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.
Operation Dignity: rifts emerge into the open
With the launch of ‘Operation Dignity’ in May 2014, the struggles outlined above irrevocably cleaved the armed forces in two, and a rebel army leadership emerged. The operation was led by renegade officers commanded by Maj.-Gen. Khalifa Haftar against Islamist-leaning battalions and Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, whom they collectively labelled ‘terrorists’.
The rebel army leadership used its fighter jets and helicopters to conduct air strikes on enemy positions. Shortly after the operation’s start in Benghazi, three groups affiliated with Zintan—the Qa’qa’, Sawa’iq, and Muhammad al-Madani battalions—attacked the seat of the GNC in Tripoli, just as the body was set to vote on a new government under Ahmad Maitiq.
Haftar’s operation quickly caused a large number of senior military officers and army units across the country to declare their support for Dignity.
For many, it represented a forceful attempt to re-assert the army’s role, in open defiance of a chief of general staff who was seen as powerless. By extension, this implied disloyalty to the army leadership in Tripoli, although such disloyalty was rarely made explicit.
Very few units unequivocally expressed their allegiance to the ‘supreme council of the armed forces’ in whose name Haftar on 21 May announced his plan to hand over power to an emergency government, without defining who sat on this councilز
Moreover, many declarations were fake: the acting interior minister, for example, had to deny a statement of support issued in his name. Others did not reflect the official position of a unit: officers in charge of units based in Tobruk, for example, strongly contested the declarations of support made by some of their members.
A brief analysis of the different groups involved in this campaign shows that it was hardly an operation led by the ‘Libyan National Army’, as Haftar and others described it.
Haftar’s inner circle revealed two key interest groups: Haftar himself as well as his deputy head of operations, the former chief of staff of the air force, Saqr al-Jarushi, were former officers excluded from official positions.
Another key player, Col. Hamid al-Hasi, represented the constituency of officers from eastern tribes who had thrown their weight behind the federalist movement. Together, they mobilized the support of soldiers furious about their constant exposure to attacks in Benghazi, as well as irregulars from eastern tribes.
The interests of Zintani battalion leaders, however, were quite separate from those of the eastern groups: they focused on the power struggle in Tripoli. This rapidly caused their paths to diverge and the offensive in Tripoli to peter out. Disagreements between Zintani leaders and the group surrounding Haftar were partly related to the question of leadership.
Even before Haftar’s 21 May announcement, Col. Mukhtar Firnana appeared on television declaring the GNC dissolved, in the name of the ‘leaders of the Libyan army’. His speech had not been coordinated with that of Haftar, prompting the latter to speak in the name of an undefined ‘supreme council’, a term his spokesperson used interchangeably with ‘the general leadership of the Libyan army’.
Several days later, Sawa’iq commander Jamal Habil from Zintan issued threats against the GNC in the name of an ‘Operations Room of the Libyan Army’. Habil, who read the statement dressed in military uniform, had also issued the Qa’qa’s and Sawa’iq’s February ultimatum to the GNC, but in civilian clothes and wearing a bandana.
Shortly afterwards, Zintani battalions suspended their action in the context of the campaign, at least partly as a result of such rivalries with Haftar’s group. Despite Operation Dignity, relations between army units and the Office of the Chief of General Staff remained ambiguous. Units across the country continued to receive salaries, regardless of whether they had declared support for Haftar.
Prime Minister Thinni and Chief of General Staff Abd al-Salam al-Ubaidi met publicly with Saeqa commander Wanis Abu Khamada in Benghazi, despite the fact that he had joined Dignity two weeks earlier.
Rather than immediately causing a formal division of the armed forces, Operation Dignity underlined the extent to which the institution had succumbed to hybridity and was characterized by competing loyalties and interests.
Indeed, the groups attacked by Haftar’s forces included not only officially recognized units such as the 17 February Martyrs’ Battalion, but also a former revolutionary battalion that had become a formal army unit: Brigade 319 (Umar al-Mukhtar).
As several of Benghazi’s Islamist-leaning revolutionary battalions entered into a close alliance with Ansar al-Sharia to fight Haftar’s forces, under the umbrella of the Shura Council of Benghazi Thuwwar, they shed their hybrid character and dropped all references to the legitimacy of state institutions. But their enemy also remained in open rebellion to the army leadership.
With the establishment of the rump HoR in Tobruk and the launch of Libya Dawn in Tripoli, the tables have been turned on the chief of general staff. Amid the boycott of 30 members of parliament aligned with the revolutionary camp, the new majority in the rump parliament has tacitly supported Dignity and ardently opposed Dawn.
Although no public steps have been taken to bring Haftar’s command structures back into formal institutions, the appointment of Haftar’s close ally Nadhuri as chief of general staff has left little doubt that Haftar’s forces are now enjoying official backing.
Haftar and his spokesperson, in turn, have refrained from speaking in the name of the army leadership. Nadhuri has vowed to focus on rebuilding the army with support from Egypt—a proposition that, in view of the Egyptian leadership’s fierce opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad, suggested a highly partisan approach.
The rump HoR’s support for rebuilding an army with the old units at its core has also found expression in its decision to dissolve all ‘irregular armed entities’. However, the analysis of the armed forces has demonstrated that hybridity has long blurred the distinction between regular and irregular forces.
In this context, establishing which units should be considered irregular becomes a purely political decision—and one that the rump HoR would be unable to enforce, as the advance of Dawn and Shura forces in Tripoli and Benghazi showed.
The conflicts in western Libya have underlined just how misleading the Tobruk-based leadership’s insistence on the ‘Libyan army’ is. In September 2014, following the defeat of Zintani units in Tripoli and the advance of Dawn forces through the Warshafana area towards the Nafusa mountains, Nadhuri established the ‘western region operations room’.
The body oversees the Zintani-led hybrid units, as well as the Army of Tribes, despite the fact that the latter has no official status. The operations room is headed by Brig.-Gen. Idris Madi, a Zintani officer who had fought on the side of regime forces in 2011. He was later reinstated by Defence Minister Juwayli.
At this writing, Ubaidi was the one who was in rebellion against the HoR’s decision to dismiss him, clinging to his post in Tripoli. While a number of GNC members—including former GNC president Abu Sahmain—have provided Ubaidi with a veneer of legitimacy, he has also been able to count on support among military officers, principally from western revolutionary strongholds.
However, this does not mean that two centralized, rival command structures have emerged. On the one hand, Ubaidi retains little—if any—influence over the Dawn forces.
On the other hand, the units which the Tobruk-based leadership could consider loyal have largely remained limited to the eastern forces that had previously supported Haftar and, to a lesser extent, to the Zintani-led hybrid units whose political calculations continued to differ from those of eastern army officers.
The bulk of army units across southern and western Libya stopped short of openly taking sides during August and September 2014. Much will depend on the outcome of the struggles between the two camps over the ultimate prize: control over the Central Bank, the National Oil Corporation, and therefore the ability to allocate budgets.
Conflicts over and within Libya’s security sector are an extension of the struggles in the civil political arena: they are the continuation of politics by other means.
For the first two years of the transition, the fragmentation of the security sector mirrored that of the political scene, in which there were no dominant forces but, instead, a plethora of local or ideologically defined interest groups.
Over the past year, the alliances built among political forces have led to the emergence of two broad opposing camps, reflected in the escalation of local conflicts into large-scale confrontation in Benghazi and Tripoli.
It is unlikely that the current political transition will result in the establishment of a depoliticized security sector. Rather, should a hierarchical and coherent security sector emerge, it will reflect the balance of power that ultimately emerges from the current struggles.
This process cannot occur as long as there are two rival poles, neither of which is strong enough to seize and consolidate state authority across the country. Consolidation is also unlikely to emanate from either of those power centres.
In the best case scenario, a political deal to overcome the current rift and form a single government would re-establish the conditions under which consolidation can proceed, albeit very slowly. This paper analyses the numerous interest groups competing for influence in the security sector.
Although making recommendations to international policy-makers is not the primary aim of this paper, a basic lesson can be drawn from this analysis: international support should aim to bolster processes, structures, and institutions that can manage and mediate the struggles under way.
Supporting individual forces, units, or coalitions would merely exacerbate existing tensions, as would prematurely merging competing factions into a single force while broader political struggles are ongoing. Assistance in the security sector should also try to steer clear of value judgements.
Over the past three years, Western governments have often been reluctant to provide assistance to actors who represent the various Islamist tendencies in Libya’s security apparatus.
However, as discussed in the case studies, in the many episodes of disruptive behaviour by hybrid units, forces whose loyalties are based on local or tribal ties are just as prominent as those with a strong Islamist identity.
Both are proponents of particular political interests, and it would be a mistake to expect that the strong Islamist leanings of some major thuwwar units will not be reflected in the future culture of Libya’s security sector. Libya’s hybrid units, representing rival political factions, continue to change labels and institutional affiliation.
Their relationships with state authority undergo sudden shifts that reflect changes in the balance of power within formal institutions. The core players and their interests have been largely constant. These interests go beyond the security sector itself and ultimately concern the economy, the political scene, and the emerging state.
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.