LIBYA’S MILITIAS: A GUIDE

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This week’s sporadic violence in Benghazi has led international investors to examine whether to place their bets on Libya due to security fears. The truth, however, is that many foreign nationals had already withdrawn their personnel following Tripoli’s mid-November militia battles. The decision to remove foreign staff is attributed to the deeply unpredictable situation that has developed in Libya. To that end, The Inkerman Group has noted the emergence of a delicate militia ecosystem, where some 1700 brigades balance out the power of their rivals, and ultimately, the power of the central authority: the administration of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and the General National Congress (GNC). This system is borne out of forty-two years of the absolute central command led by deceased dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, who controlled the lives of millions of Libyans. After decades of tyrannical abuse, it is perhaps understandable that Libyans, particularly those Islamists who felt marginalised under Gaddafi, or moderates who fought against the regime in 2011, would be reluctant to step away from their comfort zones – the brigades – and hand over their weapons to the administration of PM Zeidan. Indeed, whether the Libyan leader is Zeidan or Gaddafi matters not. Centrally controlled rule is frightening for many Libyans – a sentiment perhaps most understood by residents in the East who have been calling for more autonomy.

The Militia Ecosystem

An awareness of this militia backdrop can lead to a greater understanding of the events which unfolded on 15 November 2013. Indeed, the violence in Tripoli did not arise in a vacuum. Signs that clashes between militias and civilians, angered by the constant threat of becoming “caught up” in terror attacks or armed disputes between forces only nominally controlled by the national government, had been building for months. The catalyst for the breakdown in security, however, emerged on 05 November 2013, when Nuri Friwan, the commander of the Misrata-based Nosoor Battalion, was shot and killed by Souq al Juma’a militiamen at a checkpoint in Tripoli. This incident proved to be the final ‘nail in the coffin’ for the previous tenuous alliance between Misrata brigades stationed in Tripoli and the largely Souq al Juma’a-based forces. It is believed that Friwan’s death also signalled that the delicate security ecosystem in Tripoli had been irrevocably disrupted. More appropriately, the incident made it clear that clashes between the two brigades would ensue. The timing of the attack also came amid calls from PM Zeidan, who demanded that all “women, children, men and even old people” support the government, and use peaceful protests to rid armed groups, including federalist protesters, from strategic locations in Libya. Frustrated, and buoyed by the PM’s calls, approximately 1,500 people descended outside the Misrata militia’s headquarters in Tripoli’s Gargour district. This decision culminated in the deaths of at least forty-six people and the injuries of some 514 others – an event which has since come be known as the “Gargour Massacre”.

Tripoli Violence: The Consequences

In the aftermath of the violence, at least five brigades completed their ‘exodus’ from Tripoli. On 21 November 2013, authorities confirmed that five headquarters had formally been handed over to the Libyan National Army. These included: the Quat al Rida’a Brigade and its subset, the Nawasi Brigade, the Al Madany Brigade, the Al Qaqa Brigade and Al Swa’eq Brigade. All aforementioned militias surrendered operational control of their bases amid high-level ceremonies attended by PM Zeidan and representatives from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The relinquished headquarters included: the Yarmouk base in the Salah Aldeen neighbourhood, which had previously been occupied by both the Madany Brigade and the Qala’a militia; the Fallah base, which had previously been controlled by the Al Qaqa Brigade; the Mitiga base, which had been jointly controlled by the Quat al Rida’a Brigade and its subgroup, the Nawasi Brigade; and finally, the Dawa Islamiya buildings, which had previously been overseen by the Al Swa’eq Brigade. Despite these positive developments, questions arose regarding the sincerity of the militias’ claims. Indeed, the head of the Dawa Islamiya Society claimed that his organisation had not been aware of any negotiations involved in the apparent handover of the facility from the Al Swa’eq Brigade. Even Jemal Al Bakai, a unit commander within the Al Qaqa Brigade, claimed that his militia is not “leaving any weapons” with the national government, because his men “earned them during the war”. Adding to the controversy surrounding the withdrawal, are reports that some of the Al Qaqa Brigadesmen kept a BM-21 Grad rocket launcher and a tank. Whatever the true circumstances surrounding the abdication, the developments have clearly led to further discussions regarding how incoherent Libya’s security system has truly become. Attempts to understand the multitude of militias, and how they fall into Libya’s government branches, have been so bewildering that major news agencies are often confused as to what constitutes a legitimate force, and what does not. Confusion particularly reigns when it comes to describing Libya’s National Army, which some have interchangeably – and incorrectly – referred to as the Libyan Shield Brigade. In order to provide a basic understanding of the milieu of militias, a chart has been provided below.

The Militia Chart

(Note: The following chart is as accurate as the information received at time of publication. Militia names, and their allegiances, are subject to change.)


The above chart gives a basic background of the brigades inhabiting Libya. More than 1000 other armed groups are also thought to roam the Maghreb nation; these are not depicted. To be sure, any three men with heavy weaponry could effectively call themselves a “brigade”. This situation has become so unbearable for high-ranking military personnel, that Special Forces Commander Wanis Boukhamada was forced to conclude amid a meeting in Benghazi on 27 November 2013, that militias which have not disbanded or become amalgamated into the general national security apparatus by 31 December 2013, would be considered “illegitimate”. The legitimacy of militias, however, remains muddled. Indeed, not all brigades are ‘created equal’. This is to say, some armed groups rarely incite controversy for their behaviour. Some brigades feel obliged to provide security around key locations in Tripoli and other urban areas due the absence of a viable national security alternative. Other brigades, however, such as Ansar al Sharia, have been known to carry out extra-judicial operations, including arrests, kidnaps and even murder, for their own political, personal and religious agendas. The case of Ansar al Sharia represents an extreme: whilst Zeidan has not labelled the group a “terrorist” organisation, in 2012 it had been described as ‘unsanctioned’. Nevertheless, Ansar al Sharia represents just one of many armed groups which blurry the line between “acceptable” and unacceptable” brigades, as well as leads to enquiries regarding their true intentions. In particular, questions have arisen as to the motivations of the Al Nawasi Brigade, an armed group which has been accused of abducting, torturing and killing individuals suspected of selling drugs in Tripoli’s Fashloom and Souq al Juma’a districts. The sincerity of the Al Qaqa Brigade’s claims to have left Tripoli has also been criticised. This group has reportedly been “on the run” from government-backed forces for its involvement in kidnapping GNC representatives, arms smuggling, narcotics dealing, and general attacks against rivals.

Should Militias Be Believed?

Most Libyans believe that both the Al Nawasi Brigade and the Al Qaqa Brigade may simply leave Tripoli-proper until the current surge in anti-militia sentiment tempers. In the meantime, The Inkerman Group assesses that both militias are likely to seek haven in Tripoli’s southern suburbs, particularly the rural area of Wadi al Rabi, where Al Qaqa Brigadesmen are already believed to be using nearby farms as “hideouts” and “storage centres” for weaponry. Substantiating these assessments, are reports from sources in Tripoli who claimed on 19 November 2013, that the Al Nawasi Brigade moved its vehicles and arms into the infamous Al Barri ostrich farm, a site which used to be owned by Gaddafi, near Wadi al Rabi.

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