Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

D. A security crisis without catharsis (2022–23)

While the Buzribas, Dhawi, and Leheb suffered an important defeat in August 2022, they nevertheless held on to most of their positions, preventing the pro-Dabeiba camp from gaining overall control. Since early 2022, Leheb’s Sila’ Battalion had a new institutional umbrella as Brigade 103. Just like Ben Rajab’s Brigade 52, the brigade reported to the Western Coastal Military Region, whose commander was former GNA defence minister Salaheddin al-Namrush.

As Brigade 103, Leheb’s forces manned several checkpoints between Zawiya and the Tunisian border. Moreover, Ben Rajab had made clear that, while he would oppose Bashagha’s takeover, he was not a staunch supporter of Dabeiba; indeed, in the spring of 2022, he had attempted to broker an agreement between the two opposing camps on a new government to replace both Bashagha and Dabeiba.

In this tenuous balance of power, recurrent but short-lived clashes in residential neighbourhoods regularly caused civilian casualties. The four leading actors, however, continued to avoid direct, major confrontations among themselves. Instead, these clashes generally opposed smaller armed groups and gangs rumoured to be supported by one or another of the main actors. In September 2022, two children were killed in clashes between Leheb and Mohamed al-Sifao, a well-known drug trader who had recently gained an official capacity as leader of a force for Zawiya’s police directorate. Sifao was widely believed to have Bahroun’s backing.

Lieutenants of Kashlaf and Bahroun clashed in December 2022—reportedly over a hashish shipment—and again in February 2023. That month, two local armed groups fought in the Shurafa’ neighbourhood of central Zawiya, with both sides allegedly involved in selling drugs. In early April, Bahroun’s men clashed with the Kabowat—the militia from Awlad Sagr then allied with Leheb—in the Harsha area. During this period, murders became increasingly frequent. Most targeted young men, and while many appeared to be drug-related, or revenge killings for previous murders, others remained unexplained.

The majority of interlocutors, however, saw the incidents as common criminality rather than politically motivated. Nevertheless, the unresolved power struggle in the city clearly contributed to its worsening security crisis. The murders provoked growing popular anger, as did the repeated clashes between militias, the open selling of drugs, and the fact that militia involvement in the black market for fuel meant that car fuel was not available at the official, state subsidized price in the city.

In late March, which corresponded to the early month of Ramadan, young men from across Zawiya began organizing a youth movement that held small demonstrations in the city’s central Martyrs’ Square and began meeting with local officials, asking them to move to address insecurity and the fuel black market—with little success.

Tensions finally boiled over in late April 2023. The murder of Abdu Za’eet, a minor militia leader, sparked clashes between Za’eet’s group and that of a certain Hazem Aweis, who was allegedly responsible for the killing. As had become common among Zawiya’s armed groups, the two factions indiscriminately shelled each other’s territories, killing two civilians in their home. On 26 April, a video began circulating on social media that had reportedly been found on the phone of one of Za’eet’s men, and appeared to show two men from Za’eet’s group—one of whom was Sudanese but had been born in Zawiya and lived there all his life—torturing a young man.

Social media commentary, however, stoked popular anger by framing the incident as ‘mercenaries’ torturing ‘Libyans’, stoking popular anger. Large protests erupted that night, with the youth movement taking the lead and beginning a permanent sit-in in Martyrs’ Square. Protesters closed down the coastal road at the city’s eastern and western exits, as well as the municipal council, police directorate, and refinery. The sudden transformation of a small group of activists into a large group of protestors made it more difficult for them to agree on their demands.

The core group of activists asked for ‘the army’—in this case, Ben Rajab’s Brigade—to deploy. But when that unit moved into the city, some protesters began throwing stones at their vehicles, claiming that Ben Rajab had Syrians under his command. These protesters were associated with Ben Rajab’s rivals—Leheb and the Buzribas—and had not been part of the initial group of activists. Brigade 52 withdrew immediately to avoid a confrontation.

The Tripoli authorities were in no position to act on the protesters’ demands. Different officials in Tripoli were associated with competing actors in Zawiya. Attempts to drive out any of the big militias in the city also risked provoking major violence, and units from outside the city were likely to face local rejection. Moreover, the most obvious response—to deploy Brigade 52—had already failed.

The army’s chief of staff, Mohamed al-Haddad, met with protesters and made promises, but could do nothing more than establish a committee of various security officials, which brought no meaningful improvements. The protesters denounced government inaction and increased their pressure throughout May, with leading activists threatening to stop recognizing the GNU.

Compelled to act, Dabeiba ordered a campaign of drone strikes that began on 25 May and, according to the GNU, targeted locations used by drug, fuel, and migrant smugglers. Yet, the first strikes targeted one of Ali Buzriba’s properties as well as the Maya port—which the Buzribas and Dhawi used for their SSA patrol boats— suggesting that Dabeiba and Bahroun, his key ally in Zawiya, were using the antismuggling campaign as a cover to target their political adversaries.

Meshri, the Zawiyan head of the High Council of State who was by then fiercely opposed to Dabeiba, joined Ali Buzriba in denouncing the campaign as politically motivated. Foreign embassies expressed their reservations. In Zawiya itself, however, the campaign appeared to meet with widespread approval. Many interlocutors declared themselves relieved to see the militias’ ‘technicals’ (pickup trucks with weapon-mounting capabilities) disappear from the streets; they were also largely indifferent to the obvious bias in targets, and contemptuous of Meshri’s criticisms, pointing out that he had previously displayed little interest in Zawiya’s long-standing security crisis.

Meanwhile, the drone strikes appeared to become more even-handed as the campaign continued. Two days into the operation, reports spread that one of the targeted locations belonged to Mohamed al-Sifao, the drug trader allied with Bahroun. Eyewitnesses and security officials insisted, however, that Sifao had himself detonated an old armoured vehicle, to make it look as if the campaign had also targeted a Bahroun ally. Soon the targets widened to include smugglers’ facilities in Ajeilat, Sabratha, and Zuwara, seeming to dispel allegations of a campaign against political adversaries in Zawiya.

Most strikes caused only material damage, clearly seeking to reduce the risk of a backlash from casualties. Yet on 28 May, a second strike on al-Maya port killed a lieutenant of the Buzribas and a member of Dhawi’s battalion, and injured a nephew of the Buzriba brothers. Dhawi vowed a ‘fierce response’, and Ali Buzriba denounced the use of Turkish drones. Ten days into the drone strike campaign, the threat of a wider escalation began receding as the rhythm of the strikes gradually decelerated, and eventually stopped. Neither the Buzriba-led camp nor Bahroun and Dabeiba were strong enough to risk an all-out confrontation on the ground.

Bahroun and Dabeiba could hardly initiate a ground operation without the support of Ben Rajab and Western Coastal Region Commander Namrush—both of whom were highly critical of the drone campaign’s political tilt, and of Dabeiba’s heavy reliance on Bahroun. Indeed, Ben Rajab and Namrush brought Hassan Buzriba as well as representatives of Bahroun and Leheb together with Attorney General al-Siddiq al-Sour to agree on the arrest of suspected criminals. This move was clearly designed to bridge the divide between the two opposing camps in Zawiya and preempt any attempts to launch a ground operation, while also proposing a pragmatic approach towards dealing with Zawiya’s security crisis.

The results of this initiative were mixed and mostly short-lived. Black market fuel sales largely disappeared in June and July; petrol stations in Zawiya and neighbouring cities temporarily reopened, selling fuel at official prices. But from August onwards, cities to the west of Zawiya followed by Zawiya itself witnessed the return of the black market for fuel. The four leading actors initially competed with each other in displaying their willingness to cooperate with the attorney general by making arrests; by early August, the latter announced that several dozen suspects in murder cases and other serious crimes had been detained. Nevertheless, other suspects for whom the attorney general had issued arrest warrants were declared untouchable.

Some of the actions that ensued were based on negotiated arrangements: Sifao, for example, was not arrested, but instead was given safe passage to transfer his arsenal and men to Tripoli, where they joined Kikli’s forces. Abdelghani ‘al-Kabo’, whom the attorney general accused of drug and fuel smuggling, was arrested—briefly triggering a violent backlash from other armed Awlad Sagr elements. But his group, the ‘Kabowat’, continued to operate in the Harsha district and, by December 2023, Leheb was negotiating al-Kabo’s release with the attorney general.

Murders were far less frequent in the months following the operation than they had been in 2022 and early 2023. Drug sales, however, soon resumed on the streets of Zawiya’s city centre, with local residents alleging that drug traders enjoyed Bahroun’s protection. Overall, the four key actors appeared to settle for making the tenuous balance of power between themselves more sustainable. They sought to secure their own position, while sacrificing some pawns in a nod to the public pressure they were exposed to by the city’s security crisis. Meanwhile, their alignments continued to shift in the aftermath of the drone campaign.

Dabeiba’s entourage reached out to Leheb, attempting to pry him away from both the Buzribas and Ben Rajab. While Leheb entered into talks to see what he could obtain from Dabeiba, he continued to maintain his ties to Dabeiba’s foes: the Buzriba brothers and the Zintani military commander, al-Juwaili. In December 2023, the reconfiguration of alliances came into full view when Dabeiba held a public meeting with Zawiyan officials at the refinery. During that event, Dabeiba reportedly spoke at length behind closed doors with Leheb, as well as with Kashlaf and his lieutenant Walid Khammaj.

On the same occasion, Dabeiba appointed Khammaj as a deputy commander in the Support Forces, a body created by Dabeiba in May 2023 to assemble armed groups across western Libya. Given Kashlaf’s and Khammaj’s notoriety for their involvement in the illicit economy, Dabeiba’s visit to the refinery stood in stark contrast to his declared enmity towards fuel smugglers just months earlier. It also drove a rift between the Nasr Battalion and its long-time patrons, the Buzriba brothers.

This rift had been developing for some time, with Kashlaf reportedly resenting the Buzribas for escaping the international sanctions that had been imposed on him, and the Buzribas viewing Kashlaf as a reputational liability. Dabeiba’s rapprochement with Leheb and Kashlaf could hardly please Bahroun, who was on bad terms with both. Since the end of the drone campaign, Bahroun had adopted a lower profile, refraining from attempts to expand his territorial footprint; now his support became less critical to Dabeiba, who had gained other allies in Zawiya. Ben Rajab, in turn, opposed Dabeiba increasingly openly—partly as a result of deteriorating relations between Dabeiba and Central Bank governor, al-Siddiq al-Kabir, to whom Ben Rajab had close ties.

As 2023 drew to a close, relations among the leading actors in Zawiya were marked by ambiguity. Several protagonists acknowledged that they were uncertain over their respective counterparts’ alignment. The threat of a renewed polarization of groups into two opposing camps, however, continued to loom over their calculations.


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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