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.
The knock-on effect of northern jockeying on communal lines in Fezzan
As in the north of the country, Fezzan’s post-2011 armed groups were structured along communal, ethnic, tribal, or even familial lines. They also often relied on notions of social legitimacy to legitimize their actions, to recruit, and to portray themselves as defenders of their own constituency.
For some groups, ideology (centred around religious discourse) also played a role in incentivizing and recruiting fighters; however, tensions in the south – while prevalent – were often exacerbated and transformed into flashpoints due to power struggles between divided northern factions.
These struggles reverberated across the Fezzan multiple times after 2011, creating social rifts. Benghazi and Tripoli were not the only theatres of Libya’s second civil war of 2014; northern power centres jockeying for influence – most notably between Haftar’s Zintani allies and his Misratan opponents – also extended to the south the following year.
Indeed, after 2011, Zintan maintained its footprint in the Fezzan through its alliance with Tuareg factions affiliated with the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). The PFG – a Gadaffi-era security structure tasked with securing oil fields and installations – also experienced “hybridization” after 2011 as several self-proclaimed revolutionaries enlisted and gained an affiliation to obtain a salary.
The PFG’s southern and western branch headquarters in Zintan enabled factions that later aligned with Haftar to build links with the PFG. In early 2014 an inter-communal conflict between the Arab tribe of Awlad Sulayman and the Tebu – an ethnic group populating Chad, Libya, and Sudan – erupted in Sebha.
This flashpoint led to an escalation that, instead of being influenced by communal tensions among these factions, was influenced by the wider political landscape of the time. Against this backdrop of inter-ethnic tensions, the Magarha and the Gadaddfa – both tribes primarily regarded as aligned with the Gadaffi regime – emerged on the scene and seized control over a key airbase in Sebha.
This was primarily a symptom of Gadaffi-era nostalgia among marginal tribes, which allowed several Gaddafi-era security officials to re-assert themselves as “formal” military figures to lead local armed groups.
Alarmed over this development, the GNC mandated the Misratan-led “Third Force” to deploy to Sebha to act as a peacekeeping force and arbiter between the various groups, while ensuring that regime loyalists did not make a comeback.
The arrival of the Misratan Third Force paved the way for the projection of the northern tensions into the Fezzan. Indeed, Misratan factions used the “peacekeeping force” as a medium through which to undermine the influence of Zintani factions and their allies.
Among others, this jockeying for influence exacerbated tensions and triggered a conflict between Tebu and Tuareg – another ethnic minority in the Libyan south – Ubari in 2015. From 2016 onwards, Haftar – who had by then consolidated control over the oil crescent and been named Field Marshall by the newly elected House of Representatives – began building alliances in the Fezzan, primarily through outreach to Gadaffi-era loyalists and regime-era military figures.
The Magarha, and some Gaddadfa aligned with his LAAF, subsequently escalated their efforts against the Misratan Third Force, which had by then obtained the GNA’s endorsement. In early 2017 the LAAF’s efforts at alliance-building had culminated in the launch of an operation to drive out the Misratan Third Force from the South.
In May 2017 the Misratan Third Force retaliated by launching an offensive on Brak Al-Shati airbase, where they brutally killed more than a 100 LAAF fighters and recruits – with many showing signs of having been summarily executed.
This event led to the dismissal of GNA’s Defence Minister, Mahdi Al Barghathi, and the rescindment of GNA support to the Third Force, which subsequently withdrew from Fezzan, leaving a security vacuum that led southern authorities and figures to seek funds and patronage from both the GNA and Haftar’s LAAF.
The resulting vacuum in Fezzan, coupled with the GNA’s lack of outreach there, paved the way for Haftar to launch an operation to capture the territory in January 2019.
Several armed groups from eastern Libya were deployed to the region, a development that led several factions in the south to align with Haftar, riding on the wave of international support he benefited from, as well as perceptions of his invincibility.
Two years of outreach had preceded the operation; during this time, Haftar’s General Command focused on establishing joint operations rooms and military zones in the South, often under the leadership of former regime military figures who had gradually aligned with Haftar after 2016.
The LAAF’s Central Command also established new structures to attempt to dilute the communal lines of the southern armed groups. The LAAF’s efforts – at least cosmetically – reshaped armed groups in the south and contributed to the establishment of a more effective top-down centralized chain of command.
To this end, some groups were also dissolved or merged, while senior military positions were reshuffled to consolidate and ensure the loyalty of particular factions. The sustainability of these changes, however, was dependent on Haftar’s ability to maintain patronage networks and loyalties built around the promise of a capture of Tripoli.
LAAF-induced changes in the south were also premised on deals and alliances with tribal and armed actors with their own agendas and the ability to defect or reverse these changes if they do not receive the expected payoffs.
At a more granular level, the LAAF’s expansion into the south – used, by and large, as a springboard for the offensive on Tripoli launched by Haftar three months later86 – has not profoundly affected local security arrangements.
The transmutation of a southern-based armed group Sebha’s Batallion 116 was set up in 2017 by Masoud Jeddi, a Gadaffi-era officer from the Awlad Sulayman tribe. The Battalion is an offshoot of two other battalions set up previously by Jeddi: the Faruq Batallion and Sebha’s Special Deterrence Force.
Jeddi co-established the Faruq Battalion, an armed group, in the months following the fall of the Gadaffi regime. Renowned for its extrajudicial arrests – often conducted on tribal grounds – the Faruq Battalion’s members were often accused of torturing those they incarcerated.
As a result of this behaviour, the battalion lost its social legitimacy during the year after the revolution and fragmented. This illustrates the extent to which social norms may constrict the behaviour of armed groups in the Fezzan.
Nonetheless, Jeddi recruited several of the then-defunct Faruq Battalion members to join his newly established “Special Deterrence Force” (SDF). Formed in 2013 in coordination with Tripoli’s Abdulraouf Kara – head of the homonymous group in Tripoli – Sebha’s SDF dominated policing inside Sebha, gaining an affiliation with Tripoli’s MoI.
In a strategy reminiscent of that of its counterpart in Tripoli, the group essentially branded itself as an anti-crime and counterterrorism force, conducting patrols and seizures in Sebha and its suburbs.
It primarily recruited its rank and file from the Awlad Sulayman tribe, which dominated the political and security scene, boasting of their role during the revolution and their narrative alignment against Gadaffi.
SDF therefore also portrayed itself as a force that would avert the return of Gadaffi loyalists, which partly explains why the Gadadfa and the Magarha (both considered tribes aligned with the regime) shared an animosity towards SDF.
Nevertheless, like the SDF in Tripoli, Jeddi weaponized the Salafi Madkhali ideology, using religious networks and discourse for recruitment purposes in 2013. This initially enabled the battalion to transcend communal divides to be one of the very few “pluralistic” southern armed groups – the force even recruited Salafist Tebu.
By 2015, however, against a backdrop of increased social tensions along communal lines, Sebha’s SDF had essentially become a Salafi-leaning force made up exclusively of members of the Awlad Sulayman tribe. Until early 2017 Jeddi maintained an alignment with Misrata’s Third Force after its deployment to the South.
The Third Force had sided with the Awlad Sulayman tribe – and, as a corollary, with Jeddi’s SDF in Sebha – owing to its revolutionary background; however, Jeddi defected to Haftar’s side in 2017, aligning with Mohamed Ben Nayel, former Gadaffi-era figure and head of the LAAF’s 12th Brigade in Wadi Al-Shati.
Sebha’s SDF was rebranded into Battalion 116, a force that was instrumental to Haftar’s push against the Misratan Third Force in 2017. The alignment paved the way for Haftar to take control over the South at a later stage.
Jeddi’s personal leadership, the SDF’s ideology, and his own tribal background shaped the reasons behind the formation of Battalion 116, as well as its mobilization. Indeed, Jeddi was criticized for his affiliation with the former regime and for his opportunism and early defection to the LAAF in 2017.
From 2017 to 2019, Battalion 116 mobilized on tribal grounds (to protect Awlad Sulayman’s perceived interests) and operated as an affiliate of the LAAF in Sebha. When the LAAF launched an operation to capture Fezzan in January 2019, Jeddi and his battalion were one of the primary groups to benefit from their early alignment with Haftar two years before.
While some armed groups in Sebha struggled to belatedly rebrand themselves credibly as aligned with Haftar’s LAAF, others saw their influence wane as their leadership or chain of command changed through their integration into the LAAF.
Battalion 116 saw its influence increase in Sebha at their expense, benefitting from a new pool of recruits owing to the fragmentation of some factions that were unable to sustain their cohesiveness as the LAAF swept into Fezzan.
The offensive on Tripoli and Libya’s third civil war On 4 April 2019, Haftar launched his operation “Flood of Dignity”, mobilizing forces from central and eastern Libya towards Tripoli to overthrow the GNA and force the international community to recognize another of his military advances. Haftar’s offensive also attempted to weaponize existing social rifts in the western region, which appeared particularly vulnerable.
The grievances of groups that had been marginalized after 2011 (Gadaffi loyalists) and of heads of armed groups that had been sidelined by Tripoli’s authorities (Adel Daab from Gharyan and the Kaniyat’s 9th Brigade in Tarhuna) were key to brokering the alliances that allowed Haftar to sweep into Gheryan and Tarhuna and mobilize his forces towards western Tripoli.
Other alliances, such as those brokered with armed groups through Salafi Madkhali networks in Sabratha, Sirte, and Zintan, had also been nurtured for years prior to the launch of the offensive. Haftar also sought to capitalize on the grievances of several armed groups from other western cities – including Misrata, Tarhuna and Zintan – that resented Tripoli-based groups that had gradually monopolized revenue-generation mechanisms and infiltrated institutions.
In fact, in September 2018, clashes had erupted between Tripoli-based armed groups on the one hand, and Al-Summoud Batallion from Misrata as well as the Kaniyat from Tarhuna on the other.
The prevalent assumption was that these rifts would supersede any desire to mobilize against Haftar and lend a hand to these factions. Several of these groups were also suspected of having coordinated a possible defection to Haftar’s side should he sweep into Tripoli.
In many ways, Haftar’s rationale illustrated a primitive understanding of the degree of social embeddedness of the bulk of the western Libyan forces that mobilized against his LAAF, their patterns of mobilization, and more broadly the extent to which his offensive – and its potential success – was perceived as an existential threat to their respective communities.
The bulk of the forces that mobilized against Haftar in 2019 shared the same social backbone of the forces that mobilized against Gadaffi in 2011. Cities that experienced 2011 as a “local conflict” – as well as a “civil war” – had emerged from the conflict with semi-cohesive forces.
These forces, while significantly downsized in times of peace, did not disintegrate. While some former “revolutionaries” had returned to civilian life, the social links (whether blood ties or other connections) that bound them to their leaders or fellow fighters had remained dormant and were reactivated by the perceived existential threat that Haftar’s blitzkrieg represented for their respective communities.
Another factor to account for is the time elapsed since the revolution, and the impact of children and teenagers within these communities who had been influenced by revolutionary narratives. Communities that emerged cohesive from 2011 due to their alignment against Gadaffi often shared ideological anchors that collectively defined their struggle.
The stigmatization they experienced from their perceived opponents often served to reinforce these collective boundaries. Among these communities, the younger generation grew up idealizing the idea of a perceived fight against a perceived authoritarian ruler.
Others also had long-standing grievances that stemmed from the death of a relative or friend over the course of the revolution. The confluence of these dynamics meant that an entire generation of recruits existed within these communities for armed factions to tap into when Haftar’s offensive triggered the same sentiments as Gadaffi’s repression had in 2011.
The fact that mobilization occurred along social lines – within communities – also catalysed patterns of recruitment that embedded this younger generation into a “neo-revolution”.
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.