By Emadeddin Badi
Libya’s security sector has become virtually unrecognizable from what it was a decade ago owing to the transformations brought about since the 2011 revolution.
This evolution has implications for any attempt to usher in short-term and interim security arrangements – including brokering ceasefires or improving security provision and policing capabilities – as well as longer-term security sector reform (SSR) efforts.
Since 2011, Libya’s security landscape has changed drastically, mirroring the fault lines brought to the fore by the Libyan revolution.
New governance structures emerged at the national and local level, while changes to societal relations reflected a pronounced sense of localism, which characterized the structure of Libya’s forces.
The degree to which city communities aligned with the revolution, along with the extent to which their constituencies mobilized on either side of the 2011 divide, also had a pronounced impact on local patterns of hybridity.
The concept of hybridity has predominantly been applied to and studied in the Sub-Saharan African context. It essentially refers to the “civilianization” of security provision, particularly in cases where intermediaries compensate for the weaknesses of a legally constituted state.
In practice, the state’s formal security institutions operate alongside a diverse array of non- or quasi-state armed actors. While some of these “informal” armed actors directly challenge the state, others work alongside or cooperate with it – creating, in turn, a “hybrid” environment.
In the aftermath of the revolution, the security landscape reflected the varying state-society relationships within communities. The divisive tribal policies of Gadaffi’s era partly influenced these relationships, as did the events of the 2011 war and its fallout.
In 2011 western Libya was the theatre of a multiplicity of local uprisings; communities mobilized locally to fight against the regime while a hollowed-out army, mercenaries, and some local constituencies mobilized under Gadaffi’s banner.
Eastern Libya eluded regime control in the early stages of the revolution, with minimal local conflicts thanks in part to foreign intervention.
These unique dynamics manifested themselves at a later stage as an idiosyncratic state of hybridity: several formal units, which had defected owing to their commanders’ leadership, co-existed with revolutionary forces that had been created and mobilized in 2011.
In southern Libya, the opportunities perceived by tribal and ethnic communities to gain political influence and military clout also influenced levels of alignment with the regime or with the revolutionary forces.
Methods of international intervention also affected the degree of power and autonomy that armed groups sought to retain afterwards.
Armed groups received support in the form of technical military equipment, capacity building, and advisory support; however, the institutional architecture underpinning the intervention was itself conducive to the emergence of a decentralized form of hybridity.
Indeed, France, Qatar, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, all provided a degree of uncoordinated unilateral support to local actors, establishing independent – and at times competing – “operation rooms”.
The relationships nurtured as part of this proxy interventionism outlived the revolution. While not overtly militarized in the immediate aftermath of Gadaffi’s ouster, armed groups were precluded from integrating into the state as their foreign interveners continued to unilaterally back their preferred local factions.
What began as a degree of foreign political backing to embolden local actors to impose their own agendas relapsed into full-fledged military support by mid-2014.
While pre-existing divides and historical precedents influenced the behaviour and alignment of local communities on either side of the 2011 civil war, these factors did not dictate them.
Gadaffi’s threat of mass repression and retribution against constituencies did, however, catalyse decisions to align against his regime. It also strengthened solidarity among revolutionary forces that generally perceived themselves as mobilizing against what they considered then to be an existential threat, both to them and to their communities.
In turn, the shared experience of ensuing conflicts cemented the fraternal ties that bound together those mobilized against the Gadaffi regime. Both the regime and the revolutionary forces used Islamic precepts – such as jihad8 – as a medium for mobilization and to justify social resistance.
This dynamic was an omen of the role that ideology would play within the various armed groups that emerged after the revolution. While the rebels labelled their battle as a struggle against a tyrant, loyalists deployed the same narrative to legitimize their fight against a Western NATO conspiracy.
The organization of military deployment and the mobilization of revolutionary forces took place at the local level. Kinship-based structures played a major role as ground forces against the regime.
Organically, towns that fell under rebel control formed local “military councils” of their own – a process that was both driven by communities’ aspirations for greater decision-making power and considered operationally necessary.
The councils were key to coordinating advances by the rebels and facilitating external communication and support. In certain communities, local councils also supported the military councils by assuming a more insurgent-like and therefore governance-oriented role focusing on stabilization and service delivery.
For the most part, both local and military councils remained in place after the revolution, though the influence of the latter gradually receded owing to attempts by post-revolutionary authorities to transform the security sector.
Today, Libya’s security sector is virtually unrecognizable from what it was a decade ago owing to the transformations brought about since the revolution.
This remoulding has implications for any attempt to usher in short-term and interim security arrangements – including brokering ceasefires or improving security provision and policing capabilities – as well as longer-term SSR10 efforts.
This paper draws on primary and secondary sources – including interviews conducted with Libyan security actors from 2019 to 2020 – to map and analyse distinctive characteristics of Libya’s security governance from the vantage point of SSR.
The first chapter recounts key historical developments that contributed to the emergence of different forms of hybridized security governance across the country.
The second chapter focuses on the social embeddedness of armed actors and analyses their relationships with local communities, factoring in how these correlations affect the political economy of armed actors.
It also identifies different patterns driving group mobilization and fragmentation using theories of social identity and group dynamics. Using case studies mapping a non-exhaustive number of armed actors from a wide variety of locales, the chapter illustrates different patterns of hybridity and social embeddedness.
The third chapter sheds light on how hybridity and social embeddedness have affected the architecture of security governance locally – in turn, influencing the nature and shape of formal and informal oversight exercised on armed actors.
The conclusion outlines the key implications of hybridity, social embeddedness, and the political economy of armed groups for short-term and interim security arrangements and SSR.
The paper concludes with a list of recommendations on how to optimize efforts to tackle both areas.
Patterns of hybridity
The emergence of the typology of hybridity seen today in Libya – characterized by security pluralism – is rooted in developments that followed the country’s 2011 revolution. Security structures built and restyled by Gadaffi over decades of rule proved incapable of dealing with popular uprisings.
Although widely considered Gadaffi’s most effective pillar of coercive capacity, the regime’s arms were unsuitable for responding to the local upswell in opposition.
Owing to Gadaffi’s decades-long form of “coup-proofing”, the security structures affiliated with the regime were not only weak but also designed to operate as a cohesive force with a clear chain of command.
To repress protests and quell the revolution, Gadaffi relied on informal units drawn from his own tribes, the Gadadfa, and those close to him, such as the Magarha, the Werfalla, and factions of the Magharba. He also drew on units with southern members, such as the Maghawir Force, the Tarik Bin Ziyad Battalion, the Sahban Battalion, and the 32nd Reinforced Brigade, a group led by his son Khamis.
The reliance on southern and peripheral communities was partly due to large parts of the rank and file of Gadaffi’s security apparatus deserting by demobilizing; however, the rest either remained loyal to him or defected.
Indeed, Gadaffi’s divide-and-rule tactics – which inadvertently gave key regime-affiliated figures a disproportionate influence over the alignment of their factions – compounded the lack of homogeneity that characterized Libya’s security sector before 2011.
The defection of some of these commanders caused entire units to also abandon their allegiance to the regime. The members of Benghazi’s Saiqa unit, for example, followed the lead of Major General Abdul-Fattah Younes, an influential Gadaffi regime figure who defected in February 2011 and was subsequently named commanderin-chief of the rebel forces.
More broadly, the individual choices of politicians and military figures in eastern Libya caused the regime to lose entire swaths of territory due to either defections or desertions of some of its rank and file.
Though many joined the uprisings on the side of the rebels, the fact that several regime-affiliated units retained their own independent chain of command paved the way for a unique type of hybridity in eastern Libya in the years following 2011.
In eastern Libya, more than any other locale, revolutionary armed groups tenuously co-existed with formal units affiliated with the old regime.
In western Libya, the governance structures of the regime era – both formal and informal – disintegrated. Members were excluded from decision-making within the new governance system, except for early defectors who were, nonetheless, heavily stigmatized.
At the social level, the gradual collapse of the old order opened the door for collective retribution and the punishment of entire groups under the banner of the revolution – practices that were rationalized as legitimate retaliations for Gadaffi-era injustices or for violence committed by loyalists during the revolution.
In particular, the final months of the civil war16 saw revolutionary forces exact revenge upon entire communities accused of being pro-Gadaffi. This was enabled by a permissive context in which acts of violence and expropriation were not only obfuscated but also abetted by politicians within the revolutionary coalition.
All in all, the typology of hybridity that emerged in certain locales in eastern Libya (with old and new structures co-existing) did not manifest itself with the same acuity in Tripolitania and Fezzan. Instead, the security sector was left hollowed out as it unravelled.
On the revolutionary side, a plethora of new armed actors competed for weapons supplies and control over security facilities, government buildings, and strategic sites. They even sidelined or displaced those who disagreed with them from within their own communities, or those neighbouring them.
On the revolutionary side, these fragmented micro-factions shared an aversion towards Gadaffi and his Jamahiriya – and, to some extent, towards the idea of authoritarianism in general. They had, for the most part, mobilized against what they perceived to be an acute threat to their own communities.
Constituencies labelled as pro-Gadaffi – such as Bani Walid, Sirte, and Tawergha – experienced mass retribution and emerged from 2011 as losers. The experience of the 2011 revolutionary civil war in parts of western and southern Libya significantly affected the social landscape in these territories.
Non-state armed actors19 that had formed during the war developed a certain degree of internal cohesion owing to their experience of the civil war as both an intra-communal and national-level conflict. The transformation of their own communities cemented the localism that defined these armed actors’ very emergence.
The communities from which these armed groups emerged were often stigmatized and revenge was exacted upon perceived opponents to form clearly defined external enemies. These enemies were either displaced, or, at times, sought retribution.
The latter’s experience of “defeat” also paradoxically strengthened their armed groups’ cohesion and solidarity, thereby reinforcing localism. The distrust and disconnect between nascent revolutionary forces and the old apparatus was, however, one of the fault lines that influenced conflict dynamics and hybridity in Libya after 2011.
Addressing this fault line through violence was bound to not only reshape the security sector but also draw new rifts within communities’ social fabric. After the fall of the Gadaffi regime, the constituencies and loyalists of controversial leaders were, by and large, sidelined from decision-making.
The regular army units, except for those that defected, were also demobilized. Instead of integrating revolutionary armed groups into formal state apparatuses, the transitional authorities attempted to establish parallel security structures through which armed groups could be co-opted or managed.
Many revolutionaries were integrated into these structures, receiving salaries without necessarily mobilizing or performing security-related duties.
Emadeddin Badi is an independent researcher that specializes in governance, post-conflict stabilization, security sector governance and peacebuilding. With over 8 years of experience, Emad regularly provides consultancy to international organizations, agencies and civil society organizations on ways to enhance the efficiency of their development programming and activities through capacity building, research and strategic planning. Emad has conducted regular field research in North Africa, primarily on avenues for reform of Libya’s security institutions, armed violence, war economies, hybrid security and cross-border crime.
He currently works as an advisor for the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) for Libya and a Senior Analyst for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Middle East Program at the Atlantic Council, where he focuses primarily on the geopolitical dimensions of the Libyan conflict. Previously, he was a nonresident scholar at the Counterterrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute as well as resident Policy Leader Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.