Tripoli’s Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State
By Wolfram Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi
Overview: Since the arrival of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli in March 2016, four large local militias have gradually divided up the capital between themselves.
Though nominally loyal to the government, they now exert a degree of influence over state institutions and resources that is unprecedented in post-Qaddafi Libya.
This Paper examines the rise of a militia cartel in Tripoli, and concludes that the situation is untenable, as it risks provoking a major new conflict over Tripoli fought by those who have been excluded from access to the state and impedes efforts to establish a meaningful unity government.
Since state institutions split in two in mid-2014, the armed groups in Tripoli have undergone far-reaching changes in their financing patterns. Protection rackets and large-scale fraud, which are both contributing to a deepening economic crisis, have replaced state salaries as their principal source of income.
Over the past two years, the large Tripolitanian militias have transformed into criminal networks straddling politics, big business, and the administration. They have infiltrated the bureaucracy and are increasingly able to coordinate their actions across different state institutions. The government is powerless in the face of militia influence.
For the average citizen, security in Tripoli has improved substantially, as clashes between rival forces have receded and the cartel has focused on controlling the administration and the economy. But this state of affairs is fueling resentment among powerful forces in the capital and beyond. It could provoke a new war over the capital.
UN and Western policies have contributed to the current situation in Tripoli. They encouraged the GNA’s Presidency Council (PC) to move to Tripoli under the protection of the militias, then tacitly supported the expansion of these militias.
On 30 March 2016, the Presidency Council (PC) of the Government of National Accord (GNA) arrived at Tripoli’s Abu Sitta naval base by boat from Tunisia. The PC was created in December 2015 by the Libyan Political Agreement, which was signed in Skhirat, Morocco (ICG, 2016).
From its creation, the PC was pressured by its external backers—the UN and Western governments—to relocate to Tripoli, even though it did not command any regular forces that could offer protection.
By the time it arrived in Tripoli, the PC could rely on promises from a handful of armed groups in the capital that they would support it. A range of other militias were explicitly hostile, while most armed groups in Tripoli were non-committal.
From 2011, Tripoli’s security landscape was a highly fragmented and unstable patchwork of multiple armed groups. But in the year that followed the PC’s arrival, four militias that had associated themselves with the PC from the outset divided up the capital between themselves.
These four militias—the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB), the Nawasi Battalion, and the Abu Slim unit of the Central Security Apparatus—expanded their control across central, southern, and large parts of western Tripoli, gradually displacing rival armed groups during a series of heavy clashes. In parallel, they converted their territorial control into political influence and financial gain, consolidating into a cartel.
This Briefing Paper analyses the implications and the risks associated with this evolution. The first part traces the rise of the Tripoli militia cartel and frames this development against historical struggles for power within Libya’s capital.
The second part analyses changes in the financial basis of Tripoli’s armed groups over the past few years, their move towards capturing state institutions, and the implications of this development for conflict dynamics and the prospect of a wider political settlement.
The Paper is based on 55 interviews with leaders of armed groups, government officials, and local observers in Tripoli and Misrata, which were undertaken during March and April 2018. It also draws on the authors’ previous interviews and observations during regular research visits made since 2011.
From free-for-all to oligopoly: Tripoli’s security landscape, 2011–18
The struggles over control of Tripoli since 2011 are closely linked to the wider struggle over the post-Qaddafi political order. The capital’s takeover by revolutionary forces in August 2011 was chaotic.
As it fell, revolutionary armed groups from Misrata and different towns in the Nafusa Mountains began competing for influence in the capital, both among themselves and with militias that emerged from Tripoli neighborhoods thereafter.
Because no single group was able to control the capital, successive transitional governments had to include the representatives of multiple factions.
These factions, in turn, used state resources to strengthen their respective armed groups and enhance their legitimacy by turning them into officially sanctioned units. As a result, power struggles within the transitional institutions were closely linked to rivalries over territory in Tripoli, and eventually escalated into open conflict starting in May 2014.
From the beginning, armed groups equated physical control of strategic locations and government facilities with influence over government decisions. This calculation continues to drive the ongoing struggles over the capital.
Multilateral rivalries — August 2011 to July 2014
In the months following the capital’s fall, multi-sided rivalries developed. Revolutionary armed groups from Misrata and Zintan were among the strongest factions in the capital.
Armed revolutionaries from Amazigh towns in the Nafusa Mountains also established themselves in Tripoli, primarily in western districts. Other important actors included several armed groups that had formed and fought in towns in the Nafusa Mountains but whose membership was diverse, coming from the mountains, from Tripoli itself, or from elsewhere.
Two of those groups—the 17 February Battalion and the Martyrs of the Capital Battalion—included a large proportion of Islamist-leaning fighters, some of whom were former members of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
A third group—the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion—had a more diverse and less ideologically marked membership. These and other groups of fighters from the capital had been based in Nalut, Rujban, and Zintan during the war (Cole and Khan, 2015a; Lacher and Labnouj, 2015).
In Tripoli itself, militias drawing their membership from particular neighborhoods emerged. A number had developed out of former clandestine revolutionary cells—examples included the armed groups in the Suq al-Jum’a area led by Abd al-Latif Qaddur and Abd al-Rauf Kara, as well as the group led by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli, who is widely known as ‘Ghaniwa’. Others were wholly post-revolutionary formations.
By early 2012, perhaps 30 armed groups could be categorized as militarily significant in Tripoli, many of which comprised battle hardened revolutionary fighters. Countless smaller groups also competed for territory; some were vigilante groups while others were mere criminal gangs. Small-scale clashes were an almost daily occurrence in late 2011 and early 2012, although larger confrontations remained rare (ICG, 2011).
All attempts at gathering these rapidly multiplying groups under a single authority failed. Two early attempts were the Tripoli Military Council, headed by former LIFG leader Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, and the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), which was formed as a direct challenge to the former by officials of the National Transitional Council (NTC).
With the formation of the government of Abd al-Rahim al-Kib in November 2011, these attempts gave way to the creation of rival militia conglomerates by representatives of competing factions in the government. Various officials began according official status and salaries to existing armed groups or tasked their allies with establishing new ones (Lacher and Cole, 2014).
Leading actors in this process included the Zintani defence minister Usama al-Juwaili; his deputy, al-Siddiq al-Mabruk al-Ghithi, a former LIFG member; the Misratan interior minister Fawzi Abdelali; his deputy Omar al-Khadrawi, a Muslim Brother from Zawiya; and the chief of staff Yussef al-Mangush.
Many Tripoli militias entered the umbrella of the SSC, which was technically an institution of the interior ministry—though there were effectively two parallel administrative structures within the SSC, and most units acted independently.
Others, such as the Zintani-led Qa’qa’ and Sawa’iq Battalions, were officially units of the defence ministry, from which Juwaili supplied those groups with substantial funds and equipment. Libya Shield Force was another umbrella organization that provided armed groups with funds and an official status.
These units operated under the authority of the chief of staff and included the Central Shield, the largest Misratan force in Tripoli. The headcount of all these units rapidly increased, as a result of both large-scale recruitment and the vast inflation of membership figures as commanders sought to capture additional salaries (Lacher and Cole, 2014).
The new militia economy spawned rivalries that intensified after the July 2012 elections to the General National Congress (GNC) and the formation of the government of Ali Zeidan in November 2012.
Tripoli was the epicentre of these rivalries. Armed groups adopted increasingly brazen methods to exert pressure on state institutions, and this in turn drove a spiral of escalation. In April 2013, revolutionary hardliners from within and outside the capital began a siege of ministerial buildings lasting several weeks.
The ostensible aim of the siege was to force the passage of legislation banning former regime officials from holding public office. But when that law was passed by the GNC—despite rather than because of the siege—the blockade continued.
The siege became about physical control of the ministries themselves, and associated influence on appointments and decisions (Lacher and Cole, 2014).
The besieging forces coordinated themselves into the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR), which included groups from Misrata, the Nafusa Mountains, Sabratha, Tripoli, and Zawiya. LROR leaders negotiated with Zintani representatives over control of the ministerial buildings, and were successful in the cases of the Foreign Affairs and Justice ministries.
After the ministerial blockades, remaining inhibitions to the use of force in Tripoli fell rapidly. In June 2013, Zintani-led armed groups attacked the seat of the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in a dispute over jobs and salaries, provoking heavy fighting with an Abu Slim-based PFG unit led by Salah al-Burki.
The following month, the same Zintani-led groups attacked the main Ministry of Interior building on the airport road, holding and ransacking it for over a week (Lacher and Cole, 2014). During Ramadan alone, various groups forced their way into the prime minister’s office and pressured Zeidan into paying out almost LD 2 billion (USD 1.5 billion) to the newly established state-sanctioned militias.
In October, armed men affiliated with the LROR kidnapped Zeidan before releasing him the same day (Gall, 2013). Following that incident, Zeidan moved into the Islamic Call Society compound controlled by the Zintani-led Sawa’iq Battalion, thereby clearly associating himself with one faction in the struggles over the capital.
In November, the Zintani forces controlling Tripoli International Airport briefly kidnapped the deputy head of Libya’s intelligence service (BBC, 2013). The Zintanis’ political adversaries increasingly avoided traveling via the airport.
Meanwhile, armed groups from Tripoli sought to exploit growing public anger in the capital to demand that groups from outside Tripoli leave the city. In November 2013, Tripoli’s Local Council, the self-appointed municipal administration in place since 2011, whose members had close connections to some Tripolitanian armed groups, organized a demonstration in front of a base controlled by a Misratan militia.
The militia opened fire, triggering clashes in which 43 people, mostly protestors, were killed (Human Rights Watch, 2013). All Misratan units then withdrew from the capital in response to what that city’s leaders saw as a demonization campaign. Several large Tripoli-based militias—including the three largest Zintani-led units—organized ceremonies during which they ostensibly handed over their bases to the authorities.
In reality, however, they remained in place, and during the following months Zintani-led groups used the departure of the Misratans to aggressively expand their influence over the capital (Lacher and Cole, 2014).
During this period, many armed groups in Tripoli reinvented themselves in order to shed labels that had become increasingly infamous or gain better access to state funds. The interior ministry slowly dismantled the SSC during late 2013 and early 2014, and its units sought new institutional cover, such as in the military intelligence apparatus or in newly formed ‘special intervention forces’—including Abd al-Rauf Kara’s Special Deterrence Force, which was based in Mitiga airport.
Other units were integrated into the army and were thus identifiable by numbers—Brigades 121 and 155, for example. Yet others joined a new Zintani-run Special Operations Force, which was technically part of the interior ministry.
The rivalries between armed groups in Tripoli were increasingly intertwined with escalating political tensions. In Feb-ruary 2014, the two largest Zintani-led groups in Tripoli issued an ultimatum to the GNC, giving it five hours to hand over power—it was not clear to whom—or face its forced dissolution.
The Zintani militias eventually relented after UN envoy Tarek Mitri intervened (Mitri, 2015). In March, the same militias looted an army base in southern Tripoli and repeatedly attacked the Chief of Staff’s office, forcing its relocation. That same month, a Zintani armed group seized a major weapons shipment from Belarus at Tripoli International Airport that had been destined for Misratan forces in southern Libya (Lacher and Cole, 2014).
Both in Misrata and among the armed groups affiliated with the LROR, Zintani expansionism and the ostentatious display of new equipment such as armoured personnel carriers provoked growing anxiety.
In May, in coordination with the start of General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign in Benghazi and his creation of a rebel army leadership, the Qa’qa’ and Sawa’iq attacked the GNC while it was in session, killing two staffers, abducting several members, looting the legislature’s archives, and declaring it to be dissolved (Elumami and Laessing, 2014).
At the national level, the attacks by Haftar and the Zintani-led forces were key to the split of state institutions and the eruption of full-scale civil war two months later.
In Tripoli, these attacks prompted a return of Misratan armed groups and, after the June elections to the House of Representatives (HoR), the formation of an alliance determined to expel the Zintanis from the capital.
To be continued
Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He has worked on and conducted research in Libya since 2007, including in a previous capacity as an analyst at a business risk consultancy, from 2007 to 2010.
Alaa al-Idrissi was an official at an interior ministry institution in Tripoli from 2012–14. He is active in mediating and resolving conflicts between armed groups in Tripoli.