Community Dynamics and Economic Interests
By Tim Eaton, Abdul Rahman Alageli, Emadeddin Badi, Mohamed Eljarh, and Valerie Stocker
This paper is based on approximately 200 interviews carried out by the authors – in person and remotely – with a wide range of Libyan actors between November 2018 and September 2019. This the paper does not claim to cover all armed groups in the country.
4. Armed Groups in Southern Libya
Libya’s south continues to suffer the consequences of local power struggles and clashes that followed the retrenchment of the state after 2011. The region’s problems have been exacerbated by ongoing battles between actors on the western and eastern coasts. Beyond military tensions, southern preoccupations are clearly dominated by livelihood issues and public services.
Due to stagnation in the public and private sectors, the formal economy in this region has little to offer in terms of employment and sources of revenue. Public infrastructure has been deteriorating for years, public service provision is poor, and state institutions are barely functioning.
Public sector salaries are often delayed as cash deliveries are interrupted. Politics is thus in some respects of secondary concern while ‘the citizen is busy thinking about his next trip to the gas station, how he will get bread and whether there will be power at home’. As reflected in our interviews, many southerners share a sense of indignation about what they see as the ‘monopolization’ of state institutions and resources by northern Libyans.
Southern communities are strongly influenced by tribal customs and modes of operation. The tribe is the primary identity marker, and city-based or regional identity is weak. Social leaders wield significantly more authority than formal governance actors, and customary forms of decision-making and justice prevail.
Southern Libya is divided into tribal zones of influence: large chunks of territory are governed by, and associated with, particular tribes and peoples. Roughly speaking, the westernmost part is under Tuareg dominance, while the Tebu are the most powerful group south of Sebha between Murzuq and Rebiana (near Kufra).
Tebu and Tuareg have strong collective identities despite being subdivided into different branches, and their ethnic, cultural and linguistic specificities set them apart from their Arab neighbours. The northern part of the Fezzan region is predominantly Arab, home to numerous tribes. In Sebha, the Awlad Suleiman has become the most influential tribe since 2011, at the expense of the Gaddadfa. Wadi al-Shati is mainly under Magarha influence. Kufra, in the southeast, is dominated by the Zway tribe.
A non-tribal population group known as the Ahali also inhabit parts of the Fezzan and central Libya. While most towns are of mixed tribal composition, power relations tend to be unequal, as tribes of greater influence (whether demographic, military or other) usually dominate local governance and decision-making, especially in the security sector.
In other words, each social component tries to be the bearer of influence and decisions in its area. As shown on numerous occasions since 2011, the contest for local hegemony is often violent, with dire consequences for civilian populations. Historical grievances, aggravated by intercommunal conflicts post-2011, have eroded mutual trust and spurred tribal retrenchment and segregation. The competition for territory and resources in the south
tends to be viewed as an existential struggle, in which the destiny of entire tribal and ethnic groups is at stake. Tribes that had been associated with the Gaddafi regime were sidelined after its fall, through public sector purges and, at times, collective retribution.
Since around 2017, as the revolutionary narrative has lost traction, a reverse trend has been in evidence, with the pre-2011 actors re-emerging on the political, social and military scene. Yet the revolution left deep social rifts, and local peace processes remain inconclusive.
Social cohesion is also weakened by conflicting views on ethnicity, identity and statehood. In the eyes of many Arabs, the cross-border ties of the Tebu and Tuareg ethnic groups constitute a destabilizing factor, accentuated by the proliferation of armed groups from these communities.
The rise in Tebu military power after 2011 has been a source of tensions with the Tebu’s Arab neighbours, and at times with Tuareg too. In reference to the Tebu and Tuareg consolidating territorial control, an interviewee in Sebha said: ‘Now when you go to Qatrun, you’re in a zone of influence, you go to Ubari you’re in another zone of influence. There has been demographic change.’
Indeed, the spectre of demographic change looms large in the south, but the underpinning arguments are often misinformed, and information is twisted in a way to discredit certain tribes. Cross-border kinship ties and the absence of law and order certainly do account for recent arrivals from neighbouring countries – including of foreign fighters.
What tends to be overlooked in these debates is that there are long-established communities in southern Libya that were never fully integrated. This is to a large extent rooted in Gaddafi’s policies, which involved state-sponsored mass immigration but also the use of Libyan citizenship as an instrument of foreign policy and domestic social control.
Whole communities had their citizenship withheld or revoked, and as a result a large number of people remain in limbo with respect to their legal status. They include Tebu and Tuareg, as well as parts of the Arab Awlad Suleiman, Hasawna and Mahamid tribes.
This issue, which is yet to be tackled by the state, continues to impact conflict dynamics and the security sector. Identity politics has given rise to pervasive quarrels over who holds a rightful claim to the land. Tebu and Tuareg often point out that their peoples’ presence in the south pre-dates by centuries the creation of the Libyan state, as a way to contest the dominant Libyan Arab identity narrative and portrayal of Tebu and Tuareg as ‘foreigners’.
Armed groups’ community bonds prevail over other forms of legitimization. Armed groups tend to draw heavily on the concept of social legitimacy: they claim to protect their communities against external threats and keep the areas under their control safe; in contrast, ideological motives (such as a revolutionary ethos or religious orientation) are of much lesser relevance.
While groups do seek state recognition, both to bolster their image locally and to build capacity, such recognition is not essential to their survival.
In Sebha and Ubari, the LAAF encountered little resistance. An attempt by the GNA to mobilize troops against the LAAF under the leadership of Tuareg commander Ali Kanna was stifled when other Tuareg social and military leaders in Ubari came out collectively to declare their support for the LAAF.
However, the pattern of peaceful takeover and realignment of local groups was disturbed at the start of February, when the LAAF launched an offensive on Murzuq and tensions between Tebu and Arabs erupted into hostilities. Insufficient negotiation or guarantees for Tebu in Murzuq prevented a peaceful takeover from being realized – instead, airstrikes by the LAAF and UAE forces in and around Murzuq led to civilian fatalities.
The ground offensive was spearheaded by Battalion 128, a group from Sirte with a large component of Awlad Suleiman and Zway members, supplemented by Awlad Suleiman groups from Sebha as well as Sudanese fighters. The concurrence of several factors – the indiscriminate airstrikes, the tribal composition of the advancing forces, and the involvement of individuals hostile to the Tebu community – galvanized Tebu opposition to the offensive.
The South Protection Force 111 – supported by a different set of Sudanese fighters – put up fierce resistance but could not prevent LAAF-aligned forces from entering Murzuq at the end of February 2019. This divided the town, as Ahali residents overwhelmingly welcomed these forces whereas many Tebu fled. The takeover was followed by assassinations and looting of property, which Tebu blamed both on locals and on fighters who had arrived under LAAF cover.
After LAAF affiliates withdrew from the town, Tebu residents retaliated against their Ahali neighbours, and a cycle of tit-for-tat violence ensued. The South Liberation and Purge Operation ended in early March with the sudden withdrawal of northern LAAF units from the Fezzan, leaving the maintenance of the ‘new order’ to local allies and affiliates.
As of early 2020, an assessment of the operation and of the LAAF’s overall role in the Fezzan showed a mixed picture. Throughout the operation (January–March 2019), some parts of the region saw a significant improvement in security.
Tribal armed groups retreated or were co-opted. Formal policing and military structures were reactivated, and reinvigorated by the prospects of stronger leadership from the east. In other areas, however, the operation had a destabilizing effect. In particular, Murzuq descended into violence between Tebu and Ahali, at great human cost, with the hostilities causing mass displacement.
In addition to spurring the militarization of the local community, the conflict has had wide repercussions across the region, fuelling ethnic hatred and providing opportunities for extremists to gain a stronger following. The LAAF’s expansion has altered tribal relations, empowering Magarha and Awlad Suleiman actors but also providing an opportunity for Gaddadfa and Tuareg to reclaim a prominent place in the security sector.
Generally speaking, the Tebu were disadvantaged the most by these developments. The conflict has weakened and divided their armed groups. At the end of 2019, however, the LAAF general command took steps to mend its relationship with Tebu leaders in Murzuq and Qatrun. It remains to be seen how these tribal power shifts will play out.
For the average citizen in the Fezzan, the LAAF’s ‘takeover’ of the region has brought little benefit so far. As the general command’s attention turned towards northwest Libya with the Tripoli offensive in April, progress in the Fezzan in terms of security provision stalled. Crime and turf wars picked up again. Smuggling – which had been suspended or diverted between January and March – has also resumed, now more prominently involving LAAF-affiliated actors.
Southern bank branches are better supplied with cash. However, subsidized fuel and cooking gas are still unavailable. The LAAF general command used its Fezzan operation to demonstrate its capabilities and reinforce alliances, with a view to gaining the upper hand in western Libya.
Its allies in the Fezzan may later reap the benefits of LAAF support, but the costs of alliance are significant: many armed groups (for example, in Sebha, Wadi al-Shati, Ubari, Ghat etc.) have dispatched units to back the LAAF’s Tripoli offensive, with the result that southerners are dying on the front lines.
Make-up and structure
The military establishment has a strong standing in the south, due to large-scale recruitment during the Gaddafi era, but it has been fragmented and without clear leadership since 2011. Members of the regular army were demobilized, often remaining without salaries for years.
Many joined armed groups of mixed military and civilian composition, formed along tribal lines and structured in ways that do not conform with military hierarchy. Pre-2011 military units that remained intact became subservient to revolutionary command structures and were sidelined by tribal armed groups.
Attempts to unify military entities at the regional level (such as a 2016 initiative by the Tuareg commander Ali Kanna) failed. Nowadays, many southerners wish to see a national unified military that is institutionally strengthened in order to improve security and counter tribal entrenchment.
The LAAF’s general command has put much emphasis on the role of military structures, supporting the existing military zones and creating new task-based structures such as the Deterrence Operations Group. Its military and nationalist narrative has motivated many pre-2011 army and police members to resume service after years of absence.
Yet the LAAF’s tribal alliance-building and military campaigns in 2019 have also led to a certain loss of faith in this narrative. The military establishment remains weak due to several factors, namely the tribalization of the security sector and institutional and political divisions.
In some areas there are parallel command structures – one responding to the LAAF and the
other to the GNA. For example, there are two rival ‘Sebha Military Zones’. In February 2019, Prime Minister al-Serraj appointed Kanna as commander of Sebha Military Zone. Since the headquarters of this entity are at Tamanhint airbase – outside GNA-controlled territory – Kanna set up base in Ubari,
operating remotely, with limited manpower and influence on the ground.
Moreover, Kanna was forced to leave Ubari in November 2019, when the LAAF-appointed Commander of Southern Military Zones, Major-General Belgasem Labaaj, took control of the military base that had hosted Kanna.
Southern armed groups that sprung up after 2011 are more strongly connected to their immediate social environment than they are to any military ethos. Beneath the pervasive revolutionary discourse, tribal considerations became a more efficient vector for mobilization – especially in areas that witnessed communal conflict.
The vast majority of groups are thus associated with a specific tribe, or interest group or family within a tribe. The social embeddedness of members of armed groups makes it difficult to differentiate between civilian and non-civilian actors. Fighters are often referred to as ‘armed youth’, reinforcing the image of armed groups being inseparable from their social environment.
Describing the situation in Sebha between January and March, one young woman said: ‘I’ve been seeing more security in the streets, even at night. They are not police; they don’t have any official label. They are fellow residents, like brothers watching over you.’
Armed groups have permanent members, but there are also many fighters who mobilize only sporadically for policing tasks and when the community is under threat. These volunteers are not usually paid, and may have jobs to return to when they are no longer needed. External threats have kept communities together, reinforcing civilian–military linkages.
When a community is under threat, tribal forces are usually able to rally support and emerge with greater authority and public backing. Frequent episodes of conflict in Sebha since 2012 have entrenched tribal armed groups in the city, providing them with free run of their neighbourhoods and protecting their illicit activities from scrutiny.
In Ubari, Tuareg factions put their differences aside when they went to war against Tebu in 2014, and their Tebu opponents received backup from Tebu groups across the region. The 12th Brigade represents only a faction within the Magarha tribe, yet its armed confrontations with the Misratan Third Force motivated many Magarha to volunteer with the brigade.
After it was targeted in the May 2017 massacre at Brak al-Shati airbase, the 12th Brigade enjoyed increased moral authority. When LAAF-affiliated groups forced their way into Murzuq in February 2019, Tebu rallied behind the newly set up South Protection Force, which resisted the offensive.
Formal recognition has yielded benefits for armed groups without challenging their tribal backbone or core structure. The pursuit of official mandates, affiliation and funds has led armed groups to change political allegiances repeatedly, and to rebrand themselves to fit trends and requirements.
Groups tend to use state recognition (from either or both the GNA or Interim Government) to set themselves apart from so-called ‘illegitimate’ rivals. Yet labels reveal little about a group’s nature. Government attempts to amalgamate southern groups, whether through a top-down or bottom-up approach, have been of limited impact.
The southern branch of the Libya Shield Force, for example, remained a hollow structure whose cohesion hinged on state salaries. The 6th Brigade was set up in 2013 as a ‘core army’, mandated by the GNC to keep the peace in Sebha, yet the brigade’s connection to the Awlad Suleiman tribe ultimately exacerbated tensions and turned it into a conflict party.
Tribally mixed armed groups remain the exception. They include a few southern groups that espouse Madkhali-Salafi ideology and are aligned with the LAAF. For the most part, however, inter-tribal military integration is limited to temporary alliances of convenience.
In certain circumstances – for example, when there is a shared purpose or adversary – small armed groups join dominant players for a limited period as auxiliary forces, operating semi- autonomously and with varying degrees of oversight.
The LAAF is promoting inter-tribal integration, enabling allied groups to recruit outside their home communities. An example is Battalion 128, whose
core constituency is the Awlad Suleiman community of Harawa, near Sirte, but which has recently established units in different parts of the country, including a Tuareg group in Ubari. The impact of this strategy, which serves the LAAF’s war effort, is yet to be seen.
Until now, southern armed groups have ultimately remained strongly connected to their core constituencies, while coalitions have disintegrated once their common objective has been achieved, or when relations between their component communities have soured.
Affiliation with the LAAF constitutes a vector of power through which armed groups can assert dominance within their communities and expand their membership and territory. On its part, the LAAF’s general command has strengthened its foothold in the south by empowering selected individuals as prime interlocutors for different tribes or areas.
When the LAAF asserted its dominance in the region through the South Liberation and Purge Operation, armed groups were prompted to rally around these ‘chosen’ actors. Under LAAF leadership, the 12th Brigade’s long-time leader, army colonel Mohamed Bin Nayel, was made head of the Deterrence Operations Group in 2017 and also governor of the al-Shati Military Zone.
The 12th Brigade has incorporated smaller entities and consolidated its position in the area from Sebha to Shweirif, which corresponds to the Magarha tribe’s zone of influence. In Sebha Masoud Jeddi, a military police officer who commands Battalion 116, has become the most prominent security figure in the Awlad Suleiman tribe since he sided with the LAAF in 2017 and was put in charge of the Sebha-Bawanis branch of the Deterrence Operations Group.
After participating in the South Liberation and Purge Operation, Jeddi’s forces were mandated to secure strategic locations in Sebha, including the airport and fuel depot. Battalion 116 has seen an inflow of Awlad Suleiman combatants and auxiliary forces.