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 emergence of hybrid institutions
Conflicts over legitimacy, mutual suspicion between the thuwwar and old institutions, and, increasingly, political differences among the thuwwar prompted two developments.
On the one hand, some thuwwar groups formed their own separate military, security, and intelligence units. On the other hand, some joined state security institutions, with the support of allies in the state security apparatus.
These developments occurred amid a rapidly changing security situation that required an immediate response from the thuwwar and the government. Armed conflict erupted among several communities, leaving hundreds dead.
The threat from pro-Qaddafi loyalists was perceived to be extremely high. And, although state security forces continued to man border crossing points, they lacked the capacity to assert actual control over the border regions.
The inability to formally secure the borders facilitated a trade in illicit drugs and weapons that allowed armed gangs to become powerful.
This unstable context fostered the formation of a new set of hybrid institutions, including:
• the Supreme Security Committee, as discussed below;
• the Libya Shield Forces, as discussed below;
• the Preventive Security Apparatus, initially established by the Benghazi-based 17 February Coalition to neutralize anti-revolutionary elements in eastern Libya and still active in Benghazi despite efforts to dismantle it; and
• the National Guard, an umbrella for revolutionary battalions set up in late 2011 by Khalid al-Sharif, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group; its component elements have since joined other institutions.
In addition, certain state institutions that survived the 2011 revolution became hybrid by absorbing various armed groups and political interests.
These include the armed forces, as discussed below, and their subsidiary institutions, such as the Border Guard and its sister organizations, the Petroleum Facilities Guard and the Vital Installations Guard.
The challenge of integration and the path to disintegration
Since the revolution, rifts within Libya’s security sector have continued to grow, and attempts at building integrated security institutions have been frustrated.
Factionalization has been common among newly established institutions and those that developed out of the former state security sector.
Both the Libya Shield Forces and the Supreme Security Committee were intended to be temporary institutions, designed as interim solutions in response to the post-war challenge of integrating thuwwar units into largely unreformed government ministries.
Instead, they persisted and operated less as elements of the government as a whole than as units loyal to parts of the government, depending on ideological, regional, or personal ties.
In the absence of a unifying principle, the weak ties between state security institutions allowed competing political interests to flourish.
These competing interests have been among the main drivers of Libya’s escalating conflicts. Although the SSC has been formally disbanded and the LSF has partially disintegrated, the powerful interests that operated through these institutions persist.
Many are now disguised as new, official, or hybrid security units. Some elements have gone underground to become criminal or extremist groups.
Within the armed forces, meanwhile, competing interest groups have emerged, engaging in rivalry both with each other and with units formed by the thuwwar.
As discussed below, these divisions in the armed forces were the genesis of an internal rift in the aftermath of Maj.-Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s declaration of the ‘General Leadership of the Armed Forces’ in May 2014.
The rift through the army and hybrid bodies widened into a bifurcation of government institutions after a coalition of thuwwar units, led by Misratan forces, launched a major offensive for the control of Tripoli in July 2014.
Meeting in Tobruk, the rump 27 of the newly elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), labelled the thuwwar coalition that called itself Libya Dawn terrorists and appointed a close ally of Haftar, Abd al-Razaq al-Nadhuri, as the new chief of general staff.
Nadhuri’s predecessor, Abd al-Salam al-Ubaidi, has refused to step down, declaring the thuwwar units leading the offensive loyal forces and their actions legitimate.
Under Umar al-Hassi, a government backed by the thuwwar coalition and remnants of the GNC has emerged in Tripoli, rivalling that led by Abdallah al-Thinni and appointed by the rump HoR in Tobruk.
Rifts through government institutions
The bifurcation of Libya’s polity had its origins in rifts within government institutions that corresponded to the fragmentation of the security sector.
At the top, these rifts have been reflected in the ambiguous relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The two successive presidents of the GNC—Muhammed al-Magariaf from August 2012 to May 2013 and Nuri Abu Sahmain from June 2013 to August 2014— assumed the title ‘supreme commander of the armed forces’ on a controversial legal basis.
With fluctuating majorities within the GNC, Abu Sahmain was given emergency executive powers in August 2013 and was stripped of them three months later, only to have them restored in January 2014.
Abu Sahmain’s actions sparked widespread unease within the GNC, and his designation of the minister of defence as the army’s ‘general commander’ left the division of powers uncertain.
As power struggles in the GNC escalated through the first half of 2014, the president’s title of ‘supreme commander’ was openly contested, including by Deputy GNC President Izz al-Din al-Awami.
In the crisis that erupted in mid-2014, Abu Sahmain re-emerged, arguing that the GNC remained in power since it had not formally handed over control to the HoR.
Acting as GNC president and ‘supreme commander’, Abu Sahmain confirmed Ubaidi as chief of general staff after the latter had been dismissed by the HoR.
The problem has not been limited to the blurred lines between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Rivalry in the executive branch itself—between the minister of defence and the chief of general staff—has been a constant, dating from the leadership of Usama Juwayli (defence) and Yusuf al-Manqush (general staff) in the government of Abd al-Rahim al-Kib (November 2011–November 2012).
The conflict continued in the government of Ali Zeidan, from November 2012 to March 2014, with Abdallah al-Thinni (defence) rivalling Ubaidi, who succeeded Salim al-Qnaydi (general staff).
According to Zeidan, Ubaidi refused to take orders from the government and failed to cooperate with the Ministry of Defence. Ubaidi retorted that his orders had come from the GNC—which appointed him—and its president.
Both Ubaidi and Qnaydi accused Zeidan of blocking the army’s reconstruction by starving it of funds and circumventing command structures.
In a thinly veiled reference to the National Forces Alliance, al-Qnaidy further alleged that a bloc in the GNC was holding meetings with army officers to persuade them to take sides in political squabbles.
Prior to the emergence of two rival governments, such conflicts had also existed inside the Defence and Interior Ministries, with ministers and their deputies representing competing local and political factions.
In turn, these rivalries thwarted attempts to formulate and implement policies. Such political struggles translated into institutional deadlock; they have prevented the government from acting against militias that are blocking some of Libya’s largest oil terminals and have caused ongoing controversies over the legitimacy of forces charged by one government entity or other with intervening in conflicts.
The footholds gained by competing factions in the ministries have also been reflected in procurement patterns for arms and equipment.
Various officials within ministries have been able to prepare and sign off on deals, and then channel shipments to their allies or clients.
Former thuwwar military officers who have been appointed as defence attaches to embassies in arms-exporting countries have also played a role in facilitating procurement for their constituencies back home.
With the bifurcation of institutions in mid-2014, these rivalries turned into struggles over who could lawfully occupy which positions; not only were there two rival chiefs of the general staff after Nadhuri’s appointment, but Deputy Minister of Defence Khalid al-Sharif contested his dismissal by Thinni and asserted that he remained in office.
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.