Armed groups and society in a western Libyan city

Wolfram Lacher

III. Armed group–society relations

Zawiya’s armed groups, such as they exist today, are the product of conditions that have continuously shifted over the past decade: their positions towards successive local and national conflicts, their changing leadership structures, their relations with the authorities in Tripoli, and their financing models.

These factors have transformed the relations between the city’s armed groups and the civilian population beyond recognition compared to 2011. Moreover, they have led to widely divergent outcomes: the city’s four principal forces today differ significantly from each other with regard to their ties with local communities.

A. A transformed relationship

Zawiya’s revolutionary armed groups fought for a cause in 2011 that enjoyed widespread support in the city in subsequent years, and continues to be cherished by many local opinion leaders. Yet, they did not have the deep social embeddedness of local revolutionary armed groups in Misrata and the Nafusa mountains, which had emerged in the context of their communities’ collective struggle against an external threat.

Zawiya’s revolutionaries, by contrast, had organized either outside of their community—mostly in the mountains—or as small, clandestine cells in the city. When they took control of the city as the regime fell, many—predominantly young—men joined them for opportunistic reasons, without sharing the revolutionaries’ deep commitment to the liberation struggle.

Nevertheless, the armed groups enjoyed close relations with the local community in the first years after the revolution. Many revolutionary commanders and fighters were respected members of local society and professionals who gained political or administrative positions after 2011.

They also continued to exert moral authority over the armed groups that controlled abusive and criminal behaviour, at least towards residents of Zawiya. Moreover, several prominent revolutionary commanders focused on crime-fighting, and their groups acquired a reputation for religious devoutness and relative discipline.

According to a former revolutionary fighter, ‘if a father could no longer rein in his son as he committed crimes, he would ask the Na’am Company [of Mohamed Ben Yousef] or the Faruq Battalion [of Mohamed Yousef al-Khadrawi] to arrest and keep him. People knew these groups would treat prisoners well.’

The leadership vacuum and generational change at the head of the armed groups from 2014 onwards disrupted these relationships. The reckless fighting between Hnesh and Khadrawi in the densely populated city centre over a two-year period fundamentally changed society’s perception of the armed groups.

Civilians’ grievances against the armed groups that had sprung up in their midst were further exacerbated by the recurrent killings, the increasingly open sale of drugs and alcohol, the economic hardship provoked by the disappearance of fuel at official prices, and the recruitment of sub-Saharan African mercenaries.

By 2023, Zawiya’s armed groups had come to be widely and intensely despised by the city’s residents. Even former revolutionaries no longer recognized the city’s armed groups as their own. ‘Our groups [jama’atna] [. . .] actually, we should no longer call them our groups’, as a religious figure and former revolutionary put it when discussing the latest clashes in the city.

Another former revolutionary fighter vented his fury towards the militias: Most people simply hate them and fear them. There are so many aliyat [technicals] here, they use them as if they were their regular cars. When a technical drives by you, your first instinct is to take your distance, because they’re unpredictable, they think they can permit themselves anything.

Honorable fighters went back to their civilian lives after 2011, or after the Warshafana war. The young guys who now run the militias, they didn’t even fight in 2011, and now they sell drugs on our street. They’re a threat to my children. I fought in 2011, I lost a brother in war, in our family there are people who lost limbs. I didn’t fight so these groups could rule over us. We just want anyone to establish order—one head, not several.

A prominent former revolutionary commander and long-standing security actor, when asked about his feelings about the GNU’s drone strikes in the city, described a generational rift: The criminals are all young—they’re twenty years old today, meaning in 2011 they were eight years old. They don’t listen to their parents. Our generation grew up in fear [of the regime]. We were persecuted for praying at dawn, even though we were not part of any organized group. But the young guys, they live a life of thuggery [baltagiya], in search of money. So when these strikes came, we were happy about them. I don’t care that the strikes were politically motivated—we were just happy that the technicals disappeared from the streets, at least for a while.

B. Militarizing politics, the economy, and the administration

With revolutionary leaders’ loss of moral authority over armed groups and the generational change at the top, militias faced few barriers to extending their influence over the administration and the economy. In Misrata and the Nafusa mountains, local businessmen and politicians generally had close relations with, and influence over, armed groups—relations that went back to the common struggle in 2011.

In Zawiya, such relations were far weaker, and no longer had any meaningful relevance after the changes armed groups underwent during the 2014–15 civil war.

From that period onwards, Zawiya businessmen stopped making transactions through banks in the city, fearing this would draw the attention of armed groups and expose them to extortion and kidnapping. As a result, bank branches in Zawiya perform a disproportionately small number of letter of credit transactions—Libya’s standard procedure for accessing hard currency for imports.

More broadly, the city exhibits very little private sector investment—with the exception of businesses owned by militia leaders. A prime example is the Nasr Medical Centre, a shiny new clinic opened by Kashlaf in 2019, in the presence of Ali Buzriba and Zawiya’s mayor.

A water bottling company that began operating in 2019 in the Abu Surra area is reportedly owned by Milad. Of course, their state salaries could hardly explain their ability to make such substantial investments. Bahroun, in turn, is said to own cleaning companies that have contracts with public bodies in the city.

The administration itself was subservient to the armed groups. The municipal council of central Zawiya, elected in May 2022, has been docile in the face of armed groups’ excesses. The mayor, Jamal Bhar, has gained a reputation for downplaying or denying problems caused by militia activity outright, apparently fearing a backlash from the armed groups more than the scorn of his constituents.

In May 2022, he dismissed clashes between Bahroun and Buzriba as ‘a quarrel’, and the fighting between Bahroun and the Kabowat in April 2023 as ‘a simple matter [. . .] between families’, and declared the security situation in Zawiya otherwise ‘stable’.

The Zawiya police chief, Ali al-Lafi, known for allowing militia leaders and notorious criminals to operate under the city’s police department, praised Zawiya’s armed groups in a meeting with the author in November 2022, calling them ‘cleaner and more honourable’ than its politicians.

Both the municipal council and the police directorate would be key targets of the protesters’ ire in May 2023. Around the same time, the Buzriba brothers and Leheb successfully lobbied the parallel, eastern-based government to establish new municipalities that they would directly control: Abu Surra and Middle Zawiya (Zawiya al-Wasat).

Persuading the eastern-based government to issue such a decree was easy, since its minister of local government was a relative of the Buzribas’ close ally al-Dhawi. The far greater challenge, however, would be to get the new municipalities recognized in Tripoli, and thereby gain easier access to funding.

While Leheb attempted to obtain this recognition from Dabeiba as part of his rapprochement, the Buzribas were well aware that this was next to impossible for Abu Surra.

Instead, they staged municipal elections in which only their list of candidates was voted on, and their new municipal council was sworn in by the eastern-based government in September 2023. Public services were deeply affected by the dominance of the armed groups.

By 2022, the hospital was led by Usama Ali Sarkaz, who before then had worked with Ali al-Lafi at the police directorate and lauded Bahroun for providing security in central Zawiya. The university administration had split in two, with one part located in Awlad Sagr territory in southern Zawiya, under the influence of Leheb’s group, and another part in the city centre, in Bahroun’s sphere of influence.


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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