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 General Purpose Force (2013–14)

In the summer of 2013, preparations were underway to create a Libyan General Purpose Force with international assistance.[29] At the request of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, the plan was endorsed during a G8 summit in Ireland. G8 nations, including the US, UK, Italy and Turkey, agreed to train a military force of 20,000 individuals for a period of eight years.

The general objective of the GPF was to assist the Libyan government in extending its authority, protecting political figures and public institutions, and putting pressure on militias to disarm. The project was quickly embroiled by operational complications, such as:

Libyan and international partners had to agree on training locations, cost allocations, recruitment target groups (e.g. which groups would receive training and on what basis they would be selected) and how to handle the arms embargo that was in place. Eventually, an agreement was reached that the training would take place outside Libya.

While all parties involved concluded that there was a need for thorough vetting, important questions were left unanswered. For example, how the force would eventually be integrated into Libyan military structures, who would command it, how the force would relate to future SSD/DDR efforts in Libya, and what the force’s actual mandate would look like.

Western countries were not ready to provide Libya with what it needed, and instead offered what fitted their expertise and interests. For example, Italy and Turkey offered gendarmerie support and the US counter-terrorism training, but what Libya acutely needed was a force that could tackle border security, illegal smuggling and trafficking, and low-level insurgency.

Major obstacles on the part of the Libyan administration hindered progress. For example, international partners complained that their staff, regardless of seniority, were not able to track down key Libyan officials, obtain answers to emails, or trigger payments.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was unable to build domestic political support for his proposal because the GNC viewed it as an attempt to empower former regime figures. Moreover, the Libyan authorities struggled to find competent recruits willing to travel abroad, and failed in attracting members of armed factions to join the training.

In the summer of 2014, training nevertheless started in Turkey, Italy and Britain. US (AFRICOM) planning progressed more slowly, although a training facility in Bulgaria had already been chosen. It pulled out of the initiative entirely in May 2014.

The UK undertook to train 300 Libyan personnel in Cambridgeshire but, within months, one-third had returned home and many others had sought asylum. Eventually, the UK returned the whole group to Libya, in part because of sexual assaults on local people by a small number of trainees.

In Turkey, half of the 800 participants in a police-training programme dropped out because the training was ‘too hard’. The initiative was later cancelled in the wake of the 2013 clash between the AKP and elements of the Turkish police dominated by the Gülenists.

Only Italy managed to successfully train 250 officers for 24 weeks, although contact was not maintained after their return to Libya. The failure of this initiative highlights the risks when there is a lack of coordination between foreign states volunteering to support SSD work in Libya.

Operation Dignity / Libyan National Army vs. Libya Dawn (2014–)

In addition to the formation of two separate claims on Libyan state authority, the conflict between the Dawn and Dignity coalitions profoundly affected all military formations that existed and ended any existing SSD/DDR initiatives. On the back of Operation Dignity, General Haftar revived the Libyan National Army (LNA) by appealing to officers who had been negatively affected by the Political Isolation Law.

A reconstituted LNA, complemented by Operation Dignity coalition forces, established control over Cyrenaica in the course of a few years and recently significantly increased its influence in the Fezzan. The LNA is a self-styled army composed of militias and tribal forces that support Haftar, which was later endorsed by the Interim Government of the East and its elected House of Representatives (HoR).

In eastern Libya, the LNA was able to increase the local population’s sense of safety, although this came at an appreciable human cost.

While the LNA effectively controls Cyrenaica, it lacks international recognition. Neither is it officially recognised by the UN-backed Government of National Accord. The LNA leadership compensates for this lack of international legitimacy through bilateral cooperation with Western powers such as France and regional powers such as Egypt and the UAE.

Although LNA influence in Tripolitania remains limited, it maintains good connections with towns like Zintan, Sabratha, and Wershefana. The tactics used by the Dignity coalition are premised on establishing shallow co-optation of local actors rather than establishing more permanent territorial control. A key reason is that Marshall Haftar’s military and financial resources are limited.

On the other side of the coin, the armed factions that joined the Libya Dawn coalition were not able to retain their coherence once Haftar and his allies no longer posed a direct threat to the Tripoli area.

The little progress made was largely enabled by the moderate Misrata faction in early 2015: Fathi Bashagha and other local businessmen purged hardliners from the city, turned the powerful Mahjub Brigade in favour of the GNA, and worked with the Central Bank to reduce funds allocated to Misrata’s hardliners.

At the end of the day, none of Dawn’s armed factions was strong enough to defeat the others and control the capital. The rest of the country – especially the Fezzan – remained in the hands of local and transnational armed groups that act independently or maintain a loose relationship with either the Dawn or the Dignity coalition.

 The governance shortage that resulted from this security fragmentation enabled rebels, mercenaries, terrorists and criminals from other countries to roam unhindered around large parts of Libya. Unsurprisingly, this increased the level of insecurity faced by significant parts of Libya’s civilian population.

The Presidential Guard (2016–18)

When Presidential Council (PC) members and GNA officials arrived in Tripoli in March 2016 and realised that their government did not have its own force to protect it against the various local militias in the Tripolitania area, they revived the idea of creating a Libyan National Guard under the name of the Presidential Guard (PG).

Western powers and UNSMIL endorsed the plan and the first PG formation was put together in May 2016. The PG was responsible for the protection of government personnel and buildings, VIP guests, and strategic locations such as ports, power plants, sources of water and energy supplies, and air and land borders.

It is important to highlight that, at the time, the PG was a work in progress with little authority or credibility in Tripoli, let alone in Libya as a whole. Ultimately, the PG could not withstand the powerful armed factions present in Tripoli because it was militarily inferior to those groups.

This was made clear when forces affiliated with Misratan Brigade 301 and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade loyal to Haitham al-Tajuri easily evicted the PG from their positions at the Prime Minister’s office and Tripoli International Airport in May 2018.

The sudden collapse of the GNA’s Presidential Guard in 2018 – despite its having received support from several states, including France and Algeria – suggests that sometimes foreign states pursue SSD efforts in Libya that are largely symbolic. In this particular case, the diplomatic and material support that could have ensured greater PG effectiveness was simply absent.

The Egyptian Initiative (2017–)

The Egyptian National Committee on Libya initially sponsored a series of meetings between Dignity coalition forces and armed factions from western Libya (mostly Misrata) between May and October 2017. These were revived at the end of 2017 but came to a halt again in March 2018.

Restarted in September 2018, they were once again terminated on 21 October 2018 when General Haftar and Prime Minister Serraj failed to attend a planned meeting in Cairo to negotiate the final details of the agreement that was meant to result from the Egyptian initiative.

The most prominent participants were Colonel Salem Joha from Misrata, LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mismari, the commander of the LNA’s western region, Idris Madi, and Aguila Saleh, President of the HoR.

A key accomplishment of these start-stop series of meetings was that in October 2017 both parties (Dawn and Dignity) agreed to form joint technical committees to help ease the unification process of the Libyan Army. However, little practical progress has been made since.

The main reason why the Egyptian initiative has so far failed is that Egypt is not seen as a neutral actor by the factions that oppose Haftar in western Libya. Via the aforementioned meetings, Egypt intends to promote an arrangement in which Haftar heads the entire Libyan military structure.

Yet, the failure to arrange a meeting between Serraj and Haftar in Cairo, together with Haftar’s plan to advance into Tripoli with his forces – which Egypt disapproves of – appears to have cooled relations between Haftar and his Egyptian allies. Nonetheless, Egypt continues to support Haftar in his efforts to ‘fight terrorism and extremism’, and in his attempts to challenge the authority of militias that are independent of him.

While Egypt’s ‘armed-forces re-unification’ initiative showed promise in late 2017 and early 2018, the initiative rapidly lost meaning because Egypt refused to swap its strong pro-Haftar attitude for a more neutral one.

The Tripoli Protection Force (October 2018–April 2019)

On 18 December 2018, Tripoli’s key armed factions announced their unification into one armed force called the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF). Its composite groups are the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, the Abu Salim Deterrence and Rapid Intervention Force, the Nawasi Brigade, and the Bab Tajura Brigade. In its ‘founding’ statement, the TPF stated that it had formed in response to the intense fighting that engulfed parts of the capital in August/September 2018. It added that it supports UNSMIL and its Special Envoy, Ghassan Salame, and endorses the Libyan National Conference.

Furthermore, the TPF explicitly stated its rejection of the use of military force to reach political objectives – a clear message to military forces from Tarhuna, the Summoud Brigade led by Salah Badi (UN sanctioned) that attacked the capital, and General Haftar and his LNA.

The primary role the TPF claims to fulfill is the protection of Tripoli to allow state institutions to function. In addition, its creation arguably improved the security of the capital’s population, at least for the time being. Although the TPF’s armed factions have stated that they have no political or ideological motives, the formation of the TPF was in part politically motivated:

It opposes forces loyal to the LNA that are stationed to the west of Tripoli and the 9th Brigade (a successor of al-Kaniyat Brigade) from Tarhuna.

It also anticipated pushback from armed groups that lost power and influence as a result of the Al-Zawiyah ceasefire agreement. This proved correct as fighting around Tripoli renewed on 16 January 2019.

In forming the TPF, its four composite groups attempted to integrate themselves into the new GNA ‘security arrangements’ as a counter to the attempts of the Minister of Interior with whom the four groups have a tense relationship, to increase the influence of Zintani and Misratan militias.

To counter Haftar’s progress, the TPF also announced in early February that it will be integrated into a larger regional coalition known as the Western Region Protection Force. In their statement, the TPF gave little information on the nature and participants of the force, but stated that the planned grouping will have a unified command structure.

The TPF’s case illustrates a recurring theme: Libyan armed actors are often sophisticated enough to portray their self-defence or offensive aims as SSD and seduce foreign countries to support the corresponding initiatives they undertake – diplomatically, materially, or both.

A potentially successful SSD initiative requires that its foreign sponsors are cognisant of the ability of Libyan factions to disguise their war pursuits and power grabs as SSD endeavours.

A brief synthesis

On balance, very few of the 12 security initiatives analysed above that occurred in Libya between 2011 and 2018 align with the internationally agreed SSD paradigm. They were mostly partisan efforts intended to gain the upper hand in an active conflict, often disguised as SSD/DDR interventions. Only a couple of initiatives feature scattered elements of SSD.

By the standard of warfighting interventions, most seem not to have been terribly effective given the prolonged and indecisive nature of the Libyan civil war. By the standard of global SSD, these initiatives have produced unequivocally poor results across the board. Both perspectives generate an interesting set of lessons for future SSD efforts:

Many of the security initiatives discussed suffered from pursuing integration efforts at armed group rather than unit or individual level. They failed to create incentives that could co-opt armed group leaders, established unclear lines of authority, introduced unjustified salary disparities and/or failed to ensure adequate geographical representation in newly-constituted (or integrated) security forces. These all represent fail factors in terms of their operational effectiveness.

Also, most of these initiatives were strongly focused on realising capability improvements without much thought for stimulating the quality of security governance, let alone 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. These elements represent fail factors in terms of their durability and legitimacy.

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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