The EU’s struggle to strengthen the Libyan security sector

Matteo Colombo & Nienke van Heukelingen

More than ten years after the ousting of Gaddafi, the Libyan police under the Ministry of Interior are still struggling to effectively carry out their duties across the country.

Drawing from 25 interviews conducted with experts, Libyan police officers, civil servants of the Ministry of Interior, and EU officers between June and August 2022 , our research found four main obstacles facing the Libyan police force in Western Libya.

These are:

i) the proliferation of armed groups;

ii) divisions within the ruling elite;

iii) administrative mismanagement in the security system; and

iv) the presence of alternative conflict-resolution mechanisms.

It also emerged that each area comes with its own challenges. Against that background, this policy brief calls for a change in EU policies. We suggest that EU member states align on specific and measurable goals and take a more adaptive and incremental approach.

More specifically, the EU could consider identifying a set of measurable and achievable objectives and adapting its policies to the different contexts in which it operates, tailoring its priorities and timescales to different locations.


More than a decade after Gaddafi’s fall, Libya’s security sector can best be described as dysfunctional. Libya counts a myriad of armed groups that vie for power and influence, the state lost the monopoly on the use of force long ago, and police and security organisations are more often than not poorly managed.

Various efforts have been made to improve the security architecture in Libya – including by the European Union (EU). The EU, for instance, established the European Union Integrated Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya in 2013.

EUBAM currently focuses on assisting the Libyan authorities in building a state security structure and efficiently managing borders. The national Libyan police force is one of the pillars targeted by EUBAM, but despite considerable efforts, major improvement has failed to materialise.

The Libyan police, however, deserves continued attention for two reasons:

First, a professional, well-functioning police force provides security and justice for the population, and would be a prerequisite in the transition from military to civilian life when the time comes.

Second, the topic of (strengthening) the Libyan police force is less political than that of, for instance, armed groups, and thus more accessible for the EU to work on.

With these two reasons in mind, this policy brief seeks to address the external constraints that affect the Libyan police and explore how the EU could assist the Libyan government with those challenges.

Because the country is de facto divided between rival administrations in the East and the West, and the EU has the strongest grip in the latter of the two regions, the research focused primarily on potential cooperation with the internationally recognised Government of National Unity (GNU), which controls part of West Libya.

The first of the four sections in the policy brief dives into a historical introduction to the Libyan security infrastructure, and the second discusses the structural and external constraints that challenge the functioning of the Libyan police in West Libya. The third section explores the ten-year EU effort to help (re)build the Libyan security sector, with a focus on the Libyan police. And finally, in section four we reflect on how the EU could potentially rethink its approach.

Powerless Officers: The Police in The Context Of Recent Libyan History

The police force was part of the security infrastructure of the Gaddafi regime, albeit not a relevant one. Police were never well paid, well respected, or well resourced under his regime, whose tighter circle of internal security held the real power.

Moreover, the Libyan police under Gaddafi had a disproportionately large number of high-ranking officers but relatively few agents, resulting in a shortage of active patrolling officers on the streets. When protests erupted just before the civil war in 2011, the police forces were among the first responders, mostly siding with the status quo out of convenience or restrictions.

When the civil war erupted, officers gradually disappeared from the streets of rebel held territories and some of them returned to office only at the end of the conflict. Armed groups quickly filled the void. At that time, international powers wanted to avoid the mistakes of Iraq, where the security infrastructure was entirely disbanded. Also the newly formed Libyan authority – the National Transitional Council (NTC) – did not want to dismantle the previous security infrastructure.

The result: the Libyan police force remained a fragmented institution, mostly organised at hyper-local level directorates.

The NTC decided that most of the police officers who served under Gaddafi could maintain their former positions, but they would be trained again under international supervision to ensure law-abiding practices.

At the same time, the NTC government recruited new officers to promote discontinuity from the previous regime. Most of them came from the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), which was formed in an effort to institutionalise the former anti-Gaddafi armed groups.

In December 2011, the SSC officially became a new state security institution overseen by the Minister of Interior (MOI); the SSC numbered 130,000 members in a country of around 6 million citizens to preserve internal security.

At the end of 2012, the Libyan authority implemented a radical U-turn in their security sector policy and began to disassemble the SSC gradually. From 2012 to 2014, 80,000 SSC members joined the Libyan police force.

The process resulted in the emergence of poorly trained police, and a force in which former fighters turned into officers but often maintained links with their tribal, religious or informal armed groups.

Broadly speaking, the police force faced two challenges in regaining grip on the country.

The first was the assassination campaign conducted by unknown perpetrators targeting several individuals in the area of Benghazi, including police officers.

The second was the isolation law which prevented individuals connected to the previous establishment from obtaining public positions, which affected the composition of the Libyan police.

The various bouts of political tensions as well as the civil war from 2014 to 2020 had a continuing impact on the Libyan police in three crucial aspects.

First, two competing authorities obtained control over two parts of the country.

The first being the Tripoli-based General National Council (GNC), which became later the General National Accord (GNA), controlling most of the West.

The second being the Tobrouk-based House of Representatives (HoR), first controlling the Eastern part of the country and then gradually acquiring control over some areas of the South and West the moment the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) reached the door of Tripoli.

In this context, the security condition deteriorated with armed groups in the West regrouping around the competition between the LAAF and GNA, and some even changing allegiance by siding with General Khalifa Haftar.

The de facto division of the country resulted in a paradoxical situation for police officers in the East, appointed and paid by the Ministry in Tripoli while operating in an area controlled by the Tripoli-based government’s main enemy: General Khalifa Haftar.

Second, the police faced growing difficulties in competing with powerful armed groups while carrying out their duties. As political contenders ultimately relied on the support of armed groups to maintain power, they directed resources away from the police to provide favoured armed groups with the best equipment and training. In other words, armed groups gradually outnumbered and outgunned the Libyan police.

Third, political leaders increasingly gave institutional positions to armed groups that acted as security providers, and their members, to strengthen their loyalty.

Libya entered a new political phase in June 2020, when all meaningful exchange of fire between forces linked to the Tripoli-based GNU and those loyal to the Tobruk-based HoR ended. This new phase has been characterised by short, intermittent clashes between the coalition of armed groups that support the GNU prime minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah and those loyal to Fathi Bashagha, the prime minister of a parallel, HoR appointed, Haftar-aligned executive called the Government of National Stability (GNS).

Very little changed for the police, however: it still experienced difficulties in fulfilling its duty towards the Libyan population and in asserting itself vis-à-vis local armed groups.


Matteo Colombo is a Junior Researcher at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. His work focuses on current local and international political dynamics in the Levant, Turkey, Egypt and Libya.

Nienke van Heukelingen works at Clingendael’s EU & Global Affairs Unit. In her capacity as Research Fellow, Nienke’s work primarily revolves around EU-Turkey relations as well as Turkey’s role and impact in its region.


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