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.
State-sponsored institutional weakening
Since 2011, the subsequent transitional authorities have attempted – with limited success – to establish some control over Libya’s multitude of armed groups.
Despite being aware that these armed actors could potentially undermine the state, Libyan authorities pursued contradictory – if not self-defeating – policies in dealing with the newly formed revolutionary brigades.
This contradictory stance may have stemmed from the fact that the transitional authorities’ legitimacy was partly built on the revolutionary brigades’ ability to garner local and international support during the revolution, thereby creating a relationship of dependence.
In retrospect, it was also partly a symptom of the inability or unwillingness of the transitional authorities – and its diverse figures – to break away from the old system’s security architecture, or to fully embrace the new one.
In practice, the transitional authorities bankrolled the new brigades, pursued extremely basic disarmament programmes, and institutionalized the armed groups into newfound state-affiliated structures through which they could be deputized to provide security.
This utilitarian policy of co-option outlived the transitional authorities and was adopted by all governments, including foreign governments that partnered with armed groups for short-term goals centred around counterterrorism or migration management.
These efforts – often manifested as the creation of parallel security structures and the instrumentalization of armed groups affiliated to them – increased security pluralism while enhancing localism.
Institutionally, an additional problem was that governance structures of the transitional authorities did not develop any mechanism to exert effective control over the parallel structures.
The allegiance of these armed groups to the “centre” was often conditional if not outright opportunistic, and the effectiveness and sustainability of these arrangements was often hampered by disorganized chains of commands, intra-communal rivalries, unclear mandates, and scrambles for resources.
What these competing efforts failed to consider was the fragmented social landscape that the revolutionary civil war had left in its wake; moreover, the policies adopted assumed that patronage networks that distributed rent to different armed groups and constituencies would be enough to taper off divisions and avert conflicts.
The fragmentation of the security sector in the years that followed the revolution, however, mirrored the fragmentation of the political scene, and tensions at the political level often had a knock-on effect on the security sector. In addition, armed groups constantly manoeuvred or were used to influence Libya’s economic sector, as well as its political landscape.
Some also diversified their rent-generation capabilities by creating their own sources of income outside of the state’s control. In the years following the 2011 revolution, several political factions sponsored competing integration processes and ad-hoc “reform” efforts in the security sector.
Legitimized and financed by post-2011 authorities, armed groups that vied for the mantle of legitimacy did not hesitate to use force to further their interests.
Ideological alignments, common goals, and shared tribal or geographical origins also influenced the positioning of armed groups vis-à-vis the broader competing factions that vied to take control over Gadaffi’s incentive structures or to create their own.
One facet of this scramble for legitimacy, however, had a long-term impact on Libya’s security sector, namely the fact that armed groups not only dominated the security architecture but also infiltrated official security apparatuses by staffing them with revolutionaries.
Indeed, not only did armed groups seek to opportunistically affiliate themselves with the state, they also exacerbated hybridity by infiltrating the more formal pre-revolutionary security apparatuses that had remained in place. In doing so, state-sponsored “integration processes” institutionally weakened the country’s central authority.
This exacerbated the dysfunctionality of the state, whose institutions de-facto became arenas for competing tribal, political, religious, and ideological forces. It also led to a lack of effective oversight owing to the competing interests of embedded parties that had no incentive to be overseen, thus perpetuating a culture of impunity.
Overall, armed groups that emerged in Libya portrayed themselves as forces that could either augment or substitute the more formal security forces. In many cases, they also infiltrated these formal apparatuses, thereby overstaffing them while weakening their efficiency.
These armed groups also sought to derive legitimacy through their social roots by attempting to address their constituencies’ security concerns.
The type of social contract between armed groups and their communities – if any – is therefore heavily influenced by their degree of social embeddedness33 and their relationship to their constituencies.
A study of Libya’s armed groups must therefore include an assessment of their degree of social embeddedness. This assessment should include an analysis of their social backbone and local networks of influence to inform strategies for engaging with them.
Social embeddedness – along with other geographic and idiosyncratic factors pertaining to the group’s leadership, hierarchy, ideology and its competitors – often heavily influences the revenue-generation and internal capital-distribution models they adopt.
With this analytical framework in mind, the subsequent section focuses on socio-structural and economic notions of armed group structure and cohesion in the Libyan context.
Armed groups from west, east, and south Libya will be used as examples to analyse the degree of their social embeddedness, and the extent to which this affects their approaches to revenue generation and capital distribution.
Armed Group Structure and Cohesion
Reshaping and adapting to the landscape
The Libyan security landscape comprises hundreds of armed actors with singular features. The groups usually have diverse backgrounds and hierarchies and vary in size and organization; however, they also share some themes and patterns that account for their formation and subsequent development.
The hybrid environment that governs their interaction with local communities and state authorities also has implications on their internal organizational structure and patterns of mobilization.
The leadership of groups – along with their rank and file’s background and their ideological inclinations – also influences their relationship with local communities and, more importantly, the extent to which they are perceived to be socially embedded.
While the state’s policies have undeniably had a significant effect on armed groups’ manoeuvring, and the ways through which they raise revenue, it is important to emphasize that Libya’s security landscape and its armed groups have primarily evolved because of community-level factors – the implications of which will be discussed in this chapter.
These communal factors have a significant influence over the internal structure, hierarchy, and line(s) of command of armed groups. These facets are often moulded by the history, evolution, ideology, leadership, controlled territory, and ambitions of a group and its members.
Such factors also influence, if not determine, patterns of armed groups’ cooperation with domestic and international actors, as well as the revenue generation and internal economic capital distribution they operationalize.
Developments external to the community – whether political, socio-economic, or military – are also an important factor that can potentially impact armed groups’ internal structures – sometimes even resulting in the remobilization of particular communities in the face of acute threats.
All of these developments can either enhance a group’s cohesion or lead to its fragmentation or disbandment. The events outlined below will attempt to account for these features, highlighting the role these factors have played on armed groups and coalitions since 2011.
Armed actors’ proliferation after 2011
The 2011 revolution saw the emergence of armed actors that mobilized locally as revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries. Since then, many more actors have formed and mobilized, often against the backdrop of local and inter-communal conflicts; the policies of the transitional authorities, which cemented the presence of these local structures, have further entrenched localism.
As early as October 2011, the National Transitional Council called upon local communities to form local councils and military councils in cities that had not experienced significant fighting.
The premise of this decision was that, in the absence of a functioning state security apparatus, these alternative structures could play a role in enforcing local security. Yet the process that led to the formation of these councils – in cases where this was not an organic process – fuelled tensions within communities with pre-existing communal divides (for example, Bani Walid).
In cities where the defeat of the Gaddafi forces had left a security vacuum, new brigades were also formed against a backdrop of social tensions (for example, in Sirte).
In these locales, communities considered that they needed protection from the revolutionary forces. In other remote geographic areas, such as the Fezzan, new security actors often organized along tribal, communal, or ethnic lines but lacked the cohesion formed by a common fighting experience (such as in Misrata).
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.