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.
Hybridization by way of SSR
Post-2011 authorities have attempted to bring most of these local armed actors – regardless of the backdrop against which they were formed – under competing iterations of centralized command.
They expected, in theory, for them to undertake particular security enforcement functions or deal with emerging threats, such as terrorism.
The Warriors Affairs Commission (WAC) – one example of a state-sponsored reintegration effort – was supposed to offer capacity-building opportunities for ex-rebels based on their backgrounds and aspirations; however, it was flooded with applications, with 250,000 self-proclaimed ex-rebels registering by mid-2013, which hampered its ability to work effectively.
The absorption capacity of the Gadaffi-inherited formal security structures was also minimal as most were never meant to operate with clear mandates. That aside, many of those registered with the WAC preferred to retain their ties to their communities, and therefore shied away from engaging with a process that would see those links severed.
In addition, the main revolutionary brigades (particularly those from Misrata and Zintan) had either been continuously supplied with weapons by foreign states or had bought weapons or looted them from regime warehouses.
They therefore emerged from the 2011 civil war possessing far better equipment and resources than the formal forces into which they would have been – in theory – reintegrated.
This dynamic hampered any meaningful SSR process by design. This may explain why – for expediency – these armed groups were instead integrated into broad umbrella structures that did not meaningfully alter their composition or chain of command.
Designed to be “provisional” substitutes for the army and the police, these entities were essentially tools through which competing stakeholders could temporarily co-opt armed actors, though without a clear process as to how their localistic inclinations would be diluted in the long run.
These structures included the Supreme Security Committees, the Libya Shield Force, the Border Guard, and the Petroleum Facilities Guard. An affiliation with these entities guaranteed armed actors a steady stream of income – in the form of salaries – with virtually no meaningful contribution to the improvement of the state’s monopoly on the use of force.
This policy of co-option was not short-lived as most of the successive transitional Libyan authorities, as well as foreign states with interests in Libya, opted to use it to assert control over territory or to secure their interests.
In the years that followed, the fragmentation witnessed in Libya’s security sector mirrored the political scene’s fragmentation, itself a by-product of social divides between communities and stakeholders with differing interests and ideological agendas.
Moreover, armed groups began manoeuvring to influence the economic landscape, creating their own sources of income either from outside of the Libyan state’s control, or by coercing influential stakeholders and individuals within the government for concessions. Other political stakeholders had their own covert links with armed actors, which they often weaponized to advance their own narrow political interests.
Some armed groups were also contracted by particular state institutions or sponsored by businessmen or politicians, a transactional model for revenue generation that gradually became more prevalent in the years that followed owing to the Central Bank of Libya’s attempts to limit the over-inflated budgets allocated as salaries for armed actors.
Social rifts bleed into politics
For armed groups and the communities from which they originated, the transition phase that began with the election of the General National Congress (GNC) was decisive.
Elected in July 2012, the body had pledged to dissolve militias and rebuild the formal security sector. It was, however, also understood that the entity would act as a medium through which to redistribute power among communities.
The newly formed political entity would pass laws and oversee the executive; this power – whether from within (by way of membership) or from the outside (by way of duress) – would afford constituencies and armed actors a significant degree of influence over Libya’s future.
The situation resulted in a degree of competition – influenced by intra and inter-communal divides – between political actors and the armed groups supporting them. This dynamic was, however, pernicious: conflicting visions and a zero-sum mentality among the various political factions that had emerged after 2011 impeded genuine democratic progress.
Instead, political-military alliances jockeyed for influence by disrupting the congressional processes. The rift between revolutionary brigades and former regime defectors who had joined the rebellion in 2011 was exacerbated by a fissure that ran within the revolutionaries’ own ranks, pitting “victors” of the civil war against one another.
Armed actors mobilized to force the GNC to pass the Political Isolation Law in May 2013 – just one example of how inter-communal rifts bled into politics through armed actors’ mobilization.
Many of these state-affiliated armed groups grew increasingly violent, using repression as a means to preserve their privileges. Citizens who called for dissolution of these armed groups, or for a political change that would see their influence wane, were also violently cracked down on.
This was most notably the case at civilian protests against the GNC and revolutionary groups perceived as aligned with it, which occurred in Benghazi and Tripoli in 2013. The fact that protesters were gunned down worsened the relationship between “revolutionary” factions and local communities, translating into an anti-militia sentiment primarily directed at armed groups that had emerged after 2011.
This also led civilian communities to back armed factions they perceived to be more formal – especially those affiliated with the old regime.
In eastern Libya, this increasing sentiment was accompanied by concomitant assassination campaigns that targeted Gaddafi-era army figures, as well as lawyers, judges, civil society activists, and influential figures.
These events further contributed to the negative perception of self-proclaimed “revolutionary” armed groups among local communities; the increased mediatization of events by media outlets aligned with the “counter-revolutionary” agenda exacerbated this perception.
These outlets shaped two narratives that had long-lasting effects on Libya’s social landscape and the perception of armed groups’ social embeddedness.
The first narrative used the broad label of “Islamism” to refer to armed groups that did not align with the counter-revolutionary current at the time.
The second narrative polarized the social landscape by focusing on the origins of armed group members, which contributed to the erosion of their social legitimacy and their “othering” by local communities. Both narratives – flawed yet fuelled by external actors – were used to justify the conflicts that ensued.
The ad-hoc and “provisional” security arrangements, which had evolved from the revolution, grew more politicized. This hybrid order was increasingly perceived as being tilted toward Islamists, a viewpoint that gained significant traction in eastern Libya as the security situation in Benghazi worsened.
A turf war over territorial control between Islamist and revolutionary groups on the one hand, and Gadaffi-era structures, such as the Saiqa Brigade, and tribal constituencies from eastern Libya, most notably the prominent Awagir tribe, on the other also gradually led to the gradual collapse of hybrid security arrangements in the city.
The zero-sum approach of Islamist and revolutionaries in their quest to exclude former Gadaffi-era officers from security and governance portfolios at large also fuelled mounting discontent, particularly since the defecting and retired cadre of officers was vastly underpaid and under-pensioned in comparison with revolutionary groups.
The proverbial straw on the back of Benghazi’s declining cohesion came in the form of a coup in neighbouring Egypt, where Abdelfattah Al-Sissi ousted Muslim Brotherhood member and democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in mid-2013.
The event had an emboldening effect on Libya’s anti-Islamist milieu: among eastern tribes, disgruntled Gadaffi-era officers, and even some “civil society activists”, a Libyan version of Al-Sissi was viewed as a panacea to the country’s ills.
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.