Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

Executive summary

Armed groups from Zawiya, a coastal city that lies 47 km west of the capital, Tripoli, have come to play an increasingly important role in Libya’s power struggles. Conflict among these groups has been endemic, but has generally been limited to intermittent clashes, rather than escalating into sustained, all-out confrontation.

While national level politics has exacerbated these rivalries, they are fundamentally driven by competition over access to state funding and the city’s vast illicit economy: fuel, drugs, and migrant smuggling.

This Report offers a political economy analysis of Zawiya’s armed groups. By outlining the developments that shaped the nature of these groups and the city’s current security landscape, it shows how Zawiya’s armed groups gradually came to take on a particularly abusive and predatory character, compared to many other western Libyan militias.

The Report disaggregates these groups’ diverging business models and relationships with their social bases. This analysis also provides answers to the question of why clashes between the city’s rival factions have been frequent but generally short-lived, and have stopped short of all-out war.

This Report is primarily based on interviews conducted by the author during multiple visits to Zawiya in November 2022 as well as in February, June, and December 2023.

Interlocutors included commanders and members of Zawiya’s armed groups, and security officials, as well as academics, politicians, professionals, and other local residents.

Key findings

  • Zawiya’s armed groups initially benefited from widespread local support for the revolutionary cause. Revolutionary leaders enjoyed a high standing in the years immediately after Muammar Qaddafi’s fall. A crisis in leadership and the city’s temporary political marginalization, however, prompted the rise of militias that were deeply involved in criminal activities, and came to be widely despised by the population.
  • The 2019–20 Tripoli war allowed Zawiyan armed groups to regain influence in Tripoli and across the western coastal region. Zawiyan militia leaders became major players in regional and national power struggles. They exploited the rivalry between competing governments to their advantage, but in doing so also drew the city into a worsening security crisis.
  • The four main forces in Zawiya today differ fundamentally from each other in their make-up, economic model, and relations with local society. While three are deeply involved in the illicit economy, the fourth—Brigade 52—relies entirely on state funding, and has gained a reputation for disciplined security provision.
  • Since 2015, Zawiya has witnessed endemic violence, but never an all-out war between its main forces. Two aspects explain this restraint. First, since each faction fears the dominance of any single actor, alliances among the city’s armed groups constantly shift, maintaining a balance of power. Second, movement along the roads from Tripoli to the Tunisian border is central to Zawiyan groups’ ability to benefit from illicit activities, encouraging them to cooperate.
  • Like other Libyan armed groups, Zawiya’s factions are seeking to refashion themselves as more legitimate, respectable entities, but their predatory activities remain central to their raison d’être. Their leaders now play a dominant role across Zawiya’s politics, the economy, and the administration; they are also key protagonists in the Libyan state’s capture by those wielding armed force.
  • Popular mobilization against armed groups’ abusive and predatory behaviour in the first half of 2023 posed a temporary challenge to these groups, but their ability to play competing government officials in Tripoli against each other helped them in warding off such pressure. Zawiya’s militia leaders appear set to dominate the city’s political order in the long term, unless sustained civilian mobilization limits their power.


The coastal city of Zawiya has assumed growing importance as a theater for Libya’s power struggles. The city’s strategic location as the gateway to the capital, Tripoli, 47 km to Zawiya’s east, emerged most clearly on 4 April 2019, when Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) launched a large scale offensive to capture Tripoli, and gain overall power.

Haftar had attempted to strike deals with armed group leaders in Zawiya and apparently expected them to allow his forces to enter the capital. But late on 4 April, Zawiyan forces captured more than 100 of Haftar’s soldiers at Bridge 27, between Zawiya and the Tripoli suburb of Janzur, thwarting the LAAF’s attempt to reach Tripoli. In the ensuing civil war, Zawiyan armed groups were a key component of the forces fighting Haftar. After the war ended in mid-2020, giving way to political struggles, they successfully converted their military power into political influence.

During the tug of war between the rival governments of Abdelhamid Dabeiba and Fathi Bashagha, in the first half of 2022, the balance of loyalties among Zawiya’s armed groups was yet again central to the outcome: Dabeiba prevailed. In addition to the political and military weight of its forces, Zawiya is also important economically. It hosts a major oil refinery and export terminal. Through the refinery’s petroleum products and particularly through the fuel imported and distributed from the refinery at heavily subsidized prices, Zawiya has emerged as a fuel smuggling hub.

At the same time, local armed groups have used the city’s shores to make money both from irregular migration towards Europe, and from the interception and incarceration of migrants. Fuel, migrant, and drug smuggling have all combined to raise the stakes involved in the control of roads linking Zawiya to its wider surroundings, including the Tunisian and Algerian borders.

Despite its significance, however, Zawiya has been largely neglected by researchers to date. No in-depth studies exist on its armed groups and their evolution. This lacuna is all the more striking given that the city has been the theater of recurrent clashes between its armed groups that have caused dozens of civilian deaths.

This Report is a primer on Zawiya’s armed groups and the political economy that sustains them. Libyan armed groups have, over the past decade, gradually consolidated into powerful state-sanctioned units that are likely to define the country’s security sector for the foreseeable future. Yet these groups vary widely in their aims and interests, finance models, and relations with local communities. Subsuming them under the blanket category of ‘the militias’, as is commonly done, suggests a uniformity that fails to capture their considerable differences. Understanding armed groups therefore requires analyzing both the national-level dynamics and the local conditions that shaped them.

This Report undertakes such an analysis for Zawiya. It should be read in conjunction with similar studies of armed groups in other local contexts, including a Briefing Paper on the Abu Salim district of Tripoli (Hakan, forthcoming). While there are also significant differences among Zawiya’s armed groups, most are particularly problematic compared with many other western Libyan militias in that they are politically opportunistic, deeply involved in criminal activities, indifferent to the human suffering they cause with those activities and with their recurrent armed clashes, and widely hated by the civilian population. This was not always the case: in the years immediately after 2011, armed groups in the city had revolutionary legitimacy and a relatively unified leadership that enjoyed considerable social standing.

To understand how armed groups in Zawiya took on the character they exhibit today, it is necessary to identify the turning points that defined their evolution. This Report proceeds in three steps. First, it shows how national-level and local developments combined to influence the trajectory of armed groups in Zawiya. Second, it focuses on the evolution of these groups’ financing strategies to demonstrate how criminal activities became central to the political economy of armed groups in the city. Third, it analyses how armed groups’ relations with civilians have evolved. It concludes with an overall assessment that draws out the implications of the analysis for future conflict dynamics.


Wolfram Lacher is a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. His research focuses on conflict dynamics in Libya and the Sahel, and relies on frequent fieldwork. His work has been published in Survival, Mediterranean Politics, Foreign Affairs, and the Washington Post, among other publications.


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