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 IV: The Anti-LNA Militias
The Real Axes of Libya’s Politics
For the majority of the GNA-aligned militias, it is not loyalty to the GNA that constitutes a group’s primary allegiance, but rather its fierce opposition to Haftar and the LNA. In fact, a fairly scientific way to conceive this grouping of actors is as ‘anti-LNA’ rather than ‘pro-GNA.’
A mapping of Libya’s radio and TV stations conducted by Libya-Analysis and its partner organisations determined that the primary fissure in Libyan politics was the pro/anti-LNA and pro/anti-Islamists axes, whereas no pro/anti-GNA axis existed in the discourse of Libya’s media landscape.
The Late Summer War, the 7th Brigade, and the Resilient Balance of Power
Although the roots of the current fighting over Tripoli can be loosely traced back to the last all-out scramble for the capital in the summer of 2014, the most recent catalyst occurred less than a year ago with what we have termed “the Late Summer War” of 2018.
In late August of that year, the Tripoli Cartel was challenged by the 7th Brigade (aka Kani Militia) from Tarhuna; rather than pursuing any clear political goal, the Brigade’s initial objective appears to have been to break into, or break up, existing smuggling rackets and to acquire short-term territorial gains in areas where it had previously exerted authority.
Clashes occurred between the 7th Brigade, and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB), Gheniwa, and the 301 Brigade, as these three militias controlled the areas of southern Tripoli into which the 7th Brigade had advanced.
The 7th Brigade’s unexpected success and popular support encouraged other external groups – most notably the “Steadfastness Front” or “Samoud Brigade” under the command of Salah Badi from Misrata – to capitalize on the situation and advance the idea of cleansing the capital of the predatory “Tripoli Cartel.”
They framed the assault on Tripoli as a fundamental attack on the balance of power and the incumbents ability to profit from the war economy. As such Badi’s narrative caused a rallying of incumbent forces – which then defeated him and his 7th Brigade allies.
Badi’s entrance into the conflict in Tripoli was primarily opportunistic, taking advantage of an impromptu land grab by the 7th Brigade that extended further into central Tripoli than expected.
With the aim of overturning the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and bringing down the GNA and the Serraj premiership, Badi intended to gain control of a significant amount of Tripoli territory, which would earn him a seat at the table in political negotiations.
Although the late-summer war failed, it seems to have set a template. In fact, during it Haftar was emboldened, and despite the LNA’s lack of involvement in those clashes, he threatened that, “When the time is right, we will move towards Tripoli.”
Intermittent clashes lasted for nearly a month, and saw the precursor to the Tripoli Protection Force with the so-called “Tripoli Cartel” united under a singular pro-GNA banner, to uphold the balance of power at all costs.
The 7th Brigade and the Steadfastness Front were finally expelled from the city by mid-September, under the provision that new security arrangements by the GNA were to be initiated, supposedly characterised by more professionalism and less by ‘brand loyalty’ towards specific militia commanders.
Elusive Efforts to Forge a Joint Chain of Command
Suppositions that the upshot of the Late Summer War would be Tripoli’s Cartel of Militias becoming progressively integrated into a single security force under a genuine unified command proved to be short lived.
The failure in the Fall of 2018 to achieve a joint command and control structure for the nascent Tripoli Protection Force illustrated that the very remote possibility of uniting them could only be potentially realised only by an existential Haftar attack, if ever.
This is because, as discussed in the previous section, the main theme banding these militias together is their anti-LNA stance, rather than any mutual interest in establishing a truly integrated security force under the authority of the GNA.
The Tripoli Protection Force
In reality, most of the militias continue to act under their original identity, and simultaneously under the banner of a formalised “Tripoli Protection Force,” (TPF) which only formally announced itself on 18 December 2018.
This initially fairly fictious grouping has acquired some actual coherence during the current fighting. We will now investigate the TPF’s major component parts – the Special Deterrence Force, the Nawasi Brigade, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, the 301 Battalion, and the Abu Salim Central Security Force.
It is critical to keep in mind that these five main groups constitute both the main pillars of the Tripoli Cartel – which benefits from the “War Economy” and sought to repel the challenge to their profitability represented by the Kani offensive in the Late Summer War – and the Tripoli Protection Force now tasked with repelling Haftar.
Libya Analysis data suggest that these five major status quo actors will morph into whatever new forms are necessary to preserve the balance of power.
That said, due to the fact that they have stashed significant hordes of cash abroad, the commanders of these five groups are unlikely to want to go down fighting and there are always ongoing rumours that the most prominent of them have already fled the country to Tunis.
The Special Deterrence Force (Rada)
The lynchpin of Tripoli’s current security architecture is the Madkhali Salafist-leaning Special Deterrence Force, also known by its Arabic acronym as Rada.
Founded in the capital’s Suq al-Juma’a neighbourhood and led by Abdul al-Rauf Kara, Rada came to national prominence for managing to operate successful counter terrorism operations, while remaining politically unaffiliated with the GNC and the political Islamist-leaning forces that took control of Tripoli between 2014 and 2016.
In May 2016, the Chairman of the Presidential Council attempted to rebrand Rada as the “Deterrence Apparatus for Combating Organized Crime and Terrorism,” indicative of Rada’s importance to the GNA and its functional entrenchment in the capital.
To date, it remains nominally affiliated with the GNA’s Ministry of Interior (MoI). Rada’s members number as many as 1,500 with its formal territory limited to a small north-eastern part of Tripoli, but its influence is widespread across the city.
It controls key infrastructure such as the Mitiga Airport complex—Tripoli’s only functional international airport—and the prison situated therein.
The group’s influence also extends beyond Tripoli to parts of Zuwara, Sabratha, Surman and Zawiyya along the western Coastal Road, where it has undertaken counter-terrorism operations and conducts its de facto criminal investigation functions. Rada’s crime fighting units in the Sabratha and Surman area are known as the Mabahith Al-Gharbiya.
The Nawasi Brigade
The Nawasi Brigade is led by Mustafa Qaddour and nominally affiliated with the GNA’s MoI. Nawasi rose to international prominence after it assisted the GNA Presidential Council’s relocation to Tripoli in March 2016 amid significant political tensions and potential security threats to the new internationally-recognized government.
It acts as an intelligence and private security service. Numbering approximately 700 troops, the militia’s headquarters are based in the Port of Tripoli near the Abu Setta Naval base– the exact same location where the GNA’s Presidential Council is based, highlighting their importance to the internationally recognised government.
The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB)
Emerging during the fall of the city in 2011, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) was progressively consolidated into a powerful standalone force by Haithem Tajouri.
TRB is now one of the most powerful Tripoli-based militias. And it is also nominally affiliated with the GNA’s MoI. It also helped the GNA establish itself in Tripoli.
Based in the Suq al-Juma’a area, it also controls the elite coastal neighbourhood of Gargarish and significant parts of eastern Tripoli containing most of the top ministries, major state institutions, and the headquarters of the major state-owned companies.
Control over the physical locations of ministries and institutions in Tripoli often translates into real power, access to preferential smuggling and Letters of Credit fraud opportunities, and perceived influence on the ground.
In late 2018, the group’s leadership underwent a radical change following the targeted assassination of several of its prominent leaders when Tajouri returned after an enforced absence of several months under house arrest in the UAE.
Under the command of Abdul Salam al-Zoubi, the 301 Battalion is a subset of one of the largest Misratan brigades, Al-Halbous. The 301 is nominally affiliated with the GNA’s Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Firm in its stance that it is a battalion and not a brigade, the 301 has pledged to support and assist all legitimate security and military apparatuses, and has vowed to “hit with an iron fist any attempts to undermine security in Tripoli by either terrorists or military coup plotters.”
Previously led by Mohammed Al-Haddad, the ~1,500 strong battalion draws troops from across the Western region, but its leaders are mostly from Misrata, making it one of Tripoli’s most influential groups to derive its power from external supporters.
Abu Salim Central Security Force
Abu Salim Central Security Force, also known as the Kikli Militia after its leader Abdulghani Kikli (also known by his nom de guerre of Ghneiwa), was involved in the Libya Dawn Coalition, which was formed to expel rival Zintani forces from the capital in July 2014. Based in the Abu Salim district of southern Tripoli, it is estimated to have approximately 800 fighters.
Nominally affiliated with the GNA’s MoI, it has also been referred to as the Central Security Apparatus (CSA) Abu Salim Unit.
Anti-Haftar forces from outside Tripoli
Arguably the key powerbroker in western Libya, the mercantile city of Misrata has developed its military forces since 2011 into the most significant impediment to Haftar’s attempts to take over the capital.
Despite being politically split between moderate factions and more hard-line Islamist-aligned factions, these groups share a mutual desire to maintain the status of their city-state, both politically and economically.
Misrata has had a chequered relationship with the GNA, though several of the most influential Misratan representatives have taken roles in the GNA government, such as the Minister of Interior Fathi Bashaaga and the head of the Central Military Region, Mohamed Haddad.
Misrata has as many as 200 militias, with potentially 18,000 fighters at their disposal. The following forces have already deployed to support anti-Haftar forces in the past: Misrata’s Joint Security Operations Room’s “Special Task Force,” Halbous Brigade, Marsa Brigade, and 166th Brigade.
Moreover, warplanes based at Misrata’s Civil Aviation College have also participated in the conflict, launching several airstrikes on LNA positions throughout Tripoli.
At this time, it is impossible to determine whether the alleged 6,000 strong Misratan based GNA-aligned Bunyan al-Marsous Forces (BAM) will participate directly in the Tripoli clashes or remain closer to home should the LNA plan a feint or direct assault on Misrata or Sirte.
This possibility for a new front was significantly increased following the creation of a Misrata Operations Room by the LNA in mid-April. BAM is nominally affiliated with the GNA and technically under the authority of the GNA’s Central Region Command.
Under General Bashir al-Qadi, BAM controls territory in Misrata, Sirte and surrounding areas, and provides general security services by conducting operations with other smaller militias under its command.
A city-state in the Nafousa Mountains that was instrumental in the 2011 uprisings against Qadhafi, Zintan also participated in Haftar’s 2014 Operation Dignity by clashing with forces from Misrata and Tripoli, before eventually being expelled from the city.
As previously stated, Zintan has certain fighters supporting the LNA, operating under Brigadier General Idris Madi, who leads the LNA’s Western Military Zone, as well as other elements who have previously given verbal support to Haftar in order to benefit from the LNA’s logistics network and arms procurement.
However, the majority of its armed forces remain aligned with the GNA under the Zintani Military Council (ZMC), led by Osama Juweili, and the Zintani General Security Service led by Emad Trabelsi who used to lead the al-Sawaiq Brigade prior to its defeat in 2014.
Formed in 2011, with the objective of organizing the efforts of the anti-Qadhafi Zintan militias, the ZMC is one of the most unified, cohesive and experienced armed coalitions in Libya.
The group played a prominent role in the 2011 revolution, before its expulsion from Tripoli in the summer of 2014 by the Libyan Dawn movement.
The General Security Service, led by Emad Trabelsi, moved into the Janzour region in early September 2018, upon the request of the GNA to secure the suburb amidst the clashes between the Tripoli-based militias and the 7th Brigade and Steadfastness Front.
Despite long-standing links with the LNA, Trabelsi stated that those under his command were acting as a security force in support of the PC, the Security Committee and the UN, and that his forces were a part of the GNA’s MoI.
Trabelsi has aligned himself with ZMC Head and the GNA’s Western Military Commander Osama Juwaili – who previously allied himself with Haftar, but now opposes the LNA.
Trabelsi’s position in the LNA’s assault on Tripoli proved instrumental in tilting the balance against the LNA. Local sources we interviewed who wish to remain anonymous said that the LNA initially relied heavily on Trabelsi and the Fursan Janzur militia defecting from the GNA.
Trabelsi’s sticking with the GNA and the arrest of Fursan Janzour’s head Al Gneidi was a major blow to the LNA’s strategy – arguably significant enough to prevent it from penetrating into central Tripoli in the early days of the war.
Salah Badi’s – Steadfastness Front
The self-styled “George Washington of Libya,” Salah Badi was placed on the UN Sanctions list in November 2018, but for years prior to that he has been considered to be one of Western Libya’s biggest spoilers.
He encouraged the outbreak of the 2014 civil war. Similarly, he has inserted himself into the recent clashes currently taking place in southern Tripoli.
In June 2015, Badi formed the Steadfastness Front in Tripoli in support of a now-disbanded third government led by Khalifa Ghwell – called the National Salvation Government (NSG); it was affiliated with the already defunct General National Council (GNC).
In May 2017, it was driven out of Tripoli, but participated in a pro-NSG offensive against the capital in July 2017, and joined forces with the 7th Brigade during the August/September 2018 assault to remove the so-called “Tripoli Cartel” militias.
Zawiyya’s Shuhada Nasr Brigade
Zawiyya also has a notable number of forces that have reportedly been fighting the LNA, particularly around Tripoli International Airport, as individuals but not as a Brigade.
The most prominent Zawiyyan force is the Shudaha Nasr Brigade, a 1,200 strong militia which belongs to the Abu Hmira tribe. Nominally affiliated to the GNA and operating as a part of the PFG, the group effectively controls Zawiyya’s port and refinery.
Under the command of Mohammed Kashlaf (aka “al-Gasb”), who, along with his cousin Abd al-Rahman al-Milad (the head of the local coast guard), have participated in local clashes in Zawiyya and Sabratha in recent years.
A relative of theirs Abdul Rahman Al-Bidja has volunteered in the anti-LNA cause bringing his group of fighters with him.
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