Ben Fishman

More failures

Among the tragedies of the September 2012 attacks against the US special mission in Benghazi (perpetrated by Ansar-sharia, an Islamist militant group at the time) was that Libya was still going through a government formation process after the free elections that June.

Under the rules, the elected General National Congress had to pick a prime minister who would select the executive body to govern the country.

When the attacks transpired, there was no national – or even local – authority for the US to talk to. Regardless, politicians had little reach into Benghazi, where a group of brigades and defected remnants of the Gaddafi army essentially ruled the streets.

Eventually, Ali Zeidan was selected by the GNC as prime minister in late 2012. One of his priorities, encouraged by Western partners, was to begin a DDR process in large part by establishing a state-led force that could protect the government against militias.

After a visit to Washington and European capitals, Zeidan was invited to the G8 summit hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced a commitment by allies to train 7,000 Libya forces, later termed the General Purpose Force.

The project was doomed from the start. Ignoring disastrous ad-hoc experiments in training in Jordan and Turkey where recruits trashed facilities, a first round of unvetted trainees destroyed a military facility in Cambridge, England and assaulted local personnel. The US insisted Libya pay for the training, so the process never began.

Other more limited engagements did not change the fundamental character of the militia landscape. Zeidan approached NATO with an uncoordinated request in 2013 to help with security “defence institution building,” which NATO defence ministers approved. 

Nearly a year later, NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen said, “We have had some difficulties engaging with the Libyan authorities.”

While Zeidan attempted to form some kind of government force in the West, Khalifa Haftar was consolidating power in the East in Benghazi and then Derna.

Haftar managed to unite former Gaddafi-era military and tribal-affiliated groups in response to a campaign of assassinations against former regime members.

Once he consolidated control of the East with the support of Egypt and the UAE, he sought to take on the so-called Islamists in the West, leading the 2014-2015 civil war between Haftar’s Dignity Coalition and Tripoli’s Dawn Coalition with support from Misrata.

The war was eventually stopped by international mediation and the agreement in early 2015, known as the Libya Political Agreement.

The agreement was never fully implemented but created the split institutions, the House of Representatives and the High State Council, that still exist and bear significant responsibility for Libya’s stasis since.

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

Uniting against a common threat

One significant factor that led to the coordination and consolidation of armed groups was the presence of a larger threat. Operation Dawn was formed against Haftar in 2014-2015 when Mistrata and Tripoli-based militias united against him.

Misrata’s Military Council and its sub-units carried out the Bunyan al-Marsous operation against the Islamic State (IS), which had formed a base in Sirte. Mistratan and Tripoli forces came together again when Haftar attacked Tripoli again in 2019.

In each case, external actors participated in the fighting. The UAE and Egypt helped Haftar’s Operation Dignity, in one case bombing sites in Tripoli.

On their part, Western forces, including US air strikes and British Special Forces, helped Misratan units overcome IS-Sirte after months of intense fighting.

Tripoli government-aligned forces depended on Turkey’s intervention in early 2020 as Haftar’s forces were fighting in the city’s outskirts. Turkey used superior drones and anti-aircraft systems to defeat the ones Wagner operated on Haftar’s behalf.

Even after the October 2020 ceasefire that stipulated the departure of foreign forces, Turkey remains in Libya, training Tripoli-affiliated soldiers and operating in a relatively low-key manner out of military bases in the West.

Meanwhile, the post-Prigozhin Wagner Group remains in Libya, operating out of the strategic Jufra Airbase, which it uses as a transit hub for its profitable African operations.

The Russians also provide personal protection for Haftar – and are most likely responsible for shooting down a US collection drone last year.  Since Prigozhin’s death, Russia’s deputy defence minister has visited Haftar repeatedly to ensure he remains in Russia’s orbit.

The last round of militia consolidation in the capital occurred in August 2022 when former Interior Minister Fathi Beshagha attempted to enter Tripoli and unseat Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, citing the expiration of his term since elections did not transpire in December 2021.

Beshagha, who had previously worked closely with the Tripoli groups, expected their support, but the Deterrence Apparatus (the Salafi group Radaa) and Stability Support Apparatus, led by Abdelghani al-Kikli or Ghnaiwa, pushed the Nawasi Brigade, Beshagha’s proponents, out of the city, leaving Dbeibeh in power but all the more beholden to Radaa and the SSA.

Radaa controls the Mitiga Airport giving them enormous leverage over the government but also over international actors accessing the city. These two groups clashed in August 2023 but avoided wider escalation.

In the East, Haftar’s Libyan National Army is the most vertically integrated; there are rivalries among his brigades, including those led by his sons.

His son, Saddam, oversees the Tarek bin Ziyad Brigade, which is documented for committing war crimes. Meanwhile, Khalid heads the 106th Battalion.

According to the UN Panel of Experts on Libya’s 2023 report, “The Haftar family took control over most social and economic life in eastern Libya” as they recovered from their military defeat in 2020.

Saddam also seized control of Derna’s rescue and reconstruction apparatus, where the family and its allies stand to gain huge sums. There has been ongoing speculation of what will happen in eastern Libya when Haftar, who is 80, leaves the scene.

The family is attempting to quell any doubts, but the authoritarian manner in which it operates may propel opponents within and beyond the army.

To build on the October 2020 ceasefire agreement, the UN established a Joint Military Commission representing five military officers from East and West whose goal would be to unify the Libya army, known as the 5 + 5.

But while Haftar’s representatives represent their commander, the Western generals are geographically representative of the major cities (Tripoli, Misrata, Zawiya, Zintan, and Gharyan), given the formal military’s dependence on the region’s militias.

Although DDR is not formally on the commission’s mandate, Spain hosted a meeting on militia demobilisation in May 2022.

One significant factor that led to the coordination and consolidation of armed groups was the presence of a larger threat: General Khalifa Haftar

Dim prospects

In 2012, Libya expert and scholar Fred Wehery presciently wrote, The strategy of trying to dismantle the regional militias while simultaneously using them as hired guns might be sowing the seeds for the country’s descent into warlordism.

All of this points to a government that has ceded an unhealthy degree of authority to local militias and tribal intermediaries.” The problem was — then as it is now — that no independent government can take on a real DDR process without risking their own lives.

Ali Zeidan, the prime minister who attempted to create a military loyal to the government, was kidnapped twice. Without some sort of international protection, a newly elected government will be at a similar disadvantage or, worse, spark another civil war.

If any progress on the elections does occur, armed groups must be part of the agreement to hold the voting. This will require significant pressure from outside actors who have influence over the local parties to ensure they do not get involved in pre or post-election violence.

This process will be all the more challenging given the region’s overwhelming focus on Gaza and rising tensions in Lebanon and the Red Sea. Bathily must pay more attention to the militia paradox than prioritising political agreements.


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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