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.
Dissolving the SSC
The SSC was designed as a temporary institution, with December 2012 initially set as its time horizon. The process of dissolving the SSC to return policing responsibilities to formal Interior Ministry institutions, however, entailed a range of obstacles.
These included resistance from individual SSC units with vested economic interests or a pronounced political tendency—in the case of some Tripoli SSC units, a revolutionary or Salafist esprit de corps.
Rifts within the Interior Ministry and the SSC administration, as well as the rapid turnover of senior ministry staff, also acted as impediments.
Under Interior Minister Fawzi Abd al-Al, the ministry stopped recruitment into the SSC in August 2012 and embarked on an effort to survey the institution’s members in preparation for its dissolution.
It identified 49,000 SSC members who were willing to join the formal security institutions, out of a total of 149,000 on the SSC’s lists. However, the process was shelved when the government of Ali Zeidan took over from that of Abd al-Rahim al-Kib, and recruitment into the SSC resumed.
In December 2012, with the SSC now at 162,000, a new attempt at dissolution was made. 63 This triggered mixed reactions from SSC units. The head of the Tripoli SSC, Hashim Bishr, who was to sit on the Interior Ministry committee overseeing the process, supported the initiative.
Yet parts of the Tripoli SSC and units under the direct control of the central SSC initially rejected it; the idea was also opposed by numerous SSC branches across Libya, including Kara’s support branches and many crime-fighting committees.
The Interior Ministry threatened to suspend salaries of SSC members who refused to integrate as of January 2013, triggering violent protests in front of the GNC, where SSC fighters assaulted several GNC members.
Payment of salaries was resumed thereafter, including for SSC members who had refused to integrate. The dissolution initiative that began in December 2012 relied on new criteria for integration into formal security structures and thus required a fresh survey.
Of 162,000 people on the SSC’s payrolls, 61,000 failed to respond to the Interior Ministry’s survey, suggesting that they most probably had other jobs—and, in some cases, were members of other hybrid units—and were simply drawing salaries without working for the SSC.
Of the remainder, 30,000 did not meet the criteria or declared themselves unwilling to join the security institutions. Another 30,000 were still being processed as of February 2014.
Of the 40,000 SSC members who had declared their willingness to join the security institutions—which largely meant the police—20,000 had already undergone the necessary training and were considered integrated by February 2014.
By January 2014, only one-tenth of the 53,000 SSC members who had responded to the survey in Tripoli were considered integrated after having completed their training.
The vast majority of the remainder continued their training, were vetted, or were declared unfit. According to former SSC officials, most of those who had completed training in Tripoli were rapidly frustrated with police service, in which they encountered sceptical officers and a very different institutional culture.
Many returned to their old armed groups, joined criminal gangs, or simply stayed at home. Overall, the dissolution process met with little success, and the official figures hid not only a variety of ways in which former SSC units persisted, but also major variations from one city to another.
The varying reactions to the Interior Ministry’s approach reflected the divergent backgrounds of SSC branches in different cities. In Benghazi, the SSC had rapidly disintegrated from mid-2012 onwards, in large part due to irregularities in payment, as well as growing insecurity in the city and the resignation of the local SSC head Fawzi Wanis in September 2012.
At the end of 2012, one-quarter of the Benghazi SSC’s 12,000 men had already joined a unit of the Libya Shield Forces. Around 7,000 agreed to join the police; the remainder simply vanished.
As in Tripoli, those who joined the police rapidly stopped showing up for work—in the case of Benghazi, due to the deteriorating security situation.
In more stable eastern towns with a shortage of other employment opportunities, such as Bayda, Marj, or Tobruk, integration into the police was more successful. The same went for towns in southern Libya, where recruitment into the police represented an opportunity for low-risk employment.
In Sirte, by contrast, the vast majority of SSC members simply stayed home from January 2013 onwards, taking more than 70 vehicles provided to the local SSC branch by the Interior Ministry with them.
By far the biggest challenges to the SSC’s dissolution emerged in Tripoli, where the bulk of its active members were located and its units ranged from highly effective entities with a fervent revolutionary spirit to criminal gangs.
Bishr’s initial support for dissolving the SSC was rejected by Kara and other leaders of SSC units who had a strong thuwwar component, or who positioned themselves in the revolutionary camp.
They demanded that the interior ministry and police first be purged of officials perceived to be corrupt or responsible for past acts of repression.
Other units, such as the one that controlled the port of Tripoli, broke away from the Tripoli SSC to protect their interests and joined the SSC central organization, where oversight was weaker and efforts at dissolving Tripoli branches only began in mid-2013.
Individual considerations of SSC leaders also played a role. Aware of the need to address its leaders’ ambitions, the Tripoli SSC identified 50 unit commanders to be offered career paths in the diplomatic service or state-owned companies.
In response to the Tripoli SSC’s refusal to expand the number of candidates offered this option, however, some units rejected the integration process.
Eventually, the Interior Ministry and other government branches failed to cooperate with the Tripoli SSC’s promotion of leading figures, which meant that most of these commanders had little incentive to join the police.
Only two prominent leaders were integrated as police officers. Even if their rank and file joined the police, SSC unit leaders often retained close ties with their former men and were able to mobilize them as needed.
Units with a strong esprit de corps—in most cases, groups with Salafist leanings or a will to protect the revolution against perceived threats from former regime elements—proved robust enough to withstand the dissolution process.
Abd al-Rauf Kara’s Special Deterrence Force continued to operate as a separate unit, as did the SSC’s Abu Salim units under Salah al-Burki and Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli. Some contingents of ‘revolutionary’ SSC members joined military intelligence, where they represented sufficiently large groups to operate autonomously.
Two new organizations were established to subsume the SSC units that refused to dissolve: the Rapid Intervention Force (Quwat al-Tadakhul al-Sari’), under the Interior Ministry’s umbrella, and the Joint Intervention and Deterrence Force (Quwat al-Rada’ wal-Tadakhul al-Mushtaraka), under the chief of general staff.
Inside these new organizations, the old command and group structures typically persisted, and the Joint Intervention and Deterrence Force’s functions remained largely those of its ex-SSC components, despite the fact that the new organization was part of the Libyan army.
These units’ control of assets such as Mitiga airport or Tripoli port also remained unaffected.
In sum, the units that gained power through—and organized themselves within—the SSC continued to form powerful interest groups within the security sector, particularly in the capital.
From July 2014 onwards, some factions of the former SSC in Tripoli played an important role in the Libya Dawn offensive—notably Burki and Kikli’s Abu Salim units, as well as former elements of the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Battalion.
Others, such as units under Kara’s command, stayed in their local turfs. Led by forces from Misrata and other revolutionary strongholds, Libya Dawn was directed first against Zintani battalions in the Tripoli area, and subsequently against armed groups in the Warshafana area south of Tripoli.
Contractual relationships between hybrid units and the government: the case of the RSC
Relationships between hybrid units and the government are often based on contracts issued by ministers, the president of the GNC, the prime minister, or the chief of general staff.
The Rafallah al-Sahati Companies (RSC), for example, emerged in the revolution’s first weeks and subsequently merged into the 17 February Martyrs’ Battalion, which in May 2011 moved under the administrative umbrella of the Gathering of Revolutionary Companies (Tajammu’ Sirayat al-Thuwwar, GRC).
By May 2011, the GRC was formally under the direction of the NTC’s newly created Ministry of Defence, which began to authorize the GRC to act on its behalf. However, the RSC would not take orders from the NTC or its ministry.
Thus, rather than orders, the ministry issued ‘contracts’. In September 2011, for instance, the ministry issued a contract to the RSC to protect the Sirte–Brega Oil Company facilities.
The contract also ordered all other ‘revolutionary military units and of the eastern front’ to withdraw from those facilities.
Subsequent contracts, issued by several government ministries, were addressed to the GRC, to be assigned to its component elements by the GRC head, Fawzi Bukatf.
In February 2012, the RSC received its first significant government contract, from the Office of the Chief of General Staff. The contract charged the GRC with ‘preparing and sending a force to the Kufra area’. The GRC’s deployment included the RSC as well as the Libya Shield Force.
By July 2012, the RSC was considering joining the Supreme Security Committee and received contracts from the Ministry of Interior to provide protection during the 7 July 2012 elections.
At the same time, it continued to carry out Defence Ministry contracts, since the GRC remained under the formal authority of the Office of the Chief of General Staff.
Finally, in October 2012, the RSC entered into a direct relationship with the Office of the Chief of General Staff as a branch of the Libya Shield Forces, in large part to protect itself against accusations that it was an illegal entity.
In 2013, the Office of the Chief of General Staff redeployed the RSC to Kufra as part of Libya Shield.
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.