The dominant role of the Libyan National Army

By Noria Research

This report is based on interviews conducted with a range of actors in Libya, Tunis, Cairo and Istanbul, including businessmen, administrators, victims of armed groups, LNA dissidents, local notables and others.

Some interviews were conducted remotely. The report also draws from information contained in official documents, some of which are confidential and are not sourced in this paper.


Smuggling of refined petroleum products in eastern Libya by land

Smuggling of refined petroleum products by land was prevalent during the previous regime, mostly conducted by groups considered to be loyal to Gaddafi and who benefited from the security services’ complicity.

Similar smuggling patterns continue today across Libya’s land borders with Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger and Tunisia.

In eastern Libya, oil facilities, including depots, are under the direct control of the LNA or its affiliated armed groups.

In exchange for their loyalty, the LNA turns a blind eye to their petroleum smuggling activities. The case of the al-Sarir oil complex illustrates this transactional relationship between the LNA leadership and local armed groups.

The al-Sarir oilfield facilities are under the protection of the Ahmad al-Sharif Brigade commanded by a Tebu military career officer, Ali Shida. Of all Tebu commanders who initially supported Operation Karama, Shida is the only one to have remained loyal to Haftar.

Some explain his loyalty to the LNA by his attachment to the military institution and his fear of being outlawed.

Others have provided a more rational explanation: ‘Ali’s brother is directly in charge of the al-Sarir oil facilities and is involved in smuggling of petroleum products.

A litre is officially sold at LYD0.2 to 0.3 [the official price fixed by the National Oil Corporation is LYD0.15 per litre].

A barrel is sold for LYD30. In southern localities, such as al-Kufra and Sebha, the black-market price fluctuates between LYD600 and 900 per barrel.

It is sold across the Chadian border for around LYD1 200 per barrel. The Ahmad al-Sharif Brigade gets a cut of about 30 per cent of the smugglers’ benefits.’

The LNA therefore uses its political hegemony and legal prerogatives to maintain Ahmad al-Sharif’s role in providing security to the al-Sarir oil facility, giving the brigade access to state payroll and revenues generated through transnational smuggling of refined petroleum products.

The concentration of the political, economic and symbolic capital in the hands of the LNA in eastern Libya creates a strongly dependent relationship among local armed groups towards it, and this is apparent in affiliated armed groups’ smuggling of petroleum products, a form of sponsorship that effectively buys their loyalty.

While the LNA has been reluctant to grant political rights to the Tebu and address their long-standing grievances, providing the local group with a cut of the smuggling business has proved to be enough to obtain their support.

The Ahmad al-Sharif Brigade continues to be involved in the smuggling of petroleum products. However, since 2014, armed groups in southern Libya have been turning away from smuggling petroleum as it has become less lucrative and logistically more challenging than human and drugs smuggling.

Furthermore, refined petroleum products smuggled to markets in Chad and Niger are not paid for in hard currency. Hence, the development of human smuggling in Libya became an increasingly attractive alternative market for local armed groups.

East African networks, which had been active in Cyrenaica since 2012, started paying Libyan smugglers in US dollars, the value of which significantly increased against the Libyan dinar on the black currency market between 2014 and early 2018.

Local armed groups quickly seized this opportunity for new sources of revenue, incorporating human smugglers into their ranks and taxing migrant convoys.

Patterns of political alliances between local armed groups and the LNA have also contributed to shaping the human-smuggling landscape in south-east Libya.

Promotion of local allies along human-smuggling routes

The role of the LNA was decisive in determining the outcome among various armed groups vying to take control of Libya’s human-smuggling routes.

The LNA provided military and political support to affiliated armed groups operating along the smuggling routes. By doing so, it fulfilled two objectives.

First, it expanded its influence across eastern Libya by consolidating alliances with local armed groups and, by extension, with local constituencies.

Secondly, its strategy allowed affiliated armed groups to take control of smuggling routes, finance their activities, and evict their military and business competitors.

The dynamics unfolding over the last few years in al-Kufra, a strategic hub of the human-smuggling business in Libya, help shed light on these strategies.

The LNA has been trying to increase its influence in al-Kufra’s military and economic affairs. Furthermore, several reports indicate that LNA units close to the army’s leaders are now involved in drug smuggling in the region of al-Kufra, in close collaboration with Zway-dominated armed group Subul al-Salam.

Al-Kufra is an urban agglomeration in the Libyan Desert, an oasis town some 800 kilometres south of Benghazi and around 370 kilometres from the Sudanese and Chadian borders. It has a population of about 60000, 40000 of whom are ethnic Zway, and 10000 Tebu; the rest are foreigners, mostly from Chad and Sudan.

Consolidating alliances with local constituencies in south-eastern Libya

Following the strategy of the former regime, the LNA developed alliances with local constituencies by using its political and military clout.

The LNA manipulated local tensions to its advantage by investing certain groups with a legal mandate, providing them with political and military support, and tacitly agreeing to their involvement in smuggling activities.

Unlike in Benghazi, however, where a certain level of centralization of the LNA chain of command can be seen, the LNA in southern Libya remains an aggregate of local armed groups sharing circumstantial political affiliations and linked to one another through cultural and economic interests.

The LNA leadership provided support to both parties to the 2015 ethnic-based conflict between the Tebu and the Zway in al-Kufra, finally imposing itself as peace broker.

Following two months of inter-ethnic fighting in al-Kufra in summer 2015, the LNA sponsored a ceasefire agreement on 11 October 2015, which would shape the political-military landscape and smuggling routes in the region.

The agreement resulted in asserting the military supremacy of a newly created Zway-dominated armed group affiliated with the LNA.

Before the outbreak of violence in al-Kufra, Tebu armed groups, which had been fighting alongside the LNA in Benghazi, benefited from the LNA’s support. Their role in the battle of Benghazi during that period was praised by pro-LNA media.

Sudanese mercenaries from the Sudan Liberation Army/Minni Minawi (SLA/MM), fighting alongside the Tebu during the conflict had entered Libya in early 2015 under the banner of the LNA (and continue to fight for the LNA today).

During the conflict in al-Kufra, Tebu fighters supported by SLA/MM fighters succeeded in temporarily breaking the siege imposed by Zway groups against the Tebu neighbourhoods of al-Kufra since 2012.

The Tebu–SLA/MM military alliance was on the verge of entering al-Kufra when the LNA air force bombed their military convoy on 20 September 2015, putting a sudden end to its alliance with the Tebu and to their historical dream of becoming again a dominant actor in southern Libya.

In the words of a prominent Tebu politician from al-Kufra:

The LNA manipulated the Zway and the Tebu. It, first, made us believe that we’re strong enough to change the balance of power in al-Kufra in our favour and to address historical prejudices. Second, it used us to pressure the Zway to cut off their ties with Tripoli authorities and Islamist factions opposed to the LNA, and to join the camp led by Khalifa Haftar. One has to admit that the LNA leadership has proved to be very persuasive and its strategy successful.

From October 2015, the LNA shifted its support to Subul al-Salam. The consequences of the conflict were catastrophic to the Tebu, and most of their leaders fled al-Kufra to the Fezzan or overseas.

In southern Libya, a zero-sum-game logic determines the nature of relations between northern actors and their southern proxies.

In the absence of a national vision that would bring together the country’s different components, the LNA’s expansion strategy relies on supporting one group against another and exploiting local divisions.

Also, the decision to support the Zway as opposed to the Tebu is motivated by political, cultural and economic reasons.

First, the Zway are significantly more numerous and have strong connections to decision-making circles in Benghazi, Tripoli (and Khartoum).

Secondly, Haftar has tribal links with the Zway, as his mother is from the ethnic group.

Thirdly, the demographic and military presence of the Zway extends from the Sudanese border to Ajdabiya via Tazerbu and al-Kufra, and hence gaining their support was strategic for the LNA’s objective to control this vital route, which is one of Libya’s main itineraries for all categories of travellers and goods – and, most importantly, for migrants since 2014.

Subul al-Salam was established in October 2015 as an interposition force between the two ethnic communities and was put in charge of the al-Sad checkpoint, which regulates access to and from al-Kufra, along the road leading north to Ajdabiya.

This strategic role would become instrumental in asserting the group’s control over smuggling routes. From that point on, Subul al-Salam has managed to build up its military capacity and impose its dominance over the region of al-Kufra.

On its Facebook page, Subul al-Salam published pictures of technical and military materiel delivered by the LNA. Its leader, a Salafi sheik, Abd al-Rahman Hashem, is reported to have visited Haftar in al-ejma several times.

Empowered by the LNA’s political and military support, the group has brought under its banner most Zway fighters in the al-Kufra district, including those who were initially opposed to Haftar.

The brigade also counts among its members some of the most prominent human smugglers in al-Kufra, who benefited from their positions to increase their activities and progressively evict their competitors.

They have repeatedly denied their involvement in the smuggling business, using an anti-smuggling rhetoric to build up their local and national legitimacy.

However, sources close to the group claim that several members of Subul al-Salam are directly involved in the smuggling business and transport of migrants.

Moreover, migrant convoys travel along the road and pass by checkpoints controlled by the group.

to be continued


Noria (Network of Researchers in International Affairs) is an independent network of political analysts and researchers. It brings together specialists around shared methods and objectives, producing and disseminating fieldwork-based research and political analysis. Noria also provides political analysis for decision-makers, and fosters public dialogue and reflection on key international issues.


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