The Rise of the Stability Support Apparatus as Hegemon

Adam Hakan

Opportunism and the aftermath of Fajr Libya

Despite suffering a heavy loss to Zintani units in June 2013, Ghaniwa’s bout of conflict with them earned him the praises of the self-proclaimed revolutionary camp within the capital and beyond it. At the time, political and military stakeholders with ties in the Islamist or hard-line revolutionary milieus considered themselves to represent the bulwark against a burgeoning anti-revolutionary movement sweeping the region.

In Libya, this movement was perceived by political Islamists and hard-line revolutionaries to be masterminded by their political opponent in the GNC, the National Forces Alliance (NFA). By extension, Zintani factions in the capital also represented a threat, given their alignment and ties with the NFA. Further compounding revolutionary antagonism towards Zintani units was their reconciliation with regime-era officers, and the subsequent recruitment of these officers

into their ranks.22 Perceiving that the NFA was orchestrating a soft coup at best, or a comeback of the Qaddafi regime at worst, Islamist and revolutionary armed actors scrambled in May 2013 to force the GNC to pass a sweeping Political Isolation Law that barred thousands of Libyan officials from holding office.

This use of force for political goals occurred a month before clashes between Ghaniwa and Zintani units erupted in June. Viewed in this context, the clash between Zintani factions and the Military Council-aligned Ghaniwa was the first instance of revolutionaries and their opponents violently colliding.

This backdrop was a windfall for Ghaniwa, as he easily claimed revolutionary creed, soliciting the support of Islamists and revolutionary forces to rebuild and reconsolidate. Burki’s links within the GNC were instrumental in this endeavour, and Ghaniwa regained his footing in Abu Salim thanks to his support. Ghaniwa subsequently squarely positioned himself with the revolutionary coalition to benefit from their military support.

When Khalifa Haftar launched Operation Dignity in May of 2014, Zintani units aligned with Haftar in Tripoli stormed the GNC headquarters in Abu Salim. This pitted Ghaniwa against Zintani units once more and paved the way for Ghaniwa’s eventual alignment with the Fajr Libya operation. Launched in July 2014 by a coalition of revolutionaries and Islamists under the aegis of Misrata’s Military Council, the operation’s immediate military goal was to dislodge Zintani units from the capital’s Airport Road and International Airport.

Burki’s Abu Salim Military Council aligned with Fajr Libya, and, by extension, so did Ghaniwa. Revolutionaries and Islamists within the GNC were also quick to announce support for the operation. After weeks of fighting, the coalition’s military goal succeeded: Zintani forces were evicted from the capital, but Tripoli’s International Airport was no longer operational due to the violent clashes. The destructive nature of the war, coupled with the evacuation of most diplomatic staff and the destruction of Tripoli’s then only civilian airport, had a disproportionately negative impact on the Libyan population.

Despite succeeding in ousting Zintani units, the pyrrhic nature of the victory in the 2014 civil war became an albatross of unpopularity for the Fajr Libya coalition. Retreating from Tripoli, Zintani forces opted to target the town of Kikla—Ghaniwa’s hometown situated 150 kilometres south-west of Tripoli—which was suspected of being prepared as a launching pad for Fajr Libya’s units to potentially attack Zintan. This was a defining moment for Ghaniwa, who mobilized in October 2014 to his native city to defend it alongside his Tripoli-based cadre with roots in Kikla.

Some of the deadliest fighting seen in Libya’s post-revolutionary history raged in Kikla for weeks; despite benefiting from substantial military support from the Fajr Libya coalition, Ghaniwa’s group and Kikla’s revolutionaries were defeated, retreating to Tripoli. Some 4,000 households in Kikla were also internally displaced as Zintan occupied their town after indiscriminate shelling. Ghaniwa saw this defeat as an opportunity, offering the majority of Kikla’s displaced families free shelter in an incomplete residential project in Abu Salim’s vicinity. He also recruited their youth—most of whom he had already armed and fought with in Kikla—into his SSC unit.

Fajr Libya’s aftermath was a turning point for Ghaniwa’s group in Abu Salim. The recruitment of Kikla’s displaced youth into his group significantly expanded its ranks. Moreover, Ghaniwa had also retained an arsenal of heavy weaponry—notably tanks and cannons—provided by Misrata’s Military Council during the fighting in Kikla. Just months after Ghaniwa’s defeat in Kikla, the head of the Abu Salim Council, Burki, died in clashes against Haftar-aligned units in Aziziya in March 2015.

Despite Burki’s brother Ammru replacing him at the helm, the Military Council’s influence waned, gradually overshadowed by Ghaniwa’s now more powerful SSC unit. This marked the first instance of Ghaniwa being the dominant force in Abu Salim—ironically emerging as a winner on the back of successive military defeats.

Rebranding and the rise of the Abu Salim hegemon

The aftermath of the conflict in 2014 and the political transformations that came about in its wake had a significant impact on Tripoli’s security landscape. First, the GNC-linked, self-styled National Salvation Government established in August 2014, although internationally unrecognized, reconfigured the institutional affiliations of armed groups in the capital.

Formed as a war cabinet, the newly established executive’s Ministry of Interior set up a Central Security Apparatus in Tripoli to improve security in the capital, the only real territory controlled by the government. This decision provided an avenue for Ghaniwa—among others—to secure a new affiliation for his Abu Salim-based group.

This quest for a new affiliation was due to an Interior Ministry decree issued the previous year stipulating the dissolution of the SSC by the end of 2013, a decision that compromised Ghaniwa’s institutional affiliation to the state. Ghaniwa’s SSC unit, now strengthened with fresh recruits and newly acquired weapons, became the Abu Salim Central Security Directorate (ASCSD).

A second dynamic that impacted Tripoli’s security was the by-product of the fragmentation of the Fajr Libya coalition and the then ongoing UN-led Skhirat talks to form a unity government. This led to increased tensions between Tripoli-based groups—including Ghaniwa’s—over their preferred political blueprint for the way forward and their stances vis-à-vis the dialogue process.

These tensions soon came to a head, with the Skhirat talks culminating in the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December of 2015, which stipulated the establishment of the Presidency Council (PC) and the formation of an inclusive Government of National Accord (GNA). But the LPA’s section on interim security arrangements, which was meant to guarantee the newly established PC’s arrival in Tripoli, was deliberately left vague.

These arrangements were crucial as Tripoli was still dominated by armed groups that had mobilized as part of Fajr Libya, and was also the seat of the National Salvation Government, which rejected the LPA. Bishr, former head of the now dissolved SSC, returned to Tripoli shortly after the signing of the LPA as the informal intermediate between the PC’s Security Arrangements Committee and the capital’s armed groups.

Charged with securing the arrival of the PC, Bishr relied primarily on his network in his native Suq al-Jum’a to build a pro-PC coalition. His immediate priorities were to secure the support of the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), which controlled Mitiga airport, and the Nawasi Battalion, which controlled the port and naval base.35 Sensing the inevitable

wind of change with the arrival of the PC through the Nawasi-controlled Busitta naval base in March 2016, Ghaniwa and Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB) commander Haitham al-Tajuri, both of whom had links to Bishr through the SSC, decided to side with the new PC. The PC subsequently opted to weaponize language around security arrangements in the LPA, which stipulated ‘the withdrawal of armed formations from cities’. Opportunistically, some Tripoli based armed groups used the UN process and the institutions it produced to gain legitimacy, thus doing the PC’s bidding.

Now rebranding his Ministry of Interior-affiliated unit as a policing and counter-criminal force, Ghaniwa and his ASCSD leveraged the international community’s blinkered quest for stability in Tripoli to take on local enemies and evict them from the capital. While the broad faultlines for conflict in Tripoli were indeed structured along rifts between supporters and opponents of the GNA, ambitions for expansion, territorial consolidation, and a desire to assert control over state-linked institutions and facilities were also at play, particularly in Abu Salim. This paved the way for Ghaniwa’s rise as a hegemon in Abu Salim.

From 2016 to 2017, Ghaniwa, acting in concert with a clique of other Tripoli-based pro GNA groups, moved against opponents. In a fateful turn of events, the ASCSD first turned on its old ally, the Abu Salim Military Council—which had rebranded as the ‘Martyr Salah al-Burki Battalion’—in early 2016. Clashes over territory with the Burki Battalion were commonplace in Abu Salim throughout 2016, and the force was eventually pushed south of Abu Salim and towards al-Hadhba in February 2017.

Ghaniwa had also clashed with Misratan forces in al-Hadhba throughout 2016, soliciting Tajuri’s support in his effort to push them out of his territory. In March 2017, Ghaniwa expanded further, evicting the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group-linked Ihsan Brigade from its last holdout in Nasr forest and, with the help of Tajuri’s TRB, dislodging the pro-GNC Presidential Security Force units from the vicinity of Rixos Hotel near Abu Salim. Disgruntled with Ghaniwa, a coalition of forces led by Misratan commanders Mohamed Baaiou and Salah Badi launched multiple unsuccessful assaults on the ASCSD in May 2017.

Ghaniwa and Tajuri eventually ended this threat by pushing these forces outside of Tripoli’s administrative borders in July, seizing the strategic Hadhba prison and its highly prized inmates in the process. In under two years, Ghaniwa had risen to dominate Abu Salim, asserting control over Rixos, the seat of the new LPA-established High State Council, the strategic Hospitality Palaces, and the Nasr forest. This cemented the oligopoly of a so-called ‘militia quartet’—the Nawasi, the SDF, the TRB, and the ASCSD—in the capital and Ghaniwa’s hegemony over 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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