Ben Fishman

Because the government ceded an unhealthy degree of authority to local militias and tribal intermediaries, no one can dismantle these groups without risking their own lives.

Libya’s endemic stalemate stems from three interrelated factors.

The first is a political leadership that prefers the perks of power to the needs of the population.

The second is a financial system that keeps money flowing through oil revenues, enabling an opaque distribution network benefiting political and armed actors.

And the third is a network of “hybrid” or semi-official, mostly state-funded armed groups that enjoy both state privileges and mafia-like control of territory, resources, and smuggling.

The UN and international actors sought to break this cycle with national elections two years ago. Still, the eventual postponement of the vote demonstrated how deeply engrained this anti-democratic system remains. Unfortunately, Libya did not realise the hopes of the early post-Gaddafi years in 2011 and 2012.

The UN and Western partners are again trying to renew an electoral process. October’s Security Council Resolution 2702 reiterated support for Abdoulaye Bathily, the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, “to further an inclusive political process in line with relevant Security Council resolutions, building based on (previous agreements) and building on the updated electoral laws.”

However, much of the political focus on holding elections has been on reaching a consensus among political actors who have been “95%” agreed for two years and always managed to disagree on the final 5%.

But even if the legal framework for holding elections does proceed, armed groups will have the ultimate veto if they choose to intervene at any stage of the voting process, from protecting polling locations to safeguarding counting procedures and ensuring winners – and losers – are safe.

A security sector reform (SSR) process cannot proceed without a new government, yet a new government requires security sector reform, at least the beginnings of one.

In the past, Libyan political and security actors have been averse to participating in SSR. Further, two intervening civil wars supported by outside actors have significantly undermined the prospects of unifying security institutions.

Bathily will require support from Western and regional powers to ensure armed actors allow a free election to take place.


The roots of Libya’s challenge with armed groups stem from the divergent uprisings against Gaddafi that were only loosely coordinated.

As Libya scholar Wolfram Lacher describes, “Armed groups mostly organise around individual cities, neighbourhoods or tribes and often define themselves by their local affiliation.”

Stephanie Williams, a previous UN representative, suggested that “the number of hybrid armed group actors in Western Libya had mushroomed by several orders of magnitude from the approximately 30,000 on the books” since 2011.

In Benghazi, the site of the initial revolution, the defection of key regime units helped propel the uprising in addition to the support of Islamist-leaning militias.

The grouping made for strange bedfellows. Islamists were widely suspected of assassinating the rebel military leader General Abdul Fattah Younis in July 2011.

Fast forward to 2014, and General Khalifa Haftar, who had returned to Libya during the revolution but played no role, emerged in Benghazi as the counterforce to the Islamist-leaning armed groups, eventually defeating them locally in what Haftar termed Operation Dignity.

Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, suffered some of the most intense fighting of the revolution. Its resistance formed the basis of some of the most powerful groups that can be mobilised today, such as the Halbous Brigade, the Joint Operations Force, and the Nimr Brigade.

The third major front of fighting was in the mountains southwest of Tripoli. As the months drew on and with NATO support, the Zintanis won the initial race to Tripoli.

They remained in the southern part of the capital for the coming years, along with more Islamist-leaning militias that emerged locally and with the frequent deployment of groups from Misrata to assert their influence.

The roots of Libya’s challenge with armed groups stem from the divergent uprisings against Gaddafi that were only loosely coordinated.

When confronted with this array of revolutionary actors, Libya’s nascent political authorities chose to defer the issue of armed groups until elections put a more legitimate government in place.

At the same time, the transitional actors also chose not to engage international supporters of the revolution on the issue.

The UN was not prepared, authorised, or staffed to pursue or implement a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programme (DDR). Nor did NATO or allied forces insist that Libya’s first transitional government prioritise trying to attempt some kind of SSR or DDR process when the groups were less entrenched.

One initial Libyan-led attempt was made during early 2012, termed the Warrior Affairs Commission, which attempted to register any fighter or associate in the revolution and determine whether they were interested in education, work, or formal incorporation into the formal military structure.

While the effort registered over 250,000 (actual participants in the fights were estimated to be far fewer), the programme was discredited and eventually suspended.  

Another early effort created broad umbrellas under the Ministry of Defense (Libyan Shield Forces) and the Ministry of Interior (the Supreme Security Forces), each with tens of thousands of personnel nominally affiliated groups but with limited command and control.  

Instead, the National Transition Council did what Libyans knew best from the Gaddafi era: they put armed groups on the public payroll. This decision created a terrible precedent from which Libya has not yet recovered.


Ben Fishman is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute and a member of the Linda and Tony Rubin Program on Arab Politics. He served from 2009 to 2013 on the National Security Council, where he held several posts, including director for North Africa and Jordan; director for Libya; and executive assistant to Ambassador Dennis Ross.


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