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.
‘Operation Libya Dawn’: LSF factions form a political alliance
In July 2014, an alliance of thuwwar units and post-revolutionary armed groups launched a large-scale offensive against Zintani positions in Tripoli and the so-called Army of Tribes (Jaysh al-Qaba’il) in the Warshafana area.
The fighting involved sustained shelling of civilian areas on both sides of the front line, as well as substantial damage to Tripoli International Airport and other vital infrastructure.
By August, the thuwwar coalition had taken control of the airport and forced Zintani factions to withdraw from the capital. By September, it had scattered the armed groups that were resisting the coalition’s advance in the Warshafana area.
A combination of political and military developments had provoked the offensive. The gradual expansion of Zintani influence over the capital, in the aftermath of the Misratan withdrawal of November 2013, had caused increasing resentment within the revolutionary camp.
Some Misratan units of the Central Shield had returned to Tripoli in May 2014, to secure the GNC against Zintani attacks and thereby enable the election of Ahmad Maitiq as the new prime minister.
Redeployed Misratan units faced renewed confrontation with Zintani forces. At the same time, the revolutionary camp harboured growing suspicions of a deepening Zintani alliance with former regime elements, as reflected in the presence of former members of Qaddafi’s security brigades in the Zintani-led Qa’qa’ and Sawa’iq Battalions.
The emergence of two militias in the Warshafana area that did not seek official recognition and represented counter-revolutionary forces, the Warshafana Battalion and the Army of Tribes, exacerbated those concerns.
In this context of rising tensions, the revolutionary camp’s political leaders were increasingly reluctant to travel via Tripoli International Airport, fearing that they might be prevented from travelling or be exposed to abduction by the Zintani-led units that controlled the facility.
In May, attacks by Zintani forces in Tripoli had revealed their alliance with Haftar’s Dignity offensive in Benghazi, and Dawn was therefore partly a response to Dignity.
Finally, the results of the June 2014 HoR elections provided a major additional motivation for the offensive. In Misrata, politicians with close links to revolutionary battalions won a clear victory, but elsewhere in the country, their allies in the revolutionary camp suffered severe losses.
Faced with the prospect of diminishing influence in parliament, the revolutionary camp’s political leaders saw territorial control over Tripoli as an effective political bargaining chip.
On 13 July, the thuwwar coalition launched a three-pronged attack on Zintani positions at the 7 April army base, the Islamic Call society, and Tripoli International Airport.
The coalition, which called itself Qaswara (Lion) before adopting Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) as the name of the operation, included two Misratan battalions commanded by Salah Badi and Salim Zufri; former Tripoli SSC units headed by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli and Salah al-Burki; a Zawiyan force led by former LROR commander Shaaban Hadiya; and the Fursan Janzur battalion, part of the National Mobile Force.
Among the groups that launched the offensive, only the Zawiyan units and a company of the Misratan Hatin battalion were part of the LSF. Shortly after the launch of the offensive, Misratan LSF leaders sought to negotiate a compromise that would have seen control over the airport handed over to a force from Jadu.
On 17 July, the deputy commander of the Central Shield, Hassan Shaka, while clearly distancing himself from the units that had attacked the airport, gave Zintani forces an ultimatum to cede control of the facility.
However, Misratan commanders failed to prevent the coalition from attacking before the ultimatum had expired. Around ten days into the hostilities, with fighting escalating further, the large Misratan battalions under the LSF umbrella—including the al-Barkan, al-Halbus, al-Marsa, al-Mahjub, al-Tajin, and Hatin Battalions—joined the offensive.
Leading the offensive was a tactical alliance of forces that escaped rigid institutional structures. The leadership hid behind the anonymous Dawn label; as was the case with the LROR, no information about the operation’s command structures was published.
Indeed, the LROR itself initially issued statements about the operation, suggesting an overlap between the LROR and the Dawn networks. But with the entry of the large Misratan battalions, the centre of gravity within the operation shifted from the coalition that had launched it to the LSF units that now constituted the bulk of its forces.
In addition to the initial coalition’s operations room, Misratan LSF units established a separate command centre; eventually, another operations room was set up to oversee both.
The spokesperson for the Central Shield, Ahmad Hadiya, also appeared as the Dawn spokesperson, but in one instance had to deny any link between the Shield and a Dawn statement rejecting negotiations.
The Central Shield, dismissed deputy minister of defence Khalid al-Sharif, and Libya Dawn itself all stressed that the forces leading the offensive were loyal to the chief of general staff and sought to re-establish state authority.
The LSF’s official authorization expired on 31 August, and salary payments to LSF units stopped. Proposals to establish formal army units from the pool of LSF fighters were thwarted by the bifurcation of institutions and the emergence of two rival chiefs of general staff.
The battalions nevertheless continued to operate under the LSF umbrella and, in Misrata, efforts began to mobilize funds from the local business community to bridge the gap until a solution was found.
In the international media, the alliance was invariably described as ‘Islamist-led militias’ or ‘a coalition of Islamist and Misrata forces’. This coverage was misleading and undoubtedly influenced by the alliance’s political adversaries.
The leadership of the Qa’qa’ and Sawa’iq Battalions referred to its enemies in the revolutionary camp as ‘apostates’ and ‘extremists’, while the HoR called the alliance a terrorist group.
Salafist and jihadi tendencies were indeed influential among the leadership of the units that initially launched the operation—although Zintani-led units were equally affected.
Some prominent Islamist figures, such as Sharif, were among the operation’s leading proponents. Yet on the whole, local loyalties and a shared revolutionary agenda were decisive for the participation of the bulk of the forces.
This could be said for the vast majority of forces from the Central and Western Shield, the National Mobile Force, including from Janzur and Zuwara, and Libya Shield 4 from Gharyan.
While Amazigh towns in the Nafusa mountains maintained an ostensibly neutral position until the fighting reached the area in October 2014, substantial numbers of their fighters joined the offensive as part of the Western Shield or the National Mobile Force.
Indeed, in August 2014 many leaders of the participating units resented the role of Islamist networks in the operation.
Leading field commanders from Misrata and Zliten set up a Committee of 17—later renamed Committee for the Correction of the Path—to act as their political representation.
The body’s goal was to ensure that the thuwwar units would not be used as the armed wing of Islamist movements or political parties.
Libya Dawn underlined not only the dominance of forces aligned with the revolutionary camp in western Libya, but also their continued internal fragmentation and aversion to rigid command structures.
An LSF experiment lasting more than two years has done little to forge coherent units out of its local component elements; if anything, the resources channelled to these groups through the LSF have further strengthened individual factions.
During the offensive, divisions emerged among the revolutionary camp’s political leaders over whether, how, and what to negotiate with their Tobruk-based rivals.
These divisions partly reflected rifts among the leadership of the armed groups themselves, casting doubts over their willingness to adhere to any agreement negotiated by their political representatives.
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.