Dr Wolfram Lacher

Dimensions and consequences of a consolidation process

The armed groups that have formed in Libya since 2011 have progressively taken over the state. They are undergoing a process of institutionalisation, and their representatives are reaching the top levels of the army, the security apparatus and the civilian government.

At the same time, they are exerting massive influence over who gets key appointments and how state resources are distributed. The resulting amalgamation of private interests mixed with military units is likely to shape Libya’s political and security landscapes for years to come.

Since mid-2022, relations between leading military actors have been characterised by pragmatic arrangements. But they continue to harbour considerable potential for conflict as distributive conflicts can quickly lead to armed confrontation.

The consolidation of private armies also diminishes the prospect of security sector reform. European governments should reconsider how they engage with Libya’s increasingly powerful and repressive militia leaders.

Since the Libyan state’s monopoly on violance collapsed with Muammar al-Qadhafi’s demise in 2011, numerous armed groups have competed to fill the vacuum. In addition to the forces that mobilised in order to fight the Qadhafi regime, countless new units also formed after its defeat.

Almost all armed groups operated under the cover of state legitimacy, whether within newly created institutions or simply as units of the interior or defence ministries. In reality, however, they primarily defended the interests of their leaders, members or social base, while largely evading state control.

Their competition over access to state funding played a major role in the escalation of the second civil war in 2014 that put an end to the post-Qadhafi transition and led to the formation of two competing governments.

Even after the second civil war subsided, confrontations continued between groups that nominally reported to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Khalifa Haftar, who had formed his Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in 2014, gradually expanded his control in eastern, central and eventually southern Libya. In 2019, Haftar’s attempt to capture Tripoli provoked a third civil war that ended in 2020 with the LAAF’s withdrawal from western Libya and the establishment of a foreign military presence on both sides.

Since then, foreign forces have maintained a precarious balance of power: the Turkish military backs the government in Tripoli, while Russia’s Wagner Group supports the LAAF. There have been several unsuccessful attempts under the aegis of the United Nations (UN) to break this stalemate by holding elections and reuniting the country. Nonetheless, the so-called Government of National Unity (GNU) under Abdelhamid Dabeiba, formed in 2021, has held on to power in Tripoli. Even though Haftar does not recognise the Dabeiba government and instead supports a parallel government in the east, he has a growing set of informal arrangements that link him to the GNU.

He receives sizeable monthly payments from Tripoli, and has placed his representatives in key positions, including as chief of the National Oil Corporation (NOC).


The military landscape has seen a process of consolidation that began in 2016 and has accelerated ever since, including during the political stalemate since 2021. From a multitude of small armed groups, ever larger formations with more extensive territories have emerged.

The pioneer in this respect was Haftar, who mobilised a loose alliance of armed groups in 2014 but increasingly centralised control over his coalition throughout the years. Haftar’s defeat in Tripoli in 2020 temporarily weakened his position in eastern Libya, but since then his sons have continued to amass military, political and economic power. Many LAAF militias have been integrated into units under the command of Haftar’s sons and relatives.

Commanders with loyal followings who had become liabilities for Haftar due to their particular notoriety for war crimes fell victim to assassinations. This centralisation of power within the Haftar clan also allowed it to increasingly monopolise control over criminal activities.

These include the violent seizure of land, the takeover of state companies and banks, and the smuggling of fuel, drugs, and people. At the same time, Haftar’s sons have strengthened loyal commanders – as opposed to opportunistic allies – in southern Libya, thereby consolidating their direct control over the region.

In western Libya, the consolidation is less advanced, but nevertheless unmistakable. After Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj took office in 2016, a cartel of four militias gradually pushed smaller groups out of downtown Tripoli, allowing them to establish a stranglehold over state institutions.

During the war for Tripoli in 2019/20, some western Libyan militias proved particularly effective. After the war, they received training and equipment from Turkey in addition to privileged access to state funds, thereby strengthening their position.

The Tripoli militia landscape consolidated further when several armed groups were driven out of the capital by their rivals in 2022.

This occurred in the context of a power struggle between the GNU and the rival government of Fathi Bashagha – a dynamic that polarised armed groups in the greater Tripoli area. The camp supporting Dabeiba prevailed in a brief armed confrontation in August 2022.

Since then, large parts of Tripoli have been controlled by only two armed groups: the “Deterrence Apparatus” of Abderrauf Kara and the “Stabilisation Support Apparatus” of Abdelghani “Ghnewa” al-Kikli.


The groups that have prevailed in these struggles are in the process of institutionalising themselves in several respects. Many of them had emerged by 2011, and nearly all by 2014; they have since gained permanence.

Over the years, their leaders have acquired considerable expertise in war, politics and finance. They have also tightened what were initially often diffuse command structures. In their established territories, their patronage networks are now deeply entrenched in the economy and administration.

Institutionalisation is also evident in the links between the militias and the state. From the outset, armed groups entered state institutions, thereby claiming to represent the state.

This included adopting official-sounding names such as “116th Brigade”. Another common practice was to appoint career officers as pro forma commanders of such units in order to conceal the role of the actual militia leaders, who were civilians.

Now, these same militia leaders have not only emerged as official commanders of these units but also as top government officials. Examples include: GNU interior minister Emad al-Trabelsi; his counterpart in the rival east-based government, Essam Buzriba – a brother of Stability Support Apparatus deputy commander Hassan Buzriba – and his deputy, Faraj al-Gaim.

In addition, an increasing number of senior officials owe their positions to militia leaders, who now collect the lion’s share of embezzled state funds. In this sense, armed groups’ quest for official status is no longer a matter of camouflage: they now indeed represent the Libyan state as it exists today.

Finally, the process of institutionalisation is evident in the growing professionalisation of armed groups. Militias are increasingly trying to appear as providers of security, just as they work to counter civilian perceptions that they are primarily a threat.

In this regard, militias in Tripoli have benefited from the fact that armed clashes, which were previously common in the capital, have almost completely ceased since August 2022.

In interviews with the author, commanders argued that disorderly factions had been gradually eliminated, thus prompting other militias to conclude that they needed to work together to provide security in order to survive.

In Tripoli, which was dominated by particularly unruly militias only a few years ago, the 444th Brigade is now the new model. It is a unit that is seen as disciplined, reliable and uncompromising in dealing with crime in the areas it controls south of Tripoli.

Part of this model, which more and more groups are imitating, is that units recruit beyond the areas of origin of their leaders, rather than remaining associated with a particular social constituency.

Still, this definitely does not mean that these units are under state control as the govern­ment would not be able to change their commanders. Like Haftar’s LAAF, they are therefore private armies.

Professionalisation further means that militias place greater emphasis on the skills of their personnel. They acquire these skills, for example, through the military training that western Libyan units have received from Turkey and Haftar’s forces received from Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Professionalisation also encompasses an increasing reliance on members of the Qadhafi regime’s security forces. Here too, Haftar has been a pioneer, recruiting the former regime’s military and intelligence officers and using them to engage in fierce repression. In western Libya, the recruitment of such personnel had long been considered taboo, but this has gradually been overcome since 2016.

The first group to recruit former intelligence officers in large numbers was the “Deterrence Apparatus”. Later, militia leaders in Tripoli began to revive the domestic and foreign intelligence services along with their old staff.

The network around Abdelghani al-Kikli controls the Internal Security Agency, while several militias compete for influence in the foreign intelligence service. Under the helm of the militia leaders, the institutional culture of these agencies is experiencing a renaissance in the form of hostility towards civil society, which is suspected of being an instrument of foreign subversion.

The intelligence services and their new masters try to portray themselves as the guardians of Libyan sovereignty by arresting civil society activists and then releasing videos of confessions extracted under pressure. In this way, the political culture of the old regime and the personal interests of militia leaders intertwine to create a new western Libyan security apparatus.


Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Africa and Middle East Research Division at SWP.


Wissenschaft und Politik

German Institute for International and Security Affairs

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