Wolfram Lacher

The militia leaders who were at odds with Bashagha, including the Buzribas, were jubilant when the LPDF, in February 2021, designated Abdelhamid Dabeiba as prime minister of a new Government of National Unity (GNU), dealing an unexpected defeat to Bashagha. Moreover, the three-member Presidency Council, selected together with Dabeiba, included Abdallah al-Lafi—an HoR member from Zawiya who had a reputation for pragmatism in the city.

In a clear sign of a more permissive environment for Zawiyan factions, Dabeiba’s interior minister immediately reinstated Ali and Hassan Buzriba’s brother Essam as the ministry’s chief financial officer, after Bashagha had dismissed him the previous year. Milad was released less than a month after Dabeiba took office in Tripoli—reportedly following Dabeiba’s intercession with the attorney general. Milad then resumed his functions, after being promoted in rank.

As relieved as the Buzribas had been by Bashagha’s defeat, they rapidly discovered that Dabeiba did not favour them over other Zawiyan factions. Instead, the GNU’s advent spurred competition among Zawiya’s main actors for influence within the government. Bahroun, who had long headed the Zawiya police directorate’s so-called ‘support force’, now also gained influence within the General Intelligence Service (GIS), by providing protection to GIS head Hussein al-Ayeb in Tripoli.

In late 2021, Bahroun also began protecting Minister of Oil Mohamed Oun, who had taken an office at the NOC, despite being involved in a bitter struggle with its chief, Sanalla. Around the same time, Bahroun was among the largest recipients when Dabeiba distributed an overall LYD 100 million (around USD 20 million at the time) to buy the loyalty of a handful of armed groups in the greater Tripoli area. Meanwhile, Ben Rajab benefited from his close ties with the Central Bank governor al-Siddiq al-Kabir, who had emerged as a key ally of Dabeiba, to mobilize government funding for Brigade 52.

The Buzriba brothers themselves used their new institutional umbrella, the SSA, to gain greater access to funding and boost their share of the region’s counter-migration business. Around mid-2021, they opened an SSA migrant detention centre in the Maya district, seeking a clean reputational slate, since the Nasr detention centre at the refinery was no longer officially recognized by the government and had long been discredited by the UN sanctions against Milad and Kashlaf.

The new detention centre, established in the dilapidated warehouses of a former pharmaceutical company, was in an area controlled by the Warshafana militia leader Muammar al-Dhawi. The latter had, for some time, emerged as a close ally of the Buzribas, and now also manned the Bridge 27 checkpoint on the coastal road. Together with the opening of the centre, SSA patrol boats began intercepting migrants and surrendering them to the Maya detention centre.

Political rivalries over access to state funding combined with struggles over control of territory fuelled a gradual escalation of violence. The Buzribas’ expansion through the SSA prompted Bahroun and Leheb to ally against them—a move that began with clashes between Bahroun and two Buzriba allies outside of Zawiya. In June 2021, Bahroun’s and Leheb’s forces attacked Mohamed Barka (‘al-Shalfuh’), the dominant militia leader in Ajeilat, who played a key role in the local smuggling economy and was at the time allied with the Buzribas.

The clashes were reportedly triggered by a drug shipment seized by Barka. Defeated, Barka withdrew to his Buzriba allies in Abu Surra, while Bahroun and Leheb extended their dominance over Ajeilat. In late July and early August, Bahroun repeatedly clashed with Dhawi over control of the Bridge 27 checkpoint. In Zawiya itself, intermittent confrontations began in July between the Kabowat—an Awlad Sagr militia in the Harsha area that was at the time allied with Bahroun and Leheb—and the Buzribas’ ally Kashlaf at the refinery. The same parties fought again in October, causing damage to the refinery complex.

Bahroun’s and the Buzribas’ forces also clashed directly on several occasions, including in the Juddaim district of eastern Zawiya in late August and again in November. Zawiya’s main factions were therefore deeply polarized by the time a new power struggle unfolded at the national level. With the cancellation of the presidential and parliamentary elections, initially scheduled for 24 December 2021, a new alliance of actors in eastern and western Libya formed with the aim of dislodging Dabeiba: Haftar backed the formation of a new government led by his former enemy Bashagha.

The opportunism at the heart of that alliance became even clearer in the way it reshaped political alignments in Zawiya. Bashagha needed support from armed groups in and around the capital in order to take power. To this end, he mobilized the backing of the very groups he had denounced as criminals when he was interior minister: the Buzribas in Zawiya; their ally Dhawi in Warshafana; and the Nawasi Battalion and Kikli in Tripoli.

Kikli, however, turned against Bashagha when the latter chose Essam Buzriba—Ali and Hassan’s older brother—as interior minister, thereby ignoring Kikli’s demand that the post should go to the Zintani militia leader, Emad al-Trabelsi. Kikli immediately proceeded to order the closure of the Maya migrant detention centre, and cut off Hassan Buzriba’s group from SSA salaries; as a result, the number of detainees in the Maya detention centre declined, as detainees were increasingly able to pay for their release.

Bahroun and Ben Rajab, who had been on good terms with Bashagha while he was at loggerheads with the Buzribas, now both staunchly opposed Bashagha. Bahroun, in particular, became a key figure in a new alliance of militia leaders who supported Dabeiba. Bahroun’s growing dominance in Zawiya, thanks to Dabeiba’s financial backing, transformed Leheb into Bahroun’s bitter enemy: Leheb had previously allied with Bahroun against the Buzribas, but joined the latter’s pro-Bashagha camp in the spring of 2022. The irony of this shift was even starker when considering that Bahroun had been among the allies of the Buzribas when he fought with Hnesh between 2015 and 2017, whereas Leheb had been their common enemy, as he had supported Khadrawi.

Conflicts and alignments in Zawiya were therefore neither a matter of ‘historic tribal divisions between Awlad Bu Hmeira and Awlad Saqr’, nor one of ‘deep ideological enmity’ between the Awlad Buhmeira and supposed Muslim Brotherhood-aligned factions. In fact, none of the main armed factions could be considered as aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather, the constantly changing alliances appeared to be defined by the shifting balance of power, driven by militias’ evolving access to funding, as groups allied against ascendant factions—which they perceived as growing threats.

Throughout the first half of 2022, Bashagha and Dabeiba competed for the backing of Tripolitania’s armed groups, leading to the emergence of two opposing coalitions. Yet, remarkably, the main armed factions in Zawiya largely avoided direct confrontations among themselves, despite being key components in each of the two camps. In March, forces backing Bashagha made a first unsuccessful attempt to enter Tripoli, with Dhawi’s and the Buzribas’ forces deploying at Bridge 27, but were deterred by the mobilization of Ben Rajab’s Brigade 52 at Janzur’s western end.

In early May, forces associated with Bahroun and the Buzribas briefly fought in Zawiya; however, later that month, they avoided a direct clash after again mobilizing at Janzur’s western end, during Bashagha’s second failed attempt to take power in Tripoli. In July, after Dabeiba appointed Farhat Bengdara as the new NOC chairman based on a deal with Haftar, a big convoy of fighters from Leheb’s, Kashlaf’s, and other Zawiyan groups moved into Tripoli, attempting to prevent Bengdara from taking office.

Ben Rajab’s Brigade 52 let them pass, and they went on to stop in western Tripoli; Dabeiba’s emissaries eventually negotiated their withdrawal, reportedly for a payment of millions of dinars. The violent denouement finally came in August, when Kikli and the Deterrence Apparatus (formerly the Special Deterrence Force) moved against Bashagha’s allies in Tripoli.

GNU drone strikes—almost certainly carried out with Turkish approval and assistance—targeted the forces of the Zintani commander, Usama al-Juwaili, at the 7 April base, as well as Dhawi’s and the Buzribas’ forces at Bridge 27, compelling them to withdraw. This dealt a decisive blow to the pro-Bashagha camp, and allowed Ben Rajab to deploy his forces along the entire stretch of the coastal road between Janzur and Zawiya.


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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