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.
Expansion through the ‘franchise’ model
Beyond eastern Libya, the LAAF operates a franchising model whereby individual commanders are able to reach an accommodation with Haftar and his inner circle to expand their forces under the aegis of the LAAF.
This strategy mirrors the early engagement between Haftar and parochial groups in eastern Libya during the development of Operation Dignity.
These franchises are not a natural fit with the LAAF’s organizational structure of military zones and operations rooms, which perhaps explains the regular shifts in the LAAF’s formal structure. Analysts have variously described the LAAF as something like a Ponzi scheme or a franchising model.
Indeed, incorporation into the alliance brings access to financial resources as well as technical and operational support from external states.
Perhaps the best example of the LAAF franchise model is the development of Battalion 128. It was set up in September 2016 by Hassan Maatuq al-Zadma, a young military police major trained under the Gaddafi regime.
With private funding he rallied a core group of fighters in his hometown of Harawa, mainly from the Awlad Suleiman tribe, to protect it against incursions by Islamic State (ISIS), which at that time controlled Sirte.
The alliance with Maatuq presented an opportunity for the LAAF leadership to build a bridge to the Awlad Suleiman, and consequently the southern region known as the Fezzan.
In the context of the LAAF’s westward expansion strategy, this alliance reflected the changing political situation at the time, namely the LAAF’s outreach to Gaddafi loyalist constituencies.
Initially called the 2nd Company of Battalion 204, Maatuq’s group became Battalion 128 in June 2017, when it formally integrated into the LAAF. It has since grown into one of the alliance’s largest and most influential forces.
Since 2018, Battalion 128 has been based near Hun, Jufra. Through its many companies it also has a presence in other parts of Libya, including in Ajdabiya, Sebha, Ubari, Uwainat and Ghat.
The core membership of Battalion 128 stems from Harawa, 70 kilometres east of Sirte, where Maatuq recruited relatives and fellow members of his Awlad Suleiman tribe.
Most other ‘first generation members’ are also from the Greater Sirte or Ajdabiya areas and include many Zway tribe members. As the battalion expanded, recruiting individual fighters and incorporating pre-existing groups in different parts of the country, it became far more diverse, integrating Warfalla, Majabra, Hamamla, Ahali, Hasawna, Tuareg, Tawargha and others.
Before they joined the battalion, some of these groups were operating as auxiliaries. From 2017, Mahamid, Tuareg and other auxiliary fighters from southern and central Libya were recruited for military operations. Maatuq has also been hosting fighters from two Sudanese rebel groups at the battalion’s Jufra base.
Battalion 128’s expansion accelerated in 2019 in the context of the Tripoli offensive, which most of its companies took part in. Since its creation, its structure has been modified frequently; new units (companies) were set up for specific operations and contexts or to reward auxiliary fighters, and some of them have been restructured and renamed.
The battalion has in some cases opportunistically preyed on armed groups that were sidelined by the LAAF’s advances, taking over some of their elements.
This strategy has been particularly visible in Sebha and Ubari. Battalion 128’s ‘acquisition’ of fighters in western Libya is also helping its expansion. Mohamed Abu Nuwara, one prominent field commander, stems from Zawiya.
Battalion 128 may have the greatest geographic reach of all LAAF forces. Through the incorporation of smaller groups from areas as far apart as Ajdabiya and Ghat, it has influence across a vast area as well as in many tribes and communities.
The LAAF command has facilitated this expansion through the provision of resources and security mandates. Indeed, Battalion 128 was instrumental in the LAAF’s progressive expansion into the Fezzan, aided by the group’s ties to Awlad Suleiman in Sebha.
It gained visibility at the start of 2019 when it was among the few non-Fezzan LAAF-affiliates taking part in Operation Southern Purge.
The relationships between the LAAF and its franchises are underpinned by mutual interest: the horizontal ties between Haftar’s inner circle and franchise commanders are personalized rather than institutionalized. This leaves them prone to fragmentation.
Such dynamics are illustrated by the recruitment of Masoud Jeddi’s forces into the LAAF. Jeddi’s armed groups have shifted affiliation in accordance with the prevailing power structure at the national level, illustrating a transactional approach to forming alliances.
A low-ranking police officer in the Gaddafi era who fought for the regime in 2011, Jeddi gained a foothold in Sebha using Salafi networks and cultivating a public image of efficient law enforcement after 2011.
He co-founded in early 2012 the Faruq Battalion, a policing entity that was notorious for its tough detention practices. This was dissolved in 2013 when Jeddi set up a sub-branch of the SDF in Sebha with the help of the SDF Tripoli and its leader, Abdul Raouf Kara.
Between 2014 and 2017, the SDF was broadly aligned with the Libya Dawn camp and the Misratan Third Force in the Fezzan (both antagonistic towards the LAAF). But, as Haftar shifted his focus to the Fezzan and put his weight behind the late Mohamed Bin Nayel at the start of 2017, Jeddi pledged allegiance to the LAAF and, while maintaining connections to SDF Sebha, established a new entity: Battalion 116.
Battalion 116 has become one of the LAAF’s most powerful elements in the Fezzan despite its blurred mandate, uncertainties over its official formation, limited professional training and widespread allegations of Jeddi’s involvement in illicit practices.
In this incarnation, the group has become less outwardly religious. It comprises largely fighters with limited military training and, while it had a mixed tribal composition when it was part of the SDF structure, its composition is considerably less diverse today with the majority of its fighters being from the Awlad Suleiman tribe.
Since 2018, Battalion 116 has been involved in a succession of LAAF military campaigns in southern and central Libya and in Tripoli. Over the course of Operation Southern Purge, Battalion 116 gained ground within Sebha as the LAAF command reallocated security mandates.
It took part in the controversial Murzuq offensive alongside Battalion 128 and other smaller contingents. During 2019 several new units were set up under Battalion 116, from Jufra to Tarhuna, likely in an attempt to diversify the make-up of the force.
These new units formed a significant contingent of Battalion 116’s deployment to Tripoli’s frontlines. However, Jeddi’s history of working with military actors across the spectrum raises questions over the sustainability of his relationship with the LAAF.
Intermediaries: Network brokerage
The LAAF has sought to identify individuals who can act as brokers with other networks of communities and armed factions to negotiate alliances.
This has occurred in different guises, such as through the appointment of commanders with relationships with social leaders – such as General Belgasim al-Abaj – as well as through non-military figures.
Saleh al-Latyush, a Magharba tribal leader based in Benghazi, was a pivotal figure in negotiating the transition of control of the ‘oil crescent’ – the region comprising much of Libya’s oil and gas infrastructure – from commanders associated with Ibrahim Jadhran to LAAF-affiliated commanders.
Naji al-Moghrabi, an LAAF officer who commanded Battalion 298 and also hails from the Magharba tribe, was brought in to head the Petroleum Facilities Guard associated with the LAAF and the eastern authorities.
The LAAF has also sought to reach out to religious figures. Its relationship with the prominent Madkhali-Salafi preacher Tariq al-Durman (also known as Abu al-Khatab) in particular appears critical to the maintenance of support from Madkhali-dominated armed groups drawn from the Nafusa mountain city of Zintan and the northwestern coastal cities of Sabratha and Surman.
This includes the al-Adiyat Brigade that is reported to take Durman’s orders. Its fighters seek to position themselves as an elite strike force and were active on the frontlines in the 2019 Tripoli offensive. Durman also maintains a strong relationship with a group akin to a popular police force named the Committee of the 200, whose membership is drawn from across the social groups of Zintan.
A cleric from Zintan, Durman has over the past few years become a leading Madkhali-Salafi figure. In the context of the struggle for control of Libya’s religious space, he became known as a strong opponent of the Islamist trend that advocates direct engagement in politics embodied by Mufti al-Sadeq al-Ghariani and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Durman’s followers increased rapidly, not just in Zintan but also in nearby cities and across the country, as he began delivering Friday sermons and reaching out to followers via social media and a weekly programme on a local religious channel (al-Quran al-Karim Channel). Durman’s rise has reportedly been facilitated by his strong relationships with the Saudi and Emirati authorities.
Durman long toed a cautious line over endorsing Haftar, likely the result of a combination of his existing relations with Madkhali-oriented groups aligned with the GNA and the need to avoid exacerbating Zintan’s internal divisions over support for the GNA and the LAAF.
In December 2019, Durman made his position overt and authorized fighters to join the LAAF against the ‘traitors’ in Tripoli and the Turkish ‘aggressors’. After a warrant was issued for his arrest by GNA authorities in January 2020, Durman reportedly relocated to eastern Libya.
He, and the vanguard networks that are closely associated with him, have strong relations with Haftar’s son Saddam – this is their channel of communication rather than the official LAAF chain of command.
Other actors have sought to position themselves as network brokers for the LAAF.
Mesbah Basim, a notable elder of the city of Zawiya who has settled in Benghazi, joined several delegations to Zawiya to negotiate what appeared to be a neutrality pact ahead of the LAAF offensive on Tripoli in 2019.
The discussions resulted in the release of several high-profile prisoners by Haftar in March 2019 and in return the establishment of an LAAF material supply camp near Zawiya. However, the deal did not result in the neutrality of Zawiyan groups.
One of the prisoners released by Haftar, Mahmoud Bin Rajab, was the first commander to disregard the neutrality pact. A significant number of Zawiya groups and fighters mobilized to oppose the LAAF offensive, capturing 128 members of Brigade 106, which had seized a key checkpoint on the entry to Tripoli, some of whom were found to be minors.
What remained of the tenuous agreement broke down following the LAAF’s launch of airstrikes on Zawiya in late 2019 and local armed groups overran its supply camp near Zawiya. Despite the failure of the agreement Basim has continued to attend gatherings to showcase ‘tribal’ support for Haftar, in Tarhuna in February 2020 and in Cairo in June 2020.
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.