Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

C. Resurgence, consolidation, and rivalry (2019–22)

On 4 April, the main armed groups in Zawiya mobilized immediately to oppose Haftar’s Tripoli offensive—with the exception of the Criminal Investigations Department in the western district of Mutrid, whose leaders, Sweisi and Ghaeb, aligned with Haftar.

Consequently, a significant proportion of Zawiyan forces remained in the city to prevent an attack via Mutrid from Sabratha and Sorman, which were controlled by Haftar’s forces. The main Zawiyan forces, however, also deployed fighters on the Ain Zara, Wadi al-Rabi’, and Airport Road fronts in Tripoli, as well as in the Warshafana area.

These forces even included those of the Buzriba brothers, who had quickly decided to renege on their tentative understanding with Haftar. Zawiyan groups represented the third-largest contingent of fighters in the forces fighting Haftar, after those of Misrata and Tripoli itself. For Zawiyan armed groups, the Tripoli war provided a moment of new-found unity and a regained sense of purpose. While this, of course, excluded the dominant militia in Mutrid, confrontations within the city were nevertheless avoided.

In January 2020, Sweisi and Ghaeb deployed some vehicles eastwards towards the Harsha area, but immediately withdrew to Mutrid after Zawiya’s anti-Haftar forces mobilized. More broadly, the resistance against Haftar’s attempt to seize power by force enjoyed widespread public support in Zawiya—a position that owed much to the city’s revolutionary spirit.

The military weight of the city’s forces also rapidly translated into increasing political influence. Meshri, who was by then president of the GNC’s successor institution, the High Council of State, became a key intermediary in channelling Turkish military support to GNA forces. In April 2019, Ali Buzriba—the political leader of the Buzriba family, and a boycotting member of the House of Representatives (HoR) since the 2014 elections—supported the establishment of a rival HoR assembly in Tripoli with substantial funds.

For almost two years, a greater number of HoR members would meet in Tripoli than in eastern Libya, where the rump HoR supported Haftar’s offensive. And in October 2019, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj appointed Salaheddin al-Namrush from Zawiya as deputy defence minister—the minister’s post itself being vacant. Zawiyan representatives thereby began to exert greater influence over the allocation of state funds and external support, which helped to strengthen their city’s forces. Zawiyan forces played a key role in Haftar’s eventual defeat, once Turkey began intervening in earnest from late 2019 onwards to back the GNA.

In April 2020, they led the lightning takeover of Sabratha and Sorman; the following month, their second attempt to capture the Wutiya airbase on the Tunisian border eventually succeeded. That offensive also made use of Syrian mercenaries, whom Turkey had deployed with selected Libyan commanders, including Ben Rajab. In a striking illustration of how the war boosted Zawiya’s armed groups, Bahroun captured a Russian-made, UAE-supplied Pantsir air defence system at the Wutiya airbase and paraded it through the streets of Zawiya.

When Haftar’s LAAF withdrew from western Libya in June 2020, Zawiyan forces therefore found themselves in a stronger position than ever. Key Zawiyan commanders – most importantly Ben Rajab and Bahroun- now had positions at Tripoli International Airport, along the Airport Road, in the 7 April military base, and in Janzur. These positions would allow them to influence the Tripoli military balance throughout the following years. Moreover, Zawiyan forces now had freedom of movement to and from Tripoli, as well as Sabratha, Sorman, and Ajeilat, having driven out Haftar loyalists both from these cities and from Zawiya’s Mutrid district.

As soon as the Tripoli war was over, several Zawiyan commanders also turned to building more disciplined, official-looking forces—with GNA and Turkish support—including Brigade 52; despite being headed by a career military officer from Zawiya, the brigade had Ben Rajab’s backing and recruited from the fighters who had been under his command in the Tripoli war. Ben Rajab would later take the brigade’s leadership himself.

Another prominent Zawiyan commander, Mohamed Ben Yousef, led a newly formed force that attacked fuel smugglers across the region from Zawiya to the Tunisian border, over a period of two months, before ending its campaign when salary payments stopped. As a reflection of Zawiya’s new military weight, the UN included a representative of the city’s armed groups in its 75-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which began convening in November 2020. The designation of the representative, Muadh al-Manfukh, was agreed on by key Zawiyan commanders.

These same commanders would soon, however, both take advantage of, and be drawn into, the power struggles unfolding in Tripoli. This would be the defining dynamic of the next three years, and would both drive a consolidation of military power in the hands of four key Zawiyan commanders and intensify rivalries between them, in constantly changing alliances. The four main forces in these struggles were those of Bahroun, Ben Rajab, the Buzriba brothers, and Leheb. Numerous smaller groups were also involved, but generally sought the support of the larger players.

In the second half of 2020 and in early 2021, GNA Interior Minister Bashagha sought to position himself to become prime minister of a new unity government to be formed under the aegis of the UN. In August 2020, Bashagha tried to exploit protests against his political rivals, including Prime Minister Serraj. The latter responded by making several appointments to top positions as counterweights to Bashagha—including promoting Namrush to acting minister of defence. Bashagha’s efforts to strengthen his law-and-order profile also played out in Zawiya.

Among his primary targets for this purpose were the Nawasi Battalion and Abdelghani al-Kikli’s group in Tripoli, as well as the Buzriba network in Zawiya—particularly Milad, who had gained both national and international notoriety due to his UN sanctions listing. Bashagha’s enmity towards the Buzribas earned him Mahmoud Ben Rajab’s backing. Tensions between Bashagha and the Buzriba network rose when a force loyal to Bashagha arrested Milad in October 2020.

In January 2021, Bashagha announced ‘Operation Snake Hunt’ against fuel and migrant smugglers in the region west of Tripoli. Although no actual operation followed, the intended target was clearly the Buzriba network, and Ali Buzriba publicly lashed back at Bashagha. Bashagha’s adversarial stance, and the threat of him becoming prime minister, caused the Buzribas to ally with several Tripoli militias against Bashagha. Immediately after Bashagha’s announcement, Serraj issued a decree to create the Stability Support Apparatus (SSA), with Kikli at its head and Hassan Buzriba as one of Kikli’s deputies. The SSA reported to the Presidency Council rather than the Interior Ministry—giving Kikli and Buzriba a new official mantle that was outside Bashagha’s administrative reach—and had a wide-ranging mandate.


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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