By Frederic Wehrey

Southern Libya remains a region of endemic instability wracked by communal conflict, a shortage of basic services, rampant smuggling, and fragmented or collapsed institutions.



Southern Libya remains a region of endemic instability wracked by communal conflict, a shortage of basic services, rampant smuggling, and fragmented or collapsed institutions. The region has long existed on the periphery of Libya’s politics and international concerns—but that must change. Increasingly, the vacuum of governance in the south has drawn in political actors from northern Libya and outside states. Extremists seeking refuge in the south and migrants being smuggled through the region directly impact the security of Libya, neighboring states like Tunisia, and Europe.

Sources of Insecurity in the South

  • The main driver of insecurity is the collapse of already fragile institutions and social pacts after the 2011 revolution and, more importantly, the inequitable distribution of economic resources.

  • The outbreak of fighting among Arab, Tabu, and Tuareg tribes across the south can be largely attributed to competition for fixed economic streams derived from smuggling routes and access to oil fields.

  • Interference by northern political actors is a further irritant: the payment and arming of young men from the south by warring factions aligned with loose coalitions has prolonged and intensified local conflicts.

  • Extremism remains a challenge in the south but should not be overblown. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the so-called Islamic State have not found strong purchase in southern towns but have exploited the lack of southern governance for logistics and training.

Recommendations for Libyan Authorities and the International Community

  • Implement immediate-impact projects to demonstrate the reach and legitimacy of Libya’s government. A key imperative is the provision of basic services such as electricity, medical care, and cash reserves.

  • Support civil society initiatives in the south related to the security sector, especially cross-tribal, cross-communal endeavors. Many of these have already had a beneficial impact on security, whether through cross-communal dialogue, support to victims of war, children’s education, or technical training.

  • Restart government salaries in the south, resolve the national identification quandary, and empower municipal budgets as part of a broader security-sector payroll reform effort. Libya’s government should prioritize distributing salaries to security actors via municipal authorities.

  • Begin a series of national dialogues with security actors from across the country on a road map for reconstituting the security sector. Give special consideration to a locally constituted force that harnesses the strength of existing municipal and provincial security actors while also tethering them to a national command.


Libya’s southern region has long been regarded as a zone of endemic insecurity, isolated and disconnected from the political affairs of the north. Increasingly, though, the region’s afflictions have rippled across the country, out to Libya’s northern neighbors, like Tunisia, and to the shores of southern Europe. Southern Libya is becoming a new theater for national conflict between forces allied with Khalifa Hifter and armed groups supported by the coastal city of Misrata and factions in the west.

Moreover, the region is a major hub for transnational migrant smuggling networks moving northward to Europe: any attempt by European powers to stop the migrant crisis at Libya’s shores will fail unless southern security and governance issues are addressed. Finally, extremists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the self-proclaimed Islamic State have exploited the growing lawlessness to develop their logistics and create safe havens, though their actual penetration into southern society is more limited than commonly assumed.

Increasingly, afflictions in Libya’s southern region have rippled across the country, out to its northern neighbors, like Tunisia, and to the shores of southern Europe.

Since the 2011 revolution over Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, security issues that are present elsewhere in the country have afflicted the south, compounding problems unique to the region. Meager sources of local revenue along with institutional weakness, particularly in the security sector and in municipal governance, are among the south’s most pressing challenges.

Added to this are conflicts over identity, authenticity, and citizenship, which include the legacy of the late dictator’s divide-and-rule policies and his preferential recruitment from certain tribal constituencies into his security brigades. Communal and ethnic-based competition over oil fields, smuggling routes, and borders has been compounded by national political conflict and meddling by both Libyan actors from outside the south and transnational actors outside Libya.

The following discusses the main drivers of insecurity in the south, key security actors—both informal and formal—in specific locales, and recommendations for the Libyan government and the international community.

Contested Identities: The Tabu and the Tuareg

Resentment over unequal access to citizenship rights is one of the most significant pressure points contributing to insecurity in the south. Much of this stems from Muammar Qaddafi’s cynical manipulation of citizenship to secure the loyalty of tribal constituents in the south. More broadly, it stems from the systematic marginalization of two major non-Arab communities in the south, the Tabu and the Tuareg, to whom the Libyan dictator promised full citizenship rights in return for service in his security forces, particularly in the case of the Tuareg. These promises never materialized, and combined with economic competition and institutional collapse, their legacy has proved to be a major driver of conflict in the post-2011 era.

The Tabu

The Tabu are a dark-skinned African people who dwell in the Tibisti Mountains of northern Chad, southeastern Libya, and parts of Niger and Sudan. Historically, they have been a clan-based society of camel herders, speaking a language of Nilo-Saharan origin. In Libya, they have always been a people apart. They suffered under the Libyan monarchy, even though King Idris— whom Qaddafi overthrew in 1969—counted them among his bodyguards. New citizenship laws were established under the monarchy that required written family records. Yet the Tabu have an oral culture, being seminomadic and mostly illiterate.1

Their status under Qaddafi got worse. His Arabization project excluded them. He used them as pawns in his dispute with Chad over a piece of uranium-rich land called the Aouzou Strip, which includes the Tibisti Mountains. During Libya’s occupation of Aouzou, he offered citizenship to thousands of Tabu while enlisting others in his war with Chad. Then, after his defeat, when the International Court of Justice awarded the Aouzou Strip to Chad in 1994, he abandoned the Tabu. He revoked their citizenship, denying them access to jobs and travel, and failed to invest in local education and medical care.2

Life took on an increasingly hellish quality for the Tabu. Nowhere was this more evident than in the southeastern oasis town of Kufra, where the Tabu have lived for hundreds of years. By this point, they lived as a stateless people in tin-roofed cardboard shacks, with no running water or electricity. All the while, the Tabu’s neighbors in Kufra, the Arab Zway tribe, lived in villas and drove Mercedes trucks, enjoying Qaddafi’s favors. The Zway also controlled the local oil fields and smuggling routes: gasoline and subsidized goods like semolina, sugar, and cooking oil moved south, while African migrants moved north.3

Unsurprisingly, the Tabu were among the first to join the 2011 uprising. Their opposition leaders returned to Libya from exile in Norway. Qaddafi dispatched emissaries to woo them with cash, weapons, and, again, offers of citizenship, but these overtures failed. Tabu defectors from the army joined with Zway counterparts, putting aside their mutual enmity for the moment.

The nearby Sudanese government supplied them with arms and even sent troops, payback for the then Libyan ruler’s support for the Darfurian rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. After Kufra fell, the Tabu moved north and west, to guard the southern frontiers. At the war’s end, they controlled a vast swath of border crossings, oil fields, water reserves, and armories. And for a brief period, they had hope.4

Everything was like a paradise then, no Tabu, no Zway,” a Tabu fighter-turned-activist said in a February 2016 interview. The Tabu joined with other ethnic and linguistic minorities across the country in demanding cultural rights and political representation. But, he added, “I knew we would face problems. Everybody was talking about Tabu power.”5

The new transitional government recognized Tabu control of the Chadian and Sudanese borders through the Tabu militia commander and longtime opposition leader, Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur. He and other Tabu grew rich on smuggling profits—and bolder in their political demands. The Tripoli authorities proved unwilling to address these grievances.

They seemed especially stubborn on citizenship. “The government doesn’t want to open that door,” the Tabu activist said.6 Prior to the 2012 election, the Zway electoral administrators working with the National Transitional Council de-registered a sizable number of Tabu voters on the grounds of fraudulent citizenship.

While there was undoubtedly some basis for this in some cases, it enraged the Tabu. The country’s new authorities, they believed, clung fast to the old prejudices of the Qaddafi regime.

After the uprising, the Tabu grew rich on smuggling profits—and bolder in their political demands. The Tripoli authorities proved unwilling to address these grievances.

It was in Kufra that the tensions first boiled over in February 2012. The Zway had lost their share of smuggling operations and other sources of income and wanted these assets back. They had set up their own checkpoint south of the city, just meters from a Tabu one. Then a Tabu man killed a Zway shopkeeper.

Zway militias shelled the Tabu slums with mortars and rockets. A mixed neighborhood of Swedish-built apartments called Swaydiya separated the two sides. Civilians died in the reckless crossfire.7

In what would become a recurring pattern, the Tripoli government sent the Benghazi-based Libya Shield militias to stop the fighting. They failed, siding with the Zway and shelling Tabu neighborhoods. Things settled down when another Benghazi-based militia led by a more impartial commander took over from the Libya Shield. Delegations of tribal elders from across the country converged on the stricken city to hammer out a peace deal in July 2012, leaving the Zway in control. Yet most of Kufra’s institutions, like schools and banks, remain segregated to this day.8

The town has seen continued outbreaks of violence, cross-border incursions from Sudan, and the rise of Salafi militias dominated by the Zway.9

Meanwhile, the rise of Tabu power following the 2011 revolution threatened communal relations with the Tuareg to the west.

The Tuareg

The Tuareg are a historically nomadic, pastoralist society stretching across the Sahara and the Sahel in southern Libya and parts of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. They speak a dialect of Amazigh (or Berber) known as Tamasheq. Starting in the 1970s with the oil boom, a younger generation of Tuareg shifted to a transnational remittance economy of migrant labor and smuggling.10

For many from drought-afflicted Niger and Mali, oil-rich Libya seemed a paradise, and Qaddafi encouraged them to come north for work. Once they arrived, however, he recruited many into a pan-Saharan military force called the Islamic Legion, meant to project his power in Africa and the Levant.

Alongside Bangladeshis, Eritreans, Mauritanians, and Sudanese, the Tuareg fought in Chad and Lebanon during the 1980s. “We were cheap soldiers,” one of these veterans told the author.11

Some had joined expecting that Qaddafi would help empower them back home in Mali and Niger. The Libyan dictator certainly encouraged this belief, hosting Tuareg insurgents in Libya for so-called congress meetings and, in 1980, setting up a Popular Front for the Liberation of the Greater Arab Central Sahara with a political wing and a military training camp near Bani Walid.12

He beamed Tamasheq radio broadcasts into the Sahel. Yet when Tuareg veterans of the Islamic Legion went back to Mali and Niger to lead rebellions in the early 1990s, Qaddafi abandoned them.

Throughout Qaddafi’s reign, the Tuareg remained a people on the margins. They suffered under the dictator’s Arabization policies, even if he treated them as honorary Arabs and claimed some Tuareg lineage himself. Their ramshackle towns in the south were sorely undeveloped, despite the discovery of oil nearby.

Lacking education, young men joined Qaddafi’s elite security forces, like the Thirty-Second Reinforced Brigade led by the Libyan dictator’s son, Khamis, and the exclusively Tuareg Maghawir Brigade based in Ubari, while others joined the Revolutionary Committees.

When the 2011 revolution started, some Tuareg broke with the regime, like Libya’s ambassador to Mali, Musa al-Koni, who later became the Tuareg’s representative on the National Transitional Council and, later still, went on to be a member of the Presidency Council of the United Nations (UN)–backed government in Tripoli before resigning in January 2017.13

Many other Tuareg, especially those in the security brigades, stayed loyal and fought the revolutionaries.

After the war, Tuareg soldiers of Sahelian origin looted Libyan armories and went to Mali, where they led an insurgency. They helped establish a short-lived semistate in the north known as Azawad. Other Libyan Tuareg struggled with the taint of having sided with Qaddafi.

Toward their Tabu neighbors, though, they maintained a degree of amity. As minorities in the new Libyan state, the Tabu and the Tuareg worked together in pressing for their rights. Both had been denied citizenship and had suffered from underdevelopment.

Their activists staged sit-ins at government ministries in Tripoli. They protested in front of oil fields, demanding employment and identification cards. At one point, Tuareg and Tabu leaders issued a joint statement threatening autonomy for the south.14

Much of their cooperation stemmed from a remarkable treaty the Tuareg and the Tabu had signed in 1894 called the midi-midi (roughly meaning “friendship” in Tamasheq). For years they’d fought, mostly over control of caravan routes and pastures.

The midi-midi accord defined a boundary between them in Libya and in the desert to the south. West of the mountain corridor connecting Niger with Libya, the so-called Salvador Pass, was Tuareg land, and east of that was for the Tabu.

For over a hundred years, the midi-midi kept the peace, through drought, displacement, and dictatorship. But then, following the eruption of conflict across southern Libya in 2012, it unraveled.


Frederic Wehrey – Senior Fellow, Middle East Program. Wehrey specializes in post-conflict transitions, armed groups, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.



1 For background on the Tabu, see Philip Martin and Christina Weber, “Ethnic Conflict in Libya: Toubou,” Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, June 21, 2012; Christophe Boisbouvier, “Libye : quand les Toubous se réveillent” [Libya: When the Tabu Awaken], Jeune Afrique, May 5, 2012,; and Rebecca Murray, “Libya’s Tebu: Living on the Margins,” in The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn (London: Hurst & Co., 2015), 303–19.

2  For background on Libya’s dispute with Chad, see John Wright, Libya, Chad and the Central Sahara (London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,1989).

3  Author interview with a Tabu activist, Tripoli, Libya, February 2016.

4  Alex de Waal, “African Roles in the Libyan Conflict of 2011,” International Affairs 89, no. 2 (March 2013): 365–79.

5  Author interview with a Tabu activist, Tripoli, Libya, February 2016.

6 Author interview with a Tabu activist, Tripoli, Libya, February 2016.

7 Agence France-Presse, “Libya Army Deployed to Kufra After Deadly Clashes: Chief,” Al Arabiya News, February 23, 2012,

8 Author interview Zway militia fighters, location withheld, September 2015, and telephone conversation with Tabu activist, location withheld, September 2016.

9 “Kufra Salafist Brigade Kills 13 JEM Members Near Jaghboub: Report,” Libya Herald, October 20, 2016,

10 For background on the Tuareg and transnationalism, see Delphin Perrin, “Tuaregs and Citizenship: The Last Camp of Nomadism,” Middle East Law and Governance 6, no. 3 (2014): 296–326; and Baz Lecocq, “Unemployed Intellectuals in the Sahara: The Teshumara Nationalist Movement and the Revolutions in Tuareg Society,” International Review of Social History 49, no. 12 (2004): 87–109. For their role in illegal smuggling, see Ines Kohl, “Afrod, le business Touareg avec la frontière : nouvelles conditions et nouveaux défis” [Afrod, Tuareg Business With the Border: New Conditions and Challenges], Politique Africaine 132, no. 4 (2013): 139–59.

11 Author interview with a former Tuareg member of the Thirty-Second Reinforced Brigade, Ubari, Libya, March 2016.

12 Baz Lecocq, “Unemployed Intellectuals in the Sahara: The Teshumara Nationalist Movement and the Revolutions in Tuareg Society,” International Review of Social History 49, no. 12 (2004): 102.

13 “Deputy Leader of Libya’s U.N.-Backed Government Resigns,” Reuters, January 2, 2017,

14 Rafaa Tabib, “Mobilized Publics in Post-Qadhafi Libya: The Emergence of New Modes of Popular Protest in Tripoli and Ubari,” Mediterranean Politics 21, no. 1 (2016): 6–106.










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