Wolfram Lacher and Peter Cole


Since Qaddafi’s death on 20 October 2011 and Libya’s formal declaration of liberation three days later, the transitional authorities have faced enormous challenges. Chief among these have been controlling and managing the armed groups that emerged to fight Qaddafi and his security services.

The political road-map for the transition—the Constitutional Declaration chartered by the National Transitional Council (NTC) on 3 August 2011—set strict deadlines for elections to a new interim body, the General National Congress (GNC), as well as a timetable for the committee to draft a constitution.

However, the political coalition that drew up the declaration presented no vision for security sector reform—neither with respect to the remainder of Qaddafi’s armed forces, nor with respect to the field commanders who had done the bulk of the fighting.

The transitional authorities were swiftly overwhelmed by the rapid evolution and growing fragmentation of the security sector. Libya’s army, which had partially disintegrated during the revolution, has since undergone major changes that have been driven largely by its component elements, rather than by the government or army leadership.

The Supreme Security Committee (SSC) began as a ‘top-down’ initiative by the NTC to register revolutionary fighters (thuwwar) under the Ministry of Interior, but the groups it included quickly developed interests of their own. In contrast, the ‘bottom–up’ initiative known as the Libya Shield Forces (LSF)—which was then recognized officially by the state—was composed of large revolutionary armed groups that intended to replace or obstruct the army.

As Libya’s fragmented political scene coalesced into two rival camps in 2014, the component elements of these three institutions—the SSC, the LSF, and the army—emerged as key actors in escalating conflicts. Much of the SSC has been dismantled; the LSF has broken up into its regional and political components; and the army continues to undergo rapid and chaotic change.

Competing interest groups within these three institutions, however, have remained largely constant and engaged in fierce power struggles over the security sector’s future. These power struggles are at the heart of Libya’s political crisis. By October 2014, they had given rise to two rival governments, two military leaderships, and two distinct claims to legitimacy.

Objectives and Findings

This paper examines the rise and fall of hybrid security sector institutions in Libya, and the political interests at stake in security sector reform. It charts the evolution of the Libyan army, the SSC, and the LSF, as well as their interaction with the transitional authorities.

The paper thereby contributes to an understanding of conflicts among the armed groups, as well as of the challenges involved in integrating or dissolving them in the process of establishing a new security sector. The paper’s findings include:

Hybrid security institutions emerged immediately after the Libyan revolution, blending formal and informal elements and allowing competing interests and loyalties to flourish.

In parallel, the Libyan army fragmented into rival interest groups, and new units formed to represent particular local or ideological interests. The boundaries between formal and hybrid units blurred.

As hybrid institutions evolved and many units sought the cover of officialdom, the entire security sector became defined by political factionalism. Power struggles over the security sector increasingly extended into the top levels of government institutions.

Competition over security sector institutions is both a means to an end— to exert political influence or gain control over economic assets—and an end in itself. Competition over budgets for salaries and equipment is a signiicant aspect of these struggles.

The rivalries within the security sector have been among the main drivers of the conflicts that in mid-2014 led to the bifurcation of state institutions and the emergence of two rival governments, army leaderships, and claims to legitimacy. These conflicts render the notion of loyalty to the state meaning less.

The balance of power that ultimately emerges from the current struggles will necessarily be reflected in the security sector’s hierarchy and structure. Yet this process cannot occur as long as there are two rival poles, neither of which is strong enough to seize and consolidate state authority across the country. Nor is consolidation likely to emanate from either of the two power centers. This paper is based on field work undertaken by the authors, who conducted interviews on repeated visits to Tripoli, Benghazi, and several other cities in 2012–14. The interlocutors included government and security officials, national and local political actors, leaders and members of armed groups, as well as local observers.

The origins of Libya’s hybrid security sector

Competing legitimacies: revolutionary vs. legal authority

Libya’s transitional institutions are a patchwork of formal and informal elements that loosely cooperate, despite their competing claims of legitimacy and differing political agendas. This situation has its roots in the NTC’s approach to the state security sector in August–October 2011, when Qaddafi’s regime collapsed.

At that time, the NTC, its Executive Committee, and its international interlocutors were all mindful of the experience of Iraq. Consequently, the NTC took control of the remaining institutions of the state in August 2011, appointing interim leadership for existing ministries.

Later, it also appointed a chief of police and chief of general staff of the armed forces. The NTC thus preserved both the institutions and the continuity of legal authority. Beyond these stopgap measures, however, the NTC had no coherent plan for longer-term security governance.

Revolutionary armed groups—known in Libya as the thuwwar—contested the wisdom of preserving the army and police from the very beginning. The thuwwar asserted ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ as the groups that had fought Qaddafi’s regime.

The government of Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keeb, which was in power from November 2011 to November 2012, appointed members of the thuwwar from Misrata and Zintan, as well as from Islamist groups, to ministerial positions in an attempt to preserve a modicum of political harmony.

These former revolutionary commanders (and their sympathizers), however, objected to the continued presence of Qaddafi-era officials in the armed forces, ministries, and security services. Moreover, they believed their revolutionary legitimacy gave them the standing to be consulted not only on the appointment of officials in state institutions, but also on the formation of new institutions, with the dual aim of being a part of them and defining their remit.

Further complicating matters was the ill-defined nature of the legal authority of the state the NTC had inherited. This problem was the result of Qaddafi’s dissolution of Libya’s constitution and the centralization of military and security power outside state institutions.

Key positions in the security sector had been abolished (such as the minister of defense), sidelined (such as the chief of general staff), or granted informal powers (such as the military governor of the south).6 Since the security sector thus needed substantial redefinition, both the NTC and the General National Congress (GNC) passed relevant legislation.

Yet the new laws were ambiguous and allowed decision makers in security sector institutions to sponsor their ‘own’ groups in security sector reform ‘Hybridity’ is a term used in recent scholarship on security sector reform to describe state institutions that rely on interaction between a ‘formal’ state apparatus and ‘informal’ non-state actors such as militias.

Hybridity in weak or emerging states is caused by competing power structures, none strong enough to displace the other. A fragile state, unable to exert either direct control or indirect ‘security governance’ at the local level, will enter into some arrangement with local actors whose legitimacy differs from that of the state.

The resulting ‘hybrid’ institutions can incorporate multiple types of authority: the legal authority of formal political institutions, traditional authority such as that of a tribe, or the charismatic authority of an individual. Within such institutions, formal and informal elements co-exist, overlap, and intertwine.

This creates unique problems for national governments and external assistance. In accordance with this literature, Libya’s transitional state institutions can be described as hybrid. The boundaries between formal and informal elements within the security sector are blurred.

Hybridity in Libya’s security sector institutions is a function of political factionalism, which has posed persistent obstacles to efforts aimed at transforming armed groups into formal state institutions. The hybridity of Libyan institutions has also complicated international technical support to the security sector, which has focused on formal institutions.

Foreign governments and international organizations are reluctant to engage with informal actors such as local militias, and both the Libyan authorities and the public would probably have serious misgivings about such engagement by foreign actors.

But the official organs of the Libyan state with which foreign governments interact often have little authority over security institutions that claim revolutionary legitimacy and, at times, the two are fiercely opposed to each other. This makes it difficult to formulate an approach to security sector assistance and to assess its impact.

Small Arms Survey Working Paper 20 the ranks of the thuwwar. For example, the NTC’s February 2012 law on the competencies of senior military officials designated the ‘head of state’ as the ‘supreme commander of the armed forces’, despite the fact that the position of ‘head of state’ had been neither created nor defined by any other law (NTC, 2012a). The law also allocated shared responsibilities for many tasks to the ‘supreme commander’, the defense minister, and the chief of general staff.

As a result, all three would later sign orders to create new units, and the GNC president’s assumption of the ‘supreme commander’ title caused confusion between executive and legislative branches of government.7 Multiple and overlapping chains of command emerged.

The NTC’s lack of a long-term policy for security sector reform has allowed armed groups—especially those claiming revolutionary legitimacy—to act with the imprimatur of the state’s legal authority, though not necessarily in the state’s interests.

Indeed, the absence of clear, centralized structures has left security sector institutions vulnerable to contradictory and competing interests. In mid-2014 the struggles between interest groups culminated in the bifurcation of state and security institutions, and in the emergence of two competing claims to legitimacy.


Wolfram Lacher is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahel and Sahara region. Before joining SWP in 2010, he worked as a North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a business risk consultancy in London, from 2007 to 2010.

Peter Cole is an independent non-governmental Middle East and North Africa expert with experience in conflict and post-conflict dynamics, political risk, and state–society relations. Peter was in Libya during and after the revolution, from August 2011 through May 2013, as lead researcher with the International Crisis Group and as a consultant to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya.


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