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.


Economic dimension

It must be emphasised here that no SSR effort should be approached in a way that ignores economic considerations. Indeed, for several years, most Libya SSR pushes failed to offer a careful, detailed analysis of economic expectations and incentives and how to address such drivers as part of a comprehensive strategy.

On this front, the economic grievances of each given area’s civilian population, not merely those of armed actors, must be taken into account. This is because the latter are often socially embedded in broader communities.

The last few years have seen attempts to consolidate or strengthen existing armed groups responsible for the security of strategic assets or areas, without addressing the socioeconomic expectations and grievances of locally-dominant tribes.

This happened with the Magherba in the Oil Crescent, the Tuareg in the greater Awbari area, and the Ahali and Tebu communities in the Murzuq Basin.

In all these cases, social resentment across a given community always seeped into armed groups hailing from the community in question, and ended up causing a security crisis.

A concrete example is the blockade that engulfed Libya’s largest oilfield, al-Sharara, near Awbari, in December 2018. Two months before the incident, a group of young activists from the Awbari area formed the Fezzan Anger movement.

Their main goal was to make their socioeconomic grievances heard by northern elites and demand greater economic support for the province’s population. Amid negotiations and disruption, Brigade 30, a largely Tuareg unit responsible for protecting al-Sharara, saw these circumstances as an opportunity to exploit the Fezzan Anger movement and pressure the National Oil Company.

The armed group stopped oil production at the field. That incident cost the nation $1.8 billion and played a role in catalysing the LNA’s January 2019 military campaign in the Fezzan. Owing to the above, the economic, or socioeconomic, facet must always be incorporated going forward.

For instance, starting in 2018, the LNA began to cooperate closely with the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked paramilitary compa oil assets in eastern Libya and other areas. From a strict security to Russian mercenaries could conceivably, in some narrow sense, be perceived as an improvement.

Indeed, a destructive attack by a Libyan party like warlord Ibrahim Jadhran, an Ajdabiya native, on the Oil Crescent is less probable if Russian mercenaries are in charge of security there. But such a positive assessment only holds true if one ignores the socioeconomic ramifications of any form of reliance on foreign mercenaries.

The use of foreign elements insulates the Libyan authorities from any sense of accountability towards the local population at large. The latter feels more neglected and that, in turn, makes crises and disruptions more probable over time.

To be viable and stand a chance of success, any given SSR push must be comprehensive and include a socioeconomic mechanism that ensures the incentives for parties involved and grievances of communities are realistically addressed.

Libyan authorities must be pressured into guaranteeing steady socioeconomic investment in traditionally-neglected territories.

Such mechanisms are more likely to make local groups feel less estranged from the state’s security apparatus. Conversely, without sufficient injection of state resources into local communities, no SSR in the area will be stable or conclusive.

Discontent on the part of the wider population will always tend to spill over into the local armed groups and translate into behaviour that is hostile to the state.

Another economic consideration has to do with anti-corruption measures, which sometimes are incorporat international community applied anti-corruption pressure on some Libyan factions while sparing others who engaged in equally illicit schemes.

Such bias is attributable to the fact basichas often been seen as a much higher priority than corruption. It also reflects the political favouritism some nation-states. To avoid this particular pitfall, SSR must always be even-handed regardless of the political orientation of the various players.

The international community must seek to weaken links between armed groups and the illicit economy they profit from in Libya by strengthening institutions as well as international devices that can fight corruption and misappropriation.

Meaningful SSR should minimise bias when combating corruption, even though some of the most corrupt armed groups do sometimes perform a useful role in terms of local or semi-national security provision.

Still, they should not be shown more leniency if corruption is to be fought effectively.

Covid-19 as a game-changer?

By October 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had reached a, if not alarming, scale across all of Libya. Yet, the has not, thus far, triggered meaningful shifts in security governance.

Unquestionably, more time is needed to analyse thoroughly and in detail the various responses to the pandemic across Libya. But some data points already available in the east, south and west, indicate that armed groups, by and large, have failed to view the Covid-19 challenge as an opportunity to play a constructive role in society.

Instead, indications show that, through their existing links with businesses, many of them have approached the Covid-19 situation and the requirements related to it, as a money-making opportunity for themselves, while delivering a sub-par service to the population. In some cases, no service is delivered at all, despite being charged to public institutions.

This form of abuse is possible because state authorities, which have mobilised out-of-budget funds to face the pandemic, display a tendency to outsource Covid-19-linked activities in the same way they have been outsourcing day-to-day security to informal or semi-formal groups.

Examples of tasks, services or contracts armed groups have been able to capture in 2020 through their business connections include hospital protection (needed to avoid crowds); new checkpoints (to impose curfews, check on the wearing of masks, etc.); additional sterilisation and garbage-collection (to burn potentially infected items, for instance). These tasks, although seldom performed efficiently, have tended to be charged at artificially high prices.

In addition to the largely parasitic schemes outlined above, some armed groups have continued to use their strength to obtain privileged access to health facilities. The unhelpful behaviour of armed groups reflects their degree of alignment with political players who have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo.

In the summer of 2020, for the first time in several years, Libyan cities witnessed social protests caused by several grievances, including the Libyan authorities’ failure to adequately respond to the threat of Covid-19. These demonstrations primarily involved disgruntled and relatively apolitical youth.

They can, in some ways, be viewed as an organic, bottom-up process whose aim is not just to force an improvement in services, but also disrupt existing power dynamics. The responses by security forces to these expressions of dissent have ranged from repression to tacit support, highlighting the disparities in their relationships with local communities.

Armed groups that have chosen to repress protests using violence have largely done so by way of insulating themselves from local communities, relying more on institutionally-bestowed legitimacy and state-derived revenue generation mechanisms — as opposed to social legitimacy – for the sake of continued relevance in the realm of security governance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, those with close links to local communities generally share their grievances and discontent over governance deficiencies. Analysing the response of armed parties to this pandemic-induced development speaks to the fact that several of them may effectively have a vested interest in entrenching and maintaining the existing forms of institutional dysfunction.

Taking into account these relative discrepancies in the stance of armed groups has relevance for SSR. They provide yet another indicator by which to pre-emptively identify armed groups likely to resist a holistic reform process focusing on professionalisation, transparency and accountability.


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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