Tim Eaton

The development of the post-2011 security apparatuses in the three cities

Armed factions in Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan are formed from social networks drawn from the local context. It is these features, rather than policy from the central state, that has shaped them.

The evolving relationship of Libya’s armed groups to state authority must be studied in the context of the developing political, economic and security landscape in the country.

Misratan, Zawiyan and Zintani armed groups have obtained state affiliation through the defence and interior ministries, as well as via direct relationships with the Presidency Council and the Libyan Intelligence Service. Elements of Zintan’s security sector have also aligned themselves with Haftar’s LAAF. Such institutional affiliations have in most cases proved weak and subject to change.

Armed groups from each of the three cities remain based on social networks. Seen through this lens, the changes in names of the groups, their shifting affiliations and reorganizations, and their influxes of funding shed light on the prevailing distribution of power in the country.

Tracking these developments has become increasingly complex. However, focusing on the positioning of key social constituencies and commanders reveals a clearer narrative, with the formal structures of the security sector reflecting local conditions. These dynamics show that durable institution-building in the security sector at national level remains elusive.

The Misratan security apparatus: social mobilization, restructuring and expansion

In Misrata, support for the goals of the revolution rather than formal state authority remains at the centre of the social contract between the community and its armed groups.

Over the past decade, Misratan armed groups have led and engaged in conflicts across Libya, with hundreds of individuals fighting on various front lines for what they believed to be national causes. The majority of these Misratan fighters do not belong to the military, and do not necessarily have a sense of military hierarchy and command. Consequently, to mobilize their units effectively and maintain control military operations, Misratan commanders need societal support for their cause. For day-to-day operations in times of relative peace, the core state-affiliated elements of the Misratan security apparatuses respond to orders coming down the Tripoli-based official chain of command.

A number of initiatives have sought to formalize Misratan armed groups under the aegis of the Libyan state, albeit in a period where Misrata exerted significant influence over the state itself. This has led the security apparatus in Misrata to become more coherent since 2015, as the prevalence and the impact of activities by members of non-state-affiliated armed groups – including illegal arrests, checkpoints and the exercise of authority over citizens and government institutions – have diminished considerably.

This transformation has been associated with attempts to professionalize armed individuals under military forces and Ministry of Interior agencies. Early efforts, via the establishment of the Libya Shield apparatus and the Third Force, ended in failure. Misrata’s security apparatus has been subject to efforts at restructuring whereby commanders from the city have sought to install a military hierarchy and train personnel, although connections to the revolutionary groups remain firmly in place . The clearest examples of these attempts are the creation of Brigades 166 and 301, the Joint Operations Force (JOF) and the Counter Terrorism Force (CTF).

Brigade 301 was formed from fighters affiliated with the Halbous Brigade in Tripoli in 2015. The Halbous Brigade is a revolutionary armed group that defended the eastern areas of Misrata in 2011 and subsequently became one of the largest, best equipped and most organized brigades in the city. It played a significant role in the Libya Dawn operation in 2014, deploying to Tripoli to oust Zintani forces.

Halbous was led by a cadre of five leading officers. One of them, Mohamed al-Haddad, was appointed to the command of the Central Military Zone in 2017, and a number of leading Misratan armed groups were brought under his command. Haddad was appointed chief of the general staff of the GNA in 2020. His influence stems not only from his official position but also from his connections to Halbous. It is said in the city that Misrata cannot go to war without Halbous.

Brigade 166 was formed in 2015 to protect state institutions. At that time, most of its recruits were fighters from the Nimr Brigade, which had been a prominent revolutionary faction fighting on Misrata’s eastern front lines in 2011. Like Brigade 301, the group has partly relied on its connections to revolutionary factions to maintain its influence.

The JOF, which is responsible for counterterrorism operations, was founded in 2013 under the Ministry of Defence, before coming under the direct purview of the Presidency Council in 2016. Members first joined the group after an announcement was broadcast on Misrata FM radio about accepting new members to a state group. Headquartered in central Misrata, the JOF also contains members from other cities such as Khums and Zliten.

The group is formed of fighters with a reputation for being ‘well behaved’, and who can be trusted to be part of a force intended to support and secure state institutions. When the GNA Presidency Council was formed, it placed the JOF under the direct command of then prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The JOF has since come to be regarded as one of the most effective and respected forces in Misrata.

Founded in 2017, the CTF emulated the JOF approach. It recruited fighters who had participated in the al-Bunyan al-Marsous operation against ISIS in Sirte in 2016. under the command of Mohamed al-Zain (who previously commanded an artillery battalion affiliated with the Central Military Zone). The CTF has since collaborated with international partners on counterterrorism operations, and is directly affiliated to the Presidency Council. A concerted effort has also been made to develop regular armed forces with Misratan recruits under the formal aegis of the Central Military Zone of the Ministry of Defence.

All four of these forces continue to draw, to differing degrees, on Misratan revolutionary armed formations. Crucially, they each maintain a military hierarchy within their units, and each force is being expanded via formal training programmes that are separate from the revolutionary factions. Members have received military training, and through their state affiliations Brigade 301, Brigade 166 and the CTF are entitled to receive military serial numbers.

A concerted effort has also been made to develop regular armed forces with Misratan recruits under the formal aegis of the Central Military Zone of the Ministry of Defence. These formal elements containing Misratans recruited since 2011 are not, however, believed to be influential outside the administrative circles of the Central Military Zone, which is responsible for Libya’s central region (including Misrata). In 2019, in response to Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, armed forces that would previously have been expected to be integrated under the Central Military Zone were instead affiliated to the Presidency Council, seen as facilitating more direct funding relationships.

The Central Military Zone has been unable to obtain significant funding from the state. It has played no significant role in security developments over recent years. Key informant interviews indicated that these formal groups would continue to be overshadowed by hybrid forces such as the JOF and others that have formal elements but retain connections to the revolutionary groups, as well as by the revolutionary groups, as there is a continuing perceived need to remain on a state of alert to counter threats by LAAF-affiliated armed groups.

Ministry of Interior-affiliated forces have been able to consolidate their authority within Misrata since 2015. They are now confident enough to provide law and order on the streets and to enforce judicial orders without the need to be supported by armed groups, as was the case previously. Defence groups are not present on the streets of the city, and neither military institutions nor non-state-affiliated armed groups interfere in regular civil affairs.

Consequently, unlike in many other cities including Tripoli, revolutionary armed groups play no role in the day-to-day provision of policing in Misrata, nor are there checkpoints controlled by armed factions. The Misrata Security Directorate, affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, provides policing within the city, running police stations from al-Dafnia gate in the west of the city to Abugrein in the east.

The Security Directorate does, however, seek support from both the JOF, which continues to provide a counterterrorism function, and the Special Support Force (SSF). This form of interagency cooperation is encouraging. The SSF is considered to be one of the most effective Ministry of Interior state forces in Misrata and central Libya. It was founded in 2015 by the city’s municipal council, and was then known as the First Security Division. The group’s main duty initially was to secure the Misrata Medical Centre and to stop armed individuals from entering it and abusing medical staff. Its perceived legitimacy enabled it to address and reduce such violations.

The SSF was commanded by a prominent young Salafi figure, Anwar Swaisi. During Haftar’s military assault on Tripoli in 2019–20, the force was reconstituted by the Ministry of Interior, and it became the SSF under the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Central Support. The SSF is now completely commanded by the Ministry of Interior. With strong social connections to the local community, the JOF and the SSF are considered to be among the most powerful and reliable state security agencies in Misrata.

The Ministry of Interior, as well as judicial authorities, have been cooperating with both in critical missions related to counterterrorism, countering drug-trafficking and restoring public property. However, there have been reports of some members of the JOF having allegedly committed human rights violations on occasion against journalists and activists.

The enduring importance of revolutionary factions

Prominent revolutionary factions within Misrata have continued to eschew a formal affiliation to the state. These include the al-Mahjoub Brigade and the al-Marsa Brigade, among others. The al-Mahjoub Brigade was established in 2011 by rebels from one of Misrata’s largest neighbourhoods, Zawiat al-Mahjoub, in the west of the city, after they gained control of the neighbourhood from Gaddafi-supporting troops. The group then focused on the front lines west of Misrata, starting from the area of Addafnia, moving to Zliten and then on to Tripoli and Sirte.

Al-Mahjoub subsequently took part in all major armed conflicts in the central area of Libya and in Tripoli, including Libya Dawn (2014), al-Bunyan al-Marsous (2016–17) and al-Burkhan al-Ghadab (2019–21). Compared with Halbous, the al-Mahjoub Brigade is less organized and more impulsive about joining armed conflicts that do not directly affect the local security of Misrata.

Like Halbous, al-Mahjoub is more influential in times of war: it does not play an official role in the city. But unlike Halbous, it does not have a state-affiliated sister force. It is, however, capable of significant deployments, and its influence should not be disregarded. For example, the Sirte Security and Protection Force, established following the al-Bunyan al-Marsous operation, was mainly formed by groups belonging to al-Mahjoub (most prominently the Shnina Brigade).

The al-Marsa Brigade is effectively split into three main factions: al-Marsa al-Kubra, commanded by Salim al-Zoufri; al-Marsa 06, under the leadership of Salah Badi; and Death Company, commanded by Khaled Abu Aoud. Al-Marsa was formed in 2011 by rebels mainly from the al-Ramla and Garara neighbourhoods of Misrata. While Gaddafi’s troops did not manage to reach areas close to the central coast, such as al-Ramla and Garara, rebels from those areas also participated in the battles on Misrata’s eastern front lines.

Elements of al-Marsa received a state affiliation under the NSG in 2014–15, but they seem to have lost this following the appointment of the GNA. In May 2015, the al-Marsa 03 was positioned in Sirte power plant and was the last group to withdraw from the city after members of the NSG and the GNC refused to support Misrata armed groups in their conflict with ISIS.


Tim Eaton – Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.


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