The EU’s struggle to strengthen the Libyan security sector

Matteo Colombo & Nienke van Heukelingen

Contested Authority: The Libyan Police Today

Despite the current relative calm, the overall security conditions of Libya have not improved much.

According to the Global Organized Crime Index, Libya has the 20th highest crime rate. The report stresses that ‘organised crime in Libya has largely been linked to the proximity of militia groups and criminal actors to the political class’. The document argues that unaccountable armed groups and informal organisations engage in a plurality of outlawed activities, mainly smuggling of illegal goods, human trafficking, and black marketing of fuel.

Against this background, this study looks at the external constraints which undermine the Libyan police performance in fighting crime. We conducted 25 interviews with experts, Libyan police officers, MOI employees, and EU officers between June and August 2022 with respondents located in al-Jufra, Ghat, Misrata, Khoms, Tripoli and Zawiya.

The research did not focus on the East due to difficulties accessing this area on account of security concerns, and because the EU works mostly in the West, where the internationally recognised GNU government is based.

One disclaimer, though: the absence of findings from the East does not translate into better performances on the part of local police. We simply cannot make any informed statements because there are not enough reliable publications or other well-documented sources about this issue and it is difficult to conduct interviews for political reasons.

As for the West, our findings show that the main challenges to a more effective police force can be grouped into four main categories:

i) proliferation of armed groups;

ii) the Libyan political environment;

iii) administrative mismanagement in the security system; and

iv) the presence of alternative conflict-resolution mechanisms.

1- Proliferation of Armed Groups

There is a widespread belief among EU officials and Libyan police agents that armed groups harm the performance of the police directly and indirectly. Respondents noted the effect of armed groups on Libyan police performance in three ways.

The first refers to powerful armed groups performing policing functions, such as arrests and street patrolling, thanks to their semi-formal status in the official security infrastructure.

For example, a senior official of the Minister of Interior (MOI) argues that the Special Deterrence Forces (Rada), which de facto runs the Mitiga airport in Tripoli, ‘is known for picking up and arresting people in a targeted way’.

Two mid-level MOI officials argue that ‘Prime Minister Dbeibah relies on the loyalty of the Ghaneiwa militia (led by Abdelghani al-Kikli, who, since January 2021, has formally been at the helm of the so-called Stabilization Support Apparatus, or (SSA) and made a deal to give them control over the internal security authority.’ Such a political arrangement allows the SSA to conduct policing activities, which its official website lists as ‘maintaining security, public order, safety, and enforcing the law’.

Interviewees point out that the externalisation of policing functions from the formal police to armed groups means that many Libyans often see such groups as the ultimate providers of security.

The second way in which armed groups undermine the Libyan police relates to the citizens’ perception of armed groups as being stronger than the police. Such perception is further reinforced by the fact that the most powerful armed groups enjoy better training and equipment than the police.

One respondent broadly sums up this phenomenon by stating that ‘they [the formal police] cannot intervene when gangs are fighting and cannot end demonstrations. When real violence is involved, the ability of the police is zero.

Thanks to their close connection to powerful politicians, armed groups have easier access to foreign-sponsored training. As one respondent pointed out sardonically, ‘if they are friends with [former] Minister of Interior, Khalid Mazen, they get put on the first list for training’.

This quote also speaks of the mismatch between the EU training expectations to produce meaningful change, and the pragmatic application of such policies in a context where Libyans have their own networks and preferences.

With regard to the police, a UN official stresses the fact that ‘they have 27 of their own training centres, but the planning, curriculum, and facilities are all very dated and need renovating’.

Finally, respondents argue that non-EU states run their own training programmes for security forces, pointing mainly at Turkey.

The third dynamic lies in the fact that armed groups systematically divert public funds that would be otherwise directed to the police. For example, a security official from Misrata complained that ‘all the money goes to militias, not to the police’, not only through salaries but also through their political influence.

The same respondent added that armed groups ‘find dodgy ways to milk money from the state’, such as ‘claiming that they need new vehicles (…) and then sell it on the black or even the legal market’. When we interviewed EU officials to verify that claim some confirmed it while others dismissed it.

A fourth recurring argument is that the police do not persecute armed group members involved in criminal activities.

The first reason is that some officers maintain links with members of armed groups. For example, one ground operator noted that a consistent number of police officers are, in some cases, (former) armed group members who have integrated into the police but maintain their links to armed groups.

The second argument is that there is powerful political pressure to prevent investigations and punishment of armed group members involved in crimes, as some powerful armed groups seem to have a strong influence on the Minister of Interior.

For example, two respondents linked with the MOI cite the situation where two drunk members of the SSA were arrested by police in Tripoli but later freed thanks to the mediation of the MOI. This information cannot be verified independently, but it illustrates citizen perceptions of general police weakness.

Finally, it appears from interviews that there are differences in the various locations regarding the influence of armed groups on the local police.

In Zawiya, for instance, there is ongoing competition between different armed groups for supremacy, which translates into a risk of the police being powerless vis-à-vis violent crimes and undertaking only limited operations.

Other cities, including Tripoli, feature a predominant alliance of powerful militias, whose power is far from uncontested. These armed groups enjoy political support, and therefore obtain funds and training that would otherwise be directed to the police, and they carry out policing activities. In these areas, police action in prosecuting crimes committed by armed group members appears limited by political authorities.

In the city of Ghat, the LAAF of General Haftar maintains a presence alongside the national police force.

2- Political Division Within The Libyan Ruling Elite

Another often-reported challenge refers to the current Libyan political environment. Several respondents argued that divisions within the political elite complicate any attempt to improve the performance of the police.

The political rivalry between two centres of power in Tripoli and Tobruk, as well as internal conflicts in the West, results in police officers’ conflicting loyalties and affects the continuity of EU-funded projects. For example, two respondents argued that ‘even if there was an honest attempt to train the right people, politics at the top make it impossible to have any kind of effect that lasts’.

The same respondents gave the example of a training contract signed by former Minister of Interior Fatih Bashagha with the security company Rose Associates, which was then cancelled by the incoming Minister Khalid Mazen.

The second issue refers to the shared perception that Western Libyan political authorities are ultimately not interested in strengthening the national police force because their own power depends solely on the support of armed groups.

Several EU officers complained about a lack of support and strategy from Libyan political authorities, which negatively affects their efforts. For example, an EU official complained that ‘there is no security sector reform that is being conceived by the Libyan authorities (…). We don’t have multi-annual planning. It’s ad hoc and informal.

Another EU official noted that ‘at the micro-operational part, there needs to be more political support from Libyans’. In the current political context, it is difficult to see how such a challenge could be overcome.

3- Administrative Mismanagement In The Security System

A few respondents pointed to formal and informal administrative obstacles which prevent the police from conducting their operations efficiently.

Formal obstacles link to the post-Gaddafi political leadership failing to effectively reform the legal framework in order for the police to conduct investigations and arrests. A staff member from the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) stressed that ‘arrest and investigation procedures change all the time, and I think this is done intentionally, so people on the outside looking in are constantly confused about what the law is’.

The issue is further aggravated by the de facto political division of the country, which has resulted in the lack of a united normative framework for law enforcement. Moreover, some respondents identified a link between administrative inefficiency and the hybridisation of the security system.

They stressed that armed groups’ involvement in the security system results in administrative procedures existing only on paper due to the groups’ lack of knowledge of or interest in legal provisions. A senior MOI officer stated that ‘armed groups do not have any interest in the boring administrative work that makes a professional force function’.

Other respondents go even further in arguing that armed groups are actively involved in making controversial documents disappear to complicate investigations of their members accused of terrorism under Gaddafi or involved in criminal activities. Such accusations cannot be verified, but it provides a glimpse of respondents’ perception of the negative role of powerful armed groups.

4- Alternative Conflict-Resolution Mechanisms

Several respondents argued that Libyans often rely on informal authorities instead of the police to solve their disputes, conduct investigations or repress illegal activities. These dynamics ultimately affect the image of the Libyan police in the eyes of citizens, who consider them as the ultimate security providers.

Some respondents argue that citizens rely on alternative security providers because they lack knowledge about procedures for reporting crimes. As one UNSMIL officer pointed out, ‘there’s no public knowledge. (…). No one knows how to do it; the citizens have no agency over that process.

Others argue that citizens lack trust in the ability of the police to carry out security related activities. The interviewees identified differences in the informal authorities from one location to another. In the large cities of the Western coast, such as Tripoli, citizens are more willing to call the police to report criminal activities, while in smaller towns, especially those characterised by a solid tribal element, citizens mostly rely on community leaders to solve their disputes.

A UNDP staff member pointed out that in those locations ‘Libyans rely on a mokhtar (mediator) (…) particularly in those that are ethnically and tribally homogenous, such as Ghat.

Another UN security officer confirmed this by pointing out that ‘there is a strong community culture whereby issues will most often get worked out on their own without involving police (…) For example, suppose there is a big troublemaker in the neighbourhood among one of the families. In that case, everyone, including the family, will get together to kick that person out.’ This finding is confirmed by a municipal representative of Ghat, who argues that ‘issues get handled by police only sometimes, but we have strong family and tribal connections here, and little things get settled by those leaders’.

It needs to be said though, that in this location, the overall security is better than in most other parts of Libya.


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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