Matt Herbert | Rupert Horsely | Emadeddin Badi
THE INTERSECTION OF CRIME, CONFLICT AND POLITICS
Illicit markets have become more deeply entrenched in Libya since 2011 than they were at any point before the revolution. Proceeds from crime – particularly smuggling and the embezzlement of state funds – have been critical to the emergence and consolidation of armed groups that have gone on to play a dominant role in politics at the local and national levels.
Competition over these resources has also been a repeated source of conflict between groups. Finally, the politics and practice of law enforcement have drawn in armed groups previously complicit in organized crime, seeking legitimacy and alternative sources of patronage and funding.
This has created an ambiguous and compromised law enforcement ecosystem in which it is not possible to disentangle legitimate from illegitimate actors as a basis of reform or external engagement.
Organized crime and armed-group dynamics Organized crime as a funder and enabler of armed groups dates to the revolution, when many groups gained control over nodes key to illicit economies – such as trafficking routes, ports and migrant detention facilities.
The nature of different armed groups’ involvement in illicit economies has often been heavily influenced by the local political economy of an illicit market, the power of the armed group and the risks faced for involvement in a given activity.
Such involvement has also shifted over time, particularly as the chaotic and highly fragmented security situation in the mid-2010s slowly consolidated, with a narrower set of larger and more sophisticated armed groups assimilating or destroying their smaller rivals.
This process was punctuated by conflicts that often shaped the landscape, killing off certain players while others emerged stronger. The latest major purge through conflict occurred with the war for Tripoli.
The victors and survivors from this period now constitute the elite groups who control illicit economies across the country. Since 2020, the biggest expansion of profiteering from illicit economies has reportedly been driven by the LAAF in Cyrenaica and the Fezzan. This can be traced to its defeat in the war for Tripoli.
Types of armed group involvement in illicit economies:
■ Direct organizational participation.
■ Individual involvement by low-ranking members.
■ Provision of protection to criminal enterprises.
■ Extortion or taxation of illicit economies.
Although the group survived, maintaining territorial control in Libya’s east and south, the loss eroded its ideological and financial foundations. This drove a pronounced shift towards the systematization and centralization of economic predation, which had previously operated more organically.
Profiteering off illicit economies by elements of the LAAF has increased across nearly all illicit markets.
Since 2020, industrial-scale fuel smuggling has evolved in Cyrenaica, according to interviewees, allegedly involving high-level officials within the LAAF able to secure fuel directly from state facilities, protect such shipments and arrange cross-border smuggling with foreign counterparts.
Less visibly, elements of the LAAF and affiliated businessmen allegedly control drug trafficking routes, both trans-Saharan and Mediterranean. Profit sharing from these initiatives is a significant source of funding and support to subordinate armed groups affiliated with the LAAF in peripheral areas.
Finally, over the last three years, there has been an uptick in the activity termed by the UN Panel of Experts as piracy, involving an LAAF maritime unit in Cyrenaica impounding commercial vessels and demanding payments from their insurers.
Some profiteering occurs at the level of senior commanders, who reportedly leverage their positions to organize illicit economic activity, mainly in fuel smuggling, and through the extraction of payments from criminal actors.
However, involvement in criminal markets is also devolved, especially in remote areas of southern Cyrenaica and the Fezzan.
There, the LAAF largely rules with a light touch, having negotiated agreements with local armed groups to join it in a loose hierarchy. These agreements leave local groups highly autonomous, able to police themselves and pursue their economic interests, including in illicit economies.
This has resulted in a highly ambiguous relationship between local armed groups and criminal actors. In some cases, exploitation of the illicit economies in these areas has taken on a quasi-legitimate veneer, with ‘taxes’ levied by armed groups and municipal authorities, and papers given to criminal actors to allow their movement.
In one case, in Kufra in southern Cyrenaica, such a taxation scheme was reported by an interviewee to generate around US$200 000 (€181 290) per month from smuggled fuel alone.
It is important to note that there are elements of a political strategy in the LAAF’s activities. In addition to securing the loyalty of component groups by providing access to a livelihood, there are indications that the LAAF no longer wants to rely exclusively on repression and is instead funnelling some illicit profits into the local economy both to launder the money and to secure social support.
This is the closest parallel to the governance of illicit economies exercised by the Gaddafi regime before the revolution, particularly in borderlands. Examples of this also exist in western Libya, where armed groups continue to derive funding from criminal activity. However, this is more fragmented and anarchic – reflecting the heterogeneous political landscape in this part of Libya.
For example, multiple groups of varying size and politico-military significance engage in cannabis resin and cocaine trafficking on the west coast, with al-Ajelat being a centre of this trade.
Fuel smuggling also remains widespread and is an essential source of funding for groups in Zawiya, a crucial illicit economic node west of Tripoli.
Violent competition over illicit economies has diminished since the mid-2010s, as groups have established quasi-stable monopolies in various criminal sectors. Nonetheless, such violence continues and represents the main type of conflict at present. Elite factions in Zawiya – comprising tribal leaders and militiamen, some of whom have attained highly sensitive security and intelligence posts – frequently skirmish over control of illicit economies.
These turf wars have contributed to Zawiya remaining one of the most unstable towns in Libya.
Infiltration of criminally linked actors into politics Protracted conflict in Libya has increasingly fused political and criminal power, creating a political– criminal nexus that has thrived on the weakness of state institutions.
A number of armed group leaders known to be complicit in organized crime have advanced within the GNU and its rival, the Government of National Stability (GNS).
One key example is the deputy head of counterterrorism in Libya’s intelligence service, who previously was a high-profile militiaman.
The GNU’s Interior Minister is also a former armed group commander whose units were accused of involvement in fuel smuggling by the UN in 2018. The Interior Minister of the GNS, in turn, is a brother of the leaders of Zawiya’s Awlad Buhmeira network.
As the above examples demonstrate, figures with past involvement in organized crime are no longer simply seeking the patronage of politicians – as was largely the case in the early post-revolution years– but are obtaining sensitive and senior posts, which come with access to intelligence as well as decision-making authority.
The advancement of such compromised figures through the state hierarchy is double-edged.
On the one hand, it entrenches corrupt and criminal networks in positions of power, corroding the quality of law enforcement and expanding the realm of criminal enterprise.
On the other hand, there is a dampening effect on crime and insecurity, as those who have gained status through illicit means need stability to build legitimacy and to make their advantage permanent.
Their involvement can also augment the state’s coercive capacity, as they bring with them their own power bases and armed fighters. However, this comes at the cost of hierarchic control and accountability.
As they have become embedded in the state, many of these actors have reduced or sought to camouflage better their direct exposure to organized crime.
Rather than profit off overt forms of organized crime, such as fuel smuggling, they profit off their ability to govern criminal markets using official instruments and state institutions, as well as to shape or control state budgets, payrolls and procurement contracts.
Ultimately, appointing corrupt figures for political expediency has led to stagnation in substantive governance. Support for reforming law enforcement and dismantling militias and armed groups as a route to legitimacy has declined since 2020.
Matt Herbert is a senior expert at the GI-TOC’s Observatory of Illicit Economies in North Africa and the Sahel. He writes on transnational organized crime and state fragility, and policy responses to these issues, including targeted financial sanctions, security sector reform and governance, and state–community engagement.
Rupert Horsley is a senior analyst at the GI-TOC. He is an expert on Libya, focusing on migration, organized crime, security and conflict trends in the country. He specializes in complex analysis and research in difficultto-access communities.
Emadeddin Badi is a senior analyst at the GI-TOC, a senior advisor for Libya at the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He specializes in governance, organized crime, hybrid security structures, security sector reform and development.