Emanuel Rossi

The presence of armed groups that dominate economic, political and social interests unites Libya and Yemen. The militias have become actors of a state character, they are encrusted in the ganglia of power and exploit resources (especially energy) to strengthen themselves. What the ISPI report edited by Eleonora Ardemagni and Federica Saini Fasanotti says and why Italy is of interest.

In a report published today by ISPI, “From Warlords to Statelords: Armed Groups and Power Trajectories in Libya and Yemen”, the activities that armed groups carry out in Libya and Yemen are compared. Two apparently different dossiers, although both part of Italian foreign policy interests (Libya on the central Mediterranean, Yemen overlooking the Horn of Africa and part of the projection in the enlarged Mediterranean).

Scenarios both pervaded by weak and contested institutions, in which the militias have gradually brought their strategies of survival, profit and governance under the umbrella of the state. The warlords have become the new lords of the state. Armed groups control most of the energy revenues, critical infrastructure, smuggling and illicit trafficking. Their leaders are multifaceted: they are military commanders, tribal leaders, politicians and businessmen at the same time.

Combining comparative analyzes and case studies, Eleonora Ardemagni , ISPI associate researcher and expert on the history of Islamic Asia and New Conflicts at the Catholic University of Milan, and Federica Saini Fasanotti , ISPI and Brookings Institution analyst, have curated a series of expert contributions to shed light on the “economic face” of armed groups and their trajectories of power. How do armed groups build networks of profit and loyalty in the territories they hold? How does cronyism mark a trend towards continuity with former authoritarian regimes?

Armed groups have built patronage mechanisms at the local level (“armed neopatrimonialism”, the study defines it), as the old regimes did at the national level. The contemporary warlords of Libya and Yemen are both patrons and clients: patrons to the local inhabitants of the controlled territories, to whom they arbitrarily assign income, licenses and jobs; but customers of the external state.

The analysis shows that they are also clients of external state powers on which they depend – with nuances – for financial, military and training support. Warlords often rely on greater political legitimacy, and this comes from top-down recognition by legitimate institutions and/or international stakeholders , and growing influence at the community, educational, and religious bureaucracies.

For the report edited by Ardemagni and Fasanotti – among the leading European experts on Yemen and Libya respectively – as long as the armed leaders monopolize economic relations in the Libyan and Yemeni contexts, “imagining an effective transformation from a conflict to a post-war economy is simply unrealistic ”.

On the other hand, for example in Libya, since 2011, most of the armed groups perceive the state not as a set of institutions to be served or disobeyed, but rather, mainly, as a prize to be conquered. Formal institutions, especially those related to energy, have also been gradually eroded through extortion by armed groups, who play the role of “shadow lords”.

Always following the Libyan example, the blocks imposed by some militia groups on the activities of energy fields and infrastructures have turned into the main instrument of blackmail that they can exercise against the institutions, internal rivals and external interested parties, as well as a bargaining chip to gain political access to the state. Encrusting at the nerve centers of the energy sector was a choice as obvious as it was strategic for the militias.

In Yemen, formal and informal economies are also heavily dependent on crude oil exports. For this reason, the old elites, de facto authorities and criminal armed groups are scrambling to control oil reserves, trying to dominate the importation of petroleum derivatives. In the country, the internal race for control of oil resources accelerated after the 2015 war (the one that led to the flight of the government in the face of the advance of the northerner Houthi group), further eroding the boundaries between formal and informal actors: consequently , the web of economic loyalties now cuts across state and non-state dominance.

The Yemeni conflict “is now centered on the creation of an economic basis that allows armed groups to support governance structures (and not just military operations) while preventing others from doing so”, explains the ISPI analysis. “This trend will continue to weaken state structures, while also fostering new conflict dynamics in energy-rich governorates.” Likewise, in post-Gaddafi Libya, armed groups, including those that play a role along the most active coastal strip (and not just those that dominate the tribal context of the South, where the province of Fezzan loses its borders in the chaos of the Sahel ) , have undergone a process of “mafization”.

They have transformed from young opportunists and petty criminals to white-collar criminals, who retain the ability to carry out extreme violence on the street. This has had a profound impact on policy areas of European concern, from energy supplies to migration control.” The socio-political and economic strength of this militia component and the capacity it has in influencing the dynamics connected to the ongoing institutional crisis, was highlighted on Formiche.net by Karim Mezran (Atlantic Council).

In Libya, a narrow focus on security policies, rather than broader political development and transformation, “has further contributed to the strengthening of armed groups, allowing for a counterproductive effect on key interests of Europe and Italy, worth namely migration and energy”, explain the ISPI analysts. Governance in Yemenof maritime borders is multi-governed: “Armed groups, with varying degrees of opposition or alliance with the internationally recognized government, control most of the coasts, port cities and islands of the country, profiting from tariffs, customs duties and smuggling networks. In Yemen, the strength that certain actors have developed in controlling the coasts has further strengthened them, strengthening their role in smuggling activities.


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