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.


Role and Influence of External Players in SSR

Libyan society has been, with no meaningful interruption, caught in a civil war since 2014. Concretely, this means the overwhelming majority of Libya’s leaders and politically relevant elites are – and will likely remain – deeply committed to making sure their own faction or party prevails by forcibly defeating its enemies in the conflict even if that wreaks irreversible destruction.

This partisanship, continually fuelled by some foreign states, has had direct consequences for the prospects of valid SSR efforts by Libyans without a somewhat neutral framework.

As a result, unless Libyans receive support through strong engagement, guidance and supervision from the UN, Libyan elites are unlikely to pursue a genuine SSR initiative across Libya’s entire security landscape. Instead, a plethora of separate SSR pushes will focus on limited parcels of territory in uncoordinated ways, and the risk of fighting between factions will persist – an unproductive scenario similar to what has damaged Libya since 2011.

This is not at all to say local players can be excluded from the process. Once the UN and formal Libyan authorities have approved an SSR framework, and committed to it, local players must be involved in both the design and implementation.

Without their buy-in or sense of ownership, any reform process will lack viability. This means non-Libyan planners must strike a delicate balance between two typical pitfalls. One is the illusion an entirely Libyan process can achieve proper SSR.

The other is the illusion Libyan players on the ground can be treated as mere subjects of such processes, rather than drivers and essential partners.

Some foreign states, in all likelihood, will continue acting as major spoilers in Libya SSR for many more years. As a result, an end to foreign meddling cannot be adopted as a prerequisite. In fact, foreign interference in itself is not inherently unfavourable to SSR in a pluralistic setting.

If only for selfish reasons, Turkey is incentivised to pursue a relatively authentic form of SSR in northwest Libya, as it needs stability there. The same thing can be said about Egypt in eastern Libya. Yet, in all cases, the other foreign states (such as the UAE and Russia) that remain intent on denying their military involvement in Libya constitute a greater obstacle.

Their policies of systematic denial make it impossible to debate some of the problems affecting Libya’s security. If a given SSR initiative features no forum to allow explicit, candid dialogue with all meaningful foreign meddlers, then that SSR initiative is almost certain to be derailed by clandestine interference.

Openness of discussion about all foreign meddlers behind closed doors, in a diplomatic setting, is a more urgent objective than any unrealistic attempt to stop foreign interference per se. By way of example, it is possible to look briefly at Turkey’s overt military mission in northwest Libya and its foray in the realm of SSR.

Indeed, the loose coalition of armed actors aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) that managed to prevail over the LNA in the first half of 2020 in north-western Libya now benefits from the military protection of the Turkish state.

Those armed groups are actually pursuing agendas that are mutually contradictory. Moreover, although Turkey’s declared SSR intentions are genuine to some degree, it is unlikely to adopt a thorough, uniform approach to the GNA’s entire territory.

For several reasons, including economic, Ankara will tend to view SSR implementation in some areas as a high priority for its own interests, while neglecting other areas. These parameters, taken together, make SSR prospects under Turkish supervision difficult and uncertain – but not impossible.

At the time of writing, Turkey was backing the ongoing formation of a new “Joint Force” as part of what is said to be a broader SSR effort in Tripolitania. Various clues suggest pro-Turkish sentiment and other ideological considerations may affect who is included in the Joint Force and who is not.

Beyond the Joint Force, in early-September, Salah Eddine al-Namrush became the GNA’s Minister of Defence. Namrush, who worked closely with Ankara during the second half of LNA’s April 2019 – June 2020 offensive, visited Turkey several times.

Turkish officials have announced an ambitious restructuring of the GNA’s armed forces, including the Navy and Air Force. All these qualify as SSR efforts. Furthermore, Turkey’s drones support the Ministry of Defence.

Indeed, when a serious clash erupted in late September 2020 in Tajura, a neighbourhood located on the eastern flank of Tripoli, Namrush ordered the dismantlement of at least one of the two protagonists and deployed a third armed group in an effort to impose order. In addition, Turkish drones hovered over the site of the clashes, thus acting as a deterrent.

This shows how the Turkish mission in north-western Libya is being used to help the GNA project power as part of its attempts to shape the security players in the greater Tripoli area. Similarly, the several thousand Syrian mercenaries garrisoned in military camps near the capital can also be used by the Turkish state as a means of bolstering the GNA’s authority as it pursues its SSR efforts.

The latter will stand a greater chance of succeeding if Turkey stays away from political favouritism and, instead, manages to be inclusive. Lack of neutrality or inclusiveness is a potential danger. For instance, Turkey may potentially back the creation of a new Islamist-leaning force in north-western Libya, which would cause further polarisation there.

The international community can help avoid this by being part of the SSR process and working closely with Turkey, whose first priority, for the time being, remains stability rather than ideology. Another risk would be to see Turkey help the GNA form and train units with an emphasis on combat readiness, when Libya’s most acute need is for robust policing or gendarmerie-type forces.

The Libyan Civil Conflict and SSR Considerations up to 2020

The decade since 2011 has seen about a dozen security-related initiatives often portrayed by their instigators as a form of SSR. From that experience, a series of observations and considerations related to SSR can be articulated:

A poor track record

None of the security initiatives in Libya since 2011 comply with the internationally agreed SSR paradigm. In fact, they were mostly partisan efforts intended to gain the upper hand in an active conflict, often disguised as SSR interventions.

Only a couple of initiatives feature scattered elements worthy of proper SSR practice. By global standards, these initiatives have produced poor results across the board. Nevertheless, lessons can be derived here for future SSR purposes.

Many of the past security initiatives suffered from pursuing integration efforts on an armed-coalition level rather than small-unit or individual-member level. They failed to create compelling enough incentives to co-opt armed-group leaders.

They also failed to establish clear lines of authority, while introducing unjustifiable salary disparities and neglecting to ensure adequate geographical representation in newly-constituted, or -integrated, security forces. These all represent fail factors that must be avoided going forward.

Hybridity everywhere

A great many armed groups in Libya warrant being called ‘hybrid’ in the sense they continue behaving as partly independent non-state actors while maintaining a formal position in state institutions, such as the Interior Ministry or the Defence Ministry.

This phenomenon, observable both in the east and the west, effectively amounts to a modus vivendi between state and non-state authority. That is the definition of hybridity.

A large number of informal armed groups do receive funds from the nation’s public treasury, including in the form of monthly wage monies for individual members. Yet, the origin of funding is not the only source of hybridity in Libya’s security landscape.

Hybridity also stems from the lack of clarity characterising the command-and-control channels. Quite often, armed groups respond to informal lines of authority distinct and different from the formal hierarchy that exists on paper.

Hybridity can also be found in the lack of integration and diversion of personnel. Some armed groups enjoying formal recognition do not concentrate on security provision and some entirely informal armed groups do assist the state in security provision.

Owing to its ubiquitous nature across Libya, hybridity of security players must be accepted as a starting point. Planners must also accept the degree of hybridity varies from one unit to another. Knowing this, the purpose of SSR is to gradually reduce that degree of hybridity on a case-by-case basis, either by integrating or dismantling the various armed groups.

For instance, to the west of Tripoli, on 9 July 2020, the Fursan Janzur group was involved in clashes with another group called Awlad Fakar, resulting in several deaths, none of whom were civilians. Both armed groups involved in this violent score-settling incident are known to receive funds from the government.

In this example, the two players are not equally close to the formal state in general, or the Interior Ministry in particular. The fact the Interior Ministry did not treat both armed groups in exactly the same manner is not a major obstacle. While it must be mitigated, political favouritism cannot possibly be eliminated altogether.

Given the above, it is important for any SSR planner to introduce and use a grading system to help measure the alignment of each unit with the notional state, in relative instead of absolute terms. Some groups undermine the authority of the latter on a frequent basis while receiving funds from it and belonging formally to a ministry.

These constitute a greater threat than those whose behaviour is more consistent with the central authorities’ agenda. In this case, SSR will consist in constricting or dismantling the former, while attempting to integrate the latter.

An absolutist approach to SSR that would see all irregular armed groups equally is unrealistic.

Not about capacity building

Moreover, most of these initiatives focused strongly on building capacity without much thought given to stimulating the quality and harmony of security governance, let alone accountability. Another recurring flaw through the years has been a lack of clarity about the force these new trainees were supposed to join.

Recent examples include training programmes offered by Turkey and Jordan to cadets from northwest and northeast Libya, respectively. In the best case, this type of initiative increases existing technical capacity in some quarters of the security apparatus.

However, it seldom addresses the main SSR challenge, which is to increase coordination, cohesion, coherence and overall discipline, while reducing partiality and informal affiliations in the system.

Failure to adopt such a comprehensive approach leads to action by international players being either partisan or limited in nature. In turn, this exacerbates the fragmentation of Libya’s security landscape rather than reducing it. These elements represent fail factors in terms of their durability and legitimacy.

to continue


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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