The Middle East and North Africa region is increasingly dominated by non-state armed groups wielding significant military and governance power. European governments need a deeper engagement strategy to draw these powerful actors into inclusive political processes and power-sharing structures that can help stabilise the region.
The Case of “Libyan Arab Armed Forces”
By Emadeddin Badi
Libya’s domestic conflict, compounded by geopolitical rivalries, has given rise to several powerful non-state armed groups, chief among them the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).
Khalifa Haftar, leader of the LAAF and a former general in Qaddafi’s army, has ambitions to establish a quasi-military dictatorship that resonate with several other states in the Middle East and North Africa.
The LAAF is perhaps Libya’s most high-profile practitioner of hybrid security governance, conducted through a mixture of formal security institutions and informal armed groups.
One of the country’s most powerful non-state actors, the LAAF is built around the personality of Haftar and co-opts local grievances in the service of his personal ambitions, aiming to either subordinate or conquer state institutions.
The LAAF’s overtly militarised approach to politics aligns it with the regional goals of its external supporters, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Despite the LAAF’s indigenous Libyan character, its capabilities and modus operandi are a by-product of this foreign backing.
Engulfing the State
Since 2014, the LAAF has become entrenched in eastern Libya as a parallel security institution, with Haftar gradually co-opting various forms of political and economic activity in the region. His ‘army’ is more akin to a franchise with roughly 20,000 affiliated fighters.
The bulk of these fighters are members of tribal or neighbourhood militias over which Haftar can only exercise command and control when their interests align.
They also include foreign mercenaries, most of them from Sudan, Chad, and Russia. The LAAF’s militarised model of governance is exemplified by its replacement of elected municipal mayors with military figures in areas under its control – which provides the group with influence on, and oversight of, the local population.
The LAAF has taken on some of the traditional roles of central governments, such as the provision of social services, the arbitration of disputes, local governance, and even the management of eastern Libya’s response to covid-19.
This speaks to the LAAF’s ability to cement its position by co-opting local grievances on issues related to insecurity, socio-economic disenfranchisement, and centralisation. For instance, in January, the group justified an oil embargo by citing local frustration with the distribution of energy revenue across the country.
Haftar has sought to use his position of strength, principally through his coercive tools, to present himself as the de facto political leader of eastern Libya and a rival to President Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
Publicly, Haftar says his mission is driven by a need to regain control of the state from Islamists, whom he blames for Libya’s post-revolutionary chaos. But, even in his public pronouncements, he does not hide his desire to control the country.
In pursuit of his ambitions, Haftar has imposed himself on political institutions across eastern Libya. This was demonstrated by the decision of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives – Libya’s parliament and the main competitor of the GNA – to promote him to the rank of field marshal.
The move made Haftar Libya’s most senior officer, despite the House of Representatives’ clear inability to exercise civilian oversight of his activities.
Haftar’s strategy of seeking concessions from state institutions to gain legitimacy and then subordinating them was also apparent in diplomacy on Libya in 2018.
That year, an attempt to manufacture a power-sharing deal between Haftar and the Tripoli-based GNA began with his efforts to legitimise the LAAF as the country’s main military force – in what became known as the Cairo Process.
From there, he participated in international conferences in Paris, Palermo, and Abu Dhabi with the aim of reaching a compromise with the GNA that would formalise his leadership of Libya’s security sector and his influence over the political process.
In April 2019, after failing to achieve these aims, Haftar attacked Tripoli with the support of Middle Eastern backers.
Controlling the Economy
Today, the LAAF remains Libya’s only armed coalition whose infrastructure for controlling territory directly competes with that of the state. This is most visible in the economic sphere, where the LAAF has created affiliated institutions to finance its activities.
The LAAF operates a sophisticated revenue generation machine and has routinely coerced the House of Representatives into passing laws that intentionally blur the line between legal and illegal economic practices.
The many local armed groups affiliated with the LAAF leverage its status to dominate their local areas and extract rents from the population. Meanwhile, the LAAF has forced the House of Representatives to create the Military Investment Authority, which provides the group with some control over the private sector, including in property rights and export commodities.
The Benghazi-based Eastern Central Bank allocated one-third of its funds to the LAAF between 2016 and 2018, once again highlighting the group’s leverage over institutions in eastern Libya.
This model has enabled the LAAF leadership and its local affiliates to capture formal and informal sources of revenue while blaming the civilian authorities for shortcomings in public services.
Moreover, it has allowed Haftar to build up powerful patronage networks. He uses advanced weaponry, his national agenda, promises of status and riches, and the trappings of an internationally recognised institution as Libya’s national military-in-waiting to gain influence over the country’s multitude of highly localised armed groups.
Haftar’s rise to power would not have been possible without extensive support from the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and France. While Haftar has co-opted local grievances to gain support and legitimacy, his ability to galvanise and coerce local armed and political groups flows from the substantial material, diplomatic, and military backing he receives from abroad.
This includes sophisticated propaganda campaigns and lobbying efforts to prop him up domestically and internationally, culminating in the red-carpet treatment he has received in several Western capitals.
Covertly, his backers have refurbished airbases, deployed fixed-wing aircraft, and dispatched drones to support his military operations.
They have also facilitated his campaign to capture territory by supplying him with troops and advanced military equipment – including US-made missiles, Chinese-made laser-guided artillery shells, and Russian-made air-defence systems.
Haftar and the LAAF have adopted some of the political narratives, diplomatic positions, and ideological tenets of their external backers, translating them to fit their Libyan mission.
Since the inception of the LAAF, Haftar has adopted the anti-Islamist narrative of Egypt and the UAE. This has allowed these states to portray his operations as part of a regional campaign against an existential threat, while enabling Haftar to delegitimise his opponents as “terrorists”.
Even in the face of recent military setbacks, he has not lost the support of his most committed political backer, the UAE. Egypt, for its part, has opted to moderate its relationship with the ailing general, prioritising engagement with alternative military and political figures instead.
Haftar’s backers have benefited from his ability to portray their interests as key elements of his own project.
The LAAF’s operation to gain control of southern Libya – which it presented to its domestic audience as a campaign to drive out foreign mercenaries – pushed several Chadian groups across the border, allowing the French air force to target them.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s recent intervention against the LAAF allowed Haftar to secure new allies in countries that aim to counter Turkish influence, such as Greece.
The LAAF has long perceived its relations with European states as a means of gaining legitimacy and direct diplomatic and material support for its campaign against the GNA. But the tide may now be turning against Haftar, requiring European states to recalibrate their engagement with groups in Libya.
While many Europeans previously saw the LAAF as Libya’s sole professional military institution, its conduct during the failed assault on Tripoli and the numerous war crimes it has allegedly committed prompted many European governments to curtail their relationships with Haftar.
Recent European delegations to Libya have routinely visited Sarraj and the speaker of the House of Representatives while refusing to meet with Haftar. This has led him to adopt a more aggressive posture in a bid to protect his interests, such as by recently detaining Italian fishing vessels.
Haftar increasingly views European countries through the lens of short-term, transactional arrangements rather than long-term strategic alignment.
European states should recognise that the LAAF is not a national military-in-waiting, and that Haftar has become little more than a vehicle for foreign intervention.
By acknowledging that he acts as a spoiler and that they need to contain him to advance a political process, they could begin to address the root causes of the instability that enabled his rise. Yet, rather than entirely ending contact with the LAAF, Europeans need to broaden their engagement with groups in eastern Libya.
They should set out plans for a new dialogue and institutional unification between eastern and western Libya that do not centre on Haftar. This would constrain his ability to sabotage talks, and would help leverage the LAAF’s dependence on foreign support to reform the group.
Emadeddin Badi is a Libyan consultant and researcher specialising in conflict, hybrid security, governance, and development. He is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Program and a senior analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.