Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

B. Isolation and fragmentation (2015–18)

The 2014–15 civil war had momentous consequences for politics, the economy, and security in Zawiya. With the coastal road cut off by hostile forces, the city was isolated from Tripoli.

Among Zawiyan armed groups, a hard-line stance towards Libya Dawn’s adversaries prevailed longer than in Misrata and Tripoli, causing Zawiya’s political marginalization in the Government of National Accord (GNA), which took office in Tripoli in March 2016.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of a unifying leadership and purpose led to the eruption of violent internal conflicts whose legacies continue to haunt Zawiya. As a stalemate took root between Libya Dawn and its Zintani-led adversaries from early 2015 onwards, Misratan forces—who formed the largest component of Libya Dawn—began ceasefire negotiations with leaders from Zintan and Warshafana.

In parallel, Misratan political figures became central to the UN-led process that eventually led to the conclusion of the Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015, and the formation of the GNA. Zawiyan armed groups, by contrast, were adverse to a ceasefire that would see Warshafana factions allied with Haftar return to their community’s territory, on Zawiya’s eastern borders—which occurred in mid-April 2015.

They were also divided: two field commanders from Zintan and Misrata who negotiated with Zawiyan counterparts both stressed that the groups could not credibly commit to ceasefires owing to their internal divisions, and that identifying key figures who could speak for Zawiya’s armed groups was a challenge.

According to the Misratan commander, groups from Zawiya thrice violated a ceasefire that Misratans had negotiated for Libya Dawn with Warshafana leaders. Zawiyan groups almost certainly adopted a less conciliatory stance, compared to Misratan factions, because the presence of armed groups in Warshafana would pose a direct threat to them. This fear was borne out by subsequent developments.

In May 2015, groups from Warshafana yet again captured the checkpoint at Bridge 27. From then onwards, Warshafana-based armed groups frequently carried out abductions and robberies along the stretch of road between Zawiya and the Tripoli suburb of Janzur, which repeatedly provoked clashes and temporary closures of the road by Zawiyan factions or Fursan Janzur—their allies in the now defunct Libya Dawn coalition.

Zawiya’s isolation deepened in October 2015, when a military helicopter carrying field commanders and officers from Zawiya and other western cities was shot down as it passed over the Maya area of Warshafana on its way from Tripoli to Zawiya.

Eighteen people were killed, including Kilani’s son Abderrahim, the leader of the Zawiya Martyrs Battalion Suhaib al-Rummah, and several prominent military officers. The incident triggered not only renewed clashes with groups in Warshafana, but also more importantly the almost year-long closure of the coastal road by Zawiyan leaders, with further temporary closures continuing until March 2017.

It also greatly strengthened those rejecting reconciliation in Zawiya at a time when other western Libyan factions were increasingly reaching out to their former adversaries. It became far more difficult for Zawiya residents to get to Tripoli, and vice versa. Zawiyan armed groups, meanwhile, had no weight in the Tripoli military balance, even as the city’s militias positioned themselves in favour of or against the nascent unity government.

The formation of the GNA therefore left Zawiya marginalized. Libya’s fourth-largest city had no representative in either the GNA’s nine-member Presidency Council, or its 18-member ministerial line-up. This was a striking omission in a context where the proportional representation of communities was considered a key criterion for government formation.

Moreover, political divisions in the city deepened as Zawiyan figures began striking arrangements with the GNA. Khaled al-Meshri, a GNC member for Zawiya, backed the GNA—in line with the stance of the Justice and Construction Party, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party to which he belonged.

Through Meshri, several Zawiyan commanders—including Mohamed Hussein al-Khadrawi of the Central Support Apparatus and Ben Rajab, who by then led the Hamdi Ben Rajab Battalion—opted to support the GNA and ensure their forces retained official status and salaries from the 24 Report March 2024 state.

Hadiya, who staunchly opposed the GNA along with other hardliners, left Zawiya for Turkey and only returned in 2023.21 His departure created yet another gap in the leadership of the city’s armed groups, adding to the void left by the deaths of Kilani and the helicopter passengers.

Another prominent figure, Treiki, played a much reduced public role since he had suffered major injuries in a car accident while returning from the frontline in March 2015. Later, Ben Rajab and Khadrawi themselves temporarily lost their leadership positions along with a third prominent former revolutionary, Hassan Za’et: in June 2017, Saudi authorities arrested the three men and surrendered them to Haftar, who would only release them in March 2019.

Consequently, after the 2014–15 civil war, Zawiya was an embattled, isolated city, whose armed groups were suffering from a leadership crisis and a loss of purpose. In this context, fuel and migration smuggling took on an entirely new dimension in the city: armed groups that funded themselves through these activities rapidly gained in power—an aspect examined in detail below.

The eruption of serious violent conflict within the city itself also occurred in this context. In September 2015, Ibrahim al-Hnesh allegedly killed Hamza al-Khadrawi in a dispute linked to Hnesh’s hashish business, triggering clashes between armed groups in Zawiya’s city centre that would rage intermittently for the next two years.

While this conflict was made up of a series of short-lived armed confrontations, interlocutors in Zawiya generally refer to it as the ‘Khadrawi–Hnesh war’, and consistently estimate the overall toll of the conflict at around 180–90 people.

Several traced the origins of the ongoing conflicts in the city back to the clashes between Khadrawi and Hnesh. The Khadrawi–Hnesh war was symptomatic of both a generational change among Zawiya’s armed groups and the erosion of moral authority among the older generation of revolutionaries.

According to a person who was close to him, Hnesh had ‘stayed at home’ during the revolution, despite being 20 years old and several of his cousins being revolutionary fighters. Over the following years, he emerged as a hashish trader and formed a gang, which he led into battle in the 2014–15 civil war, reportedly building up his firepower with backing from Hadiya.

Hamza al-Khadrawi was from an extended family that included several prominent revolutionaries. He, too, had fought in the 2014–15 war—in the ranks of the Martyr Haitham al-Khadrawi Battalion headed by his brother Akram, who would lead the fight against Hnesh over the following years. Both families were from Zawiya’s city centre, and their association with different tribes added a social dimension to the conflict: the Khadrawis were Awlad Jarbu’, whereas Hnesh was a Bel’azi.

The fact that extended families on both sides refused to surrender members who were accused of killings was a major complicating factor. In February 2016, Zawiyan armed groups briefly regained unity when they joined the short campaign against the non-state armed group Islamic State (IS) in neighbouring Sabratha. But just a month later, the clashes between Hnesh and Khadrawi resumed with greater violence, and indiscriminate shelling by the warring parties caused residents to flee the area.

At that point, Treiki and other prominent former revolutionaries convinced both Hnesh and Akram al-Khadrawi to hand themselves in to the protective custody of the Special Deterrence Force in Tripoli, in order to stop the fighting. Several months later, however, both were free again, and repeated bouts of fighting erupted between July and October 2016. This time, the parties involved broadened, as Leheb’s Sila’ Battalion—known to most Zawiyan interlocutors as ‘the Awlad Sagr’—joined Khadrawi’s side.

Meanwhile, Hnesh gained support from Kashlaf of the Nasr Battalion, as well as from his close allies, the Buzriba brothers. Another local ceasefire reached in late October brought a fragile calm to the area until clashes broke out again the following April.

Finally, in June 2017, Hnesh was killed in renewed heavy fighting, which effectively ended the Hnesh–Khadrawi war. But by then the war had provoked a deep rift between Zawiya’s armed groups, set a precedent with its indifference to civilian casualties from the fighting, and spawned yearnings for revenge that would continue to inspire killings over the following years. It had also reshaped Zawiya’s security landscape.

A new force emerged out of the factions that fought for Hnesh and, after the latter’s death, Mohamed Bahroun—a young fighter known as ‘al-Far’ (‘the mouse’)—became its leader. Shortly afterwards, he acquired an official capacity as an officer in Zawiya’s police directorate. Bahroun’s group was no longer associated with any particular local constituency, but represented a hodgepodge of young fighters involved in drug and fuel smuggling. Bahroun, moreover, had been implicated by a former IS member in a taped confession published by the Special Deterrence Force in March 2016.

The Special Deterrence Force claimed that Bahroun had helped several IS members escape Sabratha the previous month, and hosted them in Hnesh’s positions in central Zawiya, where they were later captured by Khadrawi’s men (Special Deterrence Force, 2016). Bahroun denied the allegations and continued to operate under Zawiya’s police directorate, even after the attorney general issued an arrest warrant for him. Much later, after Bahroun had gained political influence, the attorney general annulled the arrest warrant.

The period between 2015 and 2018 also saw the rise of the Buzriba brothers as a major military force in Zawiya. Their Abu Surra Martyrs Battalion grew in strength thanks to their deep involvement in the illicit economy. Interlocutors in Zawiya consistently described the brothers as the patrons of both Kashlaf (‘al-Qsab’), whose Nasr Battalion controlled the refinery, and the coastguard officer Abderrahman Milad (‘al-Bija’), who was intercepting growing numbers of migrants departing from the shores of Zawiya and western Libyan cities in order to surrender them to the Nasr detention centre in the refinery.

Kashlaf and Milad were both members of the Awlad Buhmeira tribe, in A Political Economy of Zawiya 27 which the Buzribas had long been a politically powerful family. By the time the coastal road between Tripoli and Zawiya permanently reopened, in March 2017, this network had reached arrangements on fuel and migrant smuggling with armed groups in Warshafana and Zintan.

In addition, the Buzriba network’s backing for Hnesh included cooperation on fuel smuggling; the question of who controlled the refinery was therefore also at stake in the Hnesh–Khadrawi war. Kashlaf would retain control of the refinery despite being publicly accused of responsibility for fuel smuggling by the head of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), Mustafa Sanalla, and targeted by UN Security Council sanctions, together with Milad, in June 2018.

It was a sign of how divided Zawiya had become that some local factions were even reaching out to Haftar’s forces, which were steadily expanding their territory during this period. In the western district of Mutrid, a Salafist-tinged militia emerged whose leanings towards Haftar gradually became more apparent over the years. It was formed by Muhanned Sweisi and Hatem al-Ghaeb, who had both led armed groups in the area and transformed them into the Western Region Criminal Investigations Department in 2016, with backing from the Special Deterrence Force in Tripoli.

By March 2017, that unit had firmly established control over Mutrid and neighbouring Sorman, and by October the next city to the west, Sabratha, had fallen under the control of forces that retained official ties to Tripoli but made little secret of their defacto loyalty to Haftar. These groups took control of Sabratha during a brief war; fighters on the losing side fled to Zawiya, where they were hosted by the Buzribas and became a source of latent tensions with Sabratha.

Meanwhile, in southern Zawiya, a fuel smuggler and kidnapper from the Awlad Sagr called Ali Kardamin joined Haftar’s coalition as early as 2017; in June of that year, he attacked a UN convoy and briefly abducted several UN staff. Kardamin later fought with Haftar’s forces in the Tripoli war and was killed shortly after it ended.

In the city centre, Abderrauf Bukhder, a prominent former revolutionary, joined Haftar’s forces in 2018, causing his Oqba bin Nafe’ Battalion to split. Most significantly, in the south-eastern Abu Surra area, the Buzriba family opened channels to Haftar in the autumn of 2018, reportedly trying to ensure their interests would be protected if they backed Haftar’s move into western Libya. When that offensive finally began in April 2019, it therefore appeared inevitable that Zawiya would suffer deep divides. Instead, the 2019–20 civil war produced a remarkable reversal of the city’s fortunes.


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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