By Wolfram Lacher & Peter Cole
This paper examines the rise and fall of hybrid security sector institutions in Libya, and the political interests at stake in security sector reform.
The thuwwar and post-revolutionary armed groups
Perhaps unusually following a revolution, the victors—the thuwwar—did not seize control of the state, nor did they immediately force purges of state security institutions (although many senior officials fled of their own accord).
Instead, the thuwwar remained largely autonomous, with each group holding on to its weapons. There were several reasons for this.
First, the revolution largely targeted the Qaddafi family and the security institutions that protected it rather than the government ministries or the army or police services, which the regime had essentially relegated to supporting the regime security apparatus.
Second, rebel forces were allied with the NTC as the revolution’s political representative and had no alternate political preparations. The NTC’s leadership under Mustafa Abd al-Jalil and Mahmud Jibril, in turn, prioritized stability and continuity.
Third, significant commanders within the thuwwar had defected from the army and police.
The thuwwar proved to be a diverse group united only by the goal of overthrowing Qaddafi. After the revolution’s success and the loss of a common goal, no single armed entity or coalition was capable of controlling Libyan territory, monopolizing the use of force, or assuming sole responsibility for national security.
The vast majority of revolutionary battalions and post-revolutionary armed groups comprised fewer than 1,000 members. These individual armed groups took control of their own regions, either via ‘military councils’ (in the west) or via coalitions of fighting groups (in Benghazi and Misrata).
Some groups took up more or less permanent residence in Tripoli itself. Instructive examples include:
• Two major umbrella organizations of revolutionary battalions emerged in the eastern part of the country: the 17 February Coalition and the Gathering of Revolutionary Companies.
After Qaddafi’s demise, these two groups turned their attention to security affairs in that region. Elements of the 17 February Coalition split into two institutions.
The first—the Preventive Security Apparatus—acted as a counter-intelligence and border security force to respond to the risk of what members referred to as ‘fifth-column’ attacks from Qaddafi loyalists. The second—the Libya Shield—was a composite force of smaller battalions that had fought on the front lines at Brega and that found themselves stationed across eastern Libya after the war.
• In Misrata, a more structured administration emerged, influenced by an army officer (Salim Joha) who defected to the rebel side early on with some like-minded colleagues.
During the long fighting in and around Misrata, civilians formed 236 battalions, the largest of which contained more than 1,000 fighters while the smallest comprised 10–20 men. \
Some battalions possessed specialist functions, such as vehicle repair or the maintenance of artillery or tanks.
Most battalions registered with both the Misrata military council and the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, an administrative entity that coordinated and registered brigade members and their weapons.
At its largest, in November 2011, the Union counted around 40,000 registered Misratans. Members of both groupings largely joined the Libya Shield project as it gained political momentum in mid-2012.
• In the western part of the country—the Nafusa mountains and coastal areas—military councils emerged. Towns in this area were too small to support their own major fighting forces and too politically diverse to allow a single force to assert hegemony.
The town with the largest number of fighters was Zintan, which initially boasted up to 6,000 fighters distributed among eight brigades, followed by Nalut, with 5,000 fighters and six brigades.
Other significant forces existed in Jadu, Zawiya, and Zuwara.
These forces primarily joined the Border, Petroleum Facilities, and Vital Installations Force, the National Guard, and the Libya Shield Forces, among other security institutions.
• In Tripoli, following the capital’s fall, military councils and a large number of neighbourhood vigilante groups formed.
In addition, Tripolitanians who had trained in the Nafusa mountains under the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Battalion also established entities, as did armed groups from Misrata, Zintan, and eastern Libya.
These politically diverse groups, which rapidly expanded with the enlistment of an uncounted number of local youths, were fed into the Supreme Security Committee, while some Zintani groups allied with the Ministry of Defence.
None of these groups were powerful enough to assert their authority over each other, nor over an estimated 16,000 criminals released from the capital’s prisons by Qaddafi in his final days.
• A large number of post-revolutionary armed groups also formed in other areas that had remained under regime control until late in the revolution.
Some of these areas were strongholds of communities that revolutionary groups saw as pillars of the regime, including much of the south, as well as Bani Walid, Tarhuna, and the Warshafana area.
Most armed groups in these areas mimicked the revolutionary forces in their names and self-legitimization, without having fought in the revolution.
In some cases—such as in Tarhuna and among the Awlad Suleiman tribe— they combined former revolutionaries and members of Qaddafi’s security battalions from the same tribe.
In the south, such groups quickly began fighting over the country’s borders and trade routes.
Many later joined the Border or Petroleum Facilities Guard. In sum, across the country, the number of armed groups exploded in the chaos that ensued after the Qaddafi regime’s demise.
The prospect of material benefits from the new government spurred the formation of local military councils. During late 2011 and early 2012, the transitional authorities’ various moves to offer payments to armed groups through these councils further encouraged their proliferation.
Such armed groups mostly recruited from among local or tribal constituencies. Many revolutionary groups expanded significantly through new recruitment among civilians. For others, the revolutionary label was little more than a front for criminal activities.
Brigades, battalions, and companies: terminology for Libyan armed groups
The word katiba is often used as a blanket term for and by Libyan armed groups. Its translation as ‘brigade’ by the English-language media, however, is in most cases misleading.
Base units within Libyan armed groups tend to be small bodies, normally numbering a few dozen, though sometimes as many as 200 men, rotated in and out of deployment.
In Arab armies, the rough equivalent is a ‘company’ or sariyya (pl. siraya). Larger armed groups in Libya usually subdivide themselves into siraya, with some even taking on that name.
An army katiba (pl. kata’ib), by contrast, denotes a force of several hundred to around a thousand soldiers. For the vast majority of thuwwar units, ‘battalion’ is thus a more appropriate translation for katiba than ‘brigade’.
Only in Benghazi, Misrata, and Zintan did groups the size of an army katiba actually develop, in large part because, during the war, these towns were hubs for weapon deliveries and coordination with the NATO air campaign.
The largest military grouping, rarely used by Libyan armed groups, is the liwa’, or brigade. In Arabic military terms, the liwa’ is a collection of kata’ib or battalions with at least 10,000 men.
Although there were attempts to create larger brigades in the Libya Shield Forces, these have tended to subdivide or fragment into battalion-sized groups.
To date, few armed groups have recruited significant numbers of men from outside their core communities or areas. There have been some attempts at establishing larger formations through mergers, though most such efforts have been unsuccessful.
The state security sector
The revolution provoked major upheaval in the state security sector, which had been highly fragmented under Qaddafi. The regular army, under the control of the chief of general staff, had been deliberately neglected under the former regime.
Qaddafi had built a parallel security sector that reported not to the chief of general staff but to two bodies: the Temporary General Committee on Defence (that is, the Defence Ministry, headed by Abu Bakr Yunis Jabr) and the Permanent Security Committee, a core regime security institution based in Bab al-Aziziyya, with rotating heads appointed personally by Qaddafi.
The security brigades (al-kata’ib al-amniya) under this command were recruited from tribes considered loyal to the regime. They included Brigade 32, commanded by Khamis al-Qaddafi, as well as the Mohamed al-Maqariaf, Sahban, Fadhil Abu Umar, Faris, Hamza, Suqur Abu Minyar, and Maghawir brigades.
These brigades bore the brunt of fighting on Qaddafi’s behalf during the 2011 war; they had been destroyed or scattered by the end of the conflict.
The regular armed forces, meanwhile, essentially split in two. The eastern units defected. These included the Saeqa special forces—under the chief of general staff’s direct control—as well as other army units, the air force, and military intelligence.
Some Saeqa members joined with civilians to form a revolutionary battalion: the Zawiya Martyrs Battalion. In western revolutionary strongholds, many military officers defected to the thuwwar.
The NTC’s chiefs of staff—Gen. Abd al-Fattah Yunis and, after his assassination in July 2011, Gen. Sulaiman Mahmud al-Ubaidi—maintained loose oversight over the eastern military units but exercised no control over military officers who had defected to the thuwwar in Misrata, the Nafusa mountains, or elsewhere.
Nor did the NTC chiefs exercise effective authority over eastern soldiers who joined revolutionary battalions led by civilians, such as the Umar al-Mukhtar Battalion.
In contrast, most military units in the west and south remained largely loyal and intact. 21 Some regular artillery and tank units fought during the war, although revolutionary commanders in the Nafusa mountains claim that—in some cases—regular army units would deliberately disarm explosive projectiles or inform revolutionary forces of plans to shell certain areas.
The remainder provided logistical support to the regime’s war effort or stayed in their barracks. For these reasons, revolutionary forces by and large did not treat the army as the enemy when the regime fell, although they continued to distrust the military institutions.
Following Qaddafi’s death, western and southern units joined military councils in towns where the armed forces had a strong presence and the thuwwar were weak, such as in Gharyan, Jumail, Khums, Sabha, Surman, and Tarhuna.
Units recruited from the armed forces generally had limited capacities, however. NATO airstrikes and raids by the thuwwar had depleted major ammunition depots at Aziziyya, Gharyan, Sabha, Tarhuna, Ubari, and elsewhere.
The thuwwar had also stripped bare or occupied many army bases and facilities. When the regime fell, therefore, the army had already partially disintegrated. However, the NTC and its successive executive arms made no attempts to dismantle or reform the army, despite multiple lobbying efforts from the thuwwar.
This was in part due to growing political divisions among the thuwwar themselves, such as between Misrata’s Fawzi Abd al-Al at the Interior Ministry and Zintan’s Usama Juwayli at Defence, who might have otherwise united around a single vision of reform.
Wolfram Lacher is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahel and Sahara region.
Peter Cole is an independent non-governmental Middle East and North Africa expert with experience in conflict and post-conflict dynamics, political risk, and state–society relations.