Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

II. Struggling over resources: The militia economy

For Zawiya’s armed groups, the city’s isolation from, and marginalization in, the governments in Tripoli during 2015 and 2018 was a formative period. Groups experienced serious disruptions in access to government funding and official status. Those with revenues from illicit activities became the dominant actors and, on this basis, benefited from significantly greater influence in state institutions from 2019 onwards. The legitimacy and budgets associated with state security institutions facilitated the expansion of armed groups that had become deeply rooted in criminal activities.

Official status was a resource in itself, since it allowed armed groups to man checkpoints or operate migrant detention centres that were major sources of income. A senior military official from Zawiya summed it up: ‘The main drivers behind militia activities are fuel, migrant and drug smuggling’.

Funding from illicit activities, in turn, enabled militia leaders to offer additional incentives to their fighters; to hire mercenaries; and to buy the cooperation of politicians, bureaucrats, and security officials. The major exception to this rule was Ben Rajab’s Brigade 52, which relied entirely on state funding and was not involved in the illicit economy.

A. Official status, state funding, and state capture

Across Libya, access to state resources and the mantle of legitimacy has been volatile since 2011, and in Zawiya, this was even more the case than elsewhere. In the immediate post-revolutionary period, Zawiya’s revolutionary armed groups enjoyed ample funding, though its institutional channels evolved rapidly—initially through the Zawiya Military Council, then through the Libya Shield Forces, and for a brief period in 2013 through the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room.

With the split between two governments in 2014 and the Central Bank’s drastic budgetary cuts in 2015, state funding suddenly became much scarcer. Limited salary budgets were available through the Central Security Apparatus, headed by Omar al-Khadrawi in Tripoli, with the Zawiya branch led by his brother, Mohamed Hussein al-Khadrawi.

After the advent of the GNA, cooperation with Italy on counter-migration brought new funding through the Interior Ministry’s Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), which financed detention centres that rapidly multiplied across western coastal cities.

As will be shown below, the migration and countermigration businesses rapidly became closely intertwined. The coastguard, as well as the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), offered additional conduits for salaries for Milad’s group and Kashlaf’s Nasr Battalion, though those paled in comparison with the profits to be made in fuel smuggling and the migration business.

The police directorate, long headed by Col. Ali al-Lafi, provided cover and budgets to various armed groups. Most notoriously, Bahroun operated under the police directorate from 2017 onwards. Lafi, however, succeeded in striking a balance and accommodating the city’s competing factions, who backed him in return.

When Interior Minister Bashagha attempted to replace him in August 2020, strong opposition from Zawiya eventually compelled him to relent. With the end of the Tripoli war, political rivalries in the capital and the new weight of Zawiya’s armed groups suddenly gave the latter far greater access to official status and state funding. New bodies and units proliferated—most significantly the SSA— along with new military units, as well as the Law Enforcement Force promoted by Interior Minister Bashagha.

But these new institutional umbrellas could prove fickle in the context of the intensifying power struggles—as shown by Kikli’s suspension of funding to the Buzribas’ SSA branches. As Dabeiba focused on his political survival, the funds armed groups could obtain corresponded to the level of support they could offer him and the threat their defection to Bashagha would pose.

This also went for the new army units, such as Brigades 52 and 103. Beyond their salary budgets, the extent to which their commanders could expand and dispense patronage primarily depended on the operating budgets, which could vary greatly and be used at discretion.

In the search for legitimate status and funding, militia leaders frequently changed their institutional affiliation. In June 2022, Bahroun left the police directorate’s criminal investigations department and gained a new institutional cover in the GIS. A year later, Bahroun fell out with GIS head al-Ayeb and transferred to a new body set up at his own behest, the Apparatus for the Fight against Security Threats, which reported directly to the prime minister’s office. As of late 2023, that body had churned out hundreds of recruits at its bases in Sabratha, Sorman, and Tripoli, but had yet to establish any presence on the ground. Nevertheless, it obtained lavish funding from Dabeiba in December 2023. Increasingly, however, Zawiya’s most prominent militia leaders were able to gain far more from the state than recognition and funding for their units.

By the time of the tug of war between Bashagha and Dabeiba, the leading figures from Zawiya had emerged as key actors on the national stage, along with other western Libyan commanders as well as Haftar’s sons. Together, these militia leaders now wielded decisive influence over the distribution of government positions, as well as over whether a government could take or retain power in Tripoli.

In the case of Zawiya and its surroundings, those who aspired to such influence included the Buzriba brothers—Bashagha’s most powerful supporters in western Libya—and Dhawi, both of whom appointed relatives as ministers in the Bashagha government. Ben Rajab, Bahroun, and the latter’s associate Manfukh, in turn, formed part of a small group of western Libyan figures who, from early 2022 onwards, repeatedly met with Haftar’s sons abroad to negotiate, even as they ensured that the Bashagha government could not take office in Tripoli.

The substance of western Libyan commanders’ negotiations with Haftar’s sons or their representatives evolved over time. While the tug of war between the two competing governments lasted, the talks explored ways to overcome the deadlock, by either agreeing an electoral framework for elections, or forming a new government. Once Bashagha’s final attempt at taking office had failed in August 2022, negotiations centered on a reshuffle of ministerial posts in the Dabeiba government. Despite failing to achieve a consensus on the reshuffle, the parties successively reached deals on a range of other issues.

These included agreements on the Tripoli government’s payment of debts incurred by Haftar; the reshuffle of the board of directors of the General Electricity Company of Libya (GECOL); and an exchange of prisoners, including a fighter pilot in Haftar’s forces who had been in Bahroun’s custody.

Such deals showed that a select group of western Libyan commanders, among them Zawiya’s leading figures, had become influential enough to get things done at the highest levels of state institutions in Tripoli, and to appoint their allies to key positions. In August 2022, for example, Manfukh’s father was appointed as general manager of GECOL. This was part of a broader trend, however, towards the capture of state institutions by western Libyan militia leaders, increasingly in cooperation with their counterparts in eastern Libya: Haftar’s sons.


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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