Community Dynamics and Economic Interests
By Tim Eaton, Abdul Rahman Alageli, Emadeddin Badi, Mohamed Eljarh, and Valerie Stocker
This paper is based on approximately 200 interviews carried out by the authors – in person and remotely – with a wide range of Libyan actors between November 2018 and September 2019. This the paper does not claim to cover all armed groups in the country.
1. Introduction: The Development of Armed Groups Since 2014
Since the overthrow of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya’s multitude of armed groups have followed a range of paths. Many have gradually demobilized, others have remained active, and yet others have expanded their influence. Some of the armed groups currently wielding power contain few fighters from the 2011 civil war.
Local power struggles and conflicts have been ongoing since 2012, before a second bout of civil war led to a national governance split in 2014. Since that point, Libya’s security sector has evolved significantly.
In the east, an alliance known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) has emerged from bloody campaigns in Benghazi and Derna as the dominant political, security and economic actor.
In the west, four principal armed groups have consolidated control over Tripoli, although this control has subsequently been undermined by the reverberations of the current war for the capital.
Co-existing with the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital, these groups have developed their economic interests largely through privileged access to state resources. However, they are now increasingly dependent on Turkish-supplied forces, along with forces from Misrata, Zintan and other northwestern coastal cities, to preserve their position.
In the south, where militarization has been fuelled by sporadic local conflicts since 2011, a multitude of armed actors have carved out territory, typically seeking sponsorship from state and security bodies in the north on a largely opportunistic basis.
Many such groups have increasingly preferred engagement with the LAAF, enabling the latter to enlist a large number of southern fighters for the current war for Tripoli.
The Tripoli conflict was ongoing at the time of writing. The coalitions of combatants on each side have remained divided largely along the same lines as in 2011, although their alliances have been affected by the developments of the post-2014 period.
The evolving relationship between armed groups and local communities
Policy discussions on Libya have commonly identified armed actors as key inhibitors of political progress. Prevailing narratives presuppose that the interests of armed actors are distinct from those of the communities they claim to represent.
While divisions between some of the principal armed groups and local communities have widened since 2014, armed groups continue to rely significantly on social legitimacy in order to function. The current institutional fragmentation of the security sector is a symptom of wider fragmentation of state sovereignty.
Prior to 2011, Libya’s internal sovereignty – including the monopoly on force and sole agency in international relations – had been personally vested in the figure of Gaddafi himself. After his death, these elements of sovereignty reverted to local communities, which have created armed organizations to fill that central gap.
Libyan communities had organized militarily both with and against Gaddafi in 2011, gradually establishing armed social organizations as a result of the escalation of the conflict, along with direct relations with external powers.
This led to different groups assuming control over smaller local geographical areas (sometimes as small as streets, with control regularly contested through violence) and pursuing semi-independent cooperation with state actors.
These constituencies did not, however, develop uniformly. Different types of armed group emerged, ranging from those formerly regularized in Gaddafi’s army and security apparatus, on the one hand, to those associated with ideological currents and communities (geographic and tribal) on the other.
As a result of these dynamics, social legitimacy remains crucial to the military effectiveness of armed groups, and to their ability to project force. Greater consolidation of control by the LAAF in the eastern region has diluted this imperative somewhat, as the group has combined and amalgamated locally legitimate forces under a central command.
Yet even the LAAF remains substantively reliant on local and tribal alliances. As has been demonstrated by experience with the Misratan Counter Terrorism Force in western Libya, an armed group with strong legitimacy in the local community can gain legal authority by manoeuvring its members and affiliates into positions in state institutions, particularly when it benefits from international support.
From here, a group can leverage legal and financial authority to serve the interests of its leaders, and develop capability through experience.
In this way, armed groups formed during or after the revolution of 2011 have capitalized on their battle victories and/or track record of counter-crime operations to support the notion that they are more capable and effective than present-day state security forces.
They bargain with the state to provide services in return for legal recognition and resources. State institutions and authorities continue to rely on these groups to provide security, even as the state itself at times seeks to delegitimize armed groups by presenting them as militias (in a derogatory sense) and as threats to stability and the rule of law.
This process in turn inhibits the development of a strong ruling coalition that would enable the state to exert command and control over armed groups theoretically under its security apparatus.
As a consequence, the capacities of state institutions are reduced to managing the distribution of financial resources. When armed groups are stripped of legal authority by the state – through mandates being retracted or commanders blacklisted – the reduction of financial support can inhibit their capacity; however, their social legitimacy can still allow them to maintain their presence on the ground.
On the other hand, after 2011, state-affiliated forces such as the military and police that possessed legal legitimacy along with the training and experience necessary to fulfil their role still lacked social legitimacy and access to resources and thus could not be effective.
Most armed groups formed through local social mobilization have the legitimacy and capabilities to ensure security at a local and, less frequently, regional level – but not at a national one.
This explains why most groups have remained localized in nature since 2014, with their scope for expansion dependent on military and social alliances that tend to be short-lived (or that reflect mobilization against a common adversary, as currently witnessed in Tripoli).
The LAAF is an exception, seeking to develop a nationalist narrative to underscore its expansion across the country and its absorption of armed groups.
Consequently, it may be better to describe Libya as an amalgam of armed or potentially armed communities rather than as a network of disparate armed groups. While a network of armed groups certainly exists, and these groups own the bulk of medium to heavy weapons, there are enough weapons in circulation for the population to arm and mobilize new groups at any time.
As a result, communities hold the ability to influence and, at times, constrain the behaviour of armed groups. Yet the development of armed groups’ capacities, along with increasing access to autonomous means of generating revenue, has steadily diluted their accountability to local communities.
Tripoli residents, for instance, have limited leverage over the capital’s armed groups: many residents appear to accept the presence of armed groups as necessary for providing security, with known engagement in criminal activity tolerated provided that overt violence remains low.
In the east of the country, many residents appear to accept or even welcome the LAAF’s expansion beyond the security realm provided that it performs such roles effectively.
That said, an accurate assessment is difficult to reach. Owing to the degree of control exerted by the LAAF, public opposition to its activities or agenda is often met with intimidation or violence. In the south, social protections shield armed group members from arrest and/or from being held accountable for their actions.
Given the degree to which some armed groups are embedded in local society, domestic and international strategies to engage them must seek to address the fears, grievances and desires of the communities such groups claim to represent.
Nonetheless, given the degree to which some armed groups are embedded in local society, domestic (i.e. state-level) and international strategies to engage them must seek to address the fears, grievances and desires of the communities such groups claim to represent.
For groups such as those that have remobilized following the LAAF offensive on Tripoli that began in April 2019, only a political settlement will meet these requirements.
Beyond the need for security guarantees, demands and grievances commonly relate to employment entitlements (particularly senior civil service or diplomatic appointments and perks), as well as to modalities for sharing the state’s resources.
Failure to address local grievances will continue to enable armed groups – as an extension of their social bases – to recruit, mobilize and arm young men. Security sector reform (SSR) programmes that simply absorb armed groups into state structures are insufficient to address community grievances.
Similarly, policies of appeasement that allow armed groups autonomy ignore the potential for communities to simply arm and remobilize.
About the Authors:
Tim Eaton is a senior research fellow with the MENA Programme at Chatham House, where he focuses on the political economy of the Libyan conflict. Tim previously worked for BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, on projects in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and helped to set up and manage its Libya bureau from 2013 to 2014.
Abdul Rahman Alageli is an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme, based in Tripoli, Libya. He is currently an adviser to the GNA Chief-of-General Staff of the Libyan Army. Abdul Rahman previously worked with the stabilization team of the Libyan Prime Minister’s Office in 2011 before becoming the national security file coordinator in the Office of the Libyan Prime Minister and a member of the Libyan government’s National Security Coordination Team until 2015.
Emadeddin Badi is a researcher and political analyst who focuses on governance, conflict and the political economy of Libya. He has worked with multiple international development organizations and business risk firms as a consultant, and his analysis has been published widely.
Mohamed Eljarh is a Libyan affairs specialist who has covered Libya’s developments since 2011. He is the co-founder and CEO of Libya Outlook, and he acts as the regional manager for CRCM North Africa in Libya. Previously, Eljarh worked with the Atlantic Council and Foreign Policy magazine.
Valerie Stocker is a researcher who has studied Libyan politics and society extensively, mostly focusing on the southern region. She has worked with various development organizations since 2013, conducting fieldwork and analysis on conflict dynamics, peace processes, migration and other subjects. Valerie was based in Tripoli for several years starting in 2008, and has previously worked as a freelance journalist and business risk consultant.