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.
Case studies: the SSC, the LSF, and the armed forces
The following case studies illustrate the arguments made above with a detailed analysis of three key institutions: the Supreme Security Committee, the Libya Shield Forces, and the armed forces.
The Supreme Security Committee
The Supreme Security Committee is a hybrid institution that allowed a diverse range of armed groups to operate under official cover and thereby emerge as powerful actors in the security sector.
The SSC has been considered dissolved since late 2013, but many of its component elements have successfully withstood the institution’s break-up. They continue to operate under different guises, as part of hybrid institutions or on their own.
The NTC initially devised the SSC as a rapid and temporary solution to the security vacuum in Tripoli in August 2011.
Reacting to the ‘bottom-up’ emergence of military councils in western Libya, the NTC’s executive committee created the SSC to oversee the 17 different military councils in Tripoli’s neighbourhoods.
The SSC also had a political objective in isolating the Tripoli military council, formed under Abd al-Hakim Bilhajj with the support of Tripoli’s NTC representatives, as well as several Tripolitanian and Misratan battalions.
Initially overseen by a group of NTC members, the SSC was dissolved in December 2011 and its personnel transferred to Fawzi Abd al-Al after his appointment as minister of interior.
On 28 December, the minister’s Decision 388 re-established the ‘Temporary Supreme Security Committee’ and set up a ‘First Recruitment Subcommittee’ headquarters in Tripoli. Unlike the initial Committee, the Temporary SSC was granted nationwide authority.
During the SSC’s initial phase, from September to December 2011, its target membership consisted primarily of Tripoli neighbourhood vigilante groups, which were loosely coordinated by a network of military councils that started with 17 such groups, but simultaneously mushroomed and fragmented into more than 100 by 2012.
This loose, largely self-determining collection of groups operated their own checkpoints and detention facilities in the greater Tripoli area.
They were incentivized to join the SSC to receive state-issued registration cards and, more importantly, salaries and one-off bonuses.
Armed groups were registered and paid as a unit, with the NTC relying on military councils to distribute initial payments.
Later, armed groups self-registered with the Interior Ministry’s payment committees and presented their own lists of members to the armed forces’ military accounts offices, which effectively left oversight of recruitment and membership to individual commanders.
This lack of oversight led to the dramatic swelling of registrants, as group leaders quickly added recruits in competition for state funding and influence.
The Interior Ministry set a nationwide target of 25,000 fighters for the SSC, a figure that was quickly eclipsed as more and more armed groups joined.
By August 2012, the number of fighters formally registered with the SSC had reached 149,000.
The government’s promised payments became a political liability, as the Libyan Central Bank made out cheques directly to brigade heads but did not request any confirmation of payment to the intended recipients, nor try to confirm that intended recipients were real persons.
Both the Interior Ministry and the SSC attempted to streamline and remove fighters who were double-registered in other institutions or who simply did not attend work; by the end of 2012, both institutions were reporting the actual size of the SSC at just over 60,000 members.
According to one estimate, this number included approximately 300 unreformed armed groups that had merged into the SSC. Although the SSC was divided into just over 50 regional branches, the bulk of its effective force was based in Tripoli.
The official Tripoli branch of the SSC, commanded by Hashim Bishr, numbered over 16,000; however, other branches and SSC-registered armed groups based in Tripoli put the total at 35,000, according to one SSC leader.
Interests and factions
Although the SSC was created by the transitional authorities, its units soon escaped central control, not least because of diverse interest groups who used the institution as an official cover for their political or economic activities—or simply as a source of salaries.
These interest groups ranged from Islamist factions to police officers and criminal groups.
On paper, the minister of interior was responsible for the SSC. Fawzi Abd al-Al, a Misratan lawyer, oversaw the SSC’s growth from December 2011 to December 2012.
His successor, Ashur Shwail, a police chief from Benghazi, attempted to implement the integration of the SSC into the Ministry of Interior during his tenure from December 2012 to May 2013; he was succeeded by a former Tripolitanian police official, Muhammad Shaikh.
Both Shwail and Shaikh came into conflict with other political interest groups within the ministry, particularly the Islamist-leaning figures who dominated the SSC.
The deputy minister of interior, Umar al-Khadrawi, effectively oversaw the organization. Khadrawi was a close associate of Abd al-Rizaq al-Aradi in the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.
In May 2011, both had been in the planning committee behind Bilhajj’s Tripoli military council. Appointed deputy interior minister in August 2011, Khadrawi retained the post under Prime Ministers Kib and Zeidan until he was dismissed in September 2013.
Khadrawi’s singular longevity underlined his influence within the rapidly changing Interior Ministry.
Rather than being the project of the Interior Ministry as such, the SSC was backed by recent appointees to the ministry who had an Islamist or revolutionary background, such as Khadrawi, as opposed to the ministry’s career police officers, such as Shwail and Shaikh.
It thereby reflected the emergence of rival political camps in state security institutions.
Neighbourhood vigilante groups, whose members were largely youths, formed the bulk of the SSC’s contingent in Tripoli. An important subset of these groups were Salafists who followed mainstream Saudi currents, as opposed to jihadi strands of Salafism.
Focused primarily on controlling a burgeoning drug trade in Tripoli, they tended to support and work with the Ministry of Interior even if they did not always see eye to eye. The most powerful commanders in Tripoli emerged from the Salafist spectrum.
ne, Abd al-Latif Qaddur, a religious judge from Suq al-Jum’a who had been an important cog in the arms network from Misrata to Suq al-Jum’a during the revolution and a leading commander in the Martyrs of Suq al-Jum’a, became the SSC’s first head.
A peer of Qaddur’s, Abd al-Rauf Kara, commanded the Suq al-Jum’a Nawasi battalion. Kara subsequently became the head of the Tripoli SSC’s ‘support branches’—almost neighbourhood groups divided into 17 branches, many of which 52 shared Kara’s Salafist leanings.
Forces such as Kara’s Nawasi battalion—renamed the eighth support branch—or the fourth support branch in Abu Salim, headed by the Salafist sheikh Salah al-Burki, saw their mandate as inherently political: finding and arresting former regime security officials and policing Tripoli according to their interpretation of Islamic principles.
Their vision included enforcing their own brands of morality by targeting alleged alcohol drinkers and, in at least one case, alleged homosexuals.
The head of the SSC’s Tripoli branch, Hashim Bishr—a former commander in the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Battalion—also came from a Salafist background.
Although they were initially drafted in to support Abd al-Hakim Bilhajj’s Tripoli military council, Bishr and the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Battalion were far less influenced than the Tripoli military council by networks of former jihadi Salafist individuals and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
Bishr merged the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Battalion into the Tripoli branch of the SSC, creating an ‘elite force’ from its two most potent battalions, led by himself and a fellow commander, Haitham al-Tajuri.
The force was based at Mitiga airport and operated nine branches across Tripoli and a private detention facility in Ain Zara.
In Tripoli, the Ministry of Interior provided ineffective oversight of the SSC, permitting fiefdoms to emerge.
The heads of the three major mobile and armed divisions of the SSC in Tripoli—the support branches, elite force, and crime-fighting committees.
The latter of which had been created in May 2012 and been placed under the SSC in July 2012 —allegedly supplied cars and weapons to groups that responded to their orders. The result was the formation of isolated and competing divisions.
The following structure shows the highly fragmented divisions of the SSC, January 2013
Supreme Security Committee
Local branches (54)
Tripoli branch (47) – Support branches (17)
Elite force Special – Deterrence Force
Crime-fighting committees (23)
Support companies (45)
Rivalries between a wide range of interest groups and factions within the SSC led to a high degree of fragmentation. In the capital, the elite force and support branches were under the umbrella of the Tripoli SSC branch.
But a large number of SSC units operated separately in Tripoli, formally reporting directly to the SSC’s central administration.
These units included the 45 ‘support companies’, which were distinct from the support branches and included many defected police officers and allied neighbourhood vigilante groups.
They further included the Tripoli branches of the crime-fighting committees, which in turn comprised a variety of individual armed groups with their own political and social agendas.
Among them were thuwwar from Misrata and the Nafusa mountains who had remained in Tripoli following the capital’s fall; many of them pursued political opponents allied to the former regime and operated their own detention facilities.
Except for Bishr’s group, the thuwwar had largely resisted joining the SSC, as they were wary of integrating into the Ministry of Interior; the SSC branches in Misrata and Zintan were negligible in number and power.
By mid-2012, however, these groups in the capital found their interests best served by acquiring ‘official’ government sanction for their duties via the SSC.
Along with neighbourhood militias drawn from Tripoli residents, such groups entered the crime-fighting committees.
Another constituency of the SSC comprised serving police officers. The incentives for police to join the institution were twofold:
First, across the country, the police’s lack of weaponry left them unable to deal with many front-line policing tasks.
Second, the SSC offered easy access to a second salary. In some towns, the local police branch was simply reformed as a branch of the SSC, using its surviving infrastructure and personnel.
The armed groups that sought the cover of one of the SSC’s multiple divisions also included criminal and counter-revolutionary groups.
During the Tripoli SSC’s first year, seven units were found to be composed exclusively of former members of the Qaddafi regime’s People’s Guard.
SSC commanders in Tripoli claimed that some SSC units were selling on narcotics they had seized out of SSC cars.
Local residents alleged that a division of the crime-fighting committees in the central suburb of Ben Ashur comprised exclusively escaped convicts.
Another SSC division allegedly made significant profits out of its control over Tripoli’s port and rejected the Tripoli SSC’s attempts to dismantle the unit. The elite force and the support branches raided other elements of the SSC during 2012 and 2013, after accusing them of engaging in criminal activity; both maintained intelligence
offices dedicated to gathering information on other SSC branches.
According to Bishr, the Tripoli SSC often had difficulty establishing which sub-unit of which SSC branch operating in Tripoli was responsible for abductions and other alleged criminal acts reported by citizens.
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.