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 Libya Shield Forces
By backing the Libya Shield Forces, thuwwar leaders sought to establish themselves as a temporary substitute to the armed forces, or even as the core of a new, permanent army.
While the LSF has been indispensable to the transitional governments in the context of stabilizing local conflicts, it has also been at the centre of major political struggles.
The LSF’s role in these struggles eventually contributed both to its own fragmentation and to the rift opening up in the armed forces in mid-2014. The LSF’s component elements remain key actors in Libya’s security sector and political landscape, including in the acute conflicts in Tripoli and Benghazi.
In contrast to the ‘top-down’ nature of the SSC, the LSF emerged in early 2012 as a ‘bottom-up’ thuwwar initiative. As inter-communal conflicts erupted in north-western and southern Libya in late 2011, the fragmented thuwwar units faced the challenge of responding to these conflicts.
Simultaneously, they wished to preserve for themselves a role in securing the country’s territory, to pursue their fight against loyalists, and to maintain their autonomy while lobbying against the unreformed armed forces.
The thuwwar had often fought alongside the military on the same fronts, but in separate units bonded by different loyalties, and united only in loose coalitions designed largely to improve interaction with NATO forces. At this stage, the thuwwar needed new institutions to justify their legitimacy, and to meet more complex goals.
The thuwwar’s first initiative was launched in western Libya, where representatives of local military councils from the coastal plain and the Nafusa mountains met in January 2012 to form a joint, 1,500-strong ‘peacekeeping force’ with headquarters in Jadu and Surman.
Though the initiative had the blessing of Defence Minister Usama Juwayli, it was driven by the thuwwar.
The name ‘Libya Shield’ emerged from a similar—and almost simultaneous—initiative centred in Benghazi. Led by Wissam bin Hamid, the Libya Shield was formed from a composite force of groups fighting on the Brega front line.
These had joined the Coalition of Libyan Revolutionary Battalions, one of the first alliances of revolutionary armed groups set up in Benghazi in 2011, with the 17 February Coalition at its core (Quryna, 2012a).
In early 2012, bin Hamid’s group approached the defence minister with a proposal for the formation of a stabilization force drawn from Benghazi-based and other eastern units. The defence minister agreed in February 2012, when violence erupted in the south-eastern town of Kufra.
Units drawn from the groups under bin Hamid’s leadership were sent south under a contract with the Office of the Chief of General Staff, which identified them as the ‘Libya Shield’. The contract tasked the groups with securing the airport and other significant installations. The Libyan army arrived several weeks later.
The initiatives in Benghazi and the western region were a compelling model for other thuwwar.
Only a few days after the Benghazi Libya Shield was charged with stabilizing Kufra, a meeting of eight military councils in Misrata established a ‘military division’ of 7,000 fighters aimed at stabilizing the central region.
At the core of the Misrati initiative was a rotating system organized by Salim Joha, the head of the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, for the deployment of local units to locations such as Sabha for periods of up to one month. Joha also set the selection criteria for the deployed units’ commanders.
Building on this institutional development, the thuwwar conducted several nationwide conferences in March and April 2012, in an effort to create a representative body to advocate on their behalf with the government.
The third such conference, on 1–2 April in Misrata and attended by Prime Minister Abd al-Rahim al-Kib, saw the leadership of these new units call on the government to designate them as ‘the new nucleus’ of the Libyan army and forcing army officers who ‘stayed at home’ or did not fight on the revolutionaries’ behalf into retirement.
The chief of general staff, Yusuf al-Manqush, facing fierce opposition from the armed forces, refused to designate the thuwwar as the nucleus of a new army; instead, he tried to co-opt thuwwar fighters by offering benefits to those who rejoined the existing army.
By the end of April 2012, the revolutionary groups had altered their demands and, at a meeting in Benghazi, they requested official status as a temporary ‘Libya Shield Force’.
The goal was to develop a unit that could carry out military security tasks and border protection under the chief of general staff’s command, while serving as an interim step to future (if undefined) integration into the Libyan army. Manqush acquiesced and, in June, the NTC created the
Libya Shield Forces as a ‘temporary reserve force’, placing it under the command of the chief of general staff. In practice, however, questions persisted as to who truly held the ultimate authority between the LSF and the chief of general staff.
Henceforth, the LSF was deployed in parallel to, and disconnected from, the army, including in Kufra (February 2012), Sabha (April 2012), the Nafusa mountains (from April 2012 onwards), and at critical installations such as the Mellita oil refinery near Zawiya.
Over the following year, the LSF grew into 13 different divisions, as thuwwar and other armed civilians mimicked the LSF model to gain official legitimacy and access to salaries.
The western initiative for a ‘peacekeeping force’ turned into the LSF’s western division, split into two sub-units for the mountains and the coastal plain.
In the east, the Libya Shield formed under Wissam bin Hamid became the first division, Libya Shield 1. Its members increasingly defined themselves as Islamist and, while continuing to recruit from Koranic schools and mutual social networks, began to restrict their membership and view other security groupings with suspicion.
Subsequently, a second division—Libya Shield 2—emerged from other parts of the Coalition of Libyan Revolutionary Battalions; it opposed the increasingly Islamist and urban direction of Libya Shield 1 and recruited mainly among tribal constituencies from Ajdabiya, Bayda, and Benghazi.
In September 2012, the Rafallah al-Sahati Companies (RSC) and the 17 February Martyrs’ Battalion, under heavy public pressure, opted for the Shield’s official cover to become its seventh division. The move came after protesters, reacting to the attack on the US liaison office in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, had ransacked the bases of both the RSC and the jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia.
In addition to subsuming the battalions under ‘Libya Shield 7’, the office of the chief of general staff appointed military officers to oversee them. In practice, however, the groups retained their old leadership, identity, and political alignments.
The seventh division, which also included many members of the Umar al-Mukhtar battalion that had emerged out of the orbit of former fighters of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, became the Shield’s most explicitly Islamist unit.
The Misratan initiative mentioned above was designated Central Shield. In addition, Misrata’s military council later created a new Shield unit intended to dissolve katiba structures entirely and reorganize individuals within a more centralized command structure, which was named Libya Shield 3, or simply the Third Force (al-Quwa al-Thalitha).
In doing so, they aped the designs for integration into the armed forces, which Misratan leaders were at that point pressing upon the chief of general staff.
Other, smaller units of the LSF emerged. In Gharyan, Libya Shield 4 gradually grew through the steady recruitment of civilians.
Some Tripoli-based forces reconstituted themselves as Libya Shield 5, which remained mainly an administrative umbrella for its component battalions, in which unit commanders had a high degree of autonomy.
A tenth Shield division was established in Benghazi after around 3,000 of the disbanding Benghazi SSC branch joined the LSF in late 2012.
In Sabha a southern LSF division emerged, with Islamist-oriented leadership surrounding Ahmad al-Hasnawi. The southern division remained a loose grouping of smaller battalions and never developed into a force that could counter-balance the city’s powerful Awlad Sulaiman and Tubu armed groups.
Not unlike the SSC, the LSF included units with strongly divergent backgrounds, degrees of cohesion, and ideological or local loyalties.
But the units that came to define public opinion towards the Shield—the 1st and 7th divisions in Benghazi, the two Misrata-based divisions, and the western division’s coastal unit—were all dominated by thuwwar who positioned themselves firmly in the revolutionary camp and became key actors in the escalating power struggles defining Libya’s transition.
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 battalions 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 7.
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.