Matt Herbert | Rupert Horsely | Emadeddin Badi
Cronyism and armed groups’ penetration of executive portfolios and state institutions are effectively normalized and no longer viewed as the taboo it once was. At the same time, revolutionary ideals have gradually waned, removing another restraint on criminal penetration of the state.
The impact of these dynamics on the UN’s political mandate in Libya is critical for policymakers to consider. The multiplicity of compromised actors with often diverging interests within government is not just a challenge to governance and law and order but also to the political process.
The limited political progress seen through the UN track since 2020, coupled with growing state penetration, has diverted political momentum towards building systems that resemble a kleptocracy, with key power players’ personal interests at odds with democratic processes that pose a risk to the gains they have accrued.
The entrenchment of these figures and their networks within political, economic and security institutions complicate future potential reform efforts.
Anti-crime as a political tool With the rise of an intricate political–criminal nexus in Libya, the mantle of ‘anti-crime’ has been developed into a political tool. ‘Anti-crime’ positioning has evolved from approaches and communications around responses to security challenges, becoming instead a useful platform for gaining political clout and legitimacy.
Various factions and actors, from political entrepreneurs to armed groups, are playing both sides of the fence. They portray themselves as champions of law and order to secure foreign funding and garner support.
Anti-crime platforms have been used to attract international aid, gain popular support and legitimize political ambitions. However, these efforts often fall short of comprehensive solutions, as they tend to prioritize short-term gains and personal interests over long-term stability and institutional reform.
Using anti-crime approaches as a political tool can take several forms, including profiteering from the funds and immunity conferred by police status, reputation washing and as cover for political action. Profiteering and immunity The most common use of anti-crime approaches, particularly by armed groups, involves gleaning direct benefits, either financial profits or legitimacy as state actors.
The latter rarely involves foregoing involvement in criminal activity, reflecting that even as they seek legitimacy, armed group leaders need to carefully balance intra-organizational and local interests around involvement in illicit markets with international desires for its cessation.
Perhaps the most powerful recent force to emerge in this fashion has been the west coast branch of the Stabilization Support Apparatus (SSA). This branch emerged from a coalition of the Awlad Buhmeira network in Zawiya and the 55 Brigade, led by Muammar al-Dhawi in Warshefana.
The west coast branch is one half of the SSA, with the other located in Tripoli and led by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli, the head of the Abu Salim Central Security Force. The broader SSA was established in January 2021 by Fayez al-Sarraj, president under the then Government of National Accord.
As the GI-TOC has previously argued, despite this legal basis, it operated in practice as a decentralized and largely unaccountable armed group coalition rather than a hierarchic, unitary entity. For the armed groups involved, the establishment of the SSA allowed for increased influence, a veneer of legitimacy and access to state resources that bypassed the Ministry of Interior.
Between 2021 and 2023, the west coast branch of the organization became one of the most dominant security and law enforcement actors in the coastal area between Zawiya and Tripoli, including in combatting human smuggling through maritime search and rescue of migrants and subsequent detention.
In this, it was closely allied with the Zawiya Refinery Branch of the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), commanded by Abd al-Rahman Milad, who was sanctioned by the UN in 2018 for alleged profiteering from human smuggling. Milad is himself a member of the Awlad Buhmeira network.
For the armed groups forming the West Coast SSA, the evolution of the organization shaped the nature of their involvement in illicit economies rather than leading to a complete cessation. The network remains deeply involved in fuel smuggling, even if it is not directly involved in human smuggling per se.
Some network members reportedly ‘collude with smugglers’ as per UN reporting, while others remain involved in the protection or taxation of lower-level smugglers. Further, interviews and public reports suggest that migrants continue to face abuse and extortion at facilities linked to the West Coast SSA and allies of the Zawiya LCG.
The West Coast SSA has not only played a central role in security and law enforcement in the region but was also a key ally of the government of Fathi Bashagha and deeply involved in his efforts to gain a foothold in western Libya.
The footprint it built using the justification of combatting human smuggling was, in this way, inseparable from its political aspirations. This led al-Kikli, the overall head of the SSA and a Dabaiba supporter, to withdraw official sanction from the anti-smuggling activities of the west coast branch in February 2023.
The Awlad Buhmeira network and al-Dhawi reacted by having their maritime forces incorporated into the General Administration for Coastal Security, a component of the GNU’s interior ministry, while the detention centre was placed under the interior ministry of the rival GNS.
Involvement in law enforcement action is widely used to launder the reputation of those accused of criminality in the past. Perhaps the best example is Milad, who continues to command the Zawiya Refinery Branch of the LCG.
After being sanctioned in 2018, Milad was arrested in 2020 under orders of Bashagha when he was Interior Minister. Milad has aggressively and successful changed his reputation since his release from detention. In part, this involved doubling down on a long-time strategy: counter-migration activities by the Zawiya LCG, an approach that led to a substantial rise in interceptions in 2021.
The refurbishment of the Naval Academy in Janzur is another centrepiece to his rebranding, one which has been highly effective in expanding his influence within the Libyan Navy, including among senior officers. More recently, in Zawiya, a series of small ground operations targeted fuel smugglers. These were overseen by a member of the Awlad Saqr tribe, who is alleged by interviewees to be involved in fuel smuggling himself and appeared to be a PR effort at a time of heightened tensions.
This sort of practice remains ubiquitous in Libya. Cover for political action ‘Anti-crime’ campaigns may also involve actors using state authority to arrest political opponents or rivals. For example, in April 2023, the leader of the Awlad Saqr tribe in Zawiya was named as an arrest target in an official letter issued by the Zawiya Security Directorate, with pressure then put on the Attorney General to pursue him. Interviewees reported that this nominal law enforcement procedure was driven by local rivalries in Zawiya.
In late May and early June 2023, the use of anti-criminal narratives as a political tool took a more violent turn when a series of drone strikes reportedly authorized by Dabaiba targeted facilities in Zuwara, Zawiya and Warshefana, including buildings linked to the West Coast SSA and fuel smuggling depots.
The GNU Ministry of Defence claimed that the strikes targeted criminals in these areas. Although airstrikes had a considerable impact on local fuel supplies, their initial focus within Libya was seen as political, with the targeting interpreted as messaging to the West Coast SSA on the risks it was running in its continued opposition to the GNU. There is some evidence that, following the strikes, rival groups are allowing men under their protection who are wanted by the Attorney General to be arrested, but only as part of wider efforts that are negotiated to ensure the perception of political balance.
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.