Tim Eaton

This paper examines these challenges through a socio-institutional analysis that views the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), and the state structures it engages with, as networks.


In recent years, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), under the command of Khalifa Haftar, has dominated authorities in eastern Libya, expanded into southern Libya and sought to capture the capital, Tripoli.

Unlike other armed groups, the LAAF has increased its territorial control and absorbed new, diverse forces into its structure.

However, the challenge of uniting and integrating this unwieldy alliance through a combination of narrative-building, coercion and external support has proven extremely difficult.

This is mainly due to the contradictory political goals of the various factions that make up the LAAF.

The March 2021 selection of a new Government of National Unity (GNU) has broken the LAAF’s hold over the networks of power within civilian authorities in areas under its control.

After once appearing on the cusp of dominating Libya’s political system, the LAAF and Haftar now face being isolated from government and political power.


  • On the eve of its offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) of Khalifa Haftar appeared set to dominate the Libyan political system. Unlike other armed groups, which remained tethered to their social bases within communities, the LAAF expanded its territorial control and absorbed new, diverse forces into its structure. As it developed, early allies were sidelined and lost influence while opponents were treated with brutality.
  • Although the LAAF has a formal chain of command, power lies in the hands of Haftar and his close associates. It is best understood as an alliance of networks of varying composition:
      • The strongest parts of the LAAF are those integrated elements, or praetorian units, that operate under the direct control of Haftar and his circle.
      • A significant proportion of the LAAF is formed of ‘parochial’ networks (with close ties to their local social bases) that operate as franchises; their leadership has limited collaboration with other network leaders beyond Haftar’s inner circle.
      • Units inspired by the ultraconservative Madkhali-Salafi movement form a significant and growing component of the LAAF. They are currently prevalent in localized parochial groups, though they have the potential to develop into a national ‘vanguard’ network (with strong ties based on their ideological kinship).
  • Since 2014, Haftar has sought to cohere and integrate this unwieldy alliance through a combination of narrative-building, coercion and external support. However, the LAAF has not evolved into an integrated organization owing to the contradictory political goals and motivations of its component parts and the predominant role of personal relationships.
  • Haftar has penetrated and subverted the fragmented networks of the hollowed out eastern Libyan authorities, which are bereft of vertical ties to clearly distinguishable social bases, dominating the ‘state’ in eastern Libya with impunity from 2015 to 2021.
  • The failure of the Tripoli offensive, and subsequent retreat, has imperilled LAAF gains. Internal tensions within the LAAF’s alliance have become increasingly apparent as security has deteriorated in the eastern city of Benghazi.
  • The March 2021 creation of a new Government of National Unity, the first unified national government in Libya since 2014, endangers Haftar’s capture of institutions and resources in the east. The ongoing reformulation of alliances sets the stage for a potentially violent re-contestation of power that could see the unity of the LAAF crumble.
  • External support has been critical to the development of the LAAF and is indispensable for its maintenance. Dependence on foreign mercenaries and external states is now greater than ever. Consequently, Haftar is highly vulnerable to shifts in the policies of his external backers.

I – Network analysis of Libyan armed groups

Libyan armed groups should be viewed as networks of actors that traverse the political, economic and security spheres rather than discrete sets of armed actors.

The proliferation of armed groups amid and following Libya’s 2011 civil war received significant attention from analysts. After the downfall of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, researchers published detailed studies examining the social origins of the diverse range of fighting units that fought against the regime and the challenges of integrating them into the new state security architecture.

In contrast, after the governance split of 2014 – when rival legislatures and governments emerged in the east and west of the country – the security space received comparatively little attention.

More recently, research into this area has increased with the publication of a series of in-depth papers assessing the trajectory of the country’s armed groups, their evolution and the nature of their relationship to state authority, the communities that they claim to represent, and their models of revenue generation. 

These studies have sought to understand why the ‘state’ – despite direct sponsorship and nominal integration of the majority of these groups under state structures – has been unable to reform the security sector and establish a coherent chain of command for the country’s national military.

Researchers have explored when and how groups have mobilized, from collective action in the face of unified threats to the protection of narrow interests and revenue sources.

At the heart of this research are two areas of focus: the first relates to the nature of state authority in Libya – or the lack thereof, particularly in light of the civil war – while the second pertains to the role of armed groups within society.

This paper examines these challenges through a socio-institutional analysis that views the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), and the state structures it engages with, as networks.

The findings show how LAAF leader Khalifa Haftar has forged alliances in the security space as well as the public and private sectors, and demonstrate what this approach may mean for the future of the LAAF.

Situating Libya’s different armed groups within a socio-institutional understanding of the state and society is complicated by the current fragmented security situation and the degree of social embeddedness and fluidity of many of these forces.

A better way of conceiving of these groups is to consider them as networks competing against other networks for power in an increasingly divided operating environment rather than units of armed groups formed by discrete sets of actors and interests.

Such a framing also helps to compare the structures of armed groups beyond the classical distinctions of regular and irregular forces as well as their interests outside the military realm.

A socio-institutional understanding of Libyan armed groups as networks can also aid what Wolfram Lacher has dubbed the need to ‘re-socialize’ armed groups. An enduring feature of many Libyan armed groups is their social embeddedness within communities, particularly in areas with high social cohesion.

The socio-institutional framework developed by Paul Staniland can be used to distinguish between armed organizations based upon the development of horizontal ties between leaders and vertical ties between leaders and a social base.

While Staniland’s approach focuses squarely on insurgent actors, it has utility here as a tool to enable an analysis of organizational power and to understand the potential evolution or devolution of armed groups more broadly.

Types of networks and their features

Horizontal ties link people across space and connect different geographic and social sites. They are formed between individuals from beyond a single social and geographic locale. Strong horizontal linkages among leaders underpin collective action and interaction among geographically mobile leaders who are not fixed to a particular local community.

Vertical ties are created by relations of information, trust and belief that link organizers to local communities. Organizers can use these to build or sustain political, economic or social projects in these communities.

Integrated networks:

  • Leadership unity and discipline at the centre;
  • Formal mechanisms to incorporate and socialize new members; and
  • Leaders and foot soldiers are connected through institutions.

Vanguard networks:

  • Tight leadership that creates central institutions but fragile local control;
  • Clear political guidelines, as well as the production and reproduction of ideological visions; and
  • Emerge when strong horizontal and weak vertical pre-war social ties have been mobilized by rebel leaders.

Parochial networks:

  • Central leader lacks consistent control over main commanders as the group resembles a coalition of distinct sub-organizations;
  • Leaders draw on vertical linkages to local communities without strong horizontal ties to one another; and
  • Local embeddedness, drawn from pre-war vertical ties that are converted into local units and factions.

Fragmented networks:

  • Cannot routinely achieve organizational control at either the central or local levels; and
  • Recruitment of subgroups with nowhere else to go and diffuse collections of fighters undermine local control.

Network analysis of the LAAF

Since asserting leadership over a loose alliance of armed groups in 2014, Khalifa Haftar has built a military alliance that held a strong grip over all aspects of life in eastern Libya, empowered allies to dominate the security landscape in southern Libya and almost succeeded in capturing the capital, Tripoli.

The nature of the Haftar-dominated LAAF has, however, been a point of contention. For its Libyan supporters, it is simply ‘the army’: a national state force. For its international supporters the LAAF is, at least, a viable partner.

For its detractors, however, it resembles a collection of militias of varying composition. For most analysts, the claim that the LAAF constitutes an army does not hold up to scrutiny.

While some of its elements resemble ‘regular’ units, the majority of the LAAF consists of groups that have rallied on a tribal and geographic basis, along with a substantial contingent that have mobilized along ideological (Salafi) lines.

Power clearly lies in the hands of Haftar and his close associates, who retain authority and operate outside the formal chain of command, which has led observers to describe the LAAF as a ‘family enterprise’.

This paper will use the typologies developed by Staniland to assess the LAAF rather than getting caught up in the complexities of adopting labels that make normative assumptions about the LAAF’s relationship to state authority – i.e. focusing on whether it is a ‘state’ or ‘non-state’ actor – or assessments over the application of terms that are used to either connote legitimacy – such as ‘army’ – or used pejoratively – such as ‘militia’.

A socio-institutional framing helps to identify different types of networks that comprise the LAAF and its supporters, and how they have evolved over time.

This shows that the LAAF is a very different organization in different parts of Libya and is, in fact, an unwieldy alliance of forces with contradictory interests and ideological outlooks.

It also helps to explain the relative successes and failures of Haftar’s attempts to develop the LAAF as an integrated organization, while providing clues to its potential trajectory.

This paper is part of a Chatham House project on Hybrid Armed Actors in the Middle East and North Africa that aims to analyse the developing role of these actors in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. It is the second in a planned series of papers on each of the three country contexts, with a respective focus on the Popular Mobilization Forces, Hezbollah and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces.


Tim Eaton is a senior research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, where he focuses on the political economy of the Libyan conflict. An Arabic speaker, He previously worked for BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, on projects in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and helped to set up and manage its Libya bureau from 2013 to 2014.







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