By Jalel Harchaoui & Mohamed-Essaïd Lazib
The Libyan state lacked transparent, self sustainable institutions long before the 2011 uprisings. Hundreds of local disputes and tribal feuds lingered across the country for decades.
Under the autocratic regime of Qaddafi (1969–2011), a combination of calculated tribal interferences, co-optation, and unbridled brutality managed to stave off most—although not all—eruptions of anarchical violence.
This idiosyncratic equilibrium ended on February 15, 2011, when social demonstrations turned into a military conflict between loyalist and rebel forces.
A month later, the United States gathered a wide-ranging coalition of states and instigated a UN-mandated military intervention in Libya’s burgeoning rebellion against Qaddafi’s rule.
Early in that campaign, disagreements surfaced amongst Washington’s allies and partners—especially between the Gulf States—as to what post-Qaddafi Libya should resemble.
The international disharmony within the US-led coalition exacerbated the enmity between Libyan rebels. These fault lines, domestic and foreign alike, only deepened in 2014 as the country descended into civil war.
Hundreds of armed groups emerged during the revolution and after the downfall of Qaddafi.
Some are remnants of the former regime’s security services, which fractured amid the uprisings; others are tribal forces, local neighborhood watch groups, Islamist militias, and criminal gangs. Some units act as the armed wing of a political party or figure.
In 2011 rebels seized and dispersed the large arsenals that Qaddafi kept during his reign. In addition, that same year foreign states intervening as part of the UN-mandated mission distributed even more weapons.
As a result, Libya became awash with weapons, a factor that helped political contestation turn violent, albeit at a relatively low level of intensity.
The 2014 civil war tore Libya’s political spectrum into two main factions: the government in Tripoli and its rival in the country’s eastern region. Both governments claim to represent the entire nation and refuse to contemplate any genuine form of compromise with each other.
Most armed groups have tended to gravitate toward these poles, creating loose, mercurial alliances. Outside interferences further complicate the situation.
Foreign states have provided military, economic, ideological, and diplomatic support to each rival government as well as to individual armed groups that surround them.
In eastern Libya the authorities based in the cities of Tobruk and Bayda have tended to support Field Marshal Haftar. The commander leads the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), headquartered near Benghazi.
The LNA, despite its name, is not the Libyan armed force, but it does rely on a core of regulars, many of whom used to belong to the Qaddafi-era military.
In addition to the LNA proper, Haftar is backed by an informal coalition consisting of a variety of militias. Some are tribal in nature; others are defined by their neighborhood of origin; others follow Salafism.
Haftar also partnered with militias from Zintan, a small city in northwestern Libya. Zintan’s armed groups occupied key positions south of Tripoli during the 2014 civil war. The relationship has weakened somewhat over the subsequent years.
Recently, other armed groups in Tripolitania have aligned with the LNA. Haftar claims to be combating political Islam in all its forms. His rhetoric targets not just radical groups like al-Qaeda but also more moderate groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and with non-Islamists.
That stance has earned Haftar the diplomatic, ideological, financial, and military support of the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France, Jordan, and Russia.
In early 2016 the UN helped form and install a government of national accord (GNA). During the subsequent three years, GNA-aligned militias native to Tripoli have pushed out of the capital armed groups from other cities and armed groups associated with political Islam.
While its critics often accuse the GNA of being friendly to the Muslim Brothers, its reign in fact saw Islamists grow weaker in the Tripoli area during the years preceding Haftar’s April 2019 attack against the capital.
The GNA was long supported by the US, Italy, Britain, and Algeria, as well as Turkey and Qatar.
After Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, however, the US and other Western states failed to renew their support of the GNA in an unambiguous fashion.
Since 2014, Misrata, a powerful port city in western Libya, has opposed Haftar and, in some instances, backed radical Islamists operating in eastern Libya.
During the 2017–19 period, it followed a more conciliatory approach, which was deemed insufficient by the Haftar camp.
Despite the hostility of the GNA-aligned militias based in Tripoli toward Misrata, a number of moderate forces from the merchant citadel have granted their nominal support to the GNA.
After the LNA attacked Tripoli in April 2019, Misratan forces stepped back into the capital and fulfilled a major role in protecting it against Haftar’s army.
Littered with a myriad of micro-conflicts, the country’s fragmentation cannot be summarized as a binary contest between regions (e.g., east vs. west), ideologies (e.g., Islamists vs. secular authoritarians), or geopolitical camps (e.g., Egypt vs. Turkey).
Foreign interference has had a substantial effect on the itinerary of the relevant proxies, but these proxies have never given full obedience to their sponsors.
This paper’s aim is to sketch out the dynamics of proxy warfare in Libya by examining a select set of individual armed groups and describing their interactions with the relevant outside sponsors.
Before reviewing the various militias in detail, the section below offers a brief summary of Libya’s civil war since its eruption in 2014.
Libya’s Civil War
Starting in 2012, a series of abuses and violent events in both Tripoli and Benghazi amplified the rancor many Libyans felt for Islamist and revolutionary elites.
In May 2013 the latter imposed by force a drastic piece of legislation dubbed the Political Isolation Law. The July 2013 military coup in Egypt instilled in Libya’s Muslim Brothers the fear that a similar dynamic might befall their country.
The Egyptian precedent also provided retired general Khalifa Haftar with the narrative he would use as a means of pursuing his long-standing political ambitions.
Overlaying these ideological concerns were regional resentments. Many were concerned about the military and political influence of Misrata.
The polarization was particularly dramatic in Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, a region known as Cyrenaica (or Barqa).
In May 2014 Haftar launched Operation Karama (Dignity), a vaguely defined effort to rid Libya of all hues of Islamists and revolutionaries. This marked the effective birth of the LNA.
Moving out of their bases in al-Marj and al-Abyar, the retired general and several hundred fighters entered Benghazi to face off against Islamist militias there.
In response, the latter groups coalesced and, in June 2014, founded the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council.
In northwestern Libya, armed groups from Zintan attacked the Islamist-dominated rump government in the capital. These Zintani militias, including the one led by Emad Trabelsi (see below), had been active in Tripoli since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in August 2011.
They had a history of hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood and factions from Misrata. To counter Operation Karama, the Misratan and Muslim Brotherhood forces forged their own political and military alliance, called Operation Fajr (Dawn).
A mid-July 2014 attack against Zintani forces in and around the international airport in southern Tripoli succeeded in expelling them after seven weeks of clashes.
The government in Tripoli, allied with the Fajr coalition, then ceased to be recognized internationally.
The LNA has consistently grown in size since 2014—especially after 2016—thanks to external support. The nonviolent capture of the oil terminals between Sidra and Brega, the so-called Oil Crescent, in September 2016 burnished the LNA’s image on a national and international level.
Haftar steadily expanded his territorial control, capturing Benghazi in 2017. Haftar’s “war on terror” narrative labels every Islamist or revolutionary group “terrorists” or dawa’ish (members of the Islamic State).
The strongman does not distinguish between jihadists, moderate proponents of political Islam, or non-Islamist dissidents. The indiscriminate rhetoric has enabled him to rally a wide range of factions.
Many eastern tribes, wealthy businessmen, and former Qaddafi-era officers back Haftar. The Madkhali Salafi groups in Cyrenaica are another important base of support. Madkhalism is a conservative current of Salafism favored by the Saudi government.
Since 2014, Madkhali Salafis in eastern Libya have shared Haftar’s commitment to combating the Muslim Brotherhood and other forms of Islamism.
Madkhalism prohibits political partisanship and dictates ostensible obedience to an existing authority.3 In northwestern Libya several Madkhali Salafi groups—at the time of this writing—were not overtly aligned with the LNA.
In May 2018 the LNA initiated an offensive into the coastal city of Derna, near the Egyptian border. After eight months of destructive urban warfare, the Islamist coalition there was defeated almost entirely.
Starting in mid-January 2019, the LNA swept across the southwestern province, called the Fezzan. Haftar’s progress stalled in April 2019, when he launched a large-scale offensive on Tripoli.
The LNA’s operation faced stiff resistance from most Tripolitanian civilians and armed groups.
With a few exceptions, notably some Zintani groups and a few others, the anti-LNA effort of 2019 has remobilized the Fajr coalition of 2014.
Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. His work focuses on Libya’s politics and security. Most of this essay was prepared prior to his joining Clingendael.
Mohamed-Essaïd Lazib is a PhD candidate in geopolitics at University of Paris 8. His research concentrates on Libya’s armed groups and their sociology.
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