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.
In 2012 and 2013, the divisions of Libya Shield Forces (LSF) core rapidly transformed from stabilization forces into conflict parties. Though LSF leaders and allies insisted on the force’s loyalty to the Office of the Chief of General Staff, the LSF’s official status actually reflected divisions at the highest level of government and security institutions.
The LSF was able to operate thanks to backing from factions within state institutions, including in the fragmented executive branches of government.
The LSF’s political adversaries and many media outlets increasingly described the force as a militia allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, or even that organization’s armed wing.
Another popular shortcut consisted in reducing political dynamics to a conflict between Zintan and Misrata, with the latter identified as both a stronghold of the Brotherhood and the main Shield force.
In reality, however, the LSF’s political alignments were more complex, as was the nature of the political landscape. As outlined above, the social base of Shield units differed even among the Benghazi-based divisions.
What explained the political actions of Shield divisions from Misrata, Zawiya, or the Nafusa mountains was not their alignment with any political party, but their cities’ roles as revolutionary strongholds.
Islamist currents did not play any more of a prominent role in the Misratan divisions than they did in Zintan-based units.
Salafist and jihadi tendencies were influential in the Benghazi-based 1st and 7th divisions, as well as some units in the western coastal division, but such ideological currents were often in conflict with those of the Brotherhood.
In fact, the LSF had not a single prominent Brotherhood figure as a commander.
What united these diverse groups with the coalition of political forces in the GNC that were supporting their deployment was their promotion of a revolutionary agenda: the marginalization of elites that had arranged themselves with the Qaddafi regime and the cleansing of the army and security institutions of former regime elements.
The revolutionary camp’s political adversaries were led by Mahmud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance, representatives of tribal constituencies that had not backed the revolution (Zintani interest groups having broken with revolutionary forces to assume a leading position in the opposite camp), and disgruntled army officers.
The political nature of LSF units was clear from their very first deployment, that of bin Hamid’s division to Kufra in February 2012. As the Tubu perceived the unit as siding with the Zwayya, the division had to withdraw in mid-2012 to pave the way for a ceasefire.
More significant, however, was the capture of Bani Walid by parts of the LSF’s central and western divisions in October 2012. The decision to enter Bani Walid was taken by a minority within the GNC, which accused the town of being a refuge for wanted former regime elements.
The group mainly included deputies from Misrata, Zawiya, and the Tripoli neighbourhoods of Suq al-Jum’a and Tajura, as well as Islamist deputies from other cities, representatives of the emerging revolutionary camp.
Defence Minister Juwayli, who had opposed the establishment of the LSF, publicly spoke out against the LSF’s move on Bani Walid and was prevented from entering the city during the LSF’s operations there. The LSF’s western division split over the deployment, with Zintanis refusing to participate.
In Nalut, only a handful of Salafist fighters followed the LSF’s call. By contrast, the strongly revolutionary and Salafist Shield contingent from Zawiya was prominent in the operations. LSF units played an even more explicitly political role as power struggles escalated during 2013.
The Coordination for Political Isolation, a group formed to push for a law that would exclude former regime officials from holding public office, relied heavily on thuwwar leaders from the LSF to exert political pressure.
These LSF leaders and associated political factions from Benghazi, Misrata, Zawiya, and the Nafusa mountains were pushing their political agenda in a Supreme Council of Revolutionaries.
In late April 2013, the same constituencies established the Libyan Revolutionaries’ Operations Room (LROR) for coordination and political representation, focused on the issue of political isolation.
By occupying ministries in May 2013 and exerting pressure on GNC members, this group successfully forced the passage of the Political Isolation Law in the GNC, drawing mainly on LSF forces, as well as on the Tripoli SSC’s more explicitly revolutionary groups.
Following the law’s passage, the revolutionary camp gained the upper hand in the GNC, electing Nuri Abu Sahmain as GNC president, while relations with the revolutionary camp’s adversaries worsened.
In early July 2013, as units associated with Zintan seized the main Interior Ministry building on Tripoli’s airport road, Abu Sahmain, in a brazen usurpation of executive powers, tasked the LROR with securing Tripoli, in a letter that was not made public.
Against the background of perceived threats from the revolutionary camp’s adversaries, the GNC in early August gave Abu Sahmain emergency powers to deal with the security situation.
Abu Sahmain, who had single-handedly assumed the title of ‘supreme commander of the armed forces’, turned the LROR from a political initiative of the thuwwar into an official institution reporting directly to him.
The LROR had no forces of its own, but served to coordinate the deployment of selected units from Misrata, Tripoli, and the central and western regions. These included both LSF and SSC units. No information about the LROR’s membership and structure was made public.
All available evidence suggests, however, that it was dominated by LSF commanders. The new body’s role and the ensuing deployment of LSF units to Tripoli provoked considerable irritation among Tripoli residents.
It also fuelled tensions between units from outside Tripoli and thuwwar from the capital, who in June had joined with Tripoli’s local council and civil activists to form a ‘council for the protection of Tripoli’.
The fragmentation of the LSF
Several other major incidents fuelled the controversies surrounding the LSF and the LROR, eventually leading to the abandonment of the LSF model by government officials as well as some of its core thuwwar constituencies.
In Benghazi, protests at the LSF’s first division on 8 June 2013 turned into clashes in which 31 people were killed when the Shield unit opened fire. Before resigning over the incident, Chief of General Staff Manqush ordered the Benghazi-based Shield units to hand over their bases to army units .
The GNC, in turn, issued a decision requiring all armed groups operating under Defence or Interior Ministry authorizations to be dissolved into the army or the police by the end of 2013. The Shield’s 7th division, which had successfully enforced the ceasefire in the southern town of Kufra, abandoned its mission in protest and returned to Benghazi.
The LSF’s core Benghazi units effectively discarded the Libya Shield label and reconstituted themselves, partially fragmenting into the revolutionary battalions that had made up the component elements of Shield divisions.
Some frustrated former members of the 1st and 7th divisions joined Ansar al-Sharia and became involved in an increasingly bloody conflict over the control of Benghazi with the Saeqa special forces.
Others camouflaged as official army units; formerly part of the 7th division, the Umar al-Mukhtar battalion, headed by Ziyad Bal’am, became the army’s Brigade 319. Some joined yet other hybrid institutions, such as the Vital Installations Guards.
By late 2013, the LSF label and idea had been discredited in Benghazi, and tense coexistence gave way to intense conflict with the Saeqa, seen by many as out of control in its war against armed groups of Islamist tendency.
After a coalition of renegade army officers launched ‘Operation Dignity’ in Benghazi in May 2014, the majority of Benghazi’s Islamist-leaning revolutionary battalions entered into a close alliance with Ansar al-Sharia.
Their joint Shura Council of Benghazi Thuwwar, formed in June 2014, made no reference to state institutions, in stark contrast to the ambivalent relationship these groups had maintained with the state while operating as LSF units.
From hybrid units, these battalions evolved into armed groups at war with ‘Dignity’ forces that were equally outside state control and in rebellion against the army leadership.
In the western region, the Bani Walid operation of October 2012 was the beginning of the end of the Shield’s western division as a force with common objectives.
Zintan’s growing aversion to demands for cultural and linguistic rights in neighbouring Amazigh towns, its disputes with neighbours over the control of economic assets, and its political alignments within the GNC combined to rupture the unity between the region’s former revolutionary strongholds.
In March 2013, Zintani forces attacked a Zuwaran army unit at the Mellita refinery near Sabratha; in August, they looted an LSF base at Ajeilat. Following the latter incident, Zintani forces effectively abandoned the Shield.
The western division became a loose coordinating mechanism for units that remained based in individual towns, with a rapid turnover in commanders and erratic commitment of its component elements to joint operations.
An alternative to the Shield emerged in the western region with the National Mobile Force (al-Quwa al-Wataniya al-Mutaharrika), a unit created in the NTC’s final days under the Office of the Chief of General Staff, and drawn from most revolutionary strongholds in the area except Zintan.
Like the Shield, the Mobile Force was not a standing unit but could be mobilized when needed. According to observers, however, it was more closely integrated than the western Shield units.
In late 2012, it was tasked with evicting illegal armed groups and seizing criminal gangs in Tripoli’s outskirts. In January 2014, it took part in a major operation against criminal groups in the Warshafana area southwest of Tripoli, which involved a week of heavy fighting.
With the Mobile Force operating alongside former Tripoli SSC units and forces acting under the LROR, the episode showed that decision-making and command structures among the former thuwwar forces were becoming more diffuse, the LSF having lost their function as the principal alternative to the regular army in the west.
In Tripoli, the role of LSF units triggered both a public backlash and a rift between thuwwar from Tripoli and those from other towns, which eventually left the LSF model discredited.
Rising political tensions led a large force affiliated with the LROR to briefly kidnap Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October, only days after GNC President Abu Sahmain had appointed the Salafist sheikh Shaaban Hadiya as head of the LROR.
Though an LROR spokesperson denied that the organization’s leadership was implicated, at least some senior figures are likely to have overseen the operation.
Elements of the SSC’s crime-fighting committees were also involved, thus clashing with former SSC leader Hashim Bishr and other Tripoli SSC elements.
The incident provided fresh momentum for both political forces seeking to curb the revolutionary camp’s ascendance and civil society groups opposing the presence of armed groups in Tripoli.
The GNC placed the LROR under the Office of the Chief of General Staff’s control, demanded that the government speed up the dissolution of hybrid institutions according to the June decision, and called for the immediate removal of ‘illegal’ armed groups from Tripoli.
Shortly afterwards, a protest organized by Tripoli’s local council escalated into armed clashes with a Misrati unit in the Gharghur area of central Tripoli, leaving 43 people dead. Though not part of the LSF, the unit involved had been part of the LROR’s force.
The incident partly reflected rising tensions between units from the capital and those from outside Tripoli: in the week preceding the incident, the Misrati unit had clashed with the Suq al-Jum’a-based Nawasi battalion.
Amid intense public pressure after the incident, Misrata’s local and military councils ordered the town’s units to leave Tripoli, and the GNC withdrew emergency powers from Abu Sahmain.
The Muhammad al-Madani, Nawasi, Qa’qa’, and Sawa’iq battalions, as well as the Special Deterrence Force, organized ceremonies during which they ostensibly handed over their bases to the army.
But in most cases, this simply meant that these forces would henceforth camouflage themselves as army units; indeed, the retreat of Misratan units allowed those with Zintani leadership to expand their influence in the capital.
The LROR was abandoned by many of its more moderate members, and although Misratan Shield divisions remained intact, they were less willing to project force in pursuit of the city’s political interests.
By early 2014, given the disintegration of LSF units in Benghazi and the western region and the damage done to the LSF’s image by its members’ political activities, the Shield experiment appeared to have failed.
Despite the partial fragmentation of the LSF, however, the government remained dependent on forces based on former revolutionary battalions.
Unlike the government, these forces were able to act because they had clear – albeit parochial- political backing and goals. This was clearly demonstrated in January 2014, when Zeidan had to send his defence minister to Misrata to implore the city’s leaders to deploy units for the stabilization of Sabha.
Misratans agreed to dispatch the Third Force—reluctantly, after the slights suffered following the November 2013 Gharghur killings—and, for political balance, forces from Zintan were also mobilized. Both were allegedly allocated major budgets for their efforts.
In March 2014, when the GNC charged the chief of general staff with mobilizing forces from the army and the thuwwar to dislodge federalist militias from Sirte, units drawn from Misrata’s LSF were once again the ones that took action.
Both the Sabha and the oil port episodes showed that hybrid units, representing particular political interests, remained decisive forces, regardless of the label they carried.
Without the thuwwar elements, the government could not exert force, let alone provide security. And rather than benefiting from command and control over the thuwwar elements, the state was forced to rely on contracts with what were, for all intents and purposes, independent contractors rather than elements of the state security sector.
Thuwwar units continued to shift their affiliation from one government department to another, and they continued to pursue self-interest rather than any national interest. By doing so, they inevitably became part of the political struggles that characterize Libya’s transition.
Time and again, LSF units have been mobilized by political interest groups in Libya’s fragmented government institutions, against substantial resistance within these same institutions.
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.