Over a decade has passed since the 17 February Libyan revolution, and the disintegration of the Gaddafi regime’s centralised state into a fractured post-revolution state characterised by political divisions, repeated civil wars, and an economy of predation.
Much of the commentary over the past decade has focused on the role of armed groups in Libya’s collapse and its consequence: the division of the country and the repeated failure to build a unified state in Libya. It has led to an oversimplification of the relationship between the State and armed groups in Libya, and the belief that rival factions could either enjoy the loyalty of a “military” or the disloyalty of a “militia”.
This transformed the collective understanding of armed groups in Libya into a rigid binary of subservience or rejection of the state. The reality is that since 2011, many of the major armed groups have demonstrated an entirely different behaviour across the political divide, viewing the state not as a set of institutions to be served or disobeyed, but as a prize to be won.
For many armed groups – though not all – this has rendered affiliation and loyalty to the rival factions and their political objectives as a fluid means to a defined end: discrete control over institutions and infrastructure irrespective of the political order to extract astronomical rents and wealth.
The battle over Libya’s infrastructure took place against a backdrop of widespread political, social and economic marginalisation, offering armed groups the opportunity to exploit socio-political grievances for economic greed. Libya’s repeated conflicts and interim governments have given armed groups the opportunity to enter the state through the backdoor.
Foreign actors and political factions alike tend to employ unusual tactics to take strategic control of the state and its resources. From Benghazi in the east to Tripoli, the capital in the west, foreign actors and rival governments engaged in bitter conflict and competition have not only divided the country’s sovereign political and financial institutions, but also created an environment conducive to warlords and armed groups to take control of the state and its vast resources.
The battle today in Libya is on multiple fronts: critical infrastructure to exploit, sovereign institutions to extort and diplomatic initiatives to subvert. Libya’s oil infrastructure and supply routes remain the key prize on the ground for armed groups and political factions to project their power and blackmail the state so as to extract its wealth legally or through illicit means.
Libya’s institutions that dispense with oil receipts have become eroded and extorted by shadow groups who have traditionally used the urgency of conflict as a smoke screen to bend and break their financial integrity. However, none of this would be possible without external sponsors.
Foreign actors have played a critical role in propping up warlords behind the scenes in a battle for their own geostrategic influence and dominance in the short term, whilst transforming warlords into state lords through diplomacy in the long term.
For many armed groups, the notions of war and peace are little more than opportunities for a new cadre of warlords to exploit the chaos and conditions to strengthen their hold on the state, its infrastructure and institutions.
The fog of war allows for the looting of state institutions by armed groups under a political imperative of survival at all costs, whilst the conditions of peace have become even more lucrative, as foreign and armed actors exploit the peace-building process to negotiate their discrete influence into the state.
2011-2014: From Revolutionaries to Rogues
The slow transformation of Libya’s revolutionary armed groups from external non state actors challenging the state to rogue state sanctioned forces that internally drained it began in the time between Libya’s first democratically elected government in July 2012 until the beginning of the first post-Gaddafi civil war in May 2014.
The National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s authorities in 2011 that sought to bring down the Gaddafi regime, had been faced with the challenge of how to with the very armed groups they had backed with weapons following the demise of Gaddafi.
A process began to take control of revolutionary armed groups and bring them under the nominal legitimacy of the NTC and later the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s first democratically elected parliament and government in July 2012.
The NTC established the Warriors Affairs Commission in the hope of eventually disarming revolutionaries and integrating them into the state. However, the NTC decided to put the revolutionaries on the state’s payroll; as a consequence, their numbers mushroomed from around 25,000 fighters estimated to have fought during the revolution to an outlandish 200,000 or more registered fighters a year later.
The NTC’s decision created a new dynamic and set a dangerous policy precedent, as the State became a pull factor for the mushrooming of armed groups. Despite hopes that an elected government in 2012 would fare better, the GNC was chronically divided between rival political factions.
The nascent political leadership, inexperienced and facing a huge learning curve, attempted to bring the groups under the nominal control of the nascent ministries of Defence and Interior, creating the Libyan Shield as a parallel military and the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) as a parallel police force.
The programme was given little time to be implemented, and the government became little more than a cash dispenser to warlords who had used the opportunity to draw in unemployed youth to form their own new and powerful post-revolutionary armed groups, whilst having the luxury of the Libyan state to pay for their creation.
These armed groups began to compete with each other over control of critical infrastructure and public institutions, where they began to interact with regular citizens in their day-to-day lives. Armed groups took over banks, airports and even hospitals – claiming to provide public security to improve their image, whilst extracting further kickbacks from the bodies they were tasked with securing.
At times these groups would engage in fighting or kidnap civilians, earning a reputation for unruly behaviour. Where there was push back by ordinary civilians, the armed groups would claim revolutionary legitimacy. This would sow the seeds of public discontent against armed groups, which reached fever pitch following several clashes at protests against the presence of militias in the capital and the assassination of activists in Benghazi in late 2013 and early 2014.
This paved the way for Khalifa Haftar to launch a failed coup he rebranded as “Operation Dignity” in the hope of capturing popular dissatisfaction as a pretext for a power grab.
“Dignity” established the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), rebranding many of the same unruly armed groups into a self-styled army that declared a war on terror against a minority of al Qaeda affiliated groups, but also revolutionary armed groups en masse operating under the SSC and Libya Shield, in addition to civilians who opposed them. In the process, the country was plunged into a brutal civil war that took armed groups from social pariahs to the most in demand political commodity.
The Fog of War: Survival and Subversion
The 2014 civil war divided Libyan political, economic and security institutions between pro-Haftar ‘Dignity’ forces under the emblem of the LAAF in the East and a fractured coalition of anti-Haftar forces – labelled “Operation Dawn” in the West. It was the first chapter in Libya’s formal institutional fragmentation, carving a division in the country between rival parliaments, governments, and branches of the Central Bank in Tripoli in the west, and Al Bayda in the east.
The narrative and conditions of Libya’s first “civil war on terror” were zero-sum and advantageous to armed groups: you’re either with us, or against us. Haftar labelled his opponents terrorists, refusing dialogue or ceasefires, whilst his opponents labelled him a putschist, ensuring no option but war was on the table and elevating the status of armed groups.
These conditions transformed the relationship between political factions and even the most predatory armed groups into a relationship of convenience at best and a necessary evil at worst; for the rival political factions, this meant surviving at any institutional or financial cost.
Behind the divisions separating the two rival factions, a new war had begun, not between the rival political factions, but for a race to control the financial institutions within each coalition. Against the backdrop of war and contested legitimacy, armed groups became indispensable tools for political institutions in a battle of survival, exploiting their weakness at their time of need, and removing the option for a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process.
As the war dragged on and the institutional divisions became more pronounced, a powerful sense of political urgency to finance armed groups by all formal or informal means necessary began to take root. The Libyan central bank was forced to pay for all of the rival political, economic and military factions that had registered their fighters.
As public spending ballooned, the black market value of the Libyan dinar began to tank, and the realities of war set in as the central bank froze development and infrastructure projects, and limited spending to salaries, petrol and essential food items, which it subsidised through letters of credit to import businesses.
Letters of credit became lucrative as they offered to exchange Libyan dinars for US dollars at the official rate of 1 US dollar for 1.3 dinars rather than 1 to nearly 11 at the black market rate at the peak of the conflict. Armed groups in Tripoli, who had exploited the conditions of war, exploited the economic arbitrage.
Haithem Tajuri, a leader of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade that was established in 2011, out manoeuvred rival armed groups and successive governments in the capital to position himself as a key figure within the State. Tajouri controlled a vast territory from eastern to downtown Tripoli, but was also able to provide security to public institutions, including a number of banks.
Tajouri was able to befriend, bribe or extort employees of commercial banks, leveraging his military strength to apply for letters of credit from a number of Tripoli banks. Tajouri propped up businessmen behind shell companies lacking proper documentation for plausible deniability and is believed to have extorted millions of US dollars through fraudulent acquisition of letters of credit as a result.
Whilst fraud remains one way of accessing the central bank, more direct approaches exist. In 2017, following the end of the Benghazi war, the LAAF was unchallenged. Khalifa Haftar’s son Saddam, who established the 106 brigade as a praetorian guard to protect his father and keep the smaller tribal armed groups of the LAAF under control, entered the eastern branch of the Central Bank and walked out with over half a billion US dollars in multiple currencies and silver coins, one of the largest bank heists in history.
In both cases, armed groups were able to discretely leverage their military strength as the civil war shifted priorities to either subvert state institutions or simply loot them.
Anas El Gomati is the founder and director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first public policy think tank in Libya’s history, established in 2011. He has held several positions in the MENA region and Europe, as a former visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon and former visiting lecturer at the NATO Defence College in Rome, Italy.
Source: “Warlords to State-lords: Armed Groups and Power Trajectories in Libya and Yemen”, edited by Eleonora Ardemagni and Federica Saini Fasanotti.