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.



From its hopeful beginnings as a revolutionary rebellion against the autocratic regime of Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan civil war has long since joined the ranks of interminable conflicts that resulted from the Arab Uprisings.

Telltale signposts for this scenario were present from the beginning, such as the weak institutional basis of the Libyan state under both King Idris I (18 years) and Colonel Gaddafi (42 years), the start of the rebellion in the east of the country, the presence of extremists and the unfinished business of the NATO-intervention based on UN Resolution 1973 (March 2011).

Yet, initially, in 2012 and 2013, there were also encouraging indicators of the development of more constructive and peaceful national politics.

By 2018, these indicators had given way to extensive fragmentation of Libya’s political and security landscape to the effect that it has become a mosaic of groups and actors.

As with so many conflicts, today the Libyan civil war presents a complex mix of international interference and patronage on the one hand, and highly localised conflict factors on the other.

Many of its warring groups cater to local and (inter)national constituencies as well pursuing their own interests in gaining power and riches on the back of the shell of the Libyan state.

While on the face of it the present situation is formed by the competing coalitions of the Government of National Accord (GNA), under Prime Minister Al-Serraj in Tripoli and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Haftar in Tobruk/Al-Baida, the reality is much more fragmented.

It includes: militia rule of Tripoli, which constrains the GNA’s authority to the buildings it operates from; an amorphous Fezzan, which straddles smuggling, crime and cross-border conflict; the use and mobilisation of tribal identities and allegiances throughout much of the country; the persistence of at least two dozen key militiasrevolutionary, tribal, Islamist and other – that profit from both the state payroll and illicit revenue; and Salafist armed groups.

This situation has arisen from a mix of foreign intervention, new splits in Libyan society, and state institutions that were historically kept weak to enable personalised regime rule.

As to foreign intervention, a number of Western countries such as the UK and US, as well as the UN, support the GNA politically, but do not provide enough practical development and security support to have a positive impact on conflict resolution.

Turkey represents about the only exception to this ‘rule’. In contrast, countries like Egypt and the UAE offer much firmer support to the LNA.

As to new splits in Libyan society, the division between those with more revolutionary credentials and those with more loyalist credentials has caused significant follow-on conflict in the wake of the original uprising.

In terms of weak institutions, Colonel Gaddafi’s personalised, competitive and informal methods of rule have ensured that, in the organisational and regulatory sense, the state is hardly present in Libya. It is rather its symbolic prestige, international relations and, in particular, centralised oil revenue that is being fought over.

The result has been an internationalised civil war of lower intensity than the calamities that have befallen Yemen and Syria.

Libya nevertheless matters a great deal because of the bridge it forms between Europe and Africa, its symbolic and practical relevance in the unfinished business of the Arab Uprisings, the conflict’s human suffering and its negative externalities such as illicit trade, extremism and human trafficking.

In this context, some of the key factors required to bring about greater stability and security in Libya lie in the diverse interests, patchwork of territorial control and shifting affiliations of the country’s key armed groups, roughly two dozen in number.

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.

While this is far from the only perspective needed to inform future SSD initiatives that are both feasible and responsible, it can help to avoid past mistakes.

Other essential pieces of the analytical puzzle of what makes good SSD possible include: examination of links between the illicit economy and key Libyan armed groups; the power base, relations and composition of armed groups in Cyrenaica (the LNA coalition), Tripolitania (with Misrata as a case on its own) and the Fezzan (including its tribal and ethnic particularities); Salafist influences across Libya; and international support for particular armed groups (especially from Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Russia and France).

Section 2 offers a brief outline of major developments in the key phases of the Libyan conflict to 2018, highlights the environment each phase created for SSD and, on this basis, identifies four strategic implications for future SSD.

Section 3 examines the relevance of these strategic implications in the context of 12 major security initiatives undertaken at the national level between 2011 and 2018.

Section 4 subsequently distills a number of operational implications from a short review of global SSD practice that are relevant to the implementation of future SSD initiatives in Libya. Finally, Section 5 offers points of departure for thinking about future SSD in Libya.

The main phases of the Libyan civil war

The Arab Uprisings reached Libya in early February 2011. Political opposition first crystallised and turned into rebellion in Cyrenaica in the east (especially in the city of Benghazi) because of its marginalisation by Gaddafi and its historical affiliation with Libya’s Sanusi monarchy.

Political exiles returning from abroad, local elites, and defectors from Gaddafi’s military apparatus rapidly established the National Transitional Council (NTC) to represent revolutionary interests, both in Libya and internationally.

While the NTC attempted to coordinate revolutionary armed groups and efforts across Libya and to spread the revolution to Gaddafi’s strongholds in Tripolitania (in the west), it never managed to establish hierarchical control over the plethora of militias that sprung from the first revolutionary fires.

By August 2011, most of Libya was under revolutionary control, including Tripoli. In October, Sirte and Bani Walid, Gaddafi’s last strongholds, fell and the revolution was over. The ensuing ‘evolution of the revolution’ continues today.

The period from late 2011 until the end of 2018 can be divided into four main conflict phases. While any division of the Libyan conflict into time periods is to some extent artificial, it nevertheless helps in discerning broad shifts in the nature of the conflict and the implications these have for the prospects of future SSD.

Strategic implications for future Security Sector Development

The preceding overview highlights that the institutional basis for work on Libya’s security sector is mostly absent in the sense that there is not even a semi-(dys)functional state security architecture that can serve as a foundation.

There are professional remnants of the former Libyan Army, but after seven years of conflict these no longer exist in the conventional military sense.

What does exist is a highly diverse range of armed groups that are mostly hybrid in nature in terms of their relationship with one or several of Libya’s existing ‘governments’, meaning that they collaborate and compete depending on what best serves their interests.

Moreover, skewing the playing field for political competition by adopting the Political Isolation Law had the far-reaching consequence of splitting the country down the middle between those who had cooperated with the Gaddafi regime out of necessity, for profit or for ideological reasons and those who were instrumental in his downfall.

The lessons of the de-Ba’athification experience of 2003–2005 in Iraq were clearly ignored in Libya and it is safe to say that that the passage of this law laid a foundation stone for the later Dignity–Dawn division.

With this in mind, the preceding overview suggests four strategic implications for future SSD.

A first strategic implication of the preceding analysis for future SSD efforts is that any reconfigured or newly-established security forces will need to be balanced in their geographic and ethnic composition.

The focus of their development should be on the gradual professionalisation of individuals and organisations in terms of their behaviour and performance standards.

This must include the creation and infusion of such forces with public and organisational values that can gradually heal the cleavages that have emerged in the Libyan political-security landscape. Newly-minted national affiliations and a national identity will be key to organisational success.

Despite being endorsed internationally, the GNA has limited domestic legitimacy. This means that the conventional state-centric focus on rebuilding a formal security apparatus for the GNA, based on the assumption that such an apparatus would derive its legitimacy from the newly-established ‘state structure’ the GNA represents, is wrong.

Instead, such an approach is likely to create or reinforce structures of power and dominance that serve vested interests and reflect the capture of what symbols and institutions the Libyan state features in Tripolitania.

Indeed, a recent Clingendael survey of perceptions of legitimacy of various security providers across Libya demonstrates clearly that the sources and status of such providers – state, hybrid and non-state – are too varied to support the assumption that GNA-linked security providers are considered sufficiently legitimate in the areas where they hold sway.

In fact, it can be argued that the artificiality of the creation of the GNA in terms of its shallow support base and coalition of convenience has become a long-term problem by investing the international community in a governance mechanism that has serious legitimacy and capability deficiencies.

The overlap between Western fears of the rise of violent extremist groups, which required a quick response, and the expectation of both the Dawn and Dignity groupings to profit handsomely from national resource rents via the Libyan Central Bank and National Oil Corporation after the LPA, reduced the focus on the need to gradually establish legitimate and capable governance with sufficient attention paid to Libya’s socio-territorial diversity.

A second strategic implication of the preceding analysis for future SSD efforts is that they must start from an inclusive political deal that is negotiated based on the interests of key elites (including militia leaders, armed groups and hardliners) and from which they stand to profit in terms of position, prestige, privilege and/or wealth.

At the same time, the deal should contain provisions that require armed groups to make concessions to a gradual process of SSD, including penalties that forfeit profits in case of non-compliance.

A credible monitoring and verification mechanism with sufficient enforcement power will therefore also need to be part of the deal.

Furthermore, the preceding analysis has detailed how the Libyan conflict has fragmented since its early revolutionary days in terms of its number of armed groups and their interests.

The near-total absence of either a semi-functional state power or an actor sufficiently powerful to compel others to bend to its will, has created both insecurity and autonomy that have forced many Libyans to fall back on pre-existing structures like tribal networks.

Such autonomy enabled armed groups to tap into lucrative illicit sources of revenue such as human trafficking and the drugs trade, creating new interests that became harder to address once entrenched.

The various efforts to create a new government from a weak institutional basis were also instrumental in maintaining this fragmentation since its very weakness forced it to co-opt armed groups by putting them on the state payroll without having the means to enforce its authority.

Today, Libya features an advanced degree of plural security provision that has become entrenched and that is reflective of the many political and economic interests that have developed since 2011.

These interests will not easily converge in actual practice. As a result, viewing SSD as an operational pathway for consolidating Libya’s current array of security actors is problematic if this aims to work towards the establishment of a state monopoly on the legal use of violence in the short to medium term.

A third strategic implication of the preceding analysis for future SSD efforts is that they need to generate a framework that authorises coalitions of armed groups to act as decentralised security providers (e.g. through a system of permits) for well-defined geographic areas and/or to address particular types of security problems.

This should happen in parallel to the creation of national institutions (see the first strategic implication) and central levers of control (such as a centralised payroll, centralised security training and a strong Inspector-General) as well as local accountability mechanisms (e.g. local councils or NGO fora).

This will ensure that, at least to some extent, decentralised security providers are oriented towards providing citizen-centred security and providing citizens with some options for redress. It has to be accepted, however, that the quantity and quality of security provision will vary throughout the country for a good while to come.

A fourth strategic implication of the preceding analysis for any future SSD efforts is that they must have a critical mass of foreign support behind them in terms of both unity of effort and volume of assistance.

Practically, this means that one or two lead foreign countries, together with their Libyan counterparts, will need to set the direction, doctrines and standards for SSD in Libya while benefiting from tacit or active support from most of the other foreign countries actively involved in the area of security in Libya.

A supporting secretariat and multi-donor trust fund run by a competent international organisation can provide administrative incentives to help ensure that efforts are coherent.

If donors engage bilaterally, SSD efforts may well contribute to prolonging the conflict as they are likely to benefit one side more than another.

The foreign countries’ national interests in Libya generated a volume of support and interference that was not enough to make a decisive difference, but sufficient to prevent conflict resolution.

In other words, once basic foreign priorities were adequately addressed in the short term – such as violent extremism, refugee flows or achieving a particular military advance or stalemate – tangible military, economic and diplomatic support started to lag.

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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