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.
2. Tripolitanian Armed Groups
In 2012, as many as 30 armed groups could be described as militarily significant in Tripoli. By mid-2017, a so-called ‘quartet’ of only four main groups dominated the city: the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB); the Nawasi Brigade; the Special Deterrence Forces (SDF); and the Abu Slim Central Security Unit.
A tacit coexistence agreement between these four actors and Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) – which arrived in Tripoli in March 2016 – has allowed the capital’s principal armed groups to consolidate their control.
The degree of social legitimacy that armed groups hold in the eyes of Tripoli’s residents – whose number has swelled to one-quarter of the country’s population – has fluctuated. The local population has credited the groups for a gradual improvement in security since the arrival of the GNA.
Yet their presence is not universally popular: while some residents have praised the armed groups for participation in the ‘defence of the capital’, others have blamed their greed for helping to provoke the LAAF offensive that was launched in April 2019.
There is a clear desire for a transition away from militias towards a more formal security apparatus, with a unified army and police.
Residents appear pragmatic in what they expect from the armed groups currently in charge, resigning themselves to the fact that control over a particular part of the capital will be used by the group in question to generate funds.
Such views indicate the extent to which illegal revenue-generating activity by armed groups has become normalized in Trip provision of security.
Interestingly, our interviews with Tripoli residents indicate that they blame the state rather than armed groups for the lack of functioning services. Several residents have explained that they believe corruption and illegitimate rent-seeking by armed groups to pale in comparison to the corruption of politicians.
‘What armed groups get in terms of letters of credit are crumbs in comparison with the … corruption witnessed in the Libyan Investment Authority or the Libyan Post, Telecommunications and Information Technology Company, the bigger problems are there,’ said one resident from Qasr Bin Ghashir.
Nonetheless, corruption by armed groups in the capital has remained a significant source of grievance for the local population.
When armed units from Tarhuna and Misrata sought to oust the incumbent groups from the capital in August and September 2018, they dubbed the Tripolitanian armed groups the ‘Daesh of the public finances’ – a potent attack line referencing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Similarly, the LAAF’s pledge to end the corrupt practices of Tripoli’s armed groups gained it significant popular support ahead of its 2019 offensive on the capital.
Despite reservations, locals remain cognizant of the need to build positive relationships with armed groups, in case they need their services.
As armed groups have taken on a more prominent role in protecting banks, for instance, young people in local communities have sought to build links with them to monitor the availability of basic financial services.
One interviewee living in Fernaj explained: ‘I call a member of a local armed group – TRB – at least twice a week to know where I should go to line up for liquidity. The person doesn’t offer me an extra service, but at least I know not to waste my time waiting if there is no money at the bank.’
In other cases, protection rackets effectively oblige locals to cultivate relations with armed groups.
A resident from the Airport Road area asserted that ‘if you don’t have a good connection with an armed group and they hear that you obtained a significant amount in cash selling property, you are in danger of kidnapping for ransom’.
Tripoli’s residents have few means of holding armed groups accountable, but a basic level of social legitimacy is still required for armed groups to operate effectively.
The degree of connection between armed groups and the community is modest in Tripoli.
In the tight-knit neighbourhood of Abu Slim, the Abu Slim Central Security Unit has a close relationship with the municipality and the community, from which its forces are drawn.
In Suq al-Jumaa, close links between the SDF and religious members of the community strengthen its position. Yet overall, armed groups have focused almost exclusively on maintaining a stable security environment rather than performing other services.
Tripoli’s residents have few means of holding armed groups accountable, but a basic level of social legitimacy is still required for armed groups to operate effectively. The degree of connection between armed groups and the community is modest in Tripoli.
The involvement of armed groups in dispute resolution is minimal: armed groups provide little in the way of accountability or justice within communities.
Previous participants in disputes have explained that their cases are either resolved ‘organically’ (i.e. through families) or settled using violence if the parties involved have connections with armed groups (or are members of such groups themselves).
Armed groups are not immune to social pressures, however. Some residents of Tripoli have noted that when armed groups come under such pressures, their response is to seek to appease the local population.
Following clashes between Tripoli’s armed groups and the Kani Brigade in August and September 2018, TRB leader Haitham al-Tajouri made a range of public gestures to curry favour with the community, including pressuring black-market traders to make cash available, forcing businesses to deposit cash in banks (to increase liquidity), and reopening hospital wards.
Reflecting on Tajouri’s outreach, one resident of central Tripoli interviewed for this paper said: ‘Armed groups usually monopolize access to resources and liquidity while we are left alone to wait for the banks to give us handouts … but when the armed groups feel that they need our support, ironically they make sure we get enough access to liquidity so we don’t complain.’
In contrast to practice in other parts of the country, residents’ relations with armed groups in Tripoli are more likely to be managed on an individual basis than by the community.
This is likely due to the fact that tribal influence is less pronounced within Tripoli’s armed groups.
Consequently, access to or influence over armed groups is dependent on personal relationships. Social status, family, age and informal ties are significant factors in determining an individual’s access to particular services (especially banking services).
As armed groups predominantly consist of young men, this makes it more likely that other young men in the host community will develop friendships with them (and therefore be disproportionately able to increase their access to services).
Revenue generation and resource mobilization
The dynamics of the conflict economy in western Libya have changed substantially since 2014, as a result of the political division in that region, the deterioration of the security situation and the consolidation in the number of armed groups in the capital.
A contraction in armed group revenues has also been a key factor, as prior to 2014 the unrestrained expansion of state spending on salaries and operations had underwritten the budgets of a vast array of armed actors.
The arrival of the GNA in Tripoli in 2016 32 and its reliance for security on the ‘quartet’ of armed groups accelerated these trends.
The GNA’s cooperation with these forces can be interpreted as a reaction to pressure to acquiesce to (or actively participate in) the development of alternative means of financing for armed groups in western Libya.
It also doubtless reflected an intent to profiteer from the unaccountability typically characterizing interim periods of governance in Libya.
Over time the conflict economy in Tripoli has developed in a manner not replicated elsewhere in the country, due in part to the fact that the military strategy of the four groups – the TRB, the Nawasi Brigade, the SDF and the Abu Slim Central Security Unit – has been to consolidate control over territory in Tripoli without attempting to expand beyond the capital.
One consequence of this is that state legitimacy has been eroded while the de facto authority of these armed groups has grown.
Relying on their ability to dispense coercive force, and often with the complicity of elements of the political and business elite, Tripoli’s armed groups have developed lucrative revenue-generating mechanisms.
These mechanisms are integral not only to the perpetuation of violence but also to the incentives that underpin the wider conflict economy. The volatility of this environment has been illustrated by intermittent bouts of violence – such as in Tripoli in August–September 2018 – as well as by the current LAAF offensive.
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.