Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

I. The making of Zawiya’s political economy

Zawiya has a population of around 350,000, making it Libya’s fourth-largest city. Towards the east, its outskirts adjoin the peri-urban sprawl of the Warshafana area, which separates Zawiya from Tripoli; its western districts merge seamlessly with the neighbouring city of Sorman, thereby forming a single metropolitan area with Sorman, Sabratha, and Ajeilat. Zawiya’s southern fringes are bordered by the arid, sparsely populated expanse of the Jafara plain, through which a road from Zawiya leads towards the Nafusa mountains. The most vital artery crossing Zawiya, however, is the coastal road from Tripoli to the Tunisian border. Finally, although its centre faces away from the sea, Zawiya is a coastal city with several small ports, including that of the refinery. As an urban centre, Zawiya is a recent creation.

Until the early 20th century, the area hosted a cluster of villages along with a few Ottoman administrative and military buildings. Its name derives from the zawaya (singular: zawiya) that had been established in the area since the 15th century, and that offered religious instruction to the region’s agropastoral population—the only education available until the Ottoman administration established a rudimentary primary school in 1902.

During the Italian colonial era (1911–43), Zawiya developed into a small town. Urbanization began in earnest following independence and the shift towards an oil economy. Zawiya’s population grew from 19,500 in 1964 to 53,000 in 1980; by 2006, it had reached 290,000.

The establishment of the refinery in 1974 and of the university in 1988 were milestones in Zawiya’s transformation into a major centre of Libya’s oil-based economy. Zawiya’s origination from a cluster of different communities remains recognizable in its urban fabric. Many areas of the city are predominantly inhabited by members of particular tribes or extended families, and therefore seen as these communities’ preserve. This even goes for parts of the city’s centre, where a neighbourhood such as that of Awlad Jarbu’ is associated with the eponymous tribe.

Similarly, Awlad Sagr mostly settled in the city’s southern and western districts; the south-eastern district of Abu Surra is the preserve of the Awlad Buhmeira tribe; parts of the Harsha district are considered the territory of the Gammuda; and so on. Other components of local society include the Karaghla (Koloughlis)—families who trace their origins back to Ottoman officers and soldiers stationed in the area. These social categories have undergone politicization since 2011, as local politicians and militia leaders have frequently invoked them in their struggles.

Yet they form only one basis for collective action among several. Close family ties tend to be a far better—though by no means foolproof—predictor of common political and economic interests than tribal identity or even membership of extended families. Most importantly, social relations formed through common membership in the armed groups and criminal networks that formed after 2011 created new loyalties that often supersede community ties.

A. The revolutionary era (2011–14)

Zawiya emerged from the 2011 civil war as a key stronghold of the revolutionary forces. This development would define the city for much of the following decade. Zawiya’s new political and military leadership originated in the revolutionary struggle, and in the early years after 2011 it remained relatively united due to this common revolutionary outlook.

The city found itself in the revolutionary camp largely in reaction to the indiscriminate response of the Qaddafi regime to the protests that spread across Libya from 15 February 2011 on wards. In Zawiya, the first protests erupted on 19 February. Authorities initially refrained from openly using violence, allowing protesters to stage a sit-in at the mosque in Martyrs’ Square, the city’s central square. On 24 February, regime forces attempted to take back control of the square by firing on protesters, killing ten and destroying the mosque’s minaret.

The outrage triggered by the killings caused protests to swell further, and led protesters to seize weapons. Regime forces attempted to violently suppress the demonstrators, but rapidly lost control of the city. On 28 February, government forces began a major offensive to recapture the city using heavy weapons and indiscriminate shelling, killing dozens. By 9 March, they had fought their way into Martyrs’ Square, where rebels were holed up in the mosque and buildings surrounding the square. Having subdued the resistance following heavy fighting, regime forces later razed the mosque to the ground and conducted waves of arrests.

Many rebels from Zawiya fled to the Nafusa mountains; others formed clandestine cells inside the city or smuggled weapons to those cells by boat from Benghazi. In the mountains, Zawiya revolutionaries mostly fought with those from Zintan, alongside fighters from Sabratha and other coastal cities. The strong ties that formed among revolutionaries from Sabratha, Zawiya, Zintan, and elsewhere would provide a basis for trust between them even during and after the 2014–15 civil war, when they fought on opposing sides.

In June 2011, rebels based in the mountains infiltrated the city and, together with cells based in Zawiya, attempted to wrest it from regime control, but failed. They eventually succeeded when rebel forces descended from the mountains in August. Zawiya fell to rebel control on 20 August after a week of heavy fighting. The battle for Tripoli began that day, and ended with the rebel takeover several days later. Fighters from Zawiyan rebel forces then joined the offensive against some of the regime’s last holdovers in Bani Walid, which came to an end in October. With the fall of the regime, Zawiyan field commanders began setting up their own armed groups in the city.

Many young men began joining these groups, attracted by the glamour of the victorious revolutionaries, the power emanating from carrying arms, and the state salaries that soon started to flow to the armed groups. From an estimated 2,000 Zawiyan men who fought during the 2011 revolution, the headcount of the city’s armed groups rose to 14,000 in 2012, when the Warriors Affairs Commission registered self-declared revolutionaries across Libya. Among the most prominent early armed groups were:

– the Zawiya Martyrs Battalion, led by Mohamed al-Kilani;

– the Company for Capture and the Redress of Grievances (Sariyat al-Qabdh w Radd al-Madhalim), led by Mustafa al-Treiki;

– the Faruq Battalion, led first by Mahmoud Ben Rajab and later by Mohamed Hussein al-Khadrawi;

– a group led by Munir Ajina in the city centre;

– a group led by Othman al-Leheb in southern Zawiya;

– a group led by Jamal al-Ghaeb and another called the Kufra Battalion, both based in the western district of Mutrid; the Nasr Battalion that controlled Zawiya’s refinery, led by Mohamed Kashlaf (‘al-Qsab’); and

– a group in the Abu Surra area, led by Khaled Buzriba.

In the immediate post-revolutionary period, however, all Zawiyan groups submitted to a collective leadership: the Zawiya Military Council, headed by Shaaban Hadiya, who together with Kilani had led Zawiyan revolutionary fighters in Zintan. Hadiya and Kilani were widely respected and exerted moral authority over Zawiya’s armed groups. Both were religious figures: Kilani was an imam in Zawiya and a self-described Salafi, while Hadiya had studied under the Salafi scholar Muqbil al-Wadi’i in Yemen. Similarly, Treiki’s and Ben Rajab’s groups were reputed for their religiously devout leadership and resolute crime fighting—even though their members also included many less than pious young men.

Later, adverse media reporting would wrongly portray these figures and their groups as extremists, or even claim that they had ties to jihadists. In reality, their outlook matched the widespread appeal of piety in the post-revolutionary period, and the general conservatism of Libyan society. Zawiyan forces soon became a key component of the revolutionary camp in the emerging political landscape.

As early as November 2011, they clashed with groups from neighbouring Warshafana over control of the military base at Bridge 27, a strategic location on the road to Tripoli. Both sides held dozens of residents of the opposing community hostage. These clashes would be the first of several successive conflicts between groups from Zawiya and Warshafana, with the former stigmatizing the latter as bandits and loyalists of the former regime. Under the leadership of Kilani, armed groups from Zawiya joined with former revolutionary battalions from other western Libyan cities to form the Western Shield—one of several units of the Libya Shield Forces—in early 2012. The unit deployed to interpose itself in local conflicts, including between groups from Zintan and the Mashashiya in Mizdah and al-Shqeiqa, as well as between Zintani and Zuwaran groups at the Mellitah oil and gas complex.

For the former revolutionary battalions, the Shield was a temporary replacement for the defunct Libyan army that allowed them to defend the revolutionary order in the state’s name. It was also a conduit for state salaries and operating budgets, as well as a reflection of the rapidly intensifying competition between the former revolutionary factions over access to state resources. In keeping with the revolutionary spirit of the moment, two prominent field commanders were among the four representatives elected as individual candidates in Zawiya in the July 2012 elections to the General National Congress (GNC): Kilani came first, and Treiki fourth. Both rapidly became leading representatives of the hardline revolutionary camp in the GNC.

In September 2012, they helped push through the GNC’s authorization of a military operation in Bani Walid—a community that was stigmatized as pro-Qaddafi—to capture suspected criminals; Kilani even joined the fighting himself. In early 2013, they were staunch supporters of the Political Isolation Law that would exclude former regime officials from public office. Shortly after the law was passed, Kilani was instrumental in obtaining official status and a budget for the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR), a body that brought together a number of hard-line revolutionary commanders. In October 2013, Hadiya was appointed head of the LROR with Kilani’s backing.

Only days afterwards, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly abducted by armed men. Following his release, he accused Kilani and Treiki of being behind the incident, though both denied the charges. Such developments gradually hardened the divide between the self-declared revolutionary camp and its opponents, which in western Libya were led by armed groups from Zintan. Even within Zawiya, however, the formation of the LROR was controversial. Some of the more powerful Zawiyan forces refused to join the body, including Ben Rajab’s and Leheb’s groups—whether because they opposed the LROR’s tactic of besieging ministries to extract concessions, or because they retained close ties to Zintani revolutionaries.

Following Zeidan’s abduction, the GNC transferred the LROR’s chain of command from the GNC presidency to the chief of staff, thereby much reducing the LROR’s access to funding and initiating the body’s decline. Meanwhile, armed groups from Zawiya participated in the gradual escalation of conflicts that increasingly coalesced into a nationwide power struggle. In August 2013 and again in February 2014, they engaged in fierce fighting with groups from Warshafana, triggered by repeated abductions carried out by Warshafana-based criminal gangs.

That conflict, combined with the LROR’s close ties with Zawiya’s hard-line revolutionary parliamentarians, drove the city’s armed groups to join the escalating civil war. In July 2014, Zawiya’s LROR factions joined groups from Misrata and Tripoli in what soon became known as Operation Libya Dawn: they attacked Zintani-led militias in Tripoli, who were by then allied with Haftar.

The remainder of Zawiya’s forces entered the war in early August, after Zintani-backed groups from Warshafana attacked Zawiyan positions on the coastal road and seized the military base at Bridge 27 long enough to raze its walls. The attackers included a shadowy militia of former regime loyalists, which called itself the Army of Tribes and appeared to vindicate Libya Dawn’s claim that it was fighting against a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. More broadly, given the enduring commitment in Zawiya to the 2011 revolution, Haftar’s obvious ambitions to re-establish dictatorship provoked powerful opposition in the city.

Libya Dawn triggered large-scale mobilization in Zawiya, including that of men in their late teens and early twenties who had been too young to fight in 2011. Young field commanders entering the war established their own armed groups that would persist after the conflict de-escalated. The war thereby fueled a process of generational change, violent socialization, and organizational fragmentation that was exacerbated by the death of established leaders—the first, and most significant, being that of Kilani in September 2014.

Kilani was killed during Libya Dawn’s offensive in the Warshafana area, which eventually displaced much of that region’s civilian population. According to one formerly fervent revolutionary, Zawiya’s armed groups then turned to burning homes in the Warshafana area, ‘which Mohamed al-Kilani would have never allowed, had he been alive’. More generally, many local observers today trace the origins of what they see as Zawiya’s leadership crisis and the increasing ruthlessness of its armed groups to the disappearance of this unifying figure.


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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