Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

D. Drug smuggling

Among the different sectors of Zawiya’s militia economy, drug smuggling is the most difficult to assess, since it has no legal component. Zawiya sits on two drug smuggling corridors: alcohol and Moroccan hashish move from the west and south-west into Libya—or, in the case of hashish, on to Egypt. Tramadol and other prescription drugs are imported via ports such as Misrata and al-Khoms to be either consumed in Libya or smuggled on to Tunisia and Algeria.

The nearby town of Ajeilat is a key node for both routes, just as it has long been an important hub for fuel smuggling; it also increasingly serves as an assembly point for migrants before they are embarked at Zuwara or Sabratha. Since 2011, competition among armed groups over the Ajeilat area has been closely linked to the profits to be made in controlling these illicit flows. Such rivalries were reportedly the driver behind repeated clashes in the town in 2012 and 2013, between local smugglers and Jamal al-Ghaeb’s Libya Shield Force unit from Mutrid.

Security officials and battalion leaders agree that they were also a key factor in the violent expulsion of the Buzribas’ ally Barka (‘al-Shalfuh’) from Ajeilat by Bahroun and Leheb in 2021. In May 2023, GNU drone strikes targeted a facility of Hatem al-Fehri, who had reportedly replaced Barka as the leading drug smuggler in Ajeilat. According to a well-connected resident of neighbouring Sabratha, Fehri was not allied with any particular party in Zawiya, but had been pragmatic in dealing with the city’s leading security actors.

In parallel, selling drugs to smaller dealers and consumers also became a business for armed groups in Zawiya itself. Hnesh’s group, from which Bahroun’s group would emerge after Hnesh’s death in 2017, initially formed as a hashish-selling enterprise. Under the protection of armed groups, drug and alcohol sales became increasingly open in the city, provoking the ire of local residents.

Later, Sifao gained notoriety as a leading drug dealer who enjoyed official status under Zawiya’s police directorate. As one security official put it, ‘Sifao carved up the drug market in Zawiya. As a result, Awlad Sagr and Zuwaran drug traders no longer did any business in the city. That’s why they attacked Sifao [in September 2022].’

Whether the main battalion leaders in Zawiya are directly involved in moving drugs remains unclear. While some interlocutors described Bahroun as the dominant actor in the regional drug trade, or suggested that the Buzribas’ boats at the Maya port had been used for drug smuggling, others argued that Leheb and Bahroun were not involved themselves. Instead, they blamed individual commanders in these leaders’ forces, or armed gangs that were loosely allied with, but not a formal part of, these forces.

Sifao, for example, was widely considered to be under Bahroun’s protection at the time of his conflict with Leheb, in September 2022. In this reading, Bahroun and Leheb closed their eyes to drug smuggling by allies in order to make use of their firepower when needed.

E. The local geopolitics of illicit flows

The illicit flows outlined above mean that control over roads has been a key concern for Zawiyan armed groups, and the ability to man checkpoints along them critical. With the rise of the local black market in fuel from 2016 onwards, in particular, checkpoints became a major source of income and therefore a key focus of competition over territory—a local geopolitics.

Attempts by one group to obstruct the passage of a rival group—or of goods protected by that group—were a common cause of clashes between armed groups. Checkpoints by less powerful armed groups specialized in extorting vulnerable groups, such as Tunisian petty traders; in 2023, this applied for instance to the ‘najm wa hilal’ (‘star and crescent’) checkpoint in Ajeilat, which was being manned by an SSA unit from Zawiya that remained allied with Leheb even while switching its formal allegiance from the Buzribas to Kikli, in order to retain access to salaries.

While patterns of control over western Libyan roads have continuously changed, one constant has been that no single actor could establish control over the entire stretch linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border. Actors along these roads therefore needed to strike deals, or at least to manage conflict among themselves.

According to one key security actor from Zawiya, ‘all the clashes are over control of the roads. Al-Far [Bahroun], Buzriba and Othman [al-Leheb] are competing over petrol, migrants and pills. They fight over the checkpoints, over being able to pass them. At times, they come to terms and let each other pass. At others, they disagree and fight.’

Another of the leading actors complemented this view: ‘Othman and al-Far have tried to avoid confrontation, by not stopping each other’s shipments. Othman controls much of the road, but lets al-Far’s people pass—and the other way around. If one seizes shipments, the other one will, too.’ This was confirmed by a close associate of Leheb: ‘We won’t stop al-Far’s vehicles. We don’t want problems.’ Indeed, key actors cooperated on manning checkpoints even as they found themselves on opposing political sides. By early 2022, the main checkpoints along the coastal road from Zawiya to the border crossing at Ras Jdeir were generally joint checkpoints shared by several forces.

As relations between Bahroun and Leheb deteriorated during the power struggle between the Bashagha and Dabeiba governments, Leheb compelled Bahroun’s men to withdraw from most of these checkpoints. Several of them, however, continued to be manned by the police directorates support force (quwat da’m al-mudiriyat), whose unit in western Libya was in itself a power sharing arrangement between Bahroun and Leheb—with its commander reporting to Bahroun, and his deputy to Leheb.

The checkpoint at Abu Kammash—the last checkpoint before the border crossing—was manned jointly by Leheb’s Brigade 103, Ben Rajab’s Brigade 52, and Brigade 105 from Zuwara. Leheb and Ben Rajab also jointly thwarted an attempt by Interior Minister Trabelsi in November 2023 to deploy forces to the Assa airbase at the Tunisian border, where Brigades 52 and 103 both maintained bases. The need for cooperation along the roads presumably also acted as a deterrent against all-out escalation in Zawiya itself. Likewise, patterns of control in the city itself have remained characterized by ambiguity, which again reflected a desire to avoid open confrontation.

Only two districts fell clearly under the control of a single group, owing to their demographic make-up—and forces external to these areas made no attempt to encroach on these two. First, Leheb controlled the areas along the road to Bir al-Ghanem—areas in which Awlad Sagr form a majority. Second, the Buzriba brothers exercised de facto authority in Abu Surra, an Awlad Buhmeira district. By contrast, Bahroun could not claim exclusive control over any extended area.

Much of central Zawiya and parts of the Harsha district were not clearly under the authority of any major group. Certain smaller neighbourhoods in these districts were considered the turf of minor local militias or criminal gangs. Elsewhere, no standing armed group was in control, often because demobilized fighters who retained their weapons were expected to resist attempts by any single force to exert control over their neighbourhoods.


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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