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 Counter-terrorism Force:
Integrating socially embedded units The Counterterrorism Force (CTF) was established after the defeat of the IS in Sirte, where the terrorist group had established its first caliphate outside of Iraq and the Levant.
In 2016 an operation dubbed “Operation Bunyan Al-Marsous” (BAM) aimed to retake Sirte from IS militants, who had begun to expand their reach into western Libya.
After the success of the American- and British-backed operation, the CTF was officially formed, following a decision by the GNA, as a state-affiliated armed actor at the end of 2016 (after Sirte was liberated). An official decree by Sarraj gave it the broad mandate of “countering terrorism”.
It is worth noting that the CTF was formed against the backdrop of a perceived existential threat – namely the expansion of IS towards the western region and, in particular, towards Misrata.
The mobilization of fighters that formed the bulk of its rank and file was therefore the result of the activation of pre-existing social bonds in a process similar – albeit less acute – to Gadaffi’s threat of repression against Misratan communities five years earlier.
Socially, the CTF was formed as an entity that merged the battalions that took part in the Bunyan Al Marsous Operation. The battalions served as a back-up force throughout the operation. CTF leader Major General Muhammad AlZain is a regular commander who gained prominence in 2011 as one of three major military figures from Misrata to defect from the Gadaffi regime.
At its inception, the CTF was essentially an amalgamation of three brigades that participated in BAM’s operation under his command. It also incorporated volunteers (commonly referred to as support or reserve forces) from Khums, Misrata, Msellata, Tripoli, and Zliten.97 The force is therefore socially embedded in the fabric of Misrata.
Its decision-making, mobilization, and political and military leanings are influenced by social links within the city given the origins of the bulk of its combatants.
Nevertheless, the force has managed to integrate a wide array of combatants; it has also recruited several members who are not from Misrata as part of its rank and file.
In 2017, with financial support from the GNA, the CTF established a training centre for new recruits in Misrata and Khoms (a city east of Tripoli and the site of CTF’s main headquarter).
The CTF trained two batches of graduates in 2017 and 2018, with formal training provided by Italian military personnel.98 Before the Khoms training centre became fully operational, the CTF provided training at Misrata’s Aerial Academy for a group of graduates (special forces) who had British and Italian instructors, as well as American consultants overseeing their capacity building.
In April 2019,the total number of combatants of the force was around 460 – 150 of whom were mobilized full-time, while others formed part of the CTF’s “reserve force”. In April 2019 the CTF mobilized to counter Haftar’s offensive in response to GNA’s Sarraj’s call for general mobilization.
It was one of the first forces from Misrata to join the fighting fronts. As opposed to other forces and brigades from Misrata, the CTF is regularly in a semi-mobilized state due to its mandate to counter terrorism – which requires its members to remain on active duty. Several regular units have therefore never demobilized and were thus on active duty, which enabled its swift deployment.
Indeed, most of the CTF’s regular elements are on full-time shifts that require their presence on a part-time basis. CTF’s “Reserve Force” (or Support Force), however, is only called upon when raids are planned, or in times of acute threat.
Haftar’s offensive, which was interpreted as a threat, triggered a large-scale mobilization centred around the social links of CTF’s leaders and rank and file. To rationalize its participation in the fight against Haftar, the CTF framed Haftar’s attack as an act of terror that threatened social peace and against which it had to mobilize.
The mobilization of the CTF against Haftar is a prime example of a socially embedded formal force mobilizing against a perceived threat to the group’s own community. The embedment of support forces after April 2019 – often recruited on an individual-to-individual basis – also highlights the extent to which political and military developments outside of armed groups’ control can have an impact on these actors’ internal structures.
In this case, the mobilization of Misrata – as a community102 – enhanced the CTF’s cohesion, though it is likely that this change in structure will be temporary owing to the state of active conflict that the group is engaged in.
Over the last nine years, the Libyan security landscape has transformed and fragmented in a way that has mirrored the societal divides that emerged after 2011.
Social rifts that came to the fore in the years following the revolution bled into politics and consequently exacerbated the hybridization that characterized Libya’s security sector after 2011.
Political elites were either powerless to halt the rise of informal security providers in the years that followed the revolution, or actively sponsored this hybridization process by way of co-option or sponsorship.
This bottom-up – and, at times, state-funded – process of hybridization led to the institutionalized fragmentation of armed groups into competing proto-state entities (GNA and LAAF). Most of the armed actors that emerged after the revolution gained, in one way or another, an affiliation with the state – a process that legitimized them while delegitimizing the higher authorities they were affiliated with.
The state lacked the capacity – and at times did not attempt – to make its presence felt in many of the armed groups’ respective communities, thus deputizing them to provide security.
As a result, the level of security provided in certain locales in Libya was not solely dependent upon the competence or internal cohesion of armed groups and their performance; it was also contingent upon the degree of social homogeneity or heterogeneity between armed groups operating in adjacent locales.
This partly explains the eruption of conflicts in various locales after 2011, as many of the areas that had not experienced the revolution as an intra-community conflict saw these rifts emerge in the years that followed, often manifesting themselves as altercations between armed actors with varying degrees of social legitimacy.
In many cases, these intra-community conflicts – and ensuing hybridization – served to reinforce armed group cohesion as actors often attempted to justify their engagement in conflict as a decision influenced by their desire to “protect” communities (at times their own).
Other factors such as leadership, ideology, organization, battle experience, and proximity to the local community also influenced methods and the extent to which these armed actors could access resources (whether legally or illegally).
These factors had a significant effect on the degree to which these actors prioritized security provision, with some using their capabilities in this area as a tool to derive legitimacy and international recognition.
The effect of globalization, international priorities (including counterterrorism and migration), and multilateral or unilateral foreign support to Libyan actors also significantly influenced the ability of actors to build and sustain coalitions.
The processes of diffusion and devolution outlined above hybridized the security sector and, more broadly, governance at large. Continuous hybridization is therefore the main feature of the provision of peace and security.
Designing centrally orchestrated security apparatuses to reform the security sector will not be effective in the short term, if only because of the social polarization, rifts, and grievances that will define Libya’s society in the years to come.
In the short- to medium-term, the state will not be able to exert dominance or control over forces that have infiltrated with the intent of undermining it. While some actors may attempt to manage and reshape some of these armed actors’ relationships, interactions, and alignments, these attempts are likely to be partial or short-lived, particularly if they are built on the idea of demonizing or excluding other segments of society.
An implication of the analysis in this chapter is that internationally supported attempts at reforming the security sector that ignore hybridity – or attempt to fight it – will face difficulties in obtaining positive results at the level of security provision.
Engaging with communities and non-state affiliated institutions is as important as engaging with state authorities, if only because of the capacity and social legitimacy that these actors have.
This should, however, be weighed against the opportunity cost of engagement and consider whether the behaviour of targeted actors enables the establishment of a positive mutual arrangement with the state – one that would be conducive to both security provision and state-building.
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.