How the 2019 Civil War is Transforming Libya’s Military Landscape
By Wolfram Lacher
This Briefing Paper examines the identities and interests of the forces fighting each other over control of Tripoli.
The forces fighting Haftar: not merely an alliance of convenience
The alliance to resist Haftar’s offensive has brought together groups that had stood on opposite sides of political divides, and in some cases had recently fought each other. Yet it is not merely an opportunistic alliance: these forces are united by ties that originate in the 2011 war against Qaddafi.
Who is fighting against Haftar?
The forces currently fighting Haftar overwhelmingly trace their origin back to the 2011 war. Many are deeply rooted in local communities and are highly cohesive due to their collective struggle in 2011.
The militias that dominated Tripoli’s security landscape in recent years—and are largely post-revolutionary formations- form a minor component of the forces opposing Haftar.
The largest contingent of fighters from Tripoli (around 300) —and one that has suffered heavy losses—is that commanded by Abdelghani ‘Ghaniwa’ al-Kikli, who has for years headed militias in the Abu Slim district of the capital.
Kikli’s forces are fighting on the front around Tripoli International Airport. They include fighters from the tight-knit community of Kikla.
Next in terms of numbers are the TRB and SDF. The TRB is virtually unrecognizable from its shape in 2017 and 2018, when the group’s commanders were notorious for their role in predatory economic activities.
The most infamous TRB commanders were killed or forced into
exile in an internal purge in late 2018 and early 2019. The mobilization against Haftar in April 2019 saw the return of the group’s historical commanders from 2011, who had kept their distance from the group’s activities in recent years.
These former commanders brought with them fighters from the Nafusa Mountains town of Nalut, where the TRB had formed and fought in 2011.
Those currently fighting in the ranks of the TRB are a tight-knit group, and few among the salaried militiamen that TRB commanders had recruited in recent years are on the front lines.
The SDF is the militarily most powerful Tripoli militia, but the bulk of the force refrained from joining the fight against Haftar until mid-June 2019.
The group’s detractors had long suspected Madkhalist Salafist commanders in the SDF of colluding with Haftar. In mid-June a group of fighters approximately 150–200 strong under the command of Mahmoud Hamza entered the war to oppose Haftar, clarifying the SDF’s stance.
Several Tripoli groups are participating in the fighting in smaller numbers, including the Nawasi, Bab Tajura, and al-Dhaman battalions, as well as Fursan Janzur. All four have been notorious for the predatory practices that characterized the Tripoli ‘militia cartel’ in its heyday.
They are all deployed on the Ain Zara and Salaheddin fronts —except Fursan Janzur, who are fighting on the airport front.
Finally, several medium-sized groups from Tajura that had been on bad terms with the cartel militias prior to Haftar’s offensive have mobilized: Bashir Khalfalla’s (‘al-Bugra’) Rahbat al-Duru’ Battalion, which numbers around 200, as well as the smaller Usud Tajura, al-Rawased, and Fath Mekka battalions.
They are deployed on the easternmost front lines of Wadi al-Rabi’ and al-Zatarna. The fighting power of most Tajuran armed groups does not lie in the small standing militias they had fielded prior to the war, but in combatants who have remobilized after having returned to civilian lives years earlier.
They and their social surroundings remain firmly rooted in a belief in the 2011 revolution.
Western Libyan Groups
Among groups from the region to the west and south of Tripoli, one of the smallest contingents of fighters has an outsized role: that of Zintani forces led by Usama al-Juwaili. Zintani anti-Haftar fighters only number around 100, because the town is divided between opponents and supporters of Haftar, and roughly the same number of Zintanis are fighting for Haftar.
The internal divide is new for Zintan, which was united in both the struggle against Qaddafi in 2011 and the fight against the Misratan-led Libya Dawn coalition in 2014.
The rift has unsettled the community and, as a result, the vast majority of potential Zintani fighters have not mobilized. The Zintanis’ allies in the forces fighting Haftar are acutely aware that they need to avoid alienating Zintan, lest the bulk of the town’s forces join Haftar’s offensive.
This explains why Juwaili, in addition to being the commander of the western military region, was also appointed as head of the joint operations room of all GNA-affiliated forces in Tripoli.
It also explains why forces from Amazigh towns have shied away from attacking the al-Wutiya air base, which is controlled by fighters from Zintan and Rujban who are loyal to Haftar.
The largest contingent of fighters in the region comes from Zawiya.
Approximately 400 fighters from Zawiya are deployed on various front lines, most of them around the airport. Many are members of armed groups that trace their origin back to the 2011 war, such as the Faruq and Martyr Mohamed al-Kilani battalions, which had mostly been demobilized prior to the April 2019 offensive.
Two Zawiyan groups currently have a number of Islamist ideologues among their commanders: the Faruq Battalion and the fighters of the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room, who are deployed at the Ain Zara front.
Dozens of combatants and officers from Zawiya have also joined the forces of the western military region under Juwaili, which are deployed between Tripoli and Gharyan. In addition to fighters at the front, significant forces remain in Zawiya itself to pre-empt a possible attack by Haftar loyalists based in neighbouring Sabratha and Surman.
Smaller in numbers than the Zawiyan forces, fighters from Gharyan and Nalut nevertheless form sizeable contingents of approximately 200 each. A 150-strong Naluti battalion is deployed at the airport front and about 40–50 combatants from the town are fighting with the TRB in Ain Zara.
Haftar’s capture of Gharyan with the help of local militia leader Adel Da’ab initially drove approximately 70 Gharyan fighters out of their town. As they fought under Juwaili’s command to regain control of Gharyan their numbers grew: after the town was recaptured the force had grown to at least 200 fighters.
Approximately 150 fighters from Sabratha and Ajeilat form part of Juwaili’s Zintani forces, the Zawiyan forces at the airport, and the Misratan-dominated ATF in Wadi al-Rabi’.
These fighters were inactive and demobilized prior to Haftar’s offensive.
The National Mobile Force is deployed at the airport and Salaheddin fronts. Groups from Amazigh towns that fought in the war against Qaddafi formed the force in 2011.
Under routine conditions, the National Mobile Force has around 60–70 fighters at the front at any given moment, but they rotate every few days, so the force that has joined to date is approximately 120–140 strong.
Separately from the National Mobile Force, smaller groups of fighters of 30–60 each from the Amazigh towns of Jadu and Yefren have joined armed groups from Tripoli at the Ain Zara and Salaheddin fronts.
About the same number of fighters from Yefren and Nalut have joined Juwaili’s western military region and are deployed in the Gharyan area.
The primary reason why so few have joined the war from these towns, as well as from Kabaw, Nalut, and Zuwara, is that they face potential threats from forces loyal to Haftar in neighbouring towns and bases.
The majority of potential fighters from the Amazigh towns therefore remain in their communities to forestall advances by these Haftar-affiliated forces.
Misratan forces form by far the largest contingent among the various groups fighting Haftar. They are deployed at all Tripoli front lines, as well as in Sirte and to the south of Misrata, from where they harass Haftar’s supply lines.
The larger Misratan brigades, such as al-Mahjub, al-Halbus, and Hatin, often have groups deployed in both Tripoli and Sirte or on the southern front.
All but a fraction of Misratan fighters who are now participating in the war had gone back to civilian life years previously, and only mobilized in reaction to Haftar’s offensive.
The largest concentration of Misratan forces is on the Wadi al-Rabi’ front, where approximately 1,200 fighters have mobilized under the ATF, which is an administrative and command structure comprising a part of the forces that fought the non-state armed group Islamic State (IS) in Sirte.
Around 40 Misratan battalions operate under the ATF in Wadi al-Rabi’. These battalions originated in the 2011 war, and have largely retained their internal composition and leadership. Each has its own base at the front line.
Several large Misratan groups deployed in Salaheddin are known for their previous hostility towards the GNA: the al-Marsa, al-Tajin, and al-Sumud battalions, which together have approximately 500 fighters at the front.
Salah Badi, the leader of the al-Sumud Battalion, is subject to UN sanctions for his ‘leading role’ in the August 2018 Tripoli conflict, when he had supported the Kaniyat’s offensive—and fought against the Tripoli armed groups at whose side he is now fighting.
These forces include former members of the Benghazi Defence Battalions (BDB). Since their deployment to the front, these groups have reacted negatively to attempts to integrate them into formal GNA command structures.
Two large Misratan forces are fighting at the airport front: the al-Mahjub Brigade—which has around 800 fighters deployed—and Brigade 166. Both are umbrella organizations that comprise a number of battalions that formed in 2011 on the basis of individual neighbourhoods in Misrata.
Like most other Misratan battalions, these forces last mobilized in 2016 for the war against IS in Sirte; most of their fighters had returned to civilian life and remobilized in reaction to Haftar’s offensive.
In Sirte, as well as forward bases near al-Sdada, Bir Dufan, and Abu Njem, Misratan groups have deployed approximately 550–600 vehicles—the number of fighters being four times that of vehicles.
They include around 40 former BDB members, as well as other fighters from central, southern, and eastern Libya.
Since the conflict started a common misperception among Western diplomats and foreign observers has been that Misratan mobilization has been limited to date. But although there is still potential for further mobilization if the threat from Haftar’s forces increases, the present discussion shows that Misratan participation in the war is considerable.
This is further confirmed by the number of Misratan fighters killed in the conflict: almost 200 by end of July 2019, representing more than a third of all fighters killed in the ranks of GNA-affiliated forces.
Fighters from the east and south
Most of the forces mentioned above are rooted in particular western Libyan communities. They are often deeply embedded in such communities, with ties among combatants reinforced by relationships of kinship, friendship, or proximity.
Fighters from southern, central, and eastern Libya whom Haftar’s forces have uprooted from these regions have joined western Libyan groups.
These include mostly civilian members of the BDB and of armed groups from Ajdabiya and the Jufra region, but also dozens of military officers from the east. Most see their struggle in Tripoli as a prelude to their return to eastern Libya.
The fact that Haftar’s forces destroyed or confiscated and reoccupied the properties of Benghazi families whose members had fought against Haftar is a powerful motivation for many of these fighters.
The principal southern Libyan group fighting in the Tripoli area is Tubu combatants under the command of Hassan Musa, who have joined Zintani forces.
Like Musa himself, many are veterans of the 2011 war against Qaddafi. Having initially supported Haftar’s campaign in Benghazi in 2014 and subsequently fought with the militia leader Ibrahim al-Jadhran against Misratan forces in early 2015, this group has since been consistently opposed to Haftar.
Finally, fighters from southern Libya and beyond have also joined armed groups for payment, rather than out of commitment to the cause of fighting against Haftar.
Such fighters include members of the Tuareg and Mahamid communities, many of whom do not have Libyan citizenship. But such paid hirelings make up a very small proportion of the forces fighting to protect Tripoli.
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. He has authored and co-authored numerous reports, academic articles, and book chapters on the post-2011 conflicts in Libya and security issues in the Sahel–Sahara region. His book Libya’s Fragmentation will be published by I.B. Tauris in April 2020.
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