By Jalel Harchaoui

This chapter takes as an implicit starting point the security-related initiatives in Libya between 2011 and 2020, none of which was a full success. Against that backdrop, it delineates lessons for future Security Sector Reform (SSR) efforts, the primary goal being to avoid past mistakes.



Libya’s internationalised civil war, which in some ways began in 2011, is characterised by a complex mix of foreign-state interference on the one hand, and highly localised conflict drivers on the other. The warring parties tend to cater to local, provincial, national and external constituencies in addition to pursuing their own interests in gaining power and riches at the Libyan nation’s expense.

The situation as of October 2020 can be simply summarised as a face-off between the Government of National Accord (GNA), under Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar headquartered in northern Cyrenaica.

The reality on the ground however is both more fragmented and more fluid. It includes: militia rule in and around Tripoli, a phenomenon that sometimes confines the GNA’s authority to the buildings it operates from; an amorphous Fezzan, which straddles smuggling, crime and cross-border activity; the use and mobilisation of tribal identities and allegiances throughout much of the country; the prevalence of at least two dozen key militias – revolutionary, tribal and other – that often profit from both the state payroll and illicit revenue simultaneously; and armed groups driven by a religious argument.

In June 2020, Turkey’s military intervention managed to put an end to the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli. The subsequent months saw formal members of the GNA attempt to become more powerful, while some, but certainly not all, of the long-standing militias in central and peripheral Tripoli wield a decreasing amount of sway.

Meanwhile, northern Cyrenaica is suffering from growing internecine divisions. Although seldom documented, they may become more visible in the foreseeable future given that Haftar experienced a high-profile defeat in the west. Said differently, eastern Libya also has its own “militia problem”.

The root causes of the current situation are a mixture of old and new splits in Libyan society and increasingly brazen foreign intervention, combined with a profound frailty of state institutions, which, during the decades before 2011, were deliberately kept weak to enable colonisation or personalised regime rule.

The result has been an internationalised civil war, the intensity of which has remained lower than the calamities that have befallen Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

This essay begins by offering a few generic considerations about SSR and how the enterprise should be framed in post-2011 Libya. From there, the essay proceeds to articulate a number of pragmatic recommendations, operational observations and methodical suggestions for the successful implementation of future SSR initiatives in Libya.

Sketching a Framework for Libya SSR

This essay calls “SSR effort” any manoeuvre, thrust or policy seeking to shape, alter or re-model some components of the country’s existing security landscape, whether in the short term or over the long haul.

Although the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) definition of the security sector also includes judicial-and-penal institutions, this essay will not broach the latter.

Instead, it was decided to concentrate on armed parties writ large, including a priori all existing armed groups, regardless of the degree of their legitimacy, legality or formal character. All of those, taken as

a whole, constitute the initial security sector that any SSR programme endeavours to confront, fashion and shape. The objective is to transform said set of security players and make their sum more coherent, effective and efficient.

Importantly, the objective is also to render all security players that are not dismantled or disarmed more responsive (a) to control by the civilian leadership, (b) to the safety and justice needs of the population at large and (c) to the security of all public institutions.

One corollary to the effectiveness and efficiency objectives stipulated above is that armed units must be made less likely to attack, or compete with, each other using violence not mandated by the state.

Furthermore, the need for responsiveness to civilian control makes it necessary that any valid SSR effort seeks to increase the robustness and discipline of the overall chain-of-command. If a given armed group ignores its hierarchy and disobeys the state’s top civilian leadership, we say the SSR has failed. All in all, the assessment of “successful” or “failed” SSR efforts is done on the basis of such criteria.

In summary, the main priority for SSR planners is to influence, coordinate, re-shape and, in some cases, dismantle existing armed groups so they form a relatively coherent nationwide security apparatus.

This needs to be accomplished in a way that takes account of their interests, is reasonably well regulated and contributes as much as possible to ‘people-oriented’ security and professionalisation / institutionalisation at national level.

On many occasions since 2011, one political faction or another other has attempted to weaken specific armed groups in Libya while bolstering others, depending on their political allegiances.

Sometimes, such moves merely seek to modify armed groups incrementally. In other cases, such attempts are more abrupt, with no consideration given to the integrity or cohesion of the state or the safety of the population.

Regardless of how destructive and unlawful such drastic actions might be, they are always and invariably portrayed as legitimate by their Libyan instigators and their foreign sponsors.

Indeed, throughout the Libyan conflict, powerful armed groups have unleashed brutality to advance partisan political agendas, and capture prestige and economic privileges, but not at all to improve security.

This makes more constructive, better thought-out efforts to transform any facet of the existing security landscape a daunting task. Deeply-entrenched, vested interests will resist such efforts using all means necessary.

This is why SSR is highly susceptible to being politicised: conflict players will in fact go to great lengths to instrumentalise it and acquire a competitive advantage over their enemies.

This behaviour is driven by a desire to win the conflict, not to build a less dysfunctional state. As part of that dynamic, some foreign meddlers help Libyan players subvert and weaponise any attempt to implement SSR.

Given the risks outlined above, SSR planners must equip themselves with:

(a) detailed mapping of the incentives, motivations, ideological underpinnings, relations and power dynamics within and between Libya’s top 20 armed groups;

(b) a breakdown of the internal composition and interests of large coalitions like the Libyan National Army (LNA) so that those coalitions are not perceived by planners as more monolithic and cohesive than they really are;

(c) an analysis of political and security developments, in particular geographic areas with their own internal idiosyncrasies;

(d) acknowledgement of the influence of ideologies like modernist political Islam or purist Salafism on the conduct of the war and expectations of future governance; and

(e) an explicit articulation of the precise objectives, relations and type of support of meddlesome states such as Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Russia, France, etc., for particular Libyan armed actors.

Together, an analysis of these constraints will generate the strategic insights and operational parameters necessary to develop pathways for future SSR in Libya.

An example for point (b) above has to do with the self-proclaimed LNA. The coalition, led by Khalifa Haftar, is a fractious ensemble of armed groups more than it is a unitary national, or even provincial, force.

Any comprehensive SSR effort for Libya must involve pressure on the LNA to promote a more transparent, better-integrated modus operandi for the loose alliance. These requirements are made even more pertinent by the fact the LNA may splinter and end up giving rise to brand-new conflicts in Cyrenaica.

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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.



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