By Wolfram Lacher & Peter Cole
This paper examines the rise and fall of hybrid security sector institutions in Libya, and the political interests at stake in security sector reform.
The armed forces
The army’s disintegration into political factions accelerated after the revolution and was compounded by the establishment of new units with a specific local, tribal, or political background.
As a result, the boundaries between the army and ‘hybrid’ units predominantly recruited from civilians have blurred, and struggles between now official army units have become as common as rivalries between revolutionary forces.
With the establishment of a rival army leadership under Maj.-Gen. Haftar in May 2014, a split emerged within the armed forces; that split widened into a bifurcation of institutions after the HoR appointed Haftar’s ally Abd al-Razaq al-Naduri as the new chief of general staff in August 2014.
In practice, command structures have remained loose on both sides, and the majority of the armed forces’ members have stayed out of the conflict.
After the revolution, the armed forces experienced—as one officer put it—a déjà vu: whereas they had previously been outgunned and supplanted by Qaddafi’s security brigades, they were now outgunned and supplanted by the thuwwar.
In this context, political manoeuvring by army officers, who now organized on a local or tribal basis, prevented a rapid re-establishment of centralized command structures.
Rival camps emerged among army officers styling themselves as defenders of the military institutions. Many positioned themselves in opposition to Yusuf al-Manqush, the chief of general staff appointed by the NTC in January 2012, who soon set about promoting the Libya Shield Forces as a temporary substitute for the army.
Prior to Manqush’s appointment, around 200 officers had met in Bayda in November 2011 and designated Maj.-Gen. Khalifa Haftar as their candidate for the post of chief of general staff. At a larger meeting of army officers in Benghazi a few days later, the NTC blocked an attempt to elect a chief of general staff.
A group of army officers from Cyrenaica subsequently coalesced around the Barqa military council, which was quick to reject the appointment of Manqush in January 2012.
Activism among eastern army officers seeking a greater stake in the re-establishment of the army continued over the following months. Opposition to Manqush also emerged among officers in Zintan, driven by Manqush’s rivalry with the Zintani defence minister in the Kib government, Col. Usama Juwayli.
Although both groups opposed Manqush, federalist officers in the east and Zintanis also saw each other as rivals. Tarhuna, which was strongly represented in the army, was another centre of discontent.
After the war, Tarhunan army officers led by Abu Ajaila al-Hibshi had created a force that combined early defectors to the revolutionary camp, former members of the security brigades, and civilians.
Hibshi was abducted by revolutionary forces in June 2012, after he allegedly began conspiring with Haftar and counter-revolutionary officers in Bani Walid.
Two months later, a major force dispatched by the SSC in Tripoli seized a large part of Tarhuna’s tank contingent, decisively weakening the Tarhuna group.
An alliance between these camps finally materialized in late 2012, when Zintani and Cyrenaican army officers were the key constituencies behind a series of ‘extraordinary conferences of the Libyan army’, whose chief purpose was to demand Manqush’s dismissal and the replacement of the chief of general staff by a collective leadership body.
Such demands were reiterated in April 2013, at yet another conference at Brega, whose most prominent attendees were Haftar and several Cyrenaican officers close to the region’s federalist movement, including Hamid al-Hasi, the Barqa military council’s spokesperson, and Hamid Bilkhair, the head of the Benghazi-based first infantry division.
In short, just like their civilian counterparts in revolutionary brigades, military officers organized to promote specific political interests, often on a local or regional basis.
The factionalization of the army
Developments in the army also mimicked the evolution of civilian armed groups in other ways. Army officers formed new units composed of soldiers and civilian recruits, many of which subsequently obtained official status in the army.
Even regular units that had survived the war intact embarked on their own recruitment independently of the chief of general staff. This was partially an effort to overcome the regime’s legacy of an understaffed army with an overabundance of senior officers and a lack of younger recruits.
It was also driven by officers who sought to build clientelist networks by recruiting relatives and by army units that sought to curb the power of revolutionary groups. The latter clearly applied to Benghazi and the east, where the Saeqa and first infantry division both recruited strongly.
The Barqa military council also functioned as a vehicle for the registration of salary recipients, copying a technique that had driven the rapid expansion of civilian armed groups during the first half of 2012.
Successive defence ministers, their deputies, and the chiefs of general staff all registered dozens of new military units, in many cases without specifying their strength, thereby giving a blank cheque to unit commanders to enrol recruits.
The drive to access budgets has been a key factor behind the proliferation of new units. Commanders have often pushed for a direct relationship with the Office of the Chief of General Staff, undermining the command structure, which is formally based on military regions.
Several regional and political constituencies have benefited from this development. Under Usama Juwayli, Zintani officers with personal ties to the defence minister pursued a deliberate strategy to cement Zintani influence in the army forces.
These included two battalions in Tripoli. The Zintani Muhammad al-Madani battalion became the army’s Brigade 24. In addition, Juwayli allocated substantial resources to the establishment of the Sawa’iq, a unit with Zintani leadership that was designed as a special force of the army.
The Sawa’iq later emerged as a leading proponent of Zintani political interests. Other Zintani units were established as border guards in charge of vast stretches of the western borders or as petroleum facilities guards in control of key assets.
Col. Mukhtar Firnana of Zintan used his position as director of administration for military police and prisons to establish units under Zintani leadership in those departments.
Interest groups rivalling the Zintanis pursued similar strategies. In 2013 in Tripoli, the al-Awfiya battalion from Suq al-Jum’a, a group that had temporarily deployed to Bani Walid in January 2012 to counter alleged former regime elements there, became the army’s Brigade 155.
Former members of the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Battalion entered a newly formed Brigade 127. Both units were given responsibility for securing the GNC and other vital buildings in Tripoli during 2013 and early 2014. A Zuwaran force combining soldiers and civilians became Brigade 105.
Khalid al-Sharif, a former leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who after the revolution had organized dozens of revolutionary brigades of diverse origin under the umbrella of his National Guard, integrated many of these groups as formal army units, turning the mostly civilian members into soldiers with the stroke of a pen, after he became deputy defence minister in January 2013.
In the south, 13 new brigades were formed out of the pool of surviving southern units, supplemented by young civilian recruits and organized primarily on a tribal basis. In Sabha, members of the Awlad Suleiman tribe dominated the army’s newly established sixth division.
Libyan media consistently—and misleadingly—portrayed this unit’s involvement in local conflicts as a confrontation between the ‘national army’ and ‘armed groups’.
The Border, Petroleum Facilities, and Vital Installations Force provided another vehicle for efforts to re-invent local armed groups as official units.
These institutions had existed prior to the revolution—the Border Guard reporting to the chief of general staff, while the Petroleum Facilities Guard
came under the Ministry of Petroleum and later the National Oil Corporation—but after the war they largely became umbrellas for units predominantly recruited from among civilians.
Essentially, registration as border guards or petroleum facilities guards was a means of officially sanctioning de facto territorial control by armed groups that had established themselves across the south and along the borders following the regime’s collapse.
In practice, the central administration of these institutions exerted little or no authority over their units, which often engaged in smuggling or negotiated payments from oil companies.
From November 2011 to January 2013, the Border Guard was under the remit of another former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Deputy Defence Minister Siddiq Mabruk al-Ghithi.
The latter’s attempts to build up the Border Guard as a political power base largely failed.
Discontent within the remnants of the old army grew throughout 2013, particularly in the east, where members of the armed forces, the police, and the dissolved internal intelligence apparatus became targets of an escalating campaign of assassinations.
From mid-2012 onwards, such assassinations occurred on a weekly basis in Benghazi, accelerating throughout 2013 to reach a rate of several per day in early 2014. A similar pattern, though on a smaller scale, emerged in Derna over the same period.
Successive governments failed to take action against the perpetrators. By late 2013, Benghazi-based army units, spearheaded by the Saeqa special forces, were increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
An armed group called the Barqa Defence Force emerged, promoting itself as the armed wing of the region’s federalist movement, and recruiting from the pool of disgruntled eastern soldiers and officers.
In apparent alliance with the Saeqa, this group manned the Barsis checkpoint on Benghazi’s eastern outskirts to apprehend suspected members of Islamist groups.
In late December 2013, one month after four suspected extremists from Darna disappeared at the checkpoint, a car bomb attack killed 13 soldiers at Barsis.
Officers from army bases across the east began issuing statements demanding that the Office of the Chief of General Staff take measures against the campaign of assassinations. Both federalist leaders and retired Maj.-Gen. Haftar sought to exploit such discontent to mobilize support.
A clear illustration of factional conflict within the army came in February 2014, when Haftar announced that the army’s ‘general leadership’ was preparing to suspend the transitional institutions and install a ‘temporary presidential body’. The coup announcement was not accompanied by any actual
moves, but nevertheless triggered a fierce reaction from forces aligned with the revolutionary camp. In one instance, representatives of several army units that had emerged out of revolutionary brigades joined up with former units of the Tripoli SSC and the Libya Revolutionaries’ Operations Room to denounce Haftar’s move.
Repeated threats by the Office of the Chief of General Staff that members of the armed forces who engaged in political activity would be prosecuted went unheeded.
In March 2014, a number of senior military officers in eastern Libya, including the chief of staff of the air force and Hamid al-Hasi, the Barqa military council’s spokesperson, backed Haftar’s initiative and
The collective political mobilization of army officers, in alliance with the federalist movement and in opposition to Islamist armed groups, has been specific to Cyrenaica.
In the greater Tripoli area, rivalries over political influence, control of territory, and institutional fiefdoms increasingly played out between ostensibly official units that, underneath their facades, represented political factions.
After the departure of Misratan battalions in November 2013, the two main camps were affiliated either with Zintan or with groups from the capital itself.
With apparently good access to government budgets, units under Zintani leadership gradually expanded their reach by recruiting among former members of Qaddafi’s security brigades and politically marginalized groups.
(Political adversaries denounced such practices as the establishment of mercenary units under the control of figures linked to Zintani political interest groups.)
At the same time, the affiliation of units in the greater Tripoli area with Zintan became increasingly opaque. Zintani battalion leaders took over existing army units with the lure of mobilizing budgets and equipment, or moved their recruits into other units and institutions.
In parallel to their recruitment drive, units affiliated with Zintan aggressively sought to seize terrain in Tripoli. Qa’qa’ and Sawa’iq leaders in February 2014 gave the GNC a 24-hour ultimatum to dissolve, or face attack—a threat that turned out to be empty.
The following month, forces affiliated with the two units attacked and looted the base of the army’s 2nd division in southern Tripoli. In addition, their repeated attacks on the Office of the Chief of General Staff forced the latter’s relocation.
Such actions prompted army units recruited from among Tripoli thuwwar and former SSC members—the bulk of which are from Suq al-Jum’a forces—to mobilize against Zintani encroachment.
In late 2013, former thuwwar leaders joined with GNC members from the capital to re-activate the Tripoli military council, with the aim of coordinating army units from Tripoli.
The council clearly represented a bottom-up initiative by newly established army units, whose leaders chose their head from among their ranks. Nevertheless, it obtained official recognition and a budget, being charged with securing Tripoli by GNC President Abu Sahmain in March 2014.
Wolfram Lacher is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahel and Sahara region.
Peter Cole is an independent non-governmental Middle East and North Africa expert with experience in conflict and post-conflict dynamics, political risk, and state–society relations.