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.
Command, coordination, and integration
The forces now fighting Haftar include groups that had been hostile to each other and had even fought each other over the past years: in 2014-15 Zintani forces had fought against most of the groups they are now allied with, while in 2017-18 some Misratan groups had on repeated occasions clashed with armed groups from Tripoli.
These forces also include many groups that had until recently been opposed to the GNA. Unsurprisengly, relations between some of these groups are sometimes tense and marked by a lack of trust.
But in light of this history, the degree of integration and coordination among them is even more remarkable. On most front lines numerous groups of different local origins fight in immediate proximity to one another.
For example, eight major groups of different origins are deployed on the semi-circular front around Tripoli International Airport. Some of these groups comprise a number of subgroups.
Although most liaise with the GNA’s official command structure, the battalions on this and other fronts are effectively autonomous in their decision-making.
Their leaders emerged out of the groups themselves—often as early as in the 2011 or 2014 wars—rather than being appointed by the GNA.
The GNA army command has made gradual progress in connecting the armed groups to the formal chain of command. Nevertheless, most day-to-day coordination takes place directly among field commanders rather than through official command structures.
This creates challenges in the direction of operations. Commanders frequently recount how they agreed on plans for a coordinated attack, only to be abandoned by one of the groups involved when the time came.
Several factors explain such coordination problems.
Firstly, relations between some of the forces are marked by distrust, owing to previous conflicts between them. Misratan politicians and commanders, for example, do not hide their continuing resentment of the Tripoli militias that have exercised disproportionate influence in state institutions in recent years.
For many, the war against Haftar has merely deferred the conflict with these Tripoli groups. Given this context, some groups suspect others of seeking to conserve their own arsenals and let their allies exhaust theirs, in anticipation of a future struggle among themselves.
Secondly, distrust towards the government runs even higher among the armed groups. This is partly due to the fact that the government’s composition is largely unchanged from the period preceding Haftar’s offensive.
Ministers and senior officials were appointed in an effort to accommodate diverse political factions, including ones that were—and in some cases, remain—on good terms with Haftar.
Many commanders therefore see the government as being infiltrated by officials with ties to Haftar or his regional backers. They also perceive the government as deeply corrupt and incompetent, and frequently blame the lack of progress on the battlefield on the weakness of political leadership.
Demands that key officials be dismissed are frequent. Most commanders, however, are acutely aware that they cannot replace Prime Minister Serraj, because this could jeopardize the Tripoli government’s status as the internationally recognized authority in Libya.
Another source of distrust towards the government is the fact that the authorities have provided only limited support to the armed groups fighting the war.
This particularly applies to ammunition and funds to compensate for vehicles and heavy weapons that are destroyed in the fighting.
The government appears to have real difficulties in importing ammunition due to the UN arms embargo; instead, it tries to source ammunition from the local market.
In the first weeks of the war top GNA officers issued cheques to commanders for them to purchase ammunition on the local black market. Such purchases also included acquisitions from commanders in Haftar’s forces.
Four months into the war these problems persist. Since June, the command in charge of supplies and training has moved to a system where it buys ammunition from the armed groups upon inspection, then returns half of the ammunition to the group that has supplied it and keeps the other half.
In this way the army command is gradually building up ammunition stocks of its own. The command’s conservative stance towards armed groups’ demands for ammunition may be partly a means of reducing wasteful use.
But according to field commanders and close observers, the government is still not meeting the needs of the armed groups on the battlefield.
While the arms embargo may explain the government’s cautious approach to ammunition, its failure to replace destroyed vehicles and compensate armed groups for heavy weapons destroyed by enemy fire causes greater frustration among commanders.
These armed groups mostly built up their stocks of heavy weapons during the 2011 war and in its immediate aftermath, and therefore consider the weapons to be theirs.
The army command has only paid compensation for a fraction of the ‘technicals’ destroyed so far—estimated to be in the hundreds — and none for heavy weapons.
Some smaller battalions have already depleted substantial parts of their arsenals in this way and now lack firepower .
This lack of government support leaves the army command with little to offer in exchange for cooperation by armed groups. It also fuels suspicions among fighters and commanders that the government seeks to exhaust the armed groups’ arsenals in order to strengthen its authority.
As a result, the armed groups are reluctant to use their own stocks of ammunition—which in many cases are substantial. The government’s contribution to date has focused on filling key gaps in its military capabilities through support from Turkey.
This notably includes a number of Turkish-made Bayraktar combat drones—at least three of which Haftar’s warplanes and drones have destroyed to date, but more are in operation—as well as armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).
Turkish officers are widely believed to operate the drones. The armed groups have not competed over who controls the drones, since they lack the expertise to operate them.
The distribution of the APCs and ATGMs has increased tensions among GNA-affiliated forces. The APCs were distributed in equal proportion to the commanders of the three military regions—Western, Tripoli, and Central. Some Misratan commanders, however, complained that since they had deployed far more forces, they should also be given a much greater number of APCs than Tripoli armed groups.
Similar tensions have also emerged over the allocation and control of funds for the treatment of wounded fighters abroad.
The longer the war continues, the more demands for government support and rivalries over its allocation could come to define the politics among GNA-affiliated forces.
Commanders with privileged access to state budgets and foreign support could seize the opportunity to strengthen their own forces, potentially creating new, more powerful militias.
A remarkable development since the war began is the extent of integration among numerous groups in the battlefield. Separate units have chosen to fight together and small groups of combatants have joined armed groups of different local origins.
This process of integration is largely the work of armed group commanders themselves rather than of the official command structure. It is generally based on personal ties among commanders that often go back to the 2011 war.
To give a few examples: at the airport front, forces from Zintan are fighting together with their erstwhile enemies of 2014—the Amazigh fighters of the National Mobile Force, Fursan Janzur, and forces from Zawiya. Fighters from Gharyan and Sabratha were also the Zintanis’ enemies in 2014, and are now integrated in Zintani-led forces south of Tripoli—between al-Aziziya and Gharyan—together with combatants from Zawiya and the Amazigh towns.
Small groups of fighters from Jadu have joined the Bab Tajura Battalion in Ain Zara; similarly, small groups from Nalut have joined the TRB in the same area.
The forces deployed under the Misratan-dominated ATF in Wadi al-Rabi’ also include fighters from Sabratha and eastern Libya, as well as armed groups from Tajura—all of which only joined these forces after the start of the war.
Such instances of incorporation could potentially serve as a starting point for the creation of properly integrated forces—units that no longer have an attachment to a particular community, but have a common esprit de corps and loyalty to a unified command structure.
Extremists and criminals?
Libyan media and foreign governments that support Haftar have sought to portray the forces fighting Haftar in Tripoli as being dominated by extremists and criminals.
To a lesser extent some international media coverage has also supported such claims.
The narrative has been sufficiently influential for France to insert language into a European Union statement to express ‘concern at the involvement of terrorist and criminal elements in the fighting, including individuals listed by the UN Security Council’.
Language of this type has since been a recurrent feature of international statements on the situation in Libya.
These claims are misleading.
Among Libyans who are subject to UN sanctions, Salah Badi is the only one involved in the fighting. Badi was sanctioned for participating in a military offensive that was led by the Kani brothers—who are now fighting with Haftar—and whose consequences for civilians and the political process in Libya were far less serious than that led by Haftar, who has not been sanctioned.
Moreover, contrary to what some reports have asserted, Badi is not ‘a (hardline) Islamist commander’; in fact, Badi himself denies he is an Islamist, and there is no evidence to contradict him.
Media reports have repeatedly claimed that three other listed individuals have joined the forces fighting Haftar: Abderrahman al-Milad from Zawiya and Ahmed al-Dabbashi from Sabratha, who have both been sanctioned for their involvement in people smuggling, as well as Ibrahim al-Jadhran, who has been sanctioned for his repeated attacks on the oil ports in the east .
But while Milad and Dabbashi initially did join the fighting, other commanders quickly persuaded them to withdraw due to the negative attention they attracted, and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha charged several units with searching for and arresting them.
Jadhran issued a statement in support of the resistance against Haftar’s offensive, but has not taken part in the fighting. Misratan forces that include fighters from Jadhran’s hometown, Ajdabiya, have kept their distance from Jadhran and his core followers, which they now estimate to be no more than 30 in number.
There is no doubt that some of the groups and individuals involved in the fighting, while not listed by the UN Security Council, have a record of criminal activities.
This notably applies to the Tripoli militias that engaged in unprecedented predation on state institutions after the establishment of the GNA in 2016—and were tacitly supported in this by Western governments and UNSMIL until this state of affairs provoked renewed conflict in Tripoli.
Some groups are also engaged in the business of extorting and exploiting migrants who were confined in official detention centres, after they were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in operations that European states supported.
The issue received widespread attention after an air strike that foreign warplanes most likely carried out in support of Haftar’s forces killed 53 people in a detention centre in Tajura on 2 July. The detention centre was next to a base of the al-Dhaman Battalion, which effectively controlled the detention centre and forced detainees to help with the maintenance of its weapons.
But the militias that engage in such predatory practices now form a minority in the forces fighting Haftar.
Media reports also use the participation of fighters from the BDB as evidence of the presence of extremists. The BDB was a group of fighters from Benghazi that formed in Misrata in 2016 and led several offensives towards the Haftar-controlled east.
The group initially included some former members of extremist group Ansar al-Sharia—a group that the UN and United States has designated as an al-Qaeda affiliate—or allied itself with such individuals in its eastern offensives.
It also comprised former members of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), a coalition that included both Ansar al-Sharia and non-jihadist armed groups and was formed in 2014 in response to Haftar’s operation in Benghazi.
The vast majority of BDB members were not extremists, however, but were motivated by the desire to fight what they saw as the injustice they and their families had suffered at the hands of Haftar’s forces .
By mid-2018 the BDB had divided into several factions after disagreements over strategy. The core group in a military base at al-Sdada, south of Misrata, purged its ranks of individuals with an extremist background and cut ties with Jadhran, with whom the BDB had been allied in several eastern offensives.
Two groups of former BDB members are participating in the current fighting. One, led by Col. Mustafa al-Sharkasi, is fighting with Salah Badi’s Sumud Battalion in Ain Zara.
According to GNA counter-terrorism officials and commanders on the Ain Zara front, there is no evidence of the presence of extremists among them. The other group has joined Misratan forces on the southern front.
Misratan commanders of these forces say they screened BDB members to make sure none with a known extremist background was among them—a step that reflects both a change in attitudes towards extremist elements among Misratan armed groups over the past years and an awareness that the presence of extremists could quickly become a liability for them.
More generally, pro-Haftar media outlets tend to describe all fighters from Benghazi who have joined GNA-affiliated forces as extremists.
This is highly misleading and often involves fabricated claims. One report, for example, described a young combatant from Benghazi who was killed in the fighting as a former inmate of the notorious Abu Slim prison and a suspect in the assassination of the former US ambassador to Libya in 2012.
But the person in question had been too young to be imprisoned under Qaddafi, law enforcement agencies had not connected him to the death of the US ambassador, and he was not known as an extremist among friends from Benghazi and fellow combatants from Tripoli.
Similarly, pro-Haftar Libyan media have focused on Ziyad Balam, a revolutionary commander from Benghazi who in recent years was at times allied with the BDB. Contrary to what such media reports claim, Balam is not an extremist, was never a BRSC member, and is not even participating in the current Tripoli war.
Early on in the conflict he announced he was joining the battle, but other commanders quickly persuaded him to withdraw. According to a former leading figure in the Benghazi armed groups from which Balam came, ‘Ziyad isn’t fighting. He sometimes comes to the front, takes some pictures, then goes back to Istanbul.’
Pro-Haftar media outlets have published many other reports that misleadingly lump anti-Haftar fighters from Benghazi together as ‘terrorists’.
The task of such media outlets has been made easier by the fact that distinguishing extremists from ordinary fighters can at times be difficult due to their past ties within the BRSC and continuing social relations among them—for example, in the form of public expressions of condolences.
In recent years this proximity had also led militias and law-enforcement agencies in Tripoli and Misrata to regard all fighters from Benghazi who had found refuge in western Libya with suspicion.
In the current war many fighters from Benghazi have joined armed groups from Tripoli as individuals rather than in groups, and have begun to regain the trust of Tripoli factions.
Law enforcement and intelligence professionals working for the GNA and its attorney general rely on the cooperation of commanders and combatants to monitor suspected extremists and individuals thought to retain ties with extremist groups.
Their detailed information on such individuals suggests that the extent to which extremists may be present among the forces fighting Haftar is a matter of isolated cases rather than of cells or groups.
Many Libyan fighters who are known to have ties to IS or Ansar al-Sharia are based in Turkey and have not returned to join the war, fearing they would be arrested on their return.
The current war provides a much more difficult environment for extremist groups than the civil war of 2014–15. If some western Libyan forces displayed ambiguity towards Islamist and jihadist groups up until 2015, this has long ceased to be the case.
The most important development to change perceptions of jihadist groups was the 2016 fight against IS in Sirte. For the armed groups who participated in this conflict there could no longer be any tolerance for those who had allowed IS to establish itself in Libya.
At the same time the dominant militias in Tripoli turned hostile towards Islamist forces—partly out of ideological motivations, partly as a result of struggles over territory.
Aversion towards the Muslim Brotherhood also became ubiquitous among western Libyan armed groups for what they saw as the Brotherhood’s political opportunism in the post-Qaddafi era.
As a result, there is now a widespread hostility to Islamist ideologues among the forces fighting Haftar in and around Tripoli. Unnerved by the media allegations that they are Islamists, commanders frequently raised the issue in interviews with the author, and almost unanimously stressed that they would not accept Islamists in their forces.
There are some exceptions, however. A few groups from Zawiya and Sabratha appear to remain open to radical Islamists. In May 2019 an LNA air strike that targeted the facility of the al-Faruq Battalion in Zawiya killed an IS member from Sabratha, raising questions over why he had been present at the location—an occurrence made all the more puzzling by the fact that al-Faruq had fought against IS in Sabratha in 2016.
The overall picture, however, is one of unequivocal intolerance for jihadists in the forces fighting Haftar.
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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