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.
Leveraging external support
The LAAF’s development has been made possible by extensive external support. In the wake of military defeats in 2020, the LAAF is more reliant on external states and networks of foreign fighters than ever before.
The degree of support provided by external states to the LAAF has been foundational to Haftar’s ability to restructure his forces and exert control over them.
Financial and material support principally from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt allowed him to develop the LAAF’s air power as well as to provide sophisticated weaponry, cash incentives and training to existing and would-be allies.
The control of weapons provision has facilitated the LAAF’s efforts to establish a monopoly over heavy weapons. Haftar’s growing military resources were complemented with increased financing as the LAAF solidified its revenue streams from eastern-based authorities that were backed by Goznak, a state-owned Russian company.
Haftar has relied upon the resources and ally networks of his external backers to fund armed groups to bolster his forces. The contribution of mercenaries has enabled the LAAF to conduct its campaigns beyond eastern Libya, where it has struggled to project force, an indication of the limits of Haftar’s command and control of his sprawling eastern-based forces.
This is also likely a testament to fears of the consequences of leaving a vacuum in his strongholds by deploying large contingents of his most loyal forces outside the region.
From 2014, Darfurian armed groups have sought to leverage their alignment with Haftar to consolidate their ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE who backed Haftar and – importantly – opposed the Sudanese government of then President Omar al-Bashir.
The Sudan Liberation Army faction led by Minni Minawi (SLA-MM) became the main Darfur rebel movement in Libya. It was joined by, and coordinated its activities with, other splinter factions that would form the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF).
These forces participated in the LAAF’s recapture of Jufra in 2017 and its expansion in southern Libya in 2019, and they also provided protection for the LAAF rear in the oil crescent following the launch of the 2019 Tripoli offensive.
However, the Darfurian armed factions themselves operate as a network of parochial organizations whose leaders share strategic objectives and coordinate actions but the organizations are far from integrated, let alone integrated elements of the LAAF.
Darfurian rebels have fought with competing forces in Libya. For example, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) fought alongside anti-LAAF forces in 2018, reportedly clashing with the SLA-MM in the oil crescent.
Darfurian groups did not play a prominent role in the early phases of the Tripoli offensive. The SLA-MM and JEM are alleged to have reached an agreement in May 2019 not to fight each other.
Nonetheless, there were reports of the SLA-MM, GSLF and other Darfurian fighters on the Tripoli front lines after November 2019, allegedly at the instigation of Egypt and the UAE.
These deployments continued until June 2020 when LAAF forces were defeated on the Tripoli frontlines and forced into retreat. Darfurian groups subsequently relocated to Harawa and the Jufra basin.
The interaction of the Darfurian groups with the LAAF has become more formalized, reflecting the importance of their role in the LAAF’s war effort.
Darfurian commanders are reported to have travelled to Benghazi to meet with the LAAF’s top commanders; however, it is Saddam Haftar who is reportedly their main interlocutor in the LAAF leadership.
At the operational level, the Darfurian armed groups deal with LAAF affiliates. Those based in the town of Harawa receive daily supplies, ammunition, food and fuel from Hassan Maatuq al-Zadma’s Battalion 128. Zilla-based forces reportedly receive daily supplies from the forces of Hilal Musa. The signing of the Juba Agreement for peace in Sudan in November 2020 has impacted the future status of Darfurian armed groups in Libya.
While negotiations among Sudanese factions remain complex over settling their disputes with the Sudanese government, the Juba Agreement has triggered movements of Sudanese mercenaries to Darfur. The SLA-MM is reported to have moved 40 vehicles, while JEM has apparently moved dozens.
Darfurian commanders have developed direct relationships with the UAE. The LAAF distributes support provided by the UAE to the Darfurian groups. There are reports that Darfurian commanders have met with UAE counterparts in eastern Libya and also in the UAE, effectively bypassing the LAAF.
The UAE has also sought to bolster LAAF forces with foreign recruits. This has included recruiting Sudanese men via an entity called Black Shield Services and training them in the UAE for deployment in Libya.
Legal cases are currently underway in Sudan in which such recruits have claimed that they were duped into being deployed in Libya’s oil crescent, saying that they believed that they would be operating as security guards within the UAE.
The interaction of the Darfurian groups with the LAAF has become more formalized, reflecting the importance of their role in the LAAF’s war effort. The role of mercenaries deployed by the Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group to support the LAAF has been instrumental. This relationship appears dependent on state-level relations.
The Wagner Group entered Libya in the first half of 2018, but, critically, it stepped into the battle for Tripoli in August 2019 to bolster the LAAF’s faltering offensive. In the autumn of 2019, Wagner mercenaries had become an essential component of Haftar’s operation.
The Wagner Group is known to have close links to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and is described by the US State Department as a surrogate for Russia’s Ministry of Defence.
The Kremlin has maintained implausible denials of such links, insisting that the Wagner Group is a private military contractor, despite widespread reports of serving Russian military officers operating within it.
The US Africa Command has estimated that around 2,000 Wagner operatives were in Libya between July and September 2020.
The funding of the Wagner Group is also the subject of speculation. In 2020, the US Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that, while evidence is ambiguous, the UAE ‘may provide some financing for the group’s operations’.
The UAE’s ambassador to the US has denied the country has financed the Wagner Group. It is clear that LAAF commanders do not possess any meaningful control over Wagner forces, as illustrated by the latter’s sudden withdrawal from the Tripoli frontlines in March 2020.
In other countries where Wagner has deployed, such as Syria and the Central African Republic, it has sought to develop its own revenue streams through engagement in the oil and mining sectors.
As Turkish support flooded in to repel Haftar’s forces from Tripoli in December 2019, the LAAF’s ranks were bolstered by the addition of Syrian mercenaries.
The recruitment of these fighters came through the networks of the LAAF’s external backers. In March 2019, Haftar opened an ‘embassy’ in Damascus and recruitment (organized by the Wagner Group) appears to have begun in earnest, targeting – among others – former rebels who had fought against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and had now reconciled with it. Some were drawn from Russia-backed Syrian forces.
By June–September 2020, the Pentagon concluded that 2,000 ‘Russian-backed’ Syrian fighters were in Libya. Non-Libyan mercenaries have therefore become an important component of the LAAF – one that is clearly dependent on financing from the alliance’s external backers and the leveraging of their networks.
Their presence fundamentally undermines the LAAF’s nationalist narrative and illustrates the contradictions between its public stance and its operational model. The removal of foreign fighters is a key pillar of the ceasefire agreement of the 5+5 military talks reached in October 2020, but expectations are low.
The principal gains made by the LAAF in its advance on Tripoli came following the influx of foreign support, and external backing helped it prevent further advances by GNA-affiliated forces following the collapse of the offensive. Consequently, it is likely to be its external backers that have the deciding say on which forces may stay or go.
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.