By William Danvers 

If Libya is to successfully rebuild and become a more stable presence in an unstable and volatile region, the Libyan people must support one government. Just as importantly, the issue of security must be addressed.



Addressing the militias

1 – Libya Dawn and Operation Dignity

After the fall of Gadhafi, there were efforts by the United States, the European Union, and other nations to help Libya deal with its complicated security situation through training and help build a national military and law enforcement structure. This effort was not successful primarily because the temporary Libyan government—established right after the fall of Gadhafi—did not want to rely on foreign security personnel to keep the peace in Libya. 1 

This resistance by the Libyan government led to a further dissolution of security, turning Libya into a land run by militias and other nonstate actors. The lack of a national military and security structure has led to chaos and the emergence of vigilante-style justice, most notably by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a former Gadhafi military officer who organized Operation Dignity and has sided with the House of Representatives. 2 

Operation Dignity was Gen. Haftar’s effort to stop Islamist groups from controlling the Libyan government. While there are varying opinions of Gen. Haftar and his army—the United States, for one, does not support him—he is an example of the kind of frontier justice that is prevalent in Libya.

The Islamists took control of the General National Congress and formed Libya Dawn, which eventually took over Tripoli and included the Muslim Brotherhood as well as former Al Qaeda members. 3

 As the tension between the two sides—the GNC and the HoR—increased, the HoR set up its base of operation in Tobruk. And while the United Nations and much of the international community recognized the HoR as Libya’s parliament, this official recognition had little impact as Libya’s governing structure collapsed. 4

Each side—the HoR and the GNC—has the support of a number of militias. In particular, the HoR has Gen. Haftar and his Libyan National Army, or LNA, which is not an official, nationally recognized armed force. Moreover, the LNA has the support of other groups and militias, including Libyan Special Forces, or al-Saiqa. It also has the support of Zintan, al-Sawaiq, and al-Qaqar groups. The al-Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council was instrumental in the fight against Gadhafi and by some estimates has as many as 4,000 fighters. The LNA operates primarily in eastern Libya, but some of its supporters also have a presence in the western region of the country. 5

The GNC affiliated Libya Dawn is made up of pro-Islamist militias that took over the Tripoli airport, as well as other parts of Tripoli, in 2014, precipitating the split in the Libyan government. 6 

Many of Libya Dawn’s fighters come from Misrata, located on the Libyan coast about 116 miles east of Tripoli. The fighters from Misrata align themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood and are competitors of the Zintan brigades. In addition to Libya Dawn, the GNC receives support from other militias such as Battalion 166, a pro-Haftar group. 7 

Most of these militias now nominally support the GNA.

2 – The Petroleum Facilities Guard

Although it maintains its independence and is fragmented, the Petroleum Facilities Guard, or PFG—which has recently been loosely aligned with the GNA—has controlled the oil and gas infrastructure in eastern Libya. The PFG, which by some estimates has 35,000 fighters, has come under attack by Gen. Haftar’s forces, who have taken control of the ports of Ra’s Lanuf, Es Sidra, and Zueitina. 8 

This strengthens Gen. Haftar’s position and puts him at further odds with the GNA. 9

3- Jihadi groups and other extremists

The two key jihadi groups are the Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia—which is linked to Al Qaeda—and each opposes the other. While made up primarily of foreign fighters, IS has recruited some disaffected Libyan jihadis as well. As for Ansar al-Sharia, it operates largely in the east and has had a presence in Benghazi since the downfall of Gadhafi in 2011.10 

Ansar al-Sharia was accused of leading the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in 2012.11 

Its goals are to keep control of Derna and take control of Benghazi, as well as to oppose IS. While there are other groups that could be put in the jihadi category as well, these are the two main jihadi actors.12 

The opposition between IS and Ansar al-Sharia reflects the divide between IS and Al Qaeda globally, a different approach to jihad.

There are other extremist groups operating in southwestern Libya that are using their territory as a base of operations for attacks in countries such as Algeria and Niger. One of these groups, Al-Murabitoun, has been characterized by the U.S. Department of State as threat to the Sahel. Its leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who may have been killed in a U.S. airstrike, led the 2013 attack against an Algerian gas facility in which three Americans were killed.13 

Clearly, the Sahel is fertile ground for a possible move by IS from Sirte.14

Because of the fractious nature of Libyan politics, the nation does not had unified security forces. The HoR refuses to recognize the Government of National Accord as the legitimate government of Libya. The recent move by Gen. Haftar to take over Libyan ports, combined with the HoR declaring him a field marshal, only serves to deepen the divide.15

Nonetheless, the GNA is taking some positive steps to gain some control over the security situation in Libya. In May, the GNA announced that it was creating a Presidential Guard that would protect Libya’s government buildings and borders, as well as protect high-ranking visitors to Libya.16

In addition, there have been discussions between the GNA and the HoR about forming a new body to head up the Libyan army. The idea would be to bring together GNA and HoR officials in a way that would include Gen. Haftar, who will have to be taken into consideration as part of any internal Libyan security arrangement.17 

His recent takeover of Libyan ports, his promotion to field marshal, and the HoR rejection of the GNA—at least the Cabinet makeup—underscores the need to do more to accommodate Gen. Haftar and the HoR. What he wants specifically in exchange for his support of the GNA is unclear. It is clear, however, that he wants to play an important military role. In negotiating with Gen. Haftar, the GNA must be careful not to alienate the GNC.18

While the internecine battle between the HoR and the GNA, as well as the GNC—which, for the moment, is staying out of this fight—is an important part of the Libyan militia issue, it is not the only concern or consideration. Since the collapse of the central government, militias and regional governments have become more autonomous. No matter what kind of arrangement is made, individual militias and local governments will have to be taken into consideration when forming a national security consensus.19

This is a two-sided dilemma. On one hand, a weak central government has given more power to regional and local authorities.20 

At the same time, the lack of authority of the central government has made the militias more resistant to integration into a national security structure.21 

Integration is essential in order for Libya to deal with its security issues. Looking for a creative solution that would focus on eliminating the number of militias while giving the remaining ones some autonomy and connecting them to a functioning central government must be part of any future security equation.

– Fighting crime and crime networks

The criminal underground

In addition to the Islamic State and the militias, Libya’s criminal underground is a problem for the United States, the European Union, and nations from the Middle East North Africa region. The smuggling of refugees and the trafficking of drugs and weapons create problems for Libya and in the region. Libya’s criminal groups have a long history in the nation. As Gadhafi once asked and answered, “What are black markets? They are people’s markets.” 22 

A United States Institute of Peace, or USIP, study looking at Libya’s criminal element found that even as Libya struggles to build a democracy, “trafficking is considered a normal way of transferring resources.” 23 

The study also concludes that, “State institutions still lack both authority and structure, and local leaders maintain considerable power over their regions outside of the central government.”  24 

The transportation of smuggled goods is done with the cooperation of local communities, particularly those along the border. This activity in Libya is another threat, in addition to IS, to Libya’s immediate neighbors.25

Human trafficking

The criminal activity that has gotten the most attention, particularly from the European Union, is human trafficking. In this case, trafficking means smuggling refugees to Libya, where they board boats that are sent to Europe—most often to Italy. More migrants from Africa go through Libya than any other country. The International Organization for Migration estimates that since the beginning of 2015, more than 180,000 migrants have embarked from Libya to Europe. The number of migrants from Syria and Iraq using Libya as a jumping-off point for Europe has increased in recent years. Nonetheless, a larger number of migrants are coming from Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Sudan, and even Bangladesh.26 

They come because of poverty, war, and fear of persecution, and they are guided by smugglers, who for a fee get them to Libya and on a boat to Europe.27 

This process does not begin at Libyan ports; there are networks across Africa that facilitate the process, and it is a lucrative business.28 

This is a crisis for the European Union, whose resources are stretched thin because of migrants from Libya, Syria, and South Asia.

Trafficking of people is an organized effort that involves Libyans, particularly in less densely populated regions of the country, serving as guides through desolate terrain.29 

There is a connection between the smuggling of people and the smuggling of other illicit goods, particularly drugs. The trafficking networks are linked to the criminal networks of those trafficking these goods, making the economics of this activity more complicated.30

Drugs, protection, and arms trade

Cocaine, heroin, hashish, and prescription drugs are all mainstays of drug smuggling everywhere, and Libya is no different. The illicit trade in drugs represents big business, involving great amounts of money. Hashish, for example, provides a lucrative source of revenue for Libyan smugglers. Over a 32-month period, beginning in April 2013, 20 ships connected to Libya that contained hashish valued at approximately $3.2 billion were intercepted by Italian officials.31 

There is speculation that IS may have been imposing a tax on the passage of these drugs, primarily to Europe, and that there may have been an exchange of drugs for arms as well.32

The protection racket is tied to the overall illicit economy, from the smuggling of people to the smuggling of drugs and weapons. There are various kinds of protection being offered directly and indirectly to traffickers by regional militias and armed groups. It may be something as simple as offering the right of passage. It may be offering direct protection within a specific place, or it could involve protection through a particular area. For example, Tuareg groups offer protection for traffickers as they transit along the border of Niger.33 

As previously noted, the protection racket is connected to the other major illicit market in Libya, the trade in arms.

The proliferation of weapons in Libya, despite an international arms embargo, has made its criminal underground an exporter and now, it would seem, an illicit importer as well.34 

The United States is on record as supporting a Government of National Accord exemption to the Libyan arms embargo while still maintaining the overall embargo.35 

Since controlling the illicit flow of arms remains an issue, an argument could be made that helping the GNA arm itself through legal means could help support this goal.


William Danvers is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where he works on a range of national security issues. Danvers has worked on national security issues for 34 years in the executive branch, Congress, various international organizations, and the private sector.



  1. Blanchard, “Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy.” 

  2. Jon Lee Anderson, “King of Kings: The last days of Muammar Qaddafi,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2011, available at

  3. BBC News, “Guide to key Libyan militias.” 

  4. Borzou Daragahi, “Chapter 2: Libya: From Euphoria to Breakdown.” In Ben Fishman, ed., North Africa in Transition: The Struggle for Democracies and Institutions (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2015). 

  5. Christopher S. Chivvis and Jeffrey Martini, “Libya After Qaddafi: Lessons and Implications for the Future” (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2014), available at

  6. BBC News, “Guide to key Libyan militias.” 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Stratfor, “A New Military Council in the Making,” August 19, 2014, available at; Aidan Lewis and Aymanal-Warfalli, “Libyan commander’s seizure of oil ports risks new conflict,” Reuters, September 12, 2016, available at

  9. Stratfor, “An Oil Deal at Zueitina,” August 19, 2014, available at 

  10. BBC News, “Guide to key Libyan militias.” 

  11. Spencer Hsu, “U.S. will not seek death penalty for accused ringleader in Benghazi attacks,” The Washington Post, May 10, 2016, available at

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Al Jazeera America, “Libya says leader of Al-Qaeda linked group killed in US airstrike,” June 14, 2015, available at

  14. Lolita C. Baldor, “U.S. military launches airstrike in Libya targeting al-Qaida operative,” PBS, June 14, 2015, available at

  15. Africa News, “Libya: Tobruk-based parliament promotes army general to field marshal,” September 15, 2016, available at 

  16. News24, “Libya Gets ‘Presidential Guard’,” May 10, 2016, available at

  17. Stratfor, “A New Military Council in the Making,” August 19, 2014, available at 

  18. Stratfor, “The Man at the Center of Libya’s Armed Conflict,” September 16, 2016, available at 

  19. UNDP, “Instability and Insecurity in Libya,” March-September available at 

  20. Ibid. 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Karim Mezran, “Book Review: Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi,” Middle East Policy Council, Winter, 2012, Volume xix,Number 4 available at (last accessed December 2016). 

  23. Mark Shaw and Fiona Mangan, “Illicit Trafficking and Libya’s Transition: Profits and Losses” (Washington: United States Institute of Peace, 2014), available at 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Paula Burke, “Libya’s Criminal Economy of Arms, Drugs, People Shakes Prospects for Transition,” United States Institute of Peace, March 19, 2014, available at

  26. Amanda Sakuma, “Damned for Trying,” MSNBC, available at (last accessed December 2016). 

  27. Ibid. 

  28. Patrick Kingsley, “Libya’s people smugglers: inside the trade that sells refugees hopes of a better life,” The Guardian, April 24, 2015, available at

  29. Shaw and Mangan, “Illicit Trafficking and Libya’s Transition”;Rukmini Callimachi and Lorenzo Tondo, “Scaling Up a Drug Trade, Straight Through ISIS Turf,” The New York Times, September 13, 2016, available at

  30. Shaw and Mangan, “Illicit Trafficking and Libya’s Transition.” 

  31. Callimachi and Tondo, “Scaling Up a Drug Trade, Straight Through ISIS Turf.” 

  32. Ibid. 

  33. Shaw and Mangan, “Illicit Trafficking and Libya’s Transition.” 

  34. Ibid.; Callimachi and Tondo, “Scaling Up a Drug Trade, Straight Through ISIS Turf.” 

  35. U.S. Department of State, “Ministerial Meeting for Libya Joint Communique,” Press release, May 16, 2016, available at


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