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.
Benghazi-based armed groups
Haftar’s accords with armed groups from Benghazi represented a marriage of convenience.
Alliances with armed groups drawn from the Awagir tribe – based on the outskirts of Benghazi and represented by leaders such as Faraj Egaim, Ezzedine Wakwak and the brothers Salah and Khalid Bulghib – made up the bulk of Haftar’s fighting force to combat Benghazi’s Islamist groups.
Further fighters were provided by the Saiqa Special Forces. When Operation Dignity launched, Saiqa had more civilian recruits than professional holdovers from the Gaddafi era.
Saiqa’s enlarged ranks added to the manpower deployed in the operation but also considerably weakened the ability of senior commanders to control local forces. Expansion led to the fragmentation of the group.
These developments have led to extreme violence and unconstrained behaviour. The late Saiqa officer Mahmoud al-Werfalli was subject to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant following the conduct of a series of summary executions.
Similar dynamics exist within Ayad al-Fsay’s Awliya al-Dam, which is alleged to be responsible for the disappearance of the House of Representatives member Siham Sergiwa, in July 2019, after she made critical remarks about the LAAF.
Haftar subsequently sought to fragment and/or marginalize these local armed groups through a combination of violence, supplying arms to erstwhile allies and the exploitation of rifts among their leaders to disrupt horizontal ties among them.
These strategies proved effective, in turn constraining the ability of these commanders to build groups that could mobilize horizontally, as a broader constituency.
As a result, local Benghazi groups remained functionally independent but weak. This approach enabled Haftar to remove a prominent and oppositional commander from the Barassa tribe, Faraj al-Barassi, in June 2015.
Senior members of the Awagir tribe subsequently challenged Haftar by accepting leading positions in the GNA, which was formed in December 2015.
Mehdi al-Bargathi, a prominent Awagir commander who had supported Operation Dignity, was appointed GNA defence minister but was sidelined following his alleged connection to a massacre of LAAF-affiliated fighters in Brak al-Shati in 2017.
A further attempt by the GNA to court Awagir support was made in September 2017 when Faraj Egaim was appointed GNA deputy interior minister. However, following his return to Benghazi, multiple attempts were made on his life and forces loyal to Haftar detained him in November the same year.
Following a thawing of relations with Haftar, Egaim re-emerged in July 2019 as the head of a counterterrorism force affiliated with the LAAF.
However, while it has been able to marginalize the leaders of such groups and prevent them from obtaining heavy weaponry, the LAAF must retain a modus vivendi. The careful treatment of Egaim sought to head off his threat without causing more Awagir factions to break away from the LAAF.
Similarly, the LAAF response to the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for the Saiqa officer Werfalli was to detain him and to provide assurances to international actors about an investigation, only to release him later.
As the LAAF’s fortunes deteriorated on Tripoli’s frontlines in 2019, Haftar attempted a rapprochement with Awagir actors. This included outreach to Khalid Bulghib, one of those marginalized in previous years, to re-form his Military Intelligence Support Forces as an auxiliary force to support the offensive. Bulghib refused.
Haftar also leaned on Werfalli to muster further forces for the LAAF, appearing in Bani Walid in April 2020 with cash to aid recruitment.
The inability of the LAAF to provide security in its stronghold of Benghazi has been exposed as elements of the LAAF alliance compete against one another operating outside of the law without any accountability from civilian or LAAF police and prosecutors.
While the impunity of such groups has long been a source of tension, a series of high-profile events from November 2020 onwards illustrated the scale of the problem.
On 10 November 2020, Hanan al-Barassi – a prominent lawyer and critic of the LAAF who had threatened to share evidence implicating Saddam Haftar (Khalifa Haftar’s son) in crimes – was gunned down in Benghazi in broad daylight. On 2 March 2021, a video went viral of Mahmoud al-Werfalli sacking the offices of the Benghazi branch of Toyota.
Over the subsequent two weeks, there were several local meetings of social constituencies demanding investigations into extrajudicial killings, openly challenging Haftar in a way not seen in previous years. On 18 March, the bodies of a number of men were discovered in Benghazi’s Hawari district.
Their hands were bound and each reportedly had been shot in the head. The spiral continued the following week when Werfalli was murdered by unknown masked gunmen in Benghazi.
Reflecting the complex relationship of Werfalli to the LAAF, General Command issued a statement mourning Werfalli’s death while speculation reigned over potential LAAF involvement in the killing. Benghazi’s military prosecutor was reportedly fired for stating that Werfalli was undergoing psychiatric treatment.
These fast-paced developments illustrate that LAAF partners in Benghazi are far from integrated into the LAAF’s structure, remaining a confluence of parochial and increasingly fragmented groups. Some loyalties are extremely weak.
The selection (February 2021) and approval (March 2021) of a new national government was unfolding at the same time as the situation in Benghazi deteriorated.
These dynamics will be analysed in the next chapter, but it should be noted that they are already impacting the security dynamic. On 25 April 2021, the GNU appointed Egaim to the same position in the Ministry of Interior he held previously, seemingly another attempt to dilute Haftar’s hold on power.
The launch of Operation Dignity in May 2014 created a self-fulfilling prophecy by providing a threat that would unite Benghazi’s Islamist-leaning armed groups under the aegis of the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC).
The BRSC seized control over much of Benghazi in July and August 2014, in turn helping to exacerbate the common threat to the groups aligned with Operation Dignity and mobilizing popular support for Haftar.
The assassination of a number of Salafi figures in Benghazi in this period, combined with a hostile relationship towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist-leaning groups provided the rationale for Madkhali-Salafi adherents to join with Operation Dignity.
Some Madkhali elements were interspersed among Haftar’s forces fighting in Benghazi, as was the case within subunits of the Saiqa Special Forces, while others were part of specific Madkhali formations, such as the Salafi Battalion and the Tawhid Brigade.
Madkhali formations, including Tawhid (now restructured and renamed LAAF Battalion 210) and the Salafi Battalion (now incorporated into the Tariq Bin Ziyad Battalion) remain critical elements of the LAAF structure.
Yet, the nature of their integration illustrates that this is not a broad vanguard constituency that has strong horizontal links across the country. The Madkhali fighters in groups such as Battalion 210 are appointed due to tribal affiliation, although some groups are concentrated due to geographical location.
Other groups with a significant Madkhali component include Kufra-based Subul al-Salam and several units drawn from the northwestern coastal cities.
Madkhali-dominated groups have established ties with counterparts across the country, and even across the LAAF–GNA divide. One example of this was when the GNA-affiliated Special Deterrence Force (SDF) sent three ambulances to LAAF-affiliated Subul al-Salam in Kufra in 2017.
In the pivotal city of Sirte, Madkhali-dominated forces – Battalion 604 and Battalion 110 – that were trained by the GNA-aligned and Madkhali-led SDF switched allegiance to the LAAF.
The LAAF was reported in February 2021 to be preparing to establish Tariq Bin Ziyad brigade’s headquarters in the city, presumably to capitalize on the Madkhali ideological ties in the city with the 604 and 110 battalions.
While the networks of Madkhali armed actors are developing, they predominantly remain manifested in localized groups, reflecting their parochial nature.
There are indications that, given time and shared experience, these groups could develop into a national vanguard network based on ideological kinship.
The presence of a well-resourced and externally backed cadre of Madkhali clerics, which has come to dominate the religious authorities in eastern Libya and is seemingly growing in influence in other areas of the country, is strengthening vertical ties between the leaders and the social base of these groups.
Madkhali fighters have been a critical asset in the LAAF’s campaigns since mid-2014 and look set to grow in influence over social and military affairs.
The development of the LAAF’s praetorian units
Critical to Haftar’s attempts to centralize power within the LAAF has been the development of loyalist formations that function akin to a praetorian guard.
Since 2016, many existing units with army and revolutionary origins have been absorbed into such units. Critically, while these brigades seek to some degree to recruit across tribal lines, they are overwhelmingly under the control of Haftar, his family and his kinsmen from the Ferjan tribe.
The terminology can be confusing, however, as some battalions are considerably larger and more powerful than existing brigades, and the establishment of both a series of operations rooms and military zones further complicates the command structure.
Brigade 106 is the largest single group within the LAAF in terms of manpower, equipment and territorial control. It originated in 2014 when it was in charge of Haftar’s personal protection.
It was officially formed in 2016 as a battalion before being substantially expanded in 2018 to the status of a brigade made up of at least 10 battalions from Benghazi and Adjabiya.
Brigade 106 is an elite force that can also draw upon auxiliaries from Salafi groups and eastern tribes. It has been steadily supplied with graduates from the military college since 2016 and very well supplied with arms and materiel, befitting the image of a modern army that Haftar seeks to project.
The leadership of Brigade 106 reflects the duality of the LAAF’s chain of command. Its official commander is Major General Salem Rahil, but Haftar’s son Khalid operates as its de facto leader.
Rahil was promoted in mid-2019 following Brigade 106’s struggles in the Tripoli offensive, where it failed in its pivotal objectives in Zawiya and suffered severe losses before being withdrawn.
The brigade contains an increasing number of subunits that are powerful groups in their own right. The de facto leader of Battalion 155, a subunit of Brigade 106, is Haftar’s distant cousin from Tripoli, Bassem al-Buaishi, despite the fact he has no military training. He is Haftar’s ‘first secretary’ and a trusted adviser.
Another Brigade 106 subunit, Battalion 166, is unofficially led by Ayoub Bousayf al-Ferjani, Haftar’s son-in-law and personal ‘second secretary’ within the General Command. Bousayf emerged from military training in Jordan in 2017 directly with the rank of major.
His previous experience had come from fighting in 2011 with the Ajdabiya-based Mujahid Belgacem Haftar Battalion – named after Khalifa Haftar’s father.
Battalion 166 belongs to the new generation of LAAF praetorian units. It is well equipped and made up of new young recruits who graduated from the LAAF-run military training college in Benghazi, in addition to veteran officers from the Gaddafi-era’s security apparatus. It integrated into Brigade 106 in 2018.
Elsewhere in eastern Libya, the LAAF has sought to consolidate groupings under commanders with strong relations with Haftar. One example is Brigade 73, which was formed in 2018 by amalgamating 11 pre-existing groups stretching from the east of Benghazi to Tobruk, including al-Marj and al-Jabal al-Akhdar.
Brigade 73 was formed around Battalion 276, a unit that comprises a significant number of military officers from the Gaddafi-era and that was among the initial forces to have supported Operation Dignity. Brigade 73 is led by General Ali al-Qataani, who previously commanded Battalion 276.
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.