Tripoli’s Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State
By Wolfram Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi
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.
An alliance of the excluded?
Around Tripoli, anger and discontent are building up among powerful political and military forces which are currently excluded or disadvantaged in their attempts to access the state institutions the cartel controls.
The eastern district of Tajura hosts nine major armed groups that have mostly watched the formation of the cartel from the sidelines. Several of these groups explicitly opposed the entry of the PC in 2016 and the PC’s security advisors subsequently made limited attempts to engage with the groups’ concerns.
Relations with the armed groups that support the PC also deteriorated over the issue of detainees held by the SDF in its Mitiga prison. The prison houses an estimated 2,600 prisoners and is notorious for arbitrary detention, torture, and deaths in custody. 76 While the SDF maintained that these prisoners were ‘terrorists’, leaders in Tajura instead celebrated them as ‘revolutionaries’.
In January 2018, the Tajura-based 33 rd Infantry Brigade led by Bashir Khalfallah attacked Mitiga airport after an SDF unit killed two of its members in a raid on one of the brigade’s positions in Tajura (Elumami and Lewis, 2018). Khalfallah, who is also known as ‘al-Bugra’ (‘the Cow’), did not receive the anticipated support of other Tajuran groups.
The SDF repelled his offensive and arrested dozens of the attackers. In the period since, the PC has extended recognition to Tajuran armed groups by formalizing the establishment of a ‘joint security operations room’.
Khalfallah’s unit was integrated into the Central Security Apparatus (CSA). But tensions persist over the SDF’s detention of Tajuran fighters and the PC’s perceived neglect of this large district. Moreover, some Tripolitanian militias that the cartel drove from central Tripoli have found refuge with Tajuran armed groups.
To the west of Tripoli, Zawiya hosts various armed groups unhappy with the state of affairs in Tripoli but whose capacity to bring about change is limited by the latent struggle within Zawiya itself.
If Zawiyan groups joined an operation against the Tripoli cartel, they risk being forced out of their own city by local rivals. More importantly, Zawiya hosts a substantial force from Sabratha that was forcibly expelled from that city in October 2017, with the PC extending its support to the Sabrathan victors.
The exiled fighters, who perceive themselves to be ‘revolutionaries’, have engaged in talks with potential allies from Tajura and Misrata with the intention of changing the balance of power in Tripoli.
The bulk of Misratan armed groups gradually withdrew from Tripoli following the PC’s arrival. Many groups left to join the offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group in Sirte that began in May 2016.
Over the course of the following year, others left as pro-PC militias expanded. Those that remained had either entered into arrangements with the PC or supported it from the outset. They also shed the original names of their groups in a deliberate effort to downplay the extent to which their leadership—and therefore the control of their heavy weapons—remained dominated by Misratans.
The most powerful of these units is Brigade 301, which emerged from Misrata’s Halbus Brigade. It and two other Misratan-led units—the 14 th Infantry Brigade and the CSA’s 17 th Security Unit—are based on the airport road. Brigade 301 also holds strategic positions at Tripoli International Airport and at the border of the Warshafana area.
While Brigade 301 is allied with the TRB, the interior ministry’s Special Operations Force is a Misratan-led unit that is closely intertwined with the Nawasi Battalion: it absorbed Nawasi men under its umbrella and maintains a presence in areas of central Tripoli that are considered to be Nawasi territory.
In Misrata itself, the rapacity of the Tripoli militia cartel has stirred growing anger. Since November 2017, there have been recurrent efforts to assemble a coalition of forces to advance on Tripoli.
Interventions by UNSMIL officials twice (in December 2017 and March 2018) narrowly averted the launch of such an operation. The question of whether a Misratan advance will eventually take place is partly contingent upon the efforts of some Misratan politicians and militia leaders to lobby the PC for negotiated changes in Tripoli security arrangements.
In April 2018, these leaders put forward a plan under which the Misratan-led Anti-Terror-Force would deploy in Tripoli. They argued that this force would form a counterweight to the large Tripolitanian militias, and at the same time placate Misratan figures who are threatening to enter Tripoli by force.
To date, the PC has failed to respond to the proposals and on 7 May, Serraj issued a decree that effectively re-named the SDF as the ‘Deterrence Organization for Combatting Organized Crime and terrorism’ (Presidency Council, 2018).
In addition to according wider-ranging competencies to the SDF and establishing it as an institution with a nationwide remit, the decree gave the SDF a formal counter-terrorist mandate that appeared designed to pre-empt the Misratan plan for deploying the Anti-Terror-Force in Tripoli.
In Misrata, the move plays into the hands of the growing group of leaders who are pushing for military action against the large Tripolitanian militias. The return of Misratan forces to Tripoli also depends on the ability of Misratan groups to reach an understanding with potential allies over any offensive.
In addition to groups from Tajura and Sabratha, these potential allies include forces from Tarhuna and Zintan. Tarhuna is today the only city in western and southern Libya that is controlled by a single armed group.
The 7 th Brigade, which is more commonly known as the ‘Kaniyat’ in acknowledgement of the three brothers from the al-Kani family who lead it, was virtually unknown before mid-2015. In the years since, its rise to prominence was swift.
Since mid-2017, the Kaniyat has aggressively expanded towards the outskirts of Tripoli. The group is likely to claim a veto right on security arrangements around Tripoli International Airport, which is expected to reopen in June or July 2018.
The Kaniyat also hosts fighters from several armed groups that were driven out of Tripoli by the cartel—fighters eager for ‘revenge’. The Zintanis are also stakeholders in the struggle to secure the international airport, after they were forcibly dislodged from there in 2014, losing several hundred fighters in that conflict.
Zintani leaders also argue that the absence of regular security forces requires the return of Zintani fighters to the capital to guarantee the security of civilians of Zintani origin. (In 2014, around 20,000 civilians fled to Zintan, although most have returned to Tripoli over the past two years.)
Since November 2017, the Zintanis have progressively closed in on Tripoli. That month, Zintani forces deployed in the Warshafana area, south-west of Tripoli under the leadership of Usama Juwaili, who was appointed by the PC as the western region military commander.
In March 2018, the Special Operations Force led by Emad Trabelsi expanded the Zintani-led presence in the area further, moving to within a few kilometres of the international airport.
In contrast to the Misratan-led force of the same name in Tripoli, Trabelsi’s Special Operations Force officially reports to the government in the eastern city of al-Bayda and does not recognize the authority of the PC.
In his operations on the ground, however, Trabelsi appears to have aligned himself with Juwaili, who fiercely opposes Haftar. In an effort to prevent a confrontation with the Zintanis, the PC accommodated Trabelsi by appointing his second in-command as deputy interior minister.
Shortly afterwards, Trabelsi’s forces withdrew from their most advanced positions along the coastal road between Janzur and Zawiya (Al-Motawaset, 2018). But core Zintani interests in Tripoli remain unresolved, and it is clear that this appointment does not even begin to satisfy Zintani ambitions.
All of these groups in the greater Tripoli area are engaged in complex posturing and alliance-building among themselves, as well as with the militias in Tripoli. Zintani and Misratan leaders have been negotiating the terms of an understanding that would change territorial control in Tripoli. They held two reconciliation ceremonies that brought together the two cities, seeking to endow a prospective alliance in Tripoli with ‘moral legitimacy’ (Al-Wasat, 2018; Bobin, 2018).
To date, these efforts have not yielded an agreement on the respective deployments and the partition of influence within Tripoli’s districts. But, as resentment of the cartel’s capture of state institutions continues to accumulate, it becomes increasingly likely that some of these groups will build a powerful alliance with the intention of forcibly altering the balance of power in the capital.
The Haftar threat
The fear that Khalifa Haftar would be the main beneficiary of a war in Tripoli—widely shared by groups in the area—is one of the factors that have helped avert escalation in the capital. Currently, Haftar commands no forces in the greater Tripoli area.
Juwaili’s November 2017 advance into Warshafana and his actions against Haftar loyalists in the area further weakened Haftar’s position in the west. The precedent of Haftar’s actions in eastern Libya, where he progressively marginalized or eliminated former allies, makes it unlikely that militia leaders in the Tripoli area will fight a war on his behalf.
In a situation where the outbreak of major fighting creates an existential threat to these leaders, however, some would probably be willing to ally with Haftar and seek his support.
Haftar is quietly preparing the ground for such a scenario. He has sent officers to Tarhuna, Bani Walid, and Zawiya, with the intention of building up loyal forces, although he has enjoyed little success in this regard to date.
In Sabratha, Sorman, and western Zawiya, Haftar can rely on the support of several armed groups, most notably those dominated by Madakhila. He also retains support among allies in Zintan and Rujban. A war over Tripoli would create an opening for these groups to enter the conflict, enabling Haftar to mobilize popular support behind his stated intention to establish control with an ‘iron fist’.
In 2018, a small number of armed groups control what remains of the Libyan state and its assets in Tripoli, to a degree that is unprecedented in the capital’s tumultuous post-Qaddafi history.
This control extends far beyond the extortion of government officials by militias. Tripoli’s armed groups are developing into powerful criminal networks that link commanders with politicians, influential businessmen, and the incumbents of key administrative positions.
The extent of this capture poses major obstacles to political progress at the national level. A new government, irrespective of whether it comes about through elections or a new political deal between Libya’s conflicting parties, would struggle to assert itself against the pervasive influence of the cartel.
It is difficult to envisage the establishment of a meaningful unity government or a peaceful handover of power under these circumstances; the GNA is not in a position to hand over power, as power rests mostly in the hands of the cartel.
The exclusion of powerful political and military forces from access to the levers of the administration by the cartel creates a highly dangerous situation that is likely to be untenable even in the near term. And as long as this situation persists, the risk of a new war over control of Tripoli will probably continue to grow.
The UN and Western governments have contributed to the current state of affairs, having encouraged the Presidential Council of the GNA to enter Tripoli under the protection of selected militias and tacitly supported these militias’ aggressive expansion across the capital.
The UN and the West therefore bear some level of responsibility for the cartels’ present power and control. Absent serious UN engagement to negotiate more sustainable security arrangements in Tripoli, the cartel’s violent implosion from within or its destruction by outside forces are very real possibilities.
There are no easy solutions to the current, unsustainable situation. The Presidency Council does not command regular forces able to take over key locations in Tripoli. The forces it does command lack credibility: they are not seen as neutral in the struggles between militias in Tripoli and could not withstand attacks by any of the armed groups in the capital.
The Tripoli-based units of the Presidential Guard—still being formed after it was established in early 2016—are unable to challenge any of the large Tripolitanian militias, because of both their own military inferiority and the fact that those militias effectively control the government.
This was starkly underlined when forces loyal to Tajuri and Brigade 301 forcibly dislodged the Presidential Guard from its positions at the prime minister’s office in central Tripoli and Tripoli International Airport in May 2018.
Outside of Tripoli, the Presidential Guard provides an administrative cover to local militias, in much the same way as other Libyan security institutions. It is all but impossible to form powerful, integrated units from diverse local forces in the current situation, as there is no powerful political body that could command their loyalty.
As has become abundantly clear, the GNA is not in control of its own decisions and is not a ‘unity government’ in any real sense. Tackling rent-seeking opportunities does not offer a clear way forward, either. Even if discrepancies between the official and black-market exchange rates, or between fuel prices in Libya and neighbouring states, could be reduced without causing even greater socio-economic damage and triggering major unrest, the ultra-centralized nature of Libya’s hydrocarbon economy would continue to open up opportunities for political networks to defraud the state.
The current situation therefore only allows for ad-hoc, temporary solutions that avert renewed fighting and prepare the ground for a wider political solution.
For change to occur, the first step requires formal mediation efforts under the leadership of UNSMIL, with the support of Western and regional governments. Such efforts would introduce greater transparency into the multiple and ongoing informal negotiations between stakeholders in the Tripoli area.
As a mediator, UNSMIL could try to shape solutions to the acute challenges in Tripoli in ways that might provide the basis for long-term approaches to dissolving the armed groups.
Solutions cannot be prescribed in advance but have to come out of the negotiations themselves. But conceivably, trust between the relevant factions could be built by joint or rotating deployments.
Such an arrangement could be tested at two or three strategic locations in Tripoli before being gradually extended across the capital if it proves to be successful.
The aim of such arrangements would be to move from a logic of exclusive territorial control (and thus control of the institutions within that territory) to a balance of power in which the factions would mutually deny each other control over state institutions.
The monitoring of such an arrangement by a third party—preferably UNSMIL—would be essential to its success. In the event of progress in the political talks, such ad-hoc solutions might be expanded into more ambitious efforts to break up factional interests and meld them into integrated units.
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.