Petroleum profits, control and fragility in Libya

Matt Herbert and Emadeddin Badi


The salience of oil and gas to Libya’s stability, and the political instrumentalization of it, heightens the importance of the actors and entities nominally tasked with securing the resource against diversion.

Officially, responsibility for such tasks rests with the PFG, which has experienced significant hybridization post-2011 as armed groups forces – often structured around communal lines – were integrated en masse into it. This has significantly eroded the capacity and cohesion of the force, with the head of the NOC noting in 2017 that it had ‘devolved into local fiefs.’

Mirroring challenges in the broader reform of Libya’s institutions, the challenges in reforming and professionalizing security forces mandated to protect natural-resource infrastructure have proven pernicious and entrenched. The hybridization of the PFG since 2011 has been compounded overtime, particularly given the fact that the organizational structure of the force was segregated along regional lines.

This dynamic has meant that the PFG’s operations have gradually became enmeshed in broader conflict dynamics tied to regional and communal divides. As the political economy around oil protection, production and income distribution became more contested and instrumentalized, the PFG increasingly developed into a central actor in all three dimensions of conflict that crystallized in Libya over time.

This was both by virtue of the force’s explicit mandate, its geographical areas of control, and its vulnerability to being co-opted by communal factions or national level politico-military players that used the force’s legal legitimacy to wage a de facto form of economic warfare against perceived opponents (most notably, through blockades). Functionally, the hybridization and localization of the PFG have transformed it from a protective actor to a disruptive one within Libya.

The following section briefly details the evolution of the force, as well as its current mission, structure and disposition.

Evolution of the force

The PFG was established in 2007 by the government of Qaddafi and was tasked with defending the country’s oil and natural-gas infrastructure.

Based at Brega in northern Libya, the PFG came to be attached to the Interim General Committee for Defence, despite being funded by the NOC. It was originally a relatively minor player within Libya’s broader security architecture, with a force no greater than 2 000 people.

Nonetheless, even with a small force size, the pre-2011 PFG was largely sufficient for securing oil and gas export infrastructure. The force was functionally backstopped by – and embedded within – a far more expansive constellation of security, intelligence, and military units, which together addressed both the extremely limited threats to infrastructure at the time.

In the wake of the 2011 revolution, the structure and composition of the PFG changed dramatically, though the mandate of the force remained constant. Between 2011 and 2014, the force increased from 2000 to 30000 members, as the initial post-revolutionary governments sought to demobilize and control armed groups by incorporating them into formal structures.

During the revolution, armed groups from communities proximate to oil and gas fields, as well as pipelines and export terminals, had seized the facilities. In many cases, these groups’ de facto control became formalized via their incorporation into the PFG.

In other cases, sectarian considerations dominated, with Zintani armed groups (which exerted significant influence within the MOD) incorporating armed groups from allied, but previously marginalized, communities into the PFG and sidelining armed groups from perceived rivals.

The expansion in the size of the PFG did not, however, lead to a rise in its operational capacity. Incorporation largely brought full units into the force, which continued to operate as discrete entities following longstanding commanders.

The locally rooted field units of the PFG tended to preference the concerns and viewpoints of their communities, rather than the formal national-level mission of PFG. The shift by the PFG between 2011 and 2014 towards a large but loosely connected force, composed mainly of locally rooted units, had practical implications, as it was during this period that attitudes by communities in oil and gas producing or exporting areas began to harden on equitable profit sharing.

When protests by communities broke out, including efforts to block or shutdown production or transport to press the government for concessions, PFG units at the affected sites often stood aside or avoided interfering. It is likely that demands by communities for resource sharing were further exacerbated by the presence of sympathetic security forces, with protesters facing only limited risks in pressing for their goals.

In some instances, PFG field commanders became more actively embroiled in demands for resource sharing, leveraging their formal positions (and the control of infrastructure that this allowed them) for personal political gain.

Jadhran, the commander of the PFG force in central Libya’s Oil Crescent is the most well-known of these commanders, using his role to position himself as the public face of demands for increased distribution of petroleum products profits to the Cyrenaican population.

To press for these demands, as well as other grievances, the 2 500-member PFG unit he controlled halted exports of oil through the Brega, Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Zuwetina terminals in July 2013, with full reopening only occurring in 2016.

The localization of the PFG, which led field units to primarily focus on issues of control and power in areas proximate to their communities, rather than be responsive to national-level dynamics, also made the force vulnerable to fracturing along regional lines.

This began to occur in 2016, as Haftar’s LAAF, an armed group based in Benghazi, began to expand their control in eastern Libya, quickly encompassing oilfields such as Sarir and those in the Oil Crescent, as well as export terminals in Tobruk, Brega, Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Zuwetina.

In 2019, LAAF control expanded to the south-western Fezzan region, encompassing major fields such as El-Feel and al-Sharara. Rather than relocating to government-held areas, or being demobilized, PFG field units in areas under LAAF control largely continued to operate as before. However, the authority they nominally responded to shifted to an a new eastern-based PFG force, which existed apart from the official, Tripoli-based PFG.

For the LAAF, leaving PFG field units in place mirrored its broader approach to gaining control, which was predicated more on flipping the allegiance of armed groups than on direct conquest. For the local units, switching allegiance from the government to the LAAF ensured that they, and their communities, continued to exert primary control over oil and gas infrastructure in their areas, guaranteeing continued communal control over a key resource.

For the LAAF, control over the field units (which controlled most of Libya’s oil and gas infrastructure) allowed it to instrumentalize oil blockades as a conflict tool. It has used this tool repeatedly in recent years, most notably during the 2019/2020 war for Tripoli, when the LAAF instituted an eight-month oil blockade in support of its military efforts, largely relying on local PFG units to affect the actual shutdowns.

It has also been used on its own, however, with the LAAF instituting or tacitly allowing oil blockades at fields and export terminals in order to press political objectives without risking all-out conflict. However, under the LAAF, hierarchical command of PFG field units in the Cyrenaica and the Fezzan has remained just as loose as under the formal, Tripoli-based entity.

Most units enjoy substantial operational autonomy.

In several instances, this has led to units individually choosing to shut down the infrastructure they control, often in order to protest late salary payments (an issue also in areas of Tripolitania under the control of the government-affiliated PFG).

Present-day PFG

Both the instrumentalization of oilfield control by the LAAF and the more chaotic, but regular, shutdowns by field PFG units are indicative of how the rapid growth and hybridization of the force in the wake of the 2011 revolution have constrained its ability to fulfill its mandate.

This section will assess the dynamics of the current force, both in formal structure and its de facto operational activity in field locations.

Formal structure and size

As of mid-2022, two rival entities claim the PFG title. The formal entity is led by Brigadier General Ali al-Deeb and operates as part of the MOD of the GNU, the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

In Benghazi, a rival PFG continues to operate; led by Major General Naji al-Maghribi, it operates as part of the LAAF. Attempts have been made in the wake of the war for Tripoli to unify these forces into a national force. The peace agreement ending the war included clauses on the creation of a unitary ‘Oil Protection Force’, based on the Tripoli and Benghazi PFG factions.

As part of the 5+5 negotiations, both al-Deeb and al-Maghribi met in 2020 and stressed their support for force reunification, potentially starting with the creation of a ‘model’ unit.

As of mid-2022, this rhetorical support has not yet led to any appreciable reunification of the two forces. Both entities accept the structural disposition of the force as it existed before the force split, which involves six or seven geographical branches. These branches include:

1) The Tripoli branch, which encompasses the area in and around the capital city.

2) The western, Zawiya-based branch, which stretches from al-Heisha in the east (70kms south of Misrata), to the border with Tunisia, and from the Mediterranean in the north to the southern terminus of the Nafusa mountains and Bani Walid. This branch also covers gas-production platforms located off the western coast.

3) The eastern, Benghazi branch, which stretches from the Egyptian border in the east to Zuwetina on the Gulf of Sidra in the west, and from the Mediterranean to the Booster station (near the alSarir field).

4) The al-Wahat branch, based at the Nafoura oilfield, which encompasses the zone from the Egyptian border in the east to Tazirbu and the alAhrash field in the west, and from the Booster station in the north to Libya’s southern border.

5) The central, Brega-based branch, which encompasses the zone between Zuwetina in the east and al-Heisha in the west, and from the Gulf of Sidra in the north to Libya’s southern borders.

6) The southern, Zintan-based branch, which controls the area between al-Jufra in the centre of the country, and Libya’s western borders, and from the Nafusa mountains and Bani Walid to the country’s southern border.

Despite holding formal legitimacy, the Tripoli-based PFG has limited territorial control, with only the Tripoli and western branches falling under its command. The rest of the branches – including the eastern, al-Wahat, central and southern branches – nominally report to the Benghazi-based PFG.

Within these branches, PFG units are tasked with providing security for a variety of different types of infrastructure and facilities, including production sites, pipelines and pumping facilities, storage depots and export terminals.

In Tripoli, the PFG also maintains responsibility for protecting the NOC headquarters and other administrative buildings, as well as maintaining units dedicated to operational administration, public affairs and training.

The manpower of the PFG – including both forces reporting to Tripoli and to Benghazi – is unclear. Limited information suggests that around 9000–10000 men were on the force’s payroll in late 2021, though the number is thought to oscillate, with some personnel hired on short-term contracts.

One interviewee explained: ‘More than 80% of them work full time, with contracts that are renewed annually. There are also some individuals who are assigned [to the PFG] from time to time who come from other military units, such as special forces, intelligence or others, and their contracts are often seasonal.’

Official numbers may be higher, however, than actual operational strength. One contact, for example, explained that some PFG personnel based at the Marsa el-Hariga export terminal in Tobruk continue to receive salaries from the force despite having moved to Egypt.

While no further evidence of such instances has been identified, it hints at the fact that the fractured nature of the force may have increased the risk of non-active or ghost personnel inflating the actual size and capabilities of the PFG.

Salaries for all PFG personnel are paid by the Tripolibased entity, with the 2021 budget for the force reportedly having stood at LYD282 million (€47 million). Funding for the PFG comes from the NOC, leading to a relatively complicated process for even routine disbursements (such as salaries), with funds first transferred from the NOC to the MOD, and only then going to the PFG.

This financial structure has routinely resulted in long delays in payments by the PFG. Delayed salary payments have been the main driver of local shutdowns of oil and gas infrastructure by PFG units, though to date this has not resulted in a long-term fix to the system.

Though the PFG has maritime capacity, largely focused on the protection of export terminals and offshore platforms, the entity is overwhelming a land force. The equipment provided to PFG units is often relatively basic, though equipment gaps are not perceived to be high among the operational challenges facing the force.

Training and professionalization gaps are a substantial challenge, made acute both by the lack of available training after the revolution and the large-scale incorporation of untrained or minimally trained personnel into the force between 2011 and 2014.

Over the past two years, the Tripoli-based PFG administration has increasingly attempted to address these training gaps, increasing the amount of training offered to new recruits and the number of courses accessible to personnel in subjects such as weapons use, law and administration. Most courses have been held in Tripoli, Zawiya or Misrata, and are likely to have catered primarily to personnel assigned to the Tripoli or western branches of the force.

There is little evidence that field units in areas the under control of the Benghazi PFG have benefited from increases in training, sharply limiting the impact of such initiatives on the force as a whole.


Dr Matt Herbert is a Senior Expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC), managing research activities for the North Africa and Sahel Observatory (NAS-Obs). He specializes in transnational organized crime, fragility, stabilization, and security-sector reform and governance. He holds a PhD in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

Emadeddin Badi is a Senior Analyst at the GI-TOC, focusing on the Special Projects Portfolio of the NASObs. He specializes in governance, post-conflict stabilization, hybrid security structures, security-sector reform and peacebuilding. He holds an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.


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