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Adapting to a complex context: between responsibilities and obligations of Libyan militias

Source: Reuters

After the end of forty-two years of dictatorship, the Arab Spring of 2011, the civil war that broke out in 2014 and the current war declared by General Haftar last April, many actors have tried to impose themselves in the power vacuum following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. This analysis aims to try to tell the different roles that the Libyan militias have played in the country since 2011.

1. The Libyan context

To try to return a story as close as possible to the reality of the Libyan militias, it is a priority to understand the environment in which they operate since 2011, the year of the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Libya. Libya is the ninth largest oil reserve in the world and lives, however, of the double blackmailing power of oil: external, towards Europe for example, but also internal, without the sale of oil and gas in fact, the country can not survive, since the agricultural and manufacturing sectors are not developed.

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, Libya has been experiencing the fourth war in eight years. It is a country that lives on violence and trafficking: that of oil and gas and that of migrant men and women. Corruption is endemic and the difference between legality and illegality is not only weak, but it does not exist at all.

This is the context that the population, and therefore the militias, live in. It is also necessary to make a premise: in Libya it does not exist and never existed during the dictatorship of Gaddafi, a unitary national army, but rather, a set of militias and brigades that belonged to the Libyan dictator. Also the Praetorian Guard established by Gaddafi when he came to power in 1969, was a group of men belonging to different Libyan tribes: that of Magraha, Warfalla and Quadhadhifa that the dictator was able to keep together thanks to the blackmailing power of money. This organization also reflects well what is the political and social reality of Libya, a country organized on disorder, that caused by the fragmentation of the distribution of power among the various clans of the Libyan tribes. In a nutshell, we could say that in Libya, union is not strength.

The defence and security apparatus that the various militia groups set up under Gaddafi's dictatorship failed after the collapse of the regime, not only because of the death of the Raïs, but above all because of the division of power, control of the oil and gas trade, and the business of rebuilding a country in which each leader of the different tribes wanted and wants his gain. In 2014, a civil war broke out in Libya, at the end of which the country was divided into two areas of influence: in the west, in the part of the country called Cyrenaica, the government of General Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi militiaman who, after a long exile in the United States, where he worked with the US intelligence services, returned to the country in 2011, after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. His government enjoys the support of the United States, Russia, France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He is the head of the Lybian National Army (LNA), a group of several Libyan militia groups with 7,000 regular and 18,000 auxiliary forces, although Haftar has repeatedly stated that he can count on 80,000 men[1]. The LNA forces have so far conquered the oil wells south of Libya and aim to conquer the eastern part of the country, Tripolitania, targeting its capital, Tripoli. The narrative of Haftar's conquest of the country is the one common to all the speeches proclaimed by the Arab generals: his army and therefore his future Libyan government, which aims to be the only one in the country, is the only one that could guarantee a secular Libya free from terrorism.

However, since March 2016, Tripolitania has been governed by the National Agreement Government of al-Sarraj, wanted by the International Community and supported by the UN, Italy, Turkey and Qatar. The two governments, although still at war, are mutually necessary, until one prevails over the other: the government of Haftar, in fact, holds the Libyan oil wells and gas fields, while the Sarraj government is the only one that can officially sell oil and gas, because it is the only government recognized by the International Community. What is holding up this war in Libya and therefore the victory of one of the two actors? The micro-actors: the militias that have weapons, control the security of the cities and the country, have managed to enter the Sarraj government buildings with their men and manage the oil, gas and migrant smuggling and now disillusioned, have no interest in pacifying the country.

2. Militias

Militias are armed citizens, trained in combat, who do not belong to a permanent military corps such as brigades for example, units instead of an army. Who is part of the militia in Libya? Libyan militiamen are young men, all born between the 1980s and 1990s and many of them are former fighters of the Arab Spring who wanted the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. When they decided to fight and succeed in bringing down the dictatorship, they dreamed of freedom and had not imagined facing another eight years of wars and losses, familiar in many cases. They soon learned to have to defend themselves and adapt to a new Libyan context, where there is no longer the oppression of the regime, but there are many grey areas that have occupied freedom, where knowing who the enemy is and deciding whether to recognize him as such, is a daily and obligatory choice in many cases.

Since the end of the Arab Spring, the number of militiamen has grown year on year due to several factors: the absence of a national government that guarantees security and the provision of public services, the high rate of youth unemployment that clashes with the salaries that are guaranteed to militiamen, together with the possibility of earning money from the trafficking of oil, arms, drugs and men. In Libya, moreover, after the collapse of the regime and the beginning of continuous rivalries and struggles between the different tribes (between the Tubu and Zuwai tribes in the Cufra area, or between the Tubu and Awlad Slimane tribes in the Seba area, for example) and Libyan regional entities, the arms deposits organized by Gaddafi during his regime were stormed by the militiamen and even today, thanks to the illegal trafficking, the quantity of weapons available in the country is still very high. Although the country is divided into two zones of influence, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica with two respective governments, that of Sarraj and that of Haftar, we must not fall into the simplification of imagining the two zones as detached and non-communicating.

In Libya nothing is defined and immutable, every situation can be bent, corrupted. Even the militiamen are in this game, they adapt to the context, that's the only way to survive. There are groups of militias that formally support Haftar, while others declare themselves on the side of the Government of National Agreement of Sarraj, like the militia of Misurata that counts about 6,000 men, or the Zintan group of 4. 500 men, the 301 Battalion of 1,500, the Special Deterrence Force (RADA) of 1,500 men; the NASR militia (Zawiyya's Shuhada Nasr Brigade) and the Tripoli militia, TRB (Tripoli Revolutionaires Brigade) count 1,300 men. In the cities of Misurata and Sirte also operate the Bunyan al-Marsous (BAM) militia of 6,000 men; in the city of Tripoli, in addition to the TRB, there is the Abu Salim militia (800 men) which has its headquarters in the homonymous district south of the city. Near the port of Tripoli, instead, resides the Nawasi militia of 700 men who also deal with activities related to intelligence[1]. However, the front that divides the two areas of influence of the militias (those of Haftar and those of Sarraj) is very mobile: there are different militias that make the double game, those of Tripoli for example, who deal on one side with the official government of Tripoli and then organize meetings under the counter with the emissaries of Haftar, so as to adjust from time to time and decide which side to be on. The militias of the city of Sabrata also play on two levels: before the outbreak of the current civil war last April, the militia actually supported Haftar, while saying they were cooperating with the Sarraj government. Since the beginning of the war, however, the militias have rejected negotiations with Sarraj and officially support Haftar.

The leaders of the militia groups also recruit mercenaries, that is, fighters who are not Libyans, but are migrants from Senegal or Chad, who are trained in combat. In the city of Seba, for example, under the control of Haftar, the militias use the migrants in the detention centres to fight: they threaten them and force them to join the militia group. In particular, Sudanese migrants are involved because they speak Arabic and therefore understand Libyan militiamen: this happened in the detention centre of Kat bin Ashir, south of Tripoli and it was possible because Libyan law does not recognise the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. Instead, Libyan law provides that any person who enters the country illegally, i.e. without a passport, without a visa, without a letter of invitation into the country's borders, is sentenced sine die to stay in the detention centres, where migrants suffer violence, sexual abuse and severe and prolonged deprivation of basic needs.

Migrants are illegal immigrants because they have had to adapt (just like the militiamen) to a system of law that does not allow them to move and move around, except in an illegal way, since visas are not granted, except to those who have a certain bank account. The militias manage both the legal detention centres, therefore managed directly by the Libyan Ministry of the Interior, through the office in charge, the DCIM (Department of Anti-Clandestine Immigration), and the unofficial detention centres, whose number is very high, even if there are clearly no government data to help understand how many there are.

The militia chiefs who manage the detention centres are also in agreement with the Libyan Coast Guard, which officially deals with the fight against immigration and clandestine flows to Italy and Europe, and for this very reason receives huge funds. An example in this sense is the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Libya and Italy in February 2017 and renewed by tacit consent on November 2, 2017, in which Italy undertakes to finance and adapt the detention centers, but calling them "reception centers"[2], the same centers managed by the militias. The militias, therefore, which are armed combatants at the base, are perfectly placed within the chain of trafficking of migrant men, women and children: they control the Coast Guard, the detention centres and have men in the Ministries, both of the Interior and the DCIM offices. The militiamen, however, are the small fish of a precisely mafia system of corruption between the militias themselves and the palaces of power, between the Libyan and international mafias.

3. Focus: NASR militia

In order to better understand how the operational reality of a militia is organized, we will take into consideration the Nasr militia that operates in particular in the coastal city of Zawia (or Zawiya), east of Sabrata and about 60 km from Tripoli, in Tripolitania, in the area of influence of the Sarraj government. According to the final report of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya of 2017[1], the Nasr militia is mainly active in fuel smuggling, which is a prosperous activity, since the same militia also directly controls the oil refinery in western Libya. This allows it economic autonomy also for the purchase and sale of arms and for the management of the smuggling of migrants, one of the most profitable activities in the city of Zawia: in fact, there is an official detention centre (i.e. the Libyan Ministry of the Interior) managed and controlled directly by the Nasr militia.

Let's try to understand what the levels of organization of the Nasr militia are and to do so, we have to go back two years. In January 2017, during a public event, the president of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), Libyan national oil company, Mustafa Sanalla, appoints the head of the Pfg, the Guards of Western oil facilities, Mohamed Koshlaf, not only as an active part of the smuggling of fuel abroad, but accuses the men of his militia, Nasr, as dangerous criminals, engaged in international and economic crimes that damage the coffers of Libya, depriving it of millions of dinars of revenue. After a few months, Koshlaf's name also appears in the already mentioned Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, which defines the militia leader as one of the most powerful traffickers of men and fuel in the area. According to the Report[2], Koshlaf's brother Walid Koshlaf manages the financial part of the business. His cousin, as well as one of his most important collaborators, Abdul Rahman Milad (aka Bija) who fought the Arab Spring against Gaddafi and lost a brother during the fighting, is now head of the Libyan Coast Guard and has the task of intercepting boats carrying migrants when it comes to departures organized by rival militia clans, leaving only those managed by the Nasr brigade to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Report also mentions the name of Tareq al-Hengari, another member of the Coast Guard and the Nasr militia, who is accused of shooting at some boats loaded with migrants, causing the death of an unknown number of them[3]. The migrants who are captured by the Coast Guard have only one chance: to return from the place from which they left, that is the detention center in Zawia, naturally managed by the Nasr militia, in the person of Colonel Fathi al-Far.

The nucleus of the Nasr militia, which can count on 1,300 men, is therefore composed of three people, two brothers, Mohamed and Walid Koshlaf and their cousin, Bija. It is better to entrust them to family people, who thus make up the top of a well-organized pyramid, of which the militiamen are only the operational base. Every militia is well structured, and is itself part of a system, the Libyan one, much more opaque and well branched than what we can see, which touches not only national summits and reminds us of well known and closer mafia power and traffic systems than the Libyan one.

Every colonizing country, on the other hand, leaves its inheritance.


Adapting to a complex context_ between responsibilities and obligations of Libyan militias
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[1] J. Pack, Kingdom of Militias. Lybia’s second war of post-Qadhafi succession, ISPI Analysis, May 2019.

[2] J. Pack, Kingdom of Militias. Cit., p. 23-31. [3] Memorandum of understanding’s article 2

[4] UN Expert Panel on Libya’s final report, 1 june 2017

[5] Ibidem, p. 61

[6] Ibidem, p. 133


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