the President of Libya-Analysis LLC, a consultancy organisation specializing in evidence-based analysis, forecasting and stakeholder mapping of Libya.
Italian Institute for International political Studies