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.


Nationwide Polarization and Meddling by Northern Actors

Aside from the south’s institutional weaknesses, communal tensions, and economic deficiencies, it has been plagued by the eruption of national political conflict, the so-called Dawn-versus-Dignity struggle. This has resulted in the monetization, by way of a pay-for-hire arrangement, of security in the south. The results have been profoundly destabilizing. The payment of salaries to young combatants and the provision of arms represent a cynical manipulation of communal groups that had previously enjoyed a degree of social balance and coexistence for decades and sometimes centuries. While interference from northern and outside actors is not the sole cause of the south’s undoing, it is a contributing factor.

Aside from the south’s institutional weaknesses, communal tensions, and economic deficiencies, it has been plagued by the eruption of national political conflict.

Lured by the promise of salaries, the Tabu have fought alongside the Petroleum Facilities Guards led by Ibrahim Jathran, the Saiqa (the Special Forces) in Benghazi, and various Zintani brigades in the northwest. Major Tabu brigades fighting in Benghazi include the Twenty-Fifth Brigade, the Desert Shield, and the Martyrs of Umm al-Aranib. For their part, the Tuareg have also fought for Zintani militias—particularly those that absorbed members of Qaddafi’s security brigades like the Thirty-Second Reinforced Brigade. The Dignity-Dawn conflict has also produced an influx of weapons: Dignity forces reportedly have funneled Emirati arms via Egyptian aircraft to Tabu clients, and the Dawn faction has armed the Tuareg in Sabha and Ubari and, farther east, the Zway in Kufra.

The latest outbreak of national conflict in the south occurred with the movement to a military base at Jufra, already occupied by the Third Force, of fighters affiliated with the Companies for the Defense of Benghazi (Saraya al Difa’ ’An Benghazi)—a coalition of anti-Hifter militias, some composed of old Benghazi brigades that enjoy support from both Misratan power brokers, support networks in Qatar, and some factions in Tripoli.37 The eruption of fighting between the Companies and Libyan National Army (LNA) forces aligned with Hifter escalated to air strikes in late 2016 and early 2017, killing and wounding several officials from Misrata. In December 2016, an LNA-affiliated unit drawn from local Qadhadhfa, Tabu, and Magarha members ejected the Misratan Third Force from a base in the town of Brak, north of Sabha. In March 2017, the Companies seized the Sidra and Ras Lanuf terminals from the LNA, which the LNA soon recaptured. The seesaw fighting demonstrates the continued importance of bases and airfields in the south—which straddle key supply lines into Misrata, the oil crescent, and Benghazi—as foci of intense national conflict.

The results have been more mixed where northern groups have intervened under the guise of stabilization, such as the deployment of the Libya Shield to Kufra and, more recently, the Third Force to Sharara, or the Matiga-based Special Deterrence Force (Quwwat al-Rada‘a al-Khasa) to act as prison wardens in Sabha. With few exceptions, these northern actors have not been truly national or neutral but often deeply partisan, lending preferential treatment to certain communities in the south.

The Third Force

The Third Force was developed originally as a coalition of soldiers drawn from mostly Misratan brigades who were dispatched by the chief of staff of the National Salvation Government in early 2015, ostensibly to stabilize Sabha after communal fighting primarily between the Awlad Sulayman on the one hand and the Qadhadhfa and the Magarha on the other. A more implicit motive was to deny the opposing pro-Dignity forces access to the south, especially strategic assets like air bases, as well as secure trade routes and military lines of supply from the Sahel to Misrata’s port and free-trade zone.

After a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Tabu and Awlad Sulayman units, the Third Force moved into secure key positions in the city, such as the Italian-era fortress, the military police headquarters, and the nearby Tamanhint military air base. The force expanded its deployment west toward Ubari but never entered the town for fear of stretching its supply lines and becoming enmeshed in the conflict. In Murzuq and areas farther south, where Tabu brigades such as Barka Wardaku’s Desert Shield and Ramadan Laki’s Umm al-Aranib Martyrs militia hold sway, the Third Force does not have troops but maintains “an intelligence presence,” according to one Misratan commander.38

A key feature of the Third Force’s local policing has been the arming and equipping of southern communal groups. Broadly speaking, the Third Force has supported the Awlad Sulayman and the Tuareg against the Tabu, Qadhadhfa, and Magarha (all rivals in cross-border smuggling), many of whom it broadly labels as loyalists or Dignity supporters. Smaller tribes like the Hasawna, Mahamid, and Awlad Bu Sayf have also enjoyed preferential treatment from the Third Force. According to one Third Force commander, many of these groups are recruited as auxiliaries for the Third Force. “We chose 150 from each tribe in Sabha for a total of 1,200,” the commander said.39 These auxiliaries are given weapons, radios, uniforms, and salaries, and they are directed to police specific areas in Sabha.

The limits of this auxiliary approach have become apparent in the upsetting of southern balances of power and the effect of Third Force weapons and payments in reducing the incentives for social reconciliation. In many neighborhoods, the Third Force cannot enter but rather dispatches local auxiliaries, which have dragged the Third Force into open conflict. In the summer of 2016, for example, the Third Force and its allied militias—the Ahrar Fezzan, Bahr al-Din, and Awlad Sulayman—clashed with Qadhadhfa gunmen. Even the force’s erstwhile allies view it with distrust. One Tuareg commander in Ubari noted the Third Force’s suspect loyalty, saying that it “eats with the wolves, cries with the shepherds.”40

The Special Deterrence Force

Another non–southern Libyan security actor whose impact has been mixed is the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), commanded by Abdelraouf Kara. Based at Matiga airport in Tripoli, the SDF arose from the postrevolutionary, Salafi-leaning militias that dominated the policing sector, primarily from the neighborhood of Suq al-Jumaa on Tripoli’s eastern flank.41 In Tripoli, it focused initially on counternarcotics but has recently shifted to combating the Islamic State. In Sabha, the SDF deployed as the result of an alliance between southern Salafi militia commanders from the Awlad Sulayman and the Third Force.

The SDF’s most important function was running official and unofficial prisons in Sabha. Some were temporary holding facilities, where up to thirty or forty prisoners were kept before transfer to Tripoli. They included those accused of serious crimes as well as moral infractions like consuming alcohol. In prison, the SDF administered a heavy dose of Salafi ideology. “We have some people who were captured who didn’t know the Koran,” said one SDF warden. “In the prison, they now have an Islamic library.”42 Perceptions of the SDF in Sabha have been mixed: while some applaud its capability and resistance to corruption, others resent the imposition of Salafi ideology, which many view as foreign.

The Specter of Extremism in the South

Transnational jihadists operate in southern Libya, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitun, and Ansar Dine, whose fighters draw on a long history of local knowledge stretching back to the Sahelian insurgencies of the 1990s and Algeria’s civil war.43 After the revolution, these groups established links with local armed groups and jihadists in the north, particularly the northeast in Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabiya. The south’s logistical pipeline for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fed into Ansar al-Sharia networks, ferrying Algerian, Malian, and other Sahelian jihadists to northern camps and onward to Syria.44 Conversely, Ansar al-Sharia reportedly funneled volunteers southward to Mali.45 Ansar al-Sharia trained fighters loyal to the seasoned Algerian jihadist Mukhtar Belmokhtar, prior to their January 2013 attack on the Tiguentourine gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria.

Local collaborators in southwestern Libya have facilitated some of this transnational presence and movement. Among the most frequently cited entities is Border Guards Brigade 315, an Ubari-based militia headed by a former army officer and Islamist educator named Ahmed Umar al-Ansari, whose forces are based on the city’s southern edge, adjacent to the Tende Brigade’s compound along a cross-border route through the Salvador Pass into Niger.46

That said, the Tuareg’s political and communal opponents have often exaggerated the depth and scope of extremist penetration, particularly in Ubari and farther west. To be sure, interlocutors in Ghat, Ubari, and Uwaynat acknowledge the jihadists’ presence, pointing to evidence of camps around Ghat and in the valleys of the Acacus Mountains.47 But the presence is mostly logistical and the result of weak administrative and police control in the south, rather than widespread social support. For example, the In Amenas attackers in 2013 passed through areas north of Ghat, but local brigades lacked the forces to stop them. For its part, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seems squarely focused on the Sahel as its primary arena of expansion, using Libya for logistical depth, despite having called in the summer of 2016 for its fighters to assist with fighting Dignity forces in Benghazi.48 Where jihadi relationships exist with local armed groups, they result from convenience and a shared interest in keeping borders uncontrolled. Aside from this presence, the penetration of radical ideology into the Tuareg’s southern areas or into the south’s social fabric more broadly is minimal, notwithstanding the exaggerated claims of the Dignity and Tabu factions.

Similar qualifications apply to the Islamic State and so-called intelligence reports from various Libyan political camps about the Islamic State’s spread after Sirte, and these accounts should be carefully scrutinized given these groups’ vested interest in portraying their adversaries as harboring terrorists. The Islamic State never extended its reach into southern Libya and now, with its defeat in Sirte, faces even bleaker prospects. Any movement to the south will encounter not only a crowded marketplace of armed groups tied to local communities and tribes but also al-Qaeda-affiliated networks, whose fortunes have rebounded relative to the Islamic State. Already in northeastern Libya, a number of fighters who defected from al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like Ansar al-Sharia to the Islamic State are now switching back to the al-Qaeda brand. Whether and how this dynamic plays out in the south remains to be seen.

That said, there are Islamic State cells and camps south of Sirte, such as the one that was bombed by U.S. aircraft in late January 2017, as well as farther south, near Sabha. The Islamic State has shown its capacity to wreak havoc in the area, as evidenced by its reported attack on electricity infrastructure between Jufra and Sabha.49 In addition, there were reports in the summer of 2016 of an Islamic State presence in Libya’s uncontrolled southeastern corner, near the oases of Kufra and Tazirbu along the Sudanese border, where the terrorist group reportedly reached an arrangement with local smugglers to protect its supply lines to the north.50

What Can the Libyan Government and Outsiders Do?

The south’s problems are multifaceted and will likely take years, if not generations, to address. A crucial first step is recognizing that the south’s troubles are deeply interwoven with those of the rest of Libya. Too often, southern interlocutors feel disconnected from their representatives and politics more broadly in the north. Second, Libyan authorities and international backers must address deeper institutional deficits in the south rather than focus on short-term fixes like military deployments or technical border control arrangements. Finally, developing a sustainable economy in the south that can undercut the allure of smuggling will be a generations-long challenge.

Implement a number of immediate-impact projects to demonstrate reach and legitimacy. International donors should assist the Libyan government in providing a number of urgently needed, quick-win initiatives in the south to demonstrate its visibility and commitment and to rebuild shattered trust. In many southern areas, needs currently include basic services (in late 2016, for example, parts of the south endured fifteen successive days of power outages). In a positive first step, the Libyan government’s Stabilization Facility, funded by twelve international donors and implemented by the United Nations Development Program, has identified Ubari as one of its priority locations to receive local aid to infrastructure and services and delivered a portion of this aid in January 2015. In December 2016, the Stabilization Facility allocated $2 million for Sabha’s health services, water, and garbage collection.51

Beyond these quick-win initiatives, the south faces enormous challenges of building legitimate, alternative sources of revenue that can wean young men away from the lure of smuggling and participation in armed groups. The International Organization of Migration’s community stabilization programs currently under way in Sabha and al-Qatrun are examples of municipal initiatives that can be replicated elsewhere.52 Similarly, much remains to be done to repair the south’s ruptured social bonds. In Ubari, the most pressing areas identified by interlocutors include general postconflict repair to houses and infrastructure, post-trauma care, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, children’s education, the return of displaced people, administrative training, and information technology training. Many in Ubari fondly remember a computer center, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, that provided young people with training until it was destroyed in the fighting.53

Implement a phased withdrawal of nonsouthern security actors. Successive northern deployments to the south have done some good, but they have also been destabilizing insofar as these northern groups have favored certain communal clients and often act as agents of the national Dawn-versus-Dignity political struggle. Southern security actors and northern-based formations, like the Third Force, should agree on a transitional road map for handing over policing functions to a locally recruited and municipally controlled force that is tethered to the Ministry of Interior in Tripoli.

Support civil society initiatives in the south related to the security sector, especially cross-tribal, cross-communal endeavors. In the absence of robust state institutions, a plethora of civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has filled the void in the south. Many of these have had a beneficial impact on security, whether through cross-communal dialogue, support to victims of war, children’s education, or technical training. In the security sector, an illustrative example of NGO activism has been the Free Libyans charity association, which organized a workshop in Sabha for members of the border guards on dealing with illegal migrants. The workshop provided training on psychological support, first aid, human rights, and data management. Partnering these sorts of initiatives with the Libyan government can do much to increase capacity in the south and bolster trust.

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. The practice of paying salaries from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior directly into personal bank accounts of militia leaders has proved tremendously destabilizing and counterproductive. At the same time, efforts to link salaries to national identification cards have run up against a catch-22 in the south due to the fact that many communities do not possess these documents as a result of Qaddafi’s cynical divide-and-rule policies. The Libyan government should prioritize the distribution of salaries to local security actors via municipal authorities.

Under the supervision of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya or another third party, begin a series of national dialogues with security actors from across the country, including the south, on a road map for reconstituting the security sector. Across the country, various schemes for demobilizing and integrating militias have failed (the Warriors’ Affairs Commission, the Libya Shields, and so on). This has happened because of a lack of national consensus about what kind of military Libya needs and because such programs were captured by various political factions. A dialogue among security actors could help develop this vision while also specifying actionable steps and building trust among disparate actors. Libyan security actors and international patrons should give special consideration to a variant of a locally constituted force that harnesses the strength of existing municipal and provincial security actors while tethering them to a national command. The force would be given a specific timeline for phased transition into a reserve force, while more formal police and military forces are being trained.

Libyan actors, with the support of international organizations like the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have developed a number of schemes for this type of force.54 What has been lacking is political consensus and the will to implement them. For the south, a provincially constituted force may prove the most beneficial solution to give local communities ownership of security. This can also provide the type of security capability needed to take on the southern region’s unique challenges.


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.



37 Author interview with a commander in the Companies for the Defense of Benghazi, Misrata, Libya, July 2016.

38 Author interview with a Third Force commander, Sabha, February 2015. There have been recent Misratan Third Force efforts to forge links with Tabu, to include medical treatment for Tabu injured during recent Tuareg-Tabu fighting in Tuyuri, as well as Tabu visits to Third Force headquarters.

39 Ibid.

40 Author interview with a Tuareg brigade commander, Ubari, Libya, March 2016.

41 For background on the rise of Salafists in Libya’s policing sector, see Frederic Wehrey, “Quiet No More?,” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Middle East Center, October 13, 2016,

42 Author interview with a member of the SDF, Sabha, Libya, February 2015.

43 As of March 2017, AQIM, al-Murabitun, Ansar Dine, and another group called the Macina Liberation Movement merged into Jama’a Nusra al-Islam wa al-Muslimin.

44 Savannah de Tessières et al., “Letter Dated 4 March 2016 From the Panel of Experts on Libya Established Pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011) Addressed to the President of the Security Council,” United Nations Security Council, March 4, 2016.

45 Author interview with security officials, Benghazi, Libya, September 2015.

46 Al-Ansari is the first cousin of Iyad ag Ghali, a longtime Tuareg militant from northern Mali who heads the Jama’a Nusra al-Islam wa al-Muslimin. Al-Ansari is also married to the sister of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group luminary Abd al-Wahhab al-Ghayid. He is reported to run several religious schools in Uwaynat and Ghat.

47 Author interviews in Ubari and Ghat, Libya, February and March 2016.

48 United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed to Libya and neighbouring countries, including off the coast of Libya, by foreign terrorist fighters recruited by or joining Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities,” July 18, 2016, p. 16,

49 Author interview with Tuareg in Ubari, February 2016. See also Aidan Lewis, “Islamic State Shifts to Libya’s Desert Valleys After Sirte Defeat,” Reuters, February 10, 2017,

50 United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed to Libya and neighbouring countries, including off the coast of Libya, by foreign terrorist fighters recruited by or joining Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities,” July 18, 2016, p. 4,

51 United Nations Support Mission in Libya, “Assistance Package of $US10 million dollars to Sirte, Sebha Approved,” Also, Alessandra Bocchi, “How the UNDP is helping conflict-hit Obari,” Libya Herald, January 23, 2017,

52 International Organization of Migration (IOM), “IOM Libya Brief,” last updated September 2016,

53 Author interviews with youth activists, Ubari, Libya, February 2016.

54 For example, see Frederic Wehrey and Ariel I. Ahram, “Taming the Militias: Building National Guards in Fractured Arab States,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 7, 2015, (available in Arabic at Also see Frederic Wehrey and Peter Cole, “Building Libya’s Security Sector,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 6, 2013, (available in Arabic at



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