Petroleum profits, control and fragility in Libya

Matt Herbert and Emadeddin Badi

Operational realities in the field

Mapping the formal structure of the PFG and its units provides a useful guide for understanding the entity as a whole. However, because of the hybridity and accompanying localization of the force post-2011, this structure has only limited salience on what protection of oil and gas infrastructure looks like in the field.

Commanders in both Tripoli and Benghazi have a limited degree of control over the activities of field units, with the force(s) in practice acting more as a federation of armed units than a hierarchical entity. There is a nominal hierarchal order to the PFG structure, but likely less in terms of direct chain-of-command from up to down.

In other words, the PFG at Sarir oilfield officially operates under the al-Wahat PFG commander Brigadier Abdulrahman Dorman. However, PFG subcommanders at al-Sarir appear largely independent from Dorman, where he has limited control of the group’s missions and duties.

The PFG field units continue to be overwhelming composed of personnel drawn from communities in the areas they serve. In some cases, such as at the Marsa elHariga facility in Tobruk, units involve a mix of different tribal groups who operate within a single formation.

More commonly, however, PFG units are drawn from a single ethnic group, In Cyrenaica, one contact noted that ‘only certain communal constituencies can guard an oilfield under the PFG banner – for example, the Tebu at the Sarir and Messla oilfields, the Zway at the Nafoura field, the Majabera at the Abu Tifil field, or the Awajila at the Amal field.’

In the Oil Crescent, the Maghraba tribe dominates the local PFG, while in Zawiya, in Tripolitania, the PFG unit draws from the alNasr Battalion, composed of members of the Awlad Buhmeira tribe.

In the Fezzan, the PFG unit at the alSharara field is composed of Tuaregs, with a rival unit of drawn from the Tebu ethnic group and Zintanis expelled in 2014. The local roots of many PFG field units have both benefits and challenges when dealing with communities in areas around oil and gas infrastructure.

A clear benefit is that PFG–community relations are often positive and robust, lessening the likelihood of abuses or violence meted out on the civilian population. One contact in south-eastern Libya explained that most disruptions in the area are linked to ‘job-seekers and fresh university graduates who demand employment, [and] the PFG does not approach such incidents with lethal force, as the protestors are mainly part of the same community they belong to.’

This same embeddedness, however, also affects PFG operations. Community notables, for example, are often able to strongly influence PFG activities, even in areas such as the Oil Crescent that are nominally under relatively strict LAAF control.

Composition of forces and operations

The field units vary greatly in size, from the 40–60 personnel guarding the Sarir field in the east to the 1200–1400 personnel that make up the al-Zawiya PFG unit in the west. In general, it appears that units based in coastal areas that host refineries or export terminals are substantially larger than PFG units based at rural and remote fields, such as al-Sharara, El-Feel, Wafa and Sarir.

The exact focus of forces at various fields and infrastructure sites differs, but in general their mandate is relatively narrow. At the Mellitah refinery, for example, PFG duties are limited to managing who enters the complex, in addition to perimeter control and protection against attacks.

In some areas, the force may also be responsible for countering fuel smuggling, which has reportedly brought some into conflict with other security forces, who have claimed that PFG forces operating outside of oil and gas facilities are overstepping their mandate.

The level of rigour in providing security differs, though as noted previously, the number of physical threats by terrorist and armed groups in recent years has been limited. In some locales, such as at the Sarir field, PFG field units are perceived by observers to be highly competent and fair in their security provision, in part a byproduct of many field-unit personnel having served in the same location and on the same mission for many years.

In other areas, however, the PFG has been challenged in controlling sometimes geographically sprawling facilities with relatively limited numbers of personnel. At the al-Sharara field, the lack of sufficient staff has affected interior patrolling of the site, leading to several incidents in which criminal actors have broken through the perimeter fence and stolen equipment.

The field units typically focus on maintaining localized control, even if that means defecting between sides in the national-level conflict between the Tripoli based governments and the LAAF. One interviewee explained: ‘The PFG in al-Sharara are totally pragmatic. They were part of the [Government of National Accord] GNA, then became [LAAF] in April 2019. They can come and go. Basically, they see the area around al-Sharara as their ancestral land, so they have to control it come what may.’

A variation of this dynamic has prevailed further south at the El-Feel oilfield. There, the LAAF fought and expelled a Tebu-composed PFG unit in 2019, handing control over to another Tebu-led Salafist armed group, the Khalid Bin Walid Brigade, which also included nonTebu individuals.

A contact noted, however, that ‘after withdrawing from the field as a result of the attack by Haftar forces, a significant part of [the PFG] members returned to secure the field under the Khalid Bin Walid Brigade.’

The choice by PFG members to incorporate themselves into the brigade underscores the pragmatic approach adopted by many field units, who are overwhelmingly focused on how to uphold local claims to key infrastructure.

A complex ecosystem of security

Dynamics at the El-Feel field also underscore the involvement of non-PFG units in oilfield protection.

ElFeel is the only known site where an entirely non-PFG unit has essentially supplanted the force; however, at a number of locales throughout Libya, primarily involving oil and gas fields, armed groups operate alongside PFG units.

At the al-Sharara field, for example, the PFG unit operates alongside both the 173 Brigade and members of the 116 Brigade (the latter linked to the dominant Awlad Suleiman tribe in Sebha). A similar dynamic prevails at the Sarir field and refinery, where the 129 Brigade and the Ahmed al-Shareif Brigade, both Tebu forces (as is the PFG unit at the field), are involved in protecting the facility.

One contact noted that the PFG force at Sarir ‘is just a puppet’, and is accepted by the 129 Brigade and Ahmed al-Shareif Brigade as long as it doesn’t interfere outside the field, such as with smuggling activity.

There is also a degree of coordination and engagement between PFG units and the wide constellation of security and military actors operating in the broader areas surrounding oil and gas infrastructure. In particular, coordination with military units appears robust, possibly due to the official designation of the PFG as a military entity.

One contact noted that in the Oil Crescent, ‘there is good coordination between the PFG and other military groups affiliated with the [LAAF] General Command. This coordination is observed during sit-ins or closures, in addition to during security planning, as happened in 2019 between the various battalions of the army, such as 128, 106, Tariq Bin Ziyad and the PFG in the Oil Crescent.’

Contacts observed a similar dynamic in the southern Fezzan, with forces at El-Feel reportedly engaging in joint-security operations around the field with armed groups from Ubari, Murzuq and Sebha. Finally, foreign mercenaries also play a role in the protection of oil and gas infrastructure in Libya, though this is largely limited to areas under the control of the LAAF. Most are from Sahelien states, mainly Sudan and Chad, though some mercenaries affiliated with the Russian Wagner Group have also been linked to protection activities.

In some instances, as is the case with the Oil Crescent, mercenaries are located close to oil and gas infrastructure, such as at Ras Lanuf or Brega. At points in the Fezzan, however, mercenaries have been more directly incorporated into field protection.

At El-Feel, for example, between 40 and 70 fighters from the Sudanese Liberation Movement of Minni Minnawi are based in the vicinity of the field and are reportedly tasked with assisting the Khalid Bin Walid Brigade if an attack or other challenge occurs. Also in the Fezzan, there has been some mercenary activity at the al-Sharara field, though this has been intermittent.

In mid-2020, for example, a joint force of Wagner personnel and Sudanese fighters linked to the LAAF deployed to the field. The Wagner personnel were reportedly involved in assessing infrastructure, according to one contact, underscoring the multifunctional role of some such forces in the fields. Protecting the Wagner Group, and reportedly responding to their orders, were a large contingent of Sudanese fighters, encompassing some 100 vehicles.

In contrast to most other Sudanese mercenaries in Libya, which are composed of minimally trained fighters, linked to anti- or pro-Sudanese government groups, those accompanying the Wagner contingent evidenced a high-level of operational sophistication and were well equipped, potentially a confirmation that Sudan’s Rapid Support Force personnel were active in providing field security in Libya.

It is important to stress that while mercenary numbers at many fields are relatively small, particularly in the Fezzan, their presence has a strong deterrent impact. This is particularly the case with the Wagner forces, with the fear that the group can call upon Russian fighter jets based in Libya for airstrikes if needed.

Concerns over this risk have reportedly stopped communities and armed groups in the south disaffected with the LAAF from switching sides to the Tripoli-based government, effectively ‘freezing’ control over oil and gas infrastructure in south-western Libya.

A key takeaway of this analysis of the PFG’s model for security governance is that it demonstrates that there are disparities in its practical applications in time and across locales. A reform effort should therefore consider the regional inclinations of PFG units, the intricate networks that the group has built over time, as well as the geographically adjacent groups with whom the force coexists or cooperates.

This implies that a reform of the PFG cannot solely focus on the institution itself but should rather be broadened to take stock of the various ecosystems of security governance around oil infrastructure.

The end goal – rather than the immediate objective – should be for a revamped version of this ecosystem to sustainably function under the mantle of the PFG. Another important facet stems from the various degrees of encroachment of foreign troops and mercenaries in the ecosystems of security provision around oil facilities in Libya.

Until relatively recently, Libya’s foreign troops were best labelled as ‘pay-forhire’ groups, which, at best, had group-level political goals to be achieved in other countries, such as Sudanese or Chadian mercenaries, who had the objective of affecting the Sudanese landscape. However, the legacy of the 2019 conflict transformed Libya’s proxy dynamics, introducing a new transnational political dimension to the role of mercenaries and foreign troops in Libya.

Sudanese and Russian mercenaries positioned near oil facilities have become explicitly more tied to foreign power centres and capitals. The Wagner Group is known to be covertly linked to the Kremlin, while UN Panel of Experts reports having noted that Sudanese commanders in control of mercenaries have fostered direct links with Abu Dhabi.

Absent a concerted effort to force the repatriation of these groups, it is probable that they will continue to operate near oil facilities and grow increasingly more likely to leverage that territorial proximity to serve foreign agendas (such as by enforcing blockades).

This dynamic would, in turn, affect – and likely impede – any national-level reform efforts in the realm of oil-infrastructure protection. Adapting to this reality means that an exclusively technical focus on national-level PFG units will not yield proper results, as a real reform effort would necessitate a degree of geopolitical capital exerted over states who have influence on foreign troops and mercenaries in Libya.


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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