Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

C. Migration and counter-migration

The Libyan economy has long been, and remains, reliant on labour migrants for most manual and many skilled jobs. Additionally, in 2014, Libya became a key transit country for migrants and refugees seeking to reach Europe. Prior to 2022, virtually all departures from Libya took place along the country’s western coast, from Misrata to the Tunisian border.

In the absence of central authority, these flows have created a business of coercion centered around the protection and extortion of transiting migrants, as well as rent-seeking in the context of counter-migration; all three types of profit-making schemes are closely linked, and are often carried out by the same armed actors. Zawiya’s business of coercion in counter-migration began with the appointment of Milad (‘al-Bija’) as a coastguard officer in late 2014, at a time when Zuwara was the primary departure point of migrants along the western coast.

In late 2015, Zuwara closed as a departure point owing to a local clamp-down, prompting smugglers to move to Sabratha, Sorman, and western Zawiya. At this point, Milad’s close associate Kashlaf, the head of the PFG Support Force at the Zawiya refinery, opened the Nasr detention centre in the refinery, and Milad began intercepting increasing numbers of migrants on the sea.

Milad’s coastguard unit in Zawiya reportedly intercepted some boats, while allowing those run by smugglers who had struck arrangements with the coastguard to pass. The Nasr detention centre, which gained the status of a legitimate DCIM facility in April 2016, became notorious for horrific conditions, torture, sexual slavery, and the extortion of migrants in exchange for their release—as did a second detention centre in the city’s Abu Issa district.

With the GNA cooperating with Italy and the European Union (EU) on counter-migration from 2016 onwards, actors across western Libyan coastal cities shifted towards the anti-migration business. In early 2017, the Criminal Investigations Department in Mutrid shut down migrant smuggling operations in the districts. In June, the leading migrant smuggler in Sabratha, Ahmed al-Dabbashi, as well as the Milad–Kashlaf– Buzriba network in Zawiya began cooperating on stopping departures. Arrivals to Italy from Libya collapsed instantaneously, and would only begin to recover in 2021. While counter-migration did not offer the same profits as migrant smuggling, it did promise a politically savvy and financially lucrative survival strategy.

Operating detention centres under the Interior Ministry’s DCIM provided official legitimacy, state salaries, and opportunities for embezzlement by overcharging on catering contracts; moreover, migrants held in the centres could be hired out to employers for forced labour, sold to other detention centres or smugglers, or released against payments. The coastguard offered access to international contacts; recognition; and support in the form of boats, training, and intelligence supplied by Italy and the EU. Overall, involvement in counter-migration activities appeared to enable armed groups to convert themselves into legitimate actors whose actions enjoyed the support of European governments.

In the words of a close associate of Bahroun, ‘European support allowed migrant smugglers to become legitimate several years ago. Today, they control migrant flows to clear themselves in front of the attorney general and the international community.’

This survival strategy has not always worked out for the actors involved. Nevertheless, it has continued to define the counter-migration business in Zawiya. Arrivals to Italy from the area remained low despite the constantly changing constellation of actors. In October 2017, Sabratha was taken over by pro-Haftar forces, prompting Dabbashi to seek refuge with his allies in Zawiya. The DCIM issued orders to close the Abu Issa and Nasr detention centres following reports of abuses, in 2017 and April 2018, respectively—though both centres remained open.

Dabbashi, Kashlaf, and Milad were sanctioned by the UN Security Council in June 2018. That same month, Milad was suspended from his post (though Kashlaf was not), but he remained de facto in charge of the Zawiya coastguard unit. In interviews with the author in November 2018, Kashlaf and Milad showed themselves eager to restore their international reputation by doubling down on counter-migration efforts.

That is precisely what Milad did when he was released and rehabilitated in April 2021, after several months of detention. He stepped up interceptions and later gained a leading position at the Naval Academy in Janzur, thereby distancing himself from the migration business. Meanwhile, conditions in the Nasr detention centre improved, and the more pernicious aspects of its business model receded. But this could not restore Kashlaf’s reputation.

With the creation of the SSA in early 2021, the Buzriba led network saw an opportunity to whitewash its counter-migration business. The Buzribas and Dhawi pursued this goal by running maritime patrols and opening a detention centre under the SSA. Hassan Buzriba acknowledged as much in an interview with the author: ‘Al-Bija [Milad] has a bad reputation, he’s a burnt figure. We [the SSA], by contrast, had a clean reputation. It’s the same with al-Qsab [Kashlaf]. He’s trying to better himself, to improve his reputation, to get out of the sanctions. But we don’t work together in business.’

The SSA failed, however, to obtain international support for its Maya detention centre—partly due to reports of endemic violence and disastrous conditions at the centre, and partly because SSA commander Kikli declared it closed in early 2022. International standing was indeed a key concern of counter-migration, driven by the heavy European focus on it.

As a close associate of Bahroun emphasized, Bahroun regularly received an Italian intelligence officer who congratulated him on the efficient anti-migration efforts in Zawiya. Hassan Buzriba claimed that the SSA’s Maya detention centre had maintained relations with many foreign embassies to return migrants to their countries of origin, including Bangladesh, Egypt, and Morocco. He also declared that the SSA’s maritime patrols had received coordinates from Italian officers through the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Tripoli. Whether these claims were accurate or not, they showed that Buzriba and others saw international approval as integral to their business model.

More specifically, Buzriba’s insistence on international support for the SSA was a reaction to the GNU’s claims that the SSA’s boats had been used in smuggling, and were therefore targeted in drone strikes. While the SSA’s counter-migration efforts had clearly been a for-profit enterprise, its business model evolved due to the Buzribas’ and Dhawi’s changing fortunes. Initially, the SSA had focused on assembling several thousand detainees at the centre, in order to obtain government budgets as well as support from the EU, Italy, and international organizations. To this end, the Buzribas had bought patrol boats in Europe and Turkey, not only using the SSA budget but also mobilizing some funds themselves, suggesting that this was an investment.

In 2022, it was extremely difficult for detainees to obtain their release, even by paying ransoms. As the centre failed to gain foreign backing and lost the Tripoli government’s recognition, however, it became easier for detainees to pay for their release. Moreover, sub-Saharan African detainees were sent to detention centres in southern Libya ahead of being expelled; such transfers often involved payments, since southern detention centres would sell migrants as forced labour.

Finally, the SSA’s business model also involved a measure of collusion with migrant smugglers. Militiamen with relations to both the Buzribas and migrant smugglers alleged that the former would extract payments from the latter by exploiting inside information on where and when boats were departing. Even though the SSA was patrolling the entire coast up to the Tunisian border, and by 2022 most departures in the region were again taking place in Zuwara and Sabratha, it was common knowledge that migrant smugglers were also operating in Zawiya’s Harsha and Mutrid districts, only a few kilometres from the refinery. In June 2023, a GNU drone strike hit a workshop of the most notorious of these smugglers, a former police officer called Haitham al-Tumi, in the Harsha district.


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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