The Rise of the Stability Support Apparatus as Hegemon

Adam Hakan

The SSA’s checkered journey to dominanceOrigins in revolution and early evolution

Ghaniwa was relatively unknown in pre2011 Libya, being an ordinary civilian born in the modest town of Kikla, and owning a bakery in the Um Durman area of Abu Salim. This all changed in August of 2011, against the backdrop of Tripoli slowly falling to revolutionaries who had flocked into the capital from Misrata, Zintan, and the Nafusa mountains.

Seizing the momentum, Ghaniwa mobilized, alongside a dozen residents of Abu Salim from Kikla, to oust regime forces that had made the neighbourhood their last bastion in the capital. Wresting territorial control from retreating regime forces, Ghaniwa and his men captured a regime-era military barrack in the Um Durman area. To this day, the military camp remains Ghaniwa’s main headquarters in Abu Salim.

Tribal affinities played an important role in the formation of Ghaniwa’s early militia group. Because Abu Salim was one of the last regime strongholds in the Libyan capital, some revolutionary groups arriving from outside the capital had naturally moved towards the populated area not only to fight regime forces, but also for war spoils and territory.

Leveraging this dynamic, the then small-time revolutionary commander from Kikla recruited among his hometown’s revolutionary cadre to strengthen his own fledgling militia in Abu Salim. By late 2011, Ghaniwa’s group comprised some 30 to 45 revolutionaries, most of whom were from Kikla. Security pluralism was a defining feature of Libya’s post-revolutionary scene, and Abu Salim was no exception.8 Despite being at the helm of one of the first small groups that mobilized within the neighbourhood, Ghaniwa and his group were far from its most influential unit.

The local Abu Salim Military Council, headed by former Abu Salim prison inmate Salah al-Burki, emerged as the dominant force in Abu Salim in 2011. Hailing from Tarhuna, Burki and his force’s superiority was in large part owed to his own network, which straddled the revolutionary and Islamist milieus because of his personal background. Nevertheless, Ghaniwa could easily claim the mantle of a ‘revolutionary’ then, and, as such, benefited from Burki’s support.

Ghaniwa’s forces nominally operated under the umbrella of Burki’s Abu Salim Military Council, though by and large retained operational independence. In the immediate post-revolution phase, one of the most pronounced social identity markers was communities’ perceived alignment vis-à-vis the revolution. Abu Salim was largely viewed by revolutionary forces with suspicion, and the neighbourhood carries the stigma of being perceived as pro-regime to this very day. The sentiment that the revolution was ‘unfinished’ lingered after Tripoli fell to the rebels, but this ethos was more pronounced in Abu Salim—where revolutionaries securitized the discourse—than elsewhere in Tripoli.

This dynamic was not lost on Ghaniwa, who instrumentalized this perception to his group’s advantage. Arguing that he needed military support to address ‘regime threats’ in Abu Salim, Ghaniwa solicited military support from commanders in the revolutionary dominated neighbourhood of Suq al-Jum’a. This dynamic earned Ghaniwa the goodwill of the revolutionary forces at a time when conspiracies of regime comeback were at an all-time high. In October 2011, Ghaniwa’s group was consequently folded into the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), established by the National Transitional Council.

The appointment of Hashim Bishr, an Islamist from Suq al-Jum’a, at the helm of the Tripoli branch of the SSC proved a boon to Ghaniwa. After cultivating a relationship with Bishr using the same narrative and network, Ghaniwa managed to secure his group some cars and ‘technicals’ fitted with anti-aircraft machine guns through the SSC, and his group became known as the Abu Salim SSC unit. Much like other SSC units, it continued to operate with little to no oversight from the SSC headquarters. For Tripoli-based armed groups, the transition phase that began with

the election of the General National Congress (GNC) in July 2012 was decisive. Libya’s elites had conflicting visions and agendas that bled into the political sphere, toxifying it with zero-sum calculations and impeding meaningful reform and progress. Politico-military alliances grew more salient, and social fragmentation resulted in flash points between local armed groups.

By 2013, citizens had grown disillusioned with post-revolutionary militias across the country due to rampant insecurity. Tripoli, which housed most of Libya’s institutions as well as the seat of the GNC, had become the site of competition between armed groups representing or acting on behalf of the interests of different social and political stakeholders.

A popular trend calling for the expulsion of revolutionary groups from outside Tripoli—perceived as responsible for insecurity—had crystallized in the capital as a result. Despite most of his cadre not originally hailing from Tripoli, Ghaniwa and his militia were viewed by Tripoli’s residents as native to the capital and were therefore held in higher esteem than Tripoli-based Misratan or Zintani counterparts.

Even the Abu Salim Military Council, whose mere name and leadership evoked revolutionary tropes and an association with Islamists, was negatively viewed by the neighbourhood’s residents. Nevertheless, increased social legitimacy had limited effects in practice: Burki and his council continued to trump Ghaniwa and his group’s influence in the neighbourhood.

In 2013, owing to its strategic location, Abu Salim became one of the theatres for friction between Tripoli-based groups—a dynamic that almost spelled the end of Ghaniwa’s group. Indeed, one of the simmering conflicts was between forces aligned with the Islamist-led Abu Salim Military Council—including Ghaniwa’s SSC unit —and the more militarily potent Zintani units based in the capital.

Tensions were partly attributable to Tripoli’s unsustainable security arrangements and the belligerence of Zintani units, which respectively dominated and derived funds from the Abu Salim adjacent Airport Road and International Airport. The alignment of the Abu Salim Military Council and Zintani units with opposing political poles in the GNC compounded this divide.

Repeated confrontations and brinksmanship culminated in a flash-point in Abu Salim in June 2013, with the first recorded instance of post-revolutionary large-scale urban warfare within Abu Salim—pitting Ghaniwa’s unit against Zintani forces. Responding to Ghaniwa having arrested several individuals of Zintani origin on drug trafficking charges, Zintani units in the capital launched offensives on Ghaniwa’s barracks in Abu Salim.

Benefiting from military superiority in both equipment and personnel, Zintan looted the entirety of Ghaniwa’s weapons and vehicles from Abu Salim before retreating, freeing 130 detainees from one of his secret prisons in the process. This first military defeat almost ended Ghaniwa and his SSC unit’s footprint in Abu Salim.


Adam Hakan is a researcher specializing in the study of armed groups in the Middle East and North Africa. His expertise includes analysing the role of rebel and armed factions in state politics, armed group governance and mobilization strategies, conflict economies, and the interplay between armed groups and international actors.


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