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.
II – Inside the LAAF’s armed networks
Unlike other Libyan armed groups, which remain tethered to their social bases within communities, the LAAF has expanded its territorial control by absorbing new groups into its structure.
In February 2014, Khalifa Haftar announced in a YouTube address that the ‘Libyan army’ was set to ‘rescue’ the nation by removing the General National Congress (GNC) – the first legislative authority of Libya after the fall of Gaddafi.
Haftar had been among the cohort of officers that had supposedly been forced into retirement by the GNC a year earlier. His call to arms fell on deaf ears and resulted in Haftar fleeing to eastern Libya to reach safety.
It was from the east that he would announce the formation of Operation Dignity, a military campaign launched on 16 May 2014 by a loose alliance of armed groups against Islamist-leaning battalions in Benghazi, and claim leadership of Libyan armed forces.
The descent into conflict between Operation Dignity in the summer of 2014, from which the LAAF developed, and Operation Dawn, which mobilized forces in response, led to a governance split with parallel state entities emerging.
Despite being ostracized by the UN-led peace process that formed the Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015, the LAAF alliance emerged as the most capable armed network in Libya, developing a strong hold over eastern Libya and expanding into southern Libya.
Haftar forged the LAAF through alliances with four networks of actors with overlapping interests, including army officers and their armed groups, initially from the revolutionary camp but later from either side of the revolutionary divide; armed elements of the eastern autonomy movement; armed groups fighting Islamist-leaning groups in Benghazi, drawn from eastern tribes and the Saiqa Special Forces; and armed factions drawn from adherents of the growing ultraconservative Madkhali-Salafi trend.
Haftar was effective in moulding his narrative and positioning himself to align with parochial networks, such as the armed elements of the eastern autonomy movement and those fighting Islamist-leaning groups in Benghazi.
These parochial networks possessed strong vertical ties between their leaders and their communities, which allowed them to build and maintain their forces in their locality. However, the leadership of the groups possessed limited horizontal ties to leaders in other areas, inhibiting their ability to form a coherent integrated force or to collaborate effectively.
The Madkhali-Salafi groups, while showing the potential to develop vanguard networks (due to strong horizontal ties through their ideological outlook), still overwhelmingly displayed the characteristics of parochial networks.
Many of the army officers that have allied with Haftar fit the vanguard profile, with strong horizontal ties among leaders developed through their experiences in the military but in many cases relatively weak vertical ties with local communities.
Haftar has sought to cohere and integrate this unwieldy alliance through a combination of narrative-building, coercion and external support.
Since 2014, Haftar has sought to cohere and integrate this unwieldy alliance through a combination of narrative-building, coercion and external support.
The LAAF has displayed considerable ideological dexterity. For example, the framing of Operation Dignity as a project to restore, or resurrect, ‘the army’ to fight against ‘terrorist’ elements was broad enough to resonate with the contradictory interests within the alliance.
For the officers, this operation in Benghazi represented a return to state order and the pursuit of a national project. For the former regime loyalists, it presented a chance to avenge their 2011 defeat.
For all, it represented a means of assembling forces to combat local foes, most notably Islamist-leaning groups. It also tapped into a desire of these factions to be an official or legitimate element of the state.
As the LAAF emerged from its bloody victories in Benghazi and Derna, it needed a new framing to justify its expansion into southern Libya, known as the Fezzan, in 2019 and then towards Tripoli later that year.
Operation Southern Purge in January–March 2019 drew upon the state order narrative once more, but this time with an emphasis on the restoration of order and clamping down on criminality to facilitate the takeover of the region by pro-LAAF elements.
The later Tripoli offensive (2019–20) fused all of the narratives above and was framed as a means to liberate the capital from the yoke of the militias. And, when the offensive collapsed, the LAAF was quick to mobilize nationalist fervour and to agitate against Turkey’s support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) by conjuring historical images of Ottoman conquests as if to show that history was repeating itself.
Elements from the Gaddafi-era armed forces
The LAAF has sought to embrace elements of the Gaddafi-era military that fought on both sides of the revolution.
Haftar was a career officer in the Libyan military prior to his capture by Chadian forces in 1987, when he defected for an ill-fated stint with an exiled Libyan opposition movement.
He participated in the 2011 revolution alongside the rebels in a minor role. Such credentials facilitated the formation of alliances with other prominent commanders who had fought with the rebels, such as Abdul Razzaq al-Nadhouri, who would be appointed chief of staff of the ‘Libyan National Army’ by the House of Representatives in August 2014.
Nadhouri previously headed an armed force made up of rebels and officers who defected from Gaddafi’s security brigade in al-Marj, which would come to be known as Brigade 115, one of the strongest units that joined Operation Dignity at its inception.
Other key recruits included Saqr al-Jarushi, who had been fired as chief of the Libyan air force in 2013. His status ensured that air force officers placed their aircraft under Haftar’s command.
Career officers became leading commanders in the LAAF; for example, Abdul Salam al-Hassi, an officer within Saiqa, who rose to lead its operations room in Gharyan in the initial phase of the Tripoli offensive before being demoted after the operation failed.
Figures such as Nadhouri and Jarushi have made pliant allies for Haftar. Nadhouri has not been central in the decision-making processes since Haftar’s appointment as general commander of the Armed Forces in 2015.
Except for his position as military governor of Bin Jawad-Derna from 2016 to 2018, Nadhouri has generally performed subsidiary tasks such as heading the LAAF-led COVID-19 Committee and Benghazi’s Security Committee.
The latter position is bolstered by his role on the Benghazi Stabilization Committee, which is intended to oversee the reconstruction of the city of Benghazi.
Nadhouri has used his position to rapidly accumulate properties in Benghazi, Tolmeita and al-Marj. The unit he commanded, Battalion 115, is now led by his son, Abdul Fatah, though it is not as prominent as it once was.
From 2016, Haftar sought to integrate Gaddafi loyalist officers into the senior leadership of the LAAF in an attempt to expand his military alliance. Figures such as Mohamed Bin Nayel sought to rally pro-regime elements in the Fezzan, which developed into the 12th Brigade.
Belgasim al-Abaj was deployed to his native Kufra in January 2018 and later to engage more broadly in the Fezzan as head of the Southern Operations Group as the LAAF sought expansion. Another former regime loyalist, al-Mabrouk Sahban, ascended to the leadership of the 12th Brigade following Bin Nayel’s death in 2020.
Others emerged to command prominent units within the LAAF, such as Hassan Maatoug al-Zadma (Battalion 128), Masoud Jeddi (Battalion 116) and Omar Morajea (Tariq Bin Ziyad Brigade).
More is noted about these formations later in this chapter. Each of these leaders had fought on the side of the regime in 2011. The integration of such figures, and Haftar’s outreach to their social bases, presented the opportunity for expansion of the LAAF’s power base at a time when ties with pro-revolutionary elements of the alliance, such as Osama Juweili’s forces in Zintan, had ended.
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.