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.


Analysis of Major national security initiative in Libya (2011-2018)

The limited SSD/DDR efforts of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in the early days of post-revolutionary Libya set the scene for much of the fragmentation of the security landscape and the entrenchment of armed group interests that followed. The NTC attempted to initiate SSD/DDR as soon as Gaddafi was removed from power. But the politicians who formed the NTC were opposition figures who had returned to Libya during the uprising, senior officials who had defected from Gaddafi’s regime, or business and tribal leaders. Many had not participated in the actual armed struggle, did not have political credentials, and close to none had actual governing/administrative experience. In a context of weak institutions, these factors made durable implementation of SSD/DDR initiatives difficult.

As a result, there were no major SSD/DDR initiatives in Libya between 2011 and 2018 to speak of – or to research. Arguably, in fact, the failure of the NTC’s incipient SSD/DDR efforts contributed to the intensification and prolongation of the Libyan conflict. Libya did however witness a number of security initiatives over the past eight years that cannot be considered in whole – or even in part – as SSD/DDR, yet nevertheless had significant consequences for the prospects of future SSD/DDR in terms of having created new interests, parameters or critical constraints. This section outlines 12 such security initiatives to assess whether the four key implications for future SSD distilled from the general course of the Libyan civil war are relevant as a gauge for future SSD efforts.

The Warriors Affairs Commission (2012)

A key goal of SSD/DDR efforts in Libya was to integrate the revolutionaries who fought against Gaddafi into the state apparatus, and to demobilise/disarm those unwilling to incorporate. The first step the NTC took towards this goal was to register all those claiming to have fought against Gaddafi and put them on the state’s payroll. In January 2012, the NTC established the Warriors Affairs Commission (WAC) – later renamed the Libyan Programme for Reintegration and Development. This initiative was tasked with overseeing a DDR process of revolutionaries who participated in the Libyan uprising.

The Commission’s most lasting accomplishment was the registration of 250,000 men claiming to have been revolutionary combatants. However, in addition to revolutionaries, the registration process attracted unemployed youth and members of radical organisations, creating an exaggerated and unrealistic list ten times the size of the ‘true’ number of fighters who actually fought in the uprising. Hundreds of thousands were put on the state payroll based on the WAC’s database, but the WAC was only able to provide vocational training for a small number of those registered due to its limited budget.

Moreover, the commission was unable to convince militiamen to surrender their arms and reintegrate into society as it did not have the required resources or capacity to incentivise them. Finally, Libyan nationalists and secular citizens considered the WAC a Muslim Brotherhood initiative. The lack of trust this perception generated essentially blocked any next steps the WAC could have undertaken. In the end, the WAC became inactive when its initial budget ran out.

Several factors played a role in the failure of this initiative. First, the US was reluctant to commit to sustained support for nation building due to its negative experience with Iraq in the mid-2000s. It was also determined to follow the lead of Libya’s interim government as far as SSD and DDR were concerned.

In reality, even in early 2011, the government in Tripoli was too divided to play this role. With the US putting its faith in the interim government and European countries not engaging, sustained support for the initiative remained absent. The other, and more important, factor influencing the failure of the WAC initiative was the belief that money could incentivise armed actors into behaving in a more disciplined and civilian-oriented manner. The Tripoli government’s decision in late 2011 to grant salaries and bonuses to members of armed groups did much to enhance their status and resources, but little to increase public security. It also set a dangerous precedent.

The Supreme Security Committee (2011–14) and the Libya Shield Force (2012–14)

The first two ‘SSD-like’ attempts by the NTC were the creation of the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) and the Libya Shield Force (LSF). Both initiatives had undesirable consequences and adverse effects on Libya’s security sector. The SSC was established in October 2011 as an umbrella body within the Ministry of the Interior, which brought together a diverse range of armed factions to fulfil policing duties.

In December 2011, the NTC gave the SSC the authority to conduct investigations and arrests. By mid-2014, the SSC had been partially dismantled, on paper at least, when 80,000 of its members were transferred to the police. In reality, the armed factions that had been incorporated into the SSC were able to maintain their autonomous status while benefiting from being put on the state payroll. It should be noted that the SSC was much more present in Tripoli than other parts of the country. For example, it was practically non-existent in Benghazi and eastern Libya.

Sometimes described as the NTC’s ‘cardinal sin’, the LSF was established in March 2012 as an organisation within the Ministry of Defence to act as a substitute for Libya’s army, which had disintegrated during the uprising. Powerful revolutionary armed groups were enlisted and placed on the government’s payroll, mirroring the SCC process, and put under the authority of the Chief of Staff. Collectively, they formed the LSF, with 12 divisions located throughout Libya’s regions.[20] Several issues plagued the effectiveness and performance of these initiatives:

The NTC admitted armed groups into the SSC and LSF rather than armed individuals. Not only did this enable groups to preserve their cohesion and hence their interests, it also provided groups with the incentive to exaggerate their size in the absence of a reliable vetting mechanism and registration system. Group commanders simply doubled or tripled the size of their group, cashed salaries for all and pocketed the difference.

The NTC allowed for group salary payments to armed factions instead of making individual salary payments to fighters. This lost it a key lever to (re)orient individual loyalties towards the central Libyan state. Moreover, the salaries of SSC and LSF members were higher than those of the army and police, which created both jealousy and competition. Efforts by the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to align salaries failed.

The Ministries of the Interior and Defence were weak and dysfunctional, which ensured poor communication, command and control. This in turn allowed armed group commanders to retain actual power and authority on the ground. Armed factions within the SSC and LSF were thus able to finance their fighters from public resources while also keeping continued access to local resources via (il)licit activities.

The expectations of the SSC’s functions between the Ministry of the Interior and the SCC itself were misaligned. Where the Ministry of the Interior viewed the SSC as a substitute for the police, the SSC saw itself as a force with an ideological vision for society, which it tried to enforce in the communities where it held sway.

The same applied to the LSF and the Ministry of Defense. The NTC hoped to use the LSF to quell communal and regional conflicts. However, it soon realised that the LSF had its own biases and in some cases contributed to these conflicts, such as those in Warshefana, Benghazi and Bani Walid. Understandably, this situation did not incline armed groups to work towards national goals.

Armed factions refused to dismantle or demobilise because they could not find better employment opportunities elsewhere. They also rejected full integration because they viewed it as a tactic to deprive them of leverage. The inability and unwillingness of various armed groups within the SSC and LSF to integrate, cooperate and coordinate contributed to the deterioration of citizens’ safety and security and the outbreak of clashes in Tripoli in July 2014, which effectively terminated both initiatives.

In the background, the lack of trust between senior officials and revolutionaries, as well as the division of the Libyan population into winners and losers, continued to have a major influence on the outcome of NTC-initiated SSD programmes. Revolutionaries did not trust senior officials who had defected from Gaddafi’s regime and the latter viewed the former as undisciplined radicals. Furthermore, communities that remained loyal to Gaddafi during the uprisings were not invited to the negotiating table. This arrangement meant that every government plan excluded large portions of Libyan society.

Colonel Salem Joha’s Plan (2012)

Colonel Salem Joha, a former artillery officer who led the defence of Misrata during the 2011 siege by Gaddafi forces, put forward a plan to transform the Libya Shield Force into a more regular and formal unit within the military by making it a reserve military force. According to Joha’s plan, recruits would join the LSF as individuals rather than as members of an armed group; they would train for one month a year and serve close to home. In return, they would receive a monthly salary and medical benefits for themselves and their families. Collecting and buying back weapons was another integral part of the proposal.

Joha’s plan did not get off the ground because he was unable to gain the trust of armed groups and revolutionary leaders in Misrata, or in other parts of Libya for that matter. The fact that Joha is from Misrata made the realisation of his plan even more difficult since, back then, Misrata was perceived as the city with the strongest militias and there were fears that it would dominate the LSF.

The initiative also failed because it intended to dismantle armed factions and collect their weaponry before a broad-based political agreement had been reached. The inclusive nature of Joha’s approach was another factor in its failure, since many local political actors across Libya were unwilling to endorse the necessary compromises such an approach demanded.

In addition to Joha’s moderate approach being sabotaged or ignored by numerous Islamist and hardline revolutionary armed groups, 2012 was also a year of extreme fiscal profligacy. From US$6.6 billion in 2010, the Libyan government’s wage bill reached $16 billion in 2012. More generally, the government spent a total of US$51 billion, a record for Libya. A large part of this expenditure went to armed groups, either via salaries or through corruption and embezzlement. This extraordinary spending boom, combined with the aforementioned lack of trust, doomed Joha’s SSR initiative.

The Libyan National Guard (2012–13)

In late 2012, UNSMIL suggested the formation of a ‘national guard’-like structure to act as security stabiliser in the country while the official army was being trained and built. The Libyan Territorial Army, as the Guard was to be called, would consist of three brigades to perform police and security duties. Supporters of this idea drew many parallels between the proposed plan and the way the US dealt with its own post-Civil War militias, Denmark’s Home Guard, and Britain’s Territorial Army. The idea was endorsed by the international community, the US, the UK, and the EU, and received support from some Libyan officials.

Nonetheless, the plan for creating the Libyan National Guard failed because Gaddafi loyalist tribes, the regular officers’ corps and many revolutionary groups believed that the initiative was a Misratan and Islamist attempt to increase their control over the country. The National Force Alliance considered the initiative an effort to establish an official Islamist army rather than a National Guard. More importantly, however, was the fact that the nature of the Guard’s composition, mission, mandate, purpose, oversight, and future relation to the military remained unclear throughout the process. This fed suspicion and prevented effective progress. The proposal for creating a National Guard was moved off the table in 2013. When Prime Minister Ali Zedan attempted to set up his own version of the project, it suffered the same fate and caused as much controversy as the original.

The US Training Mission (2012–13)

In the summer of 2012, the US sponsored a security initiative to train and equip several hundred Libya counterterrorism and special forces in Camp 27. The camp, named after its 27 km distance from Tripoli on the coastal road to Tunisia, was an existing Libyan military base rehabilitated by US Green Berets. It was to be used as a training facility to refine the abilities of 800 Libyan counter-terrorism fighters. However, the fact that there was no clear Libyan chain of command of its military forces, the fragmented and volatile security situation and shortcomings in the selection process blocked most progress.

For example, most recruits originated from western brigades, mainly in the city of Zintan. Furthermore, trainees lacked military experience and their allegiances (country, tribe, city) were not clear either. Another obstacle was the camp’s location in a disputed area between two tribes, which US forces were unaware of and which their Libyan partner, General Abd al-Salam al-Hasi, did not inform them about.

The project was terminated when anti-Zintan armed groups stormed the compound in June 2013 and seized equipment (such as M-4 rifles, pistols, military vehicles, ammunition, and night vision goggles). Even the modest goal of training 100 Libyan Special Operation Forces was not achieved. The timing of this US-sponsored initiative is also relevant as it shows that the US did not leave Libya after the murder of its ambassador, Chris Steven. Instead, its trainers went home in 2013, with a full evacuation only taking place in 2014 as a result of the Dawn-Dignity conflict.

The failure of this initiative illustrates well what the consequences can be if foreign states take sides, willfully or inadvertently, with particular parties in the Libyan conflict via SSD efforts. The SSD intervention risks becoming part of the conflict and viewed as a threat by other factions. This makes it susceptible to resistance and failure, and can worsen the original conflict conditions.

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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