By Mary Fitzgerald
Introduction: In Libya there are very few truly national actors. The vast majority are local players, some of whom are relevant at the national level while representing the interests of their region, or in most cases, their city.
Many important actors, particularly outside of the largest cities, also have tribal allegiances.
Since the summer of 2014, political power has been split between two rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk, with the latter having been recognised by the international community before the creation of the Presidency Council (PC) – the body that acts collectively as head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces – in December 2015.
Several types of actor scramble for power in today’s Libya: armed groups; “city-states”, particularly in western and southern Libya; and tribes, which are particularly relevant in eastern and southern Libya.
While Khalifa Haftar is recognised as general commander of the armed forces by the HoR in eastern Libya, his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) is a mix of military units and tribal or regional-based armed groups, and is not recognised as a proper army by all military personnel across the east or west of Libya.
A number of senior military figures refused to join Haftar’s Operation Dignity against Islamists when it launched in May 2014.
Some of these have since joined forces with his adversaries, whether cooperating with militias that comprised the now defunct anti-Haftar Libya Dawn coalition in western Libya, or joining with local jihadist-led groups to drive ISIS out from the eastern town of Derna.
Haftar’s opponents claim his irregular forces include Sudanese mercenaries, particularly from the Darfuri rebel group JEM.
Haftar’s LNA has different degrees of control in the area of central and eastern Libya that stretches from Ben Jawad to the border with Egypt.
In this part of the country, LNA’s colonel Nadhuri is the military governor and he has replaced elected officials with military figures to head most municipalities across the east.
Drawing its strength from a web of tribal alliances, Haftar’s LNA has expanded its presence across the area of central and eastern Libya that stretches from Ben Jawad to the border with Egypt, with the exception of the town of Derna which has been besieged by LNA-aligned forces for over a year.
The LNA appointed its colonel Abdulrazaq Nadhuri as military governor of eastern Libya and he has replaced elected officials with military figures to head most municipalities across the east.
The Libya Dawn militia alliance that formed partly in response to Haftar’s Operation Dignity in summer 2014, and which drove then Dignity-allied militias from the western town of Zintan from Tripoli, no longer exists.
The coalition was made up of both Islamist and non-Islamist militias, armed groups from Tripoli and the port city of Mis-rata, and fighters from other parts of western Libya, including from the Amazigh mi-nority. It had fractured long before the UN-brokered deal aimed at establishing a unity government was signed in late 2015, with tensions growing between Misratan factions and Tripoli-based groups in particular.
At present, Tripoli’s armed groups can be broadly categorised in terms of whether or not they support the unity government led by Sarraj. Most are either explicitly supportive of, or ambivalent towards, the unity government.
One of the most important figures supporting the government is Abdel Rauf Kara, leader of the Special Deterrent Force (or Rada) which is based in the Maitiga complex, also home to Tripoli’s only operating airport.
Kara’s Salafist-leaning forces – which number around 1,500 – once sought to present themselves as a type of police force for the city, targeting alcohol and drug sellers in particular. Now they focus their efforts on tackling ISIS cells and sympathisers in the capital.
Armed groups from the Suq al-Jumaa area of Tripoli, including the Nawasi brigade, are also key to securing the unity government.
Another powerful figure in Tripoli is Haithem Tajouri, who heads the city’s largest militia. Tajouri, whose Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) has threatened and intimidated officials since 2012, is not a particularly political figure. His priority is protecting the considerable interests he has accrued in the capital.
A number of other militias in Tripoli and its hinterland, some of which have links to figures from the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), have been sceptical of the unity government from the outset and have clashed with Kara and Tajouri’s forces.
Long-standing tensions between associates of Sheikh Sadeq al-Gheriani, who was appointed Mufti in 2011, and adherents of a particular strand of Salafism inspired by a Saudi sheikh called Rabee al-Madkhali, have increased in recent years.
Colloquially known as Madkhalis, they detest the Muslim Brotherhood and all forms of political Islam. As a result, many Madkhalis joined Haftar’s Operation Dignity in eastern Libya.
Their critics suspect they may be a Trojan horse for Saudi influence in Libya. Kara’s Rada force contains a large number of Madkhalis, as do a number of other militias in Tripoli.
The disappearance and presumed killing in 2016 of Nader al-Omrani, a member of al-Gheriani’s Dar al-Ifta, was blamed on Madkhalis, who have made clear their doctrinal disagreements with al-Gheriani and his circle.
In mid-2017, armed groups aligned with al-Gheriani and figures from the former LIFG lost territory and influence in the capital. Several key personalities from this milieu are now based outside Libya.
The prosperous port city of Misrata is home to Libya’s largest and most powerful militias. Local rivalries feed the power-play between the city’s constellation of armed groups.
Several prominent political and business figures in Misrata support the unity government, which includes Misratan businessman Ahmed Maiteeq, as deputy prime minister. This has helped secure the backing of a number of the main armed groups from the city, including the two biggest – the Halbous and the Mahjoub brigades.
A wildcard in Misrata is Salah Badi, a controversial former parliamentarian and militia leader who was a key figure in the Libya Dawn alliance in 2014 and who opposes the UN-backed unity government. Tensions have also grown between the city’s mili-tary council and its municipal council, with the former attempting to unseat the latter.
Misratan forces comprised the largest component of Bunyan al Marsous (BAM), the coalition formed in summer 2016 to take on ISIS in Sirte.
It declared victory against ISIS in December that year. BAM forces also include the 604 Battalion, formed mostly by Madkhali Salafists from across western Libya, including Sirte. As in other parts of Libya, Madkhali Salafists have grown in influence in Misrata and its environs over the past year.
The small mountain town of Zintan enjoyed outsized influence in western Libya from 2011 until summer 2014 when its militias were driven from Tripoli by Libya Dawn. As a result, Zintani forces lost control of key strategic sites, including Tripoli’s international airport which was destroyed in the fighting.
Some later joined with the so-called Tribal Army – comprising fighters from the Warshefana region on Tripoli’s hinterland and other tribal elements from western Libya – to confront Libya Dawn-allied factions. Fighting later subsided due to local ceasefires.
A number of Zintani forces have distanced themselves from Haftar – particularly those close to former defence minister Osama Jweili – while others remain supportive.
As commander of the GNA’s western region military zone, Jweili led an offensive in the Wershefana territory on Tripoli’s hinterland in November 2017 with a coalition that included forces from Zintan, Tripoli – among them Haithem Tajouri’s TRB – and Tarhouna.
While ostensibly “anti-crime”, the operation also served to undermine LNA-affiliated groups in the area.
Militiamen from Zintan have been responsible for the shutting of vital pipelines linking the Sharara and El Feel oilfields in southwestern Libya to coastal terminals since late 2014, costing over $20 billion in lost revenue, according to the National Oil Corporation.
In summer 2017 Haftar declared that his Operation Dignity had “liberated” Benghazi, but fighting continues in some pockets of the city.
Key to the anti-Dignity camp after 2014 was the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), an umbrella group comprising a number of Islamist and self-described revolutionary factions, which was supported by patrons in Misrata.
It also included the UN-designated jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia. The BRSC fought alongside ISIS against Haftar’s forces. As Haftar’s forces gained control over most of the city, many within the BRSC fled to western Libya.
The BRSC’s ranks were fed by youth radicalised by Haftar’s scattergun campaign, which sought not only to eradicate Islamists of all stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood, but also took on an ethnic character at times, targeting families of western Libyan – and particularly Misratan – origin in the city.
Similar grievances led to the formation of the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB) in May 2016. The BDB initially comprised anti-Haftar army and police personnel plus militiamen of various political stripes including hardline Islamists.
The group – which was endorsed by Gheriani in Tripoli – engaged with Haftar’s forces around eastern oilfields and infrastructure. It faced accusations that some within its ranks maintained ambiguous links with extremists despite attempts to present a “moderate” face while fighting under the national flag.
The BDB initially gained backing from Benghazi residents who had been driven from the city or lost property, land and businesses as a result of Haftar’s operation. But it has lost support in recent months and experienced internal disarray, particularly after it was implicated in the massacre of LNA fighters at the Brak Al Shati military base which left scores dead.
While now controlling most of Benghazi, the Dignity camp continues to experience internal rifts. Within the broad coalition, which comprises army units, militias and armed civilians, the most important actor is the military special forces unit, known as the Saiqa.
The Saiqa is led by Wanis Bukhamada, a popular figure in the city, but it also includes Mahmoud al-Warfalli, a commander wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes including mass executions.
Some Dignity commanders in Benghazi have been critical of Haftar’s leadership, including Mahdi al-Barghathi, who later defected and was appointed defence minister of the unity government in Tripoli.
He was subsequently accused of collaborating with the BDB. After the massacre in Brak Al Shati, he was dismissed by the PC but is still operating from time to time.
Many residents worry about the hardline Madkhali Salafist fighters that joined Haftar’s LNA and wider coalition in 2014 and have been empowered as a result, taking over mosques and other institutions. Also of concern is an LNA-aligned militia known as Katibat Awliya al-Dam or Avengers of Blood, which has been accused of carrying out revenge attacks.
Once present in several regions of Libya, the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) has fallen apart as a national entity and until 2016 the term was mostly used to refer to the forces in eastern Libya under the command of Ibrahim Jathran, a former revolutionary fighter. The PFG remains ostensibly under the Ministry of Defence, though in reality its various local units – whether east, west or south – operate their own laws, and relations with the National Oil Corporation have been strained for several years.
In 2013, Jathran’s PFG took control of the main oil export terminals in eastern Libya and later attempted to sell oil. The almost year-long episode cost Libya billions in lost revenues. Before the LNA drove him from the ports in 2016, Jathran had alternately allied himself with both the HoR and its opponents in western Libya. Many of the PFG in eastern Libya defected to the LNA following the latter’s outreach to tribal leaders, but a small number have remained loyal to Jathran who also maintains links with the BDB.
Mary Fitzgerald – Mary Fitzgerald is the Irish Times award-winning foreign affairs correspondent. She is a journalist and researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya.
Source: A quick guide to Libya’s main players