One thousand and one failings

By Hamzeh al-Shadeedi, Erwin van Veen & Jalel Harchaoui

This paper looks at security initiatives in Libya between 2011and 2018 in the context of its civil war to identify security sector stabilisation and development lessons for future SSD efforts and programmes.



The prospects for security sector development (SSD) in Libya have been bleak since at least April 2019. Although unlikely to change in the near future, now is the time to consider what kind of SSD initiatives should be set in motion once a window for such work opens in the country.

The main challenge is a matter of conceptualisation. The Libyan civil war has caused widespread and intense social, political and military fragmentation.

Many of these sociopolitical ‘fragments’ are both mistrustful and armed. Despite this, most previous SSD-type initiatives in post-2011 Libya attempted to pursue a form of centralised security.

The analysis underpinning this report indicates that this is one of the principal reasons they failed.

Our research points to the need for a decentralised post-conflict model of security provision, with territories and communities in charge of their own security based on a shared set of principles and rules.

It is inevitable that current militias will come to undertake state-sanctioned security roles. Yet, some leadership vetting and buying off a number of the more egregious individuals can limit the risk of entrenching the status quo.

Moreover, to prevent a decentralised model from turning into an archipelago of warlord-run militia, it will need to be clearly regulated and feature a central backstop capacity that is able to mitigate abuses and excesses.

This could consist of reconstituted and well-equipped ‘intervention brigades’ that represent the whole nation, and which, initially, may need to be provided by UN-mandated forces from across the region.

Moreover, a decentralised model needs a credible mechanism that enables regular dialogue and renegotiation between ‘peripheries’ and the ‘centre(s)’ about the exact allocation of authority and security resources.

In the meantime, under the umbrella of such decentralisation and continuous conversation, national security organisations can institutionalise and professionalise.

Other essential preconditions for SSD – which must be included in any ceasefire agreement – include the centralisation of security funding, of modalities for force capability training and of the authority to promote security leaders to higher ranks, as well as an effective halt to partisan support by foreign powers.

Executive summary

The central challenge for future security sector development (SSD) in Libya is to negotiate feasible ways to gradually defragment Libya’s mosaic of armed factions that compete for power and authority.

This cannot be accomplished based on standard SSD assumptions of working through a unitary state, an established bureaucracy or existing security forces, since currently none of these exists.

SSD in Libya will have to be more imaginative than the pre-2018 security sector stabilisation and development initiatives, all of which have failed.

A useful starting point is to explore and develop a decentralised, but reasonably well-regulated, model of security provision.

Its exact distribution of authority, and human and financial resources, would have to be regularly rebalanced and renegotiated between ‘peripheries’ and ‘centre(s)’ over time, as central security organisations institutionalise, professionalise and develop a credible backstop capability.

Because Libya’s internationalised civil war is on a downward trajectory, the current environment is more suited to stabilisation efforts than SSD initiatives, at least if the latter are understood as aspiring to improve citizen-oriented security by augmenting both security governance and security capabilities in an interlinked manner.

The present negative trajectory notwithstanding, the Libyan civil war has occasionally featured promising moments for conflict resolution, such as the initial period of peaceful political contestation in 2011–2012 and the defeat of most radical Islamist forces in 2017.

If and when another such moment arrives, the international community and the Libyan population must be ready to engage in SSD as part of a multidimensional peacebuilding effort to save the country further destruction from the scourge of war.

To be able to face the future requires an understanding of the past. With a view to identifying useful lessons for future SSD, this paper takes stock of the many security initiatives undertaken in the course of Libya’s civil war between 2011 and 2018, in the context of different episodes of warfighting.

Since 2011, a plethora of armed groups has come into being on the back of an institutionally weak (or even absent) state. Today, these armed groups have few permanent material or ideological connections.

Rather, they are connected by fluid ties of pragmatism, personal relations and temporarily shared interests, with some shared revolutionary experiences and social ties (e.g. tribal) in the background. This situation has several important social and security effects.

It makes many Libyan communities and groups more dependent on sub-state identities and protection mechanisms, expanding the control of coercive actors over Libya’s (in)formal economy and fragmenting perceptions of the legitimacy of Libya’s government and the country’s many armed groups.

In consequence, key assumptions of the global SSD paradigm are not necessarily relevant in Libya. Future SSD cannot work on the assumption that a unitary state exists that can serve as counterpart, or that there exists a weak but coherent bureaucracy (including security forces) that can be strengthened.

Both are simply absent. Instead, the central challenge for future SSD is to negotiate feasible ways to gradually defragment Libya’s mosaic of armed factions that compete for power and authority.

Once there is a modicum of stability to work from, future SSD initiatives must ensure that a return to violence becomes more costly and that central security forces are gradually professionalised and institutionalised as part of a long-term strategy to shift the balance in a decentralised security arrangement from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘centre’.

This will require stratagems such as creating a decentralised, but reasonably well-regulated, security structure, a strong central backstop capability, broad ethnic and territorial representation in reconstituted central security forces at all ranks, and the co-optation of armed group leaders into national politics.

Inevitably, this means that the quality and recourse options of local security provision will vary for some time to come. The strong influence of armed groups on local (in)formal economies will also remain.

As to past security initiatives, it should be noted that our review was unable to identify interventions in Libya between 2011 and 2018 that were fully premised on the paradigm of SSD as it has been internationally agreed by the UN, African Union and OECD.

Rather, we found that Libya witnessed many security ‘stabilisation’ initiatives that, at best, contained scattered elements of SSD, but which more often represented partisan efforts to gain the upper hand in an active conflict.

The SSD elements of many of these security initiatives failed mostly because they:

(a) integrated whole groups into new security structures rather than units or individuals (allowing groups to maintain their cohesion);

(b) did not create incentives that could co-opt armed group leaders; established unclear lines of authority; introduced unjustified salary disparities; and/or

(c) failed to ensure adequate geographical representation in newly constituted (or integrated) security forces.

Generally speaking, they were also strongly focused on operational capability improvements without much thought for the quality of security governance or accountability.

Finally, insofar as they were supported by international actors, such support was typically either partisan or limited in nature, reinforcing the fragmentation of Libya’s security landscape rather than reducing it.

In consequence, for any SSD effort to have a chance of success it must tap deeply into global SSD practice and experience to avoid the errors of the past.

It will not, for example, be adequate to entrust the task of supporting SSD work to technically competent military and police advisers, however useful they may be.

It will be equally essential to employ experts in behaviour, organisational development and dialogue between security forces and the population, as well as sociologists, political advisers and managers capable of developing and running adaptive programmes.

Moreover, key conditions for being able to deliver SSD support effectively – such as rudimentary security structures, new lines of authority and methods for integrating existing security forces – must be politically negotiated ahead of any SSD intervention and sustained throughout its implementation.

This makes it essential that future SSD initiatives avail themselves of strong diplomatic negotiation capabilities, including the diplomatic muscle of a quorum of sponsoring foreign states that act in relative alignment.

Based on our inventory of ‘SSD initiatives’ in Libya between 2011 and 2018, we can offer eight lessons for the future. Four are conceptual and four are practical. They should form the basis of any future SSD initiative.

Concepts for future SSD work

  • Enable decentralised plural security provision. Put a decentralised security architecture in place that reflects Libya’s plurality of security provision in a reasonably well-regulated manner with central backstop arrangements and with a measure of citizen input
  • Professionalise new security forces. Focus on the composition, professionalisation and institutionalisation of newly-established (or re-integrated) central security forces to create new national loyalties and a shared identity. Initially, these will serve as central backstop capability
  • Incentivise armed groups. Provide incentives for armed groups to cooperate with new security structures that reflect their interests and, in exchange, demand concessions that enable progress in anchoring and expanding such new security structures
  • Base initiatives on international alignment. Ensure coordinated international support for SSD interventions to avoid donor competition or worse, stimulating conflict. As long as foreign states, such as the UAE and Turkey, interfere militarily in Libya with impunity and scant regard for the arms embargo, Libya’s security sector will remain fragmented.

Operational bases for future SSD work

  • Feature a political change strategy. Be based on a political strategy to negotiate the change necessary to develop new and re-purpose existing security institutions
  • Enjoy ample entrepreneurship. Feature entrepreneurial support in the relevant donor bureaucracies to deal creatively with the many challenges that will inevitably arise. Getting stuck in the standard ‘train and equip’ format that has proved largely ineffective must be avoided at all costs
  • Be adaptive. Feature an adaptive approach to programme design and implementation to be able to respond flexibly to Libya’s complex realities
  • Have a long-term approach. Base initiatives on long-term and renewable engagement, i.e. six years or more.

To continue …


About the authors

Hamzeh al-Shadeedi is a researcher at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, whose work focuses on security and the rule of law in Iraq. He used to work for the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute, dividing his time between country analysis of Libya and Iraq. 

Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow with the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute. His research primarily focuses on the political economy of conflict in the Levant – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine/ Israel – against the backdrop of Iranian, Turkish and Saudi foreign policy. His work also takes an occasional look at security sector reform, peacebuilding and adaptive programming more generally.

Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow with the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute. He has been specializing in Libya and covering particular aspects of the country, such as its security landscape and political economy. He is also a frequent commentator on Libya in the international press, publishing widely in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, Middle East Eye, Orient XXI, War on the Rocks and the Small Arms Survey.


Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute

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