By Jalel Harchaoui & Mohamed-Essaïd Lazib
The Libyan state lacked transparent, self sustainable institutions long before the 2011 uprisings. Hundreds of local disputes and tribal feuds lingered across the country for decades.
The LNA and Aligned Forces
Haftar’s armed coalition has been evolving since its emergence in 2014. In its initial phase, the Karama campaign was waged primarily by civilians from local and tribal forces, siding with approximately two hundred regulars.
Since he managed to suppress Islamist militants in Benghazi in 2016, however, Haftar has sought to strengthen the LNA and turn it into a more professionalized and efficient army.
At the same time, he ensures that the LNA remain loyal to him personally. For instance, the commander has made a point of staffing some elite units of the LNA with members of the Ferjani and Zway tribes, his kinsmen on his father’s and mother’s side, respectively.
Foreign support has been crucial to allowing Haftar to transform the LNA. Haftar has maintained a virtual monopoly on access to foreign sponsors.
The LNA’s most generous and most decisive backer has been the UAE. Egypt also has a close working relationship with Haftar. By providing training and technical support, Cairo has contributed to shaping the LNA into a more conventional and professional military. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France are also significant backers.
The 101st and 106th LNA Battalions
The 101st and 106th Battalions belong to a generation of LNA units that formed in Cyrenaica after 2016. As such, the LNA’s leadership made sure both units relied more on professionally trained recruits than on civilians who joined fighting units during the 2011 revolution or the 2014 Karama campaign.
The 106th is the largest single group within the LNA in terms of manpower, equipment, and territorial control. Its overall size exceeds five thousand fighters. In addition, it can rely on supplemental auxiliaries drawn from Salafi groups and eastern tribes.
The 106th reached the status of a brigade in 2018 by incorporating about ten battalions from Benghazi and Ajdabiya. Khalifa Haftar’s son Khaled, who reportedly trained in Egypt and Jordan, is unofficially in command of the 106th, succeeding his brother Saddam.
At the beginning of its existence, the 106th largely avoided direct combat, in some respects receiving preferential treatment over other local units that had been involved in the battle for Benghazi.
This situation has engendered frustration among parts of the Awaqir, a large Benghazi-area tribe, which had been a major force at the LNA’s inception in 2014 and borne the brunt of the fighting during the subsequent three years.
By restructuring and professionalizing its troops, the LNA has effectively pushed aside fighters who were prominent in 2014 through 2016, including leaders from the Awaqir tribe.
Instead, Haftar favored a new vanguard expected to display a higher degree of loyalty to the field marshal. Part of the Awaqir tribe’s discontent is also attributable to Haftar’s intention to maintain the LNA’s economic dominance, a model similar to the current Egyptian military’s socioeconomic role.
Such grievances could potentially cause the Awaqir community, and others, to challenge the LNA’s political supremacy. The 106th boasts advanced weaponry, including Emirati Nimr and Jordanian al-Wahsh armed vehicles, as well as Russian Kornet missiles.
Although foreign personnel operate at Benina and al-Khadim air bases, interaction with external backers is often managed by the LNA’s General Command, not by individual brigades.
The 101st battalion is a regular military unit mainly made up of fighters from Ajdabiya. It is led by Captain Mohamed Absayat al-Zway, a young officer trained abroad. Absayat’s group is disciplined, well-trained, and somewhat tribally diverse.
Amid the initial phase of the Derna battle in May and June 2018, Haftar put both the 101st and the 106th at the forefront in order to bolster their legitimacy and strengthen their military stature.
The 101st was then declared a part of the 106th Brigade. In April 2019 several of the 106th Brigade’s subunits were involved in the front line near Tripoli and in the strategic town of al-Aziziya. However, they proved less effective militarily there than they did in Derna and suffered significant casualties.
In spite of the brigade’s material superiority, the large presence of inexperienced young recruits partly contributed to this failure. GNA-aligned forces captured several soldiers and armored vehicles.
Subul al-Salam in Kufra
Kufra-based armed group Subul al-Salam is led by a civilian fighter, Abdel Rahman Hasham al-Kilani, a Madkhali Salafi. Subul al-Salam first became visible as part of Haftar’s coalition in late 2015, when it led offensives against some Darfuri rebel groups who were allied with some ethnic Tubu groups in southeastern Libya.
Further north, in the city of Ajdabiya, Subul al-Salam also combatted Islamist militias alongside Zway tribal units of the LNA there. Subul al-Salam has about three hundred members. It is the main force affiliated with the LNA in southeastern Libya. It is staffed almost entirely by civilian recruits. Unlike other groups in the area, the militia is tribally and ethnically mixed, although the Zway tribe is the largest constituent.
Subul al-Salam contacted fellow Madkhali groups, such as Tripoli’s Radaa, which gifted three ambulances to Subul al-Salam in 2017. This overt gesture of support shows that interactions and mutual aid sometimes exist between ideological brethren, even when affiliated with rival authorities.
Subul al-Salam’s presence covers a vast geographical area, from the Sudanese and Chadian borders in the south to the Tazerbu checkpoint on the Jalu-Kufra road in the north.
The brigade also controls Kufra’s airport and a detention center. Subul al-Salam is in regular dialogue with the Sudanese authorities, who control the Jabal al-Awaynat border post at the Egyptian-Libyan-Sudanese triangle.
The relationship is important to the militia, even though Haftar does not consider Khartoum an ally. Despite its Salafi rhetoric, which purports to combat crime, Subul al-Salam participates in human smuggling, artifact trafficking, and other illicit activities.
Overall, Haftar’s territorial control is weaker in southern Libya than along Cyrenaica’s littoral. By relying on Subul al-Salam, the LNA’s leadership does not achieve full, direct territorial control in the Kufra area but, in effect, outsources security of remote areas to local militias. Haftar used similar pragmatism when he tackled southwestern Libya starting in the first few weeks of 2019.
The Sixth Brigade in Sebha
The Sixth Brigade formed in 2013 by unifying several revolutionary militias in Sebha, the largest city in the Fezzan. General Salem al-Attaybi created the Sixth Brigade by drawing in half a dozen local battalions, mainly from Attaybi’s own Arab tribe, the Awlad Suleyman.
Since then, the Sixth Brigade has failed to fully cohere or organize along a clear hierarchical structure. However, whenever it clashes with its tribal rivals, its members tend to mobilize in unison. In that sense, the Sixth Brigade is more a tribal militia than a regular army unit.
The Awlad Suleyman, along with the Tubu, were the main anti-Qaddafi forces in the Fezzan during the 2011 uprisings. Most of the other communities and ethnic groups in the area—including the Megarha, Tuareg, and Qadhadhfa (Qaddafi’s tribe)—sided with the regime.
Intercommunal fighting continued for several years after 2011, pitting Awlad Suleyman against both the Tubu and the Qadhadhfa, and was often fueled by long-standing resentment.
At different times both the Tripoli government and the LNA have dispatched forces to try to pacify the Fezzan. Local groups reconfigured the alignment in response to the arrival of these outside forces.
They adjusted their narratives to depict themselves as agents and representatives of the national government based either in Tripoli or Benghazi. Mostly, though, they were involved in parochial fights to gain exclusive territorial control over vital roads and infrastructure around the Sebha area.
Qatar and Italy backed reconciliation processes between rival communities in the Fezzan in 2014 and 2017, respectively. Both countries promised financial compensation for conflict victims. They planned to pay directly or through the GNA. In return, armed groups would withdraw from military camps and hand them over to “the legitimate army.”
But the compensation was never paid. The foreign involvements thus offered false assurances of support to the parties and inadvertently fueled local violence.
Starting in late 2017, clashes erupted between local Tubu (supported by some foreign-born Tubu from Chad and Niger) and Awlad Suleyman groups (joined by other armed groups from allied tribes and some military units) over key territories.
France, one of Haftar’s most important backers, is committed to protecting Chadian president Idriss Déby. Paris thus pressured Haftar to fight the Chadian rebels that had used Libyan territory as a rear base.
Besides, France, Russia, Italy, and the UAE have also been keen to see Haftar become more active in ensuring the security of the Fezzan’s major oil fields, either by the use of force or by way of a negotiated settlement with local groups.
For most of 2018 Haftar was slow to build the necessary alliances in the Fezzan. Chadian rebels and radical groups like al-Qaeda continued to exploit southwestern Libya as a safe haven.
At the end of 2018 the UAE increased its assistance to Haftar so that he could conduct a conquest of the Fezzan. In early 2019 Haftar succeeded in winning the allegiance of almost all cities there through a combination of peaceful entente deals, pecuniary promises, and brute force.
Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. His work focuses on Libya’s politics and security. Most of this essay was prepared prior to his joining Clingendael.
Mohamed-Essaïd Lazib is a PhD candidate in geopolitics at University of Paris 8. His research concentrates on Libya’s armed groups and their sociology.
BROOKINGS DOHA CENTER