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 Presidential Council – the body that acts collectively as head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces – in December 2015. Several types of actors scramble for power in today’s Libya: armed groups; “city-states”, particularly in western and southern Libya; and tribes, which are particularly relevant in central and eastern Libya.
At the moment Libya has three centres of power. The first is the Presidential Council (PC), which has been based in Tripoli since 30 March 2016. The PC is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj – a former member of the Tobruk Parliament, where he represented a Tripoli constituency – and it was borne out of the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015. According to this agreement, the PC presides over the Government of National Accord (GNA), also based in Tripoli. The GNA should be endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) according to the agreement, but on two occasions the HoR has voted down the list of ministers.
The second centre of power is the rival Government of National Salvation headed by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell – resting on the authority of a rump of the General National Congress (GNC), the resurrected parliament originally elected in 2012 – is also based in Tripoli, although it no longer controls any relevant institutions. In October 2016, Ghwell tried to reassert himself but failed to gain wider support. The vast majority of the members of the GNC (also known as the “Tripoli Parliament”) have been moved across to the State Council, a consultative body created under the LPA which convenes in Tripoli and is headed by Abdul Rahman Swehli, a Misratan politician (and HoR member) who had previously been threatened with EU individual sanctions.
The third centre of power is made up of the authorities based in Tobruk and al-Bayda, which were also supposed to work under the LPA. The House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk would become the legitimate legislative authority under the LPA but it has so far failed to pass a valid constitutional amendment to enshrine itself as an authoritative institution. Instead the HoR has endorsed the rival government of Abdullah al-Thinni which operates from the eastern Libyan city of al-Bayda. The Tobruk and al-Bayda authorities are under the control of Egypt-aligned, self-described anti-Islamist general Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA). The HoR has held only two quorate meetings throughout 2016 to reject the government line-up proposed by the PC.
Prime Minister al-Sarraj is not a strong figure on his own, but some of the other eight members that make up his Presidential Council have close links to powerful stakeholders.
His deputy, Ahmed Maiteeq, who served a short stint as prime minister of Libya before being hit by a court ruling, represents the powerful city-state of Misrata, which is the biggest backer of the GNA from both a political and military standpoint, though some elements in the city remain opposed to it. Misrata’s militias were a crucial component in the downfall of Gaddafi and are still one of the two most relevant military forces in the country, having taken the lead in the fight against ISIS in Sirte.
Another important deputy is Ali Faraj al-Qatrani who represents General Haftar, who in turn heads the LNA – the other large military force. Al-Qatrani has previously boycotted meetings of the PC on the grounds that it is not inclusive enough, and has publicly called for military rule under the LNA.
Another member of the Presidential Council, Omar Ahmed al-Aswad, who represents the town-state of Zintan in western Libya, has boycotted the meetings of the PC but has recently decided to rejoin. Zintan played an important role in the fall of Gaddafi-controlled Tripoli in 2011 and has good relations today with the UAE.
A third deputy is Abdessalam Kajman who aligned with the Justice and Construction Party of which the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest component while another deputy Musa al-Kuni represents southern Libya.
Finally, Mohammed Ammari represents the pro-GNA faction within the GNC (the “Tripoli parliament”), and Fathi al-Majburi who was once an ally of the Facilities Guards (PFG) commander Ibrahim Jadhran until he was dislodged from key eastern oil ports by the LNA.
Two other institutions are based in Tripoli and play a major role in Libya’s politics. The Central Bank of Libya, which is where oil money is paid and government money is disbursed. Though pledging loyalty to the PC, it has had an uneasy relationship with it. The National Oil Corporation (NOC) is also formally loyal to the PC but has had relatively good working relations with Heftar’s LNA after its seizure of eastern oil ports.
The speaker of the General National Congress Nouri Abusahmain and the prime minister of the “Government of National Salvation”, Khalifa Ghwell, come from the cities of Zwara and Misrata respectively. Their military support base is the Steadfastness Front (Jabhat al-Samud) of Salah Badi. While they have received some weapons from Turkey in the past, they were never controlled or influenced by Ankara. Initially they represented the Libya Dawn coalition which included Islamists, the city-state of Misrata, and several other western cities (including parts of the Amazigh minority). Both Ghwell and Abusahmain have been hostile to the PC and have been subjected to sanctions by the EU because of this. Their support base has gradually shrunk, although they still retain some capacity to disrupt al-Sarraj’s activities here and there – as Ghwell’s taking over of some buildings in Tripoli in October illustrated. They have the power to be particularly disruptive if popular support for him decreases, or if some of the militias now supporting him decide to switch sides.
The link between Khalifa Haftar – the head of the HoR-aligned armed forces – and the Speaker of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Saleh Issa, is very strong. Haftar rules from his headquarters in Marj (in eastern Libya) and has strong military control over both the al-Bayda government and the HoR in Tobruk. Also because of Haftar’s popular support in eastern Libya, very little happens in the HoR without his approval. In 2016, Haftar’s forces made significant advances in Benghazi both against the Islamist-dominated Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council and the Islamic State group (ISIS), with his opponents now limited to pockets of territory in the city.
The Tobruk centre of power has also established its own Central Bank and its own NOC which are not recognised on international markets and which were supposed to merge with their Tripoli counteparts. The merger has, so far, not happened.
While al-Sarraj’s support base is now concentrated mostly in the west and in the south of the country, his attempts to expand influence in the east were dealt a blow when the LNA dislodged the PC’s powerful ally there, PFG commander Ibrahim Jadhran, from the oil terminals he had long controlled. A controversial figure, Jadhran fought against the militias from the city of Misrata in the past and is criticised by many Libyans for instigating and upholding a blockade of oil fields between 2013 and 2014. For this reason, his dismissal by the LNA was widely welcomed. Many of the PFG subsequently defected to the LNA. A smaller number remain loyal to Jadhran.
Also called Tandhim ad-Dawla (the Organisation of the State) by Libyans, ISIS controlled the central Mediterranean coast of Libya around the city of Sirte until a Misratan-led operation to uproot it began in May. ISIS has carried out attacks in all major Libyan cities, including the capital Tripoli. ISIS has also had a presence in other parts of Libya, including Benghazi, where it was largely defeated by Heftar’s LNA. Its affiliates have mostly been driven out from the towns of Derna and Sabratha by anti-Haftar forces.
No other Arab country plays as powerful a role in Libya as Egypt. Testament to Egypt’s involvement in the region is the regular travel Libyan leaders make to Cairo. The relationship between Tobruk and Egypt is not just defined by significant arms deliveries but also by a shared political project: eradicating political Islam and enhancing the autonomy of eastern Libya. For Egypt, according to some authors, having Cyrenaica – the eastern region of Libya – under the role of a leader that is friendly to Egypt (Haftar for instance) would create a buffer zone with ISIS and a territorial hinterland for any opposition to the regime in Cairo.
Nevertheless, over time Egypt has put out at least two statements that contradict this position. On the one hand, diplomats and the MFA have given assurances of their support to the UN-led political process; on the other, the security apparatus has supported Haftar, even when it was clear that he was on a collision course with UN-backed unity efforts.
Although sharing some of the same goals as Egypt, the UAE has a more nuanced position on the situation in Libya. Reportedly, it has been more supportive of UN negotiations and ultimately less engaged on Libya since its intervention in Yemen. Nevertheless, Emirati weapons are still delivered to both Haftar and the militias of the city-state of Zintan, according to a report from a UN panel of experts. Moreover, the UAE’s political influence should not be underestimated. Aref al-Nayed, who was Libyan ambassador to Abu Dhabi until he resigned in October, was key to the UAE’s role in Libya and was even touted as potential prime minister at one point.
Neither Turkey nor Qatar have the same level influence on the Government of National Salvation and its allies that Egypt and the UAE have on the Tobruk side. Turkish companies have, according to the UN panel of experts, delivered weapons to one side (the defunct Libya Dawn coalition) and Qatar has maintained links with one Libyan politician and former jihadist – Abdelhakim Belhadj – since 2011. Yet none of the major Libyan actors respond to input from Ankara or Doha the way that Tobruk aligns itself with Cairo’s policies.
The two Maghrebian countries, while having a high level of interest in what happens in Libya, have not built a network of proxies in the country like other Arab or regional powers. Both countries have been vocal supporters of reconciliation and a political solution while closely coordinating with each other to contain the spillover from ISIS’ presence in Libya.
The terms “army” and “militia” mean different things to different Libyans and this is one of the consequences of the political power struggle that has roiled Libya since 2014.
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.
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 Misrata, and fighters from other parts of western Libya, including from the Amazigh minority. It had fractured long before the UN-brokered deal aimed at establishing a unity government was signed late last year, 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 Fayez al-Sarraj that is currently trying to find its feet in the capital. For now, most are either explicitly supportive of, or ambivalent towards, the unity government. Those in the latter category have been waiting to see if their interests will be maintained under the new dispensation. One of the most important figures supporting the new government is AbdelRauf 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. Kara’s men are currently forming a counter-terrorism unit with members of army special forces in western Libya who refused to join Haftar. 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 Haitham Tajouri, who heads the city’s largest militia. Tajouri, whose forces have 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, and for now he remains largely ambivalent about the unity government.
A number of other Tripoli militias, some of which have links to figures from the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), are sceptical of the unity government and recently clashed with Kara and Tajouri’s forces.
Long-standing tensions between associates of the Tripoli-based Mufti Sheikh Sadeq al-Gheriani, and adherents of a particular strand of Salafism inspired by a Saudi sheikh called Rabee al-Madkhali, have increased in recent months. Colloquially known as Madkhalis, they detest the Muslim Brotherhood and all forms of political Islam. As a result, many Madkhalis joined Khalifa 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 October of Nader al-Omrani, a member of the Mufti’s Dar al-Ifta, was blamed on Madkhalis, who have made clear their doctrinal disagreements with the Mufti.
The prosperous port city of Misrata is home to Libya’s largest and most powerful militias. Misrata is not as cohesive as its residents sometimes claim. 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. Misratan forces comprise the largest component of Bunyan al Marsous (BAM), the coalition formed in May to take on ISIS in Sirte. It declared victory against ISIS in early December. Hundreds from Misrata have been killed in the battle for Sirte. BAM forces also include the 604 Battalion, formed mostly by Madkhali Salafists from across western Libya, including Sirte.
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.
Zintan’s militias, in light of the losses they suffered in 2014, have been assessing how they might fit into the changing order, and the town has maintained an ambiguous relationship with the PC. A number of Zintani forces have distanced themselves from Haftar – particularly those close to former defence minister Osama Juwaili – while others remain supportive. For example, the Sawaiq militia, led by Emad Trabelsi, turned up in the oil crescent in late 2016 where they are working with Haftar’s LNA. Militiamen from Zintan have been responsible for the shutting of vital pipelines linking the Sharara and El Feel oil fields in southwestern Libya to coastal terminals since late 2014, costing over $20 billion in lost revenues, according to the National Oil Corporation.
Fighting continues in Benghazi between the forces that joined Haftar’s Operation Dignity and their opponents, though the latter have been squeezed into a handful of districts after Dignity forces recently took control of more territory in the city’s western flank, including the symbolic Gwarsha checkpoint. Key to the anti-Dignity camp is the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), an umbrella group comprising a number of Islamist and self-described revolutionary factions, which is supported by patrons in Misrata. It also includes the UN-designated jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia. The BRSC fights alongside ISIS against Haftar’s forces. It has experienced internal tensions over its relationship with ISIS, and some of its backers have pushed for the BRSC to distance itself from the group.The BRSC’s ranks have been 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 is comprised of a number of anti-Haftar army and police personnel plus militiamen of various political stripes including hardline Islamists. The group – which has been endorsed by Tripoli-based Mufti Sheikh
Sadeq al-Gheriani – has engaged with Haftar’s forces around eastern oil fields and infrastructure. It faces accusations that some within its ranks maintain ambiguous links with extremists despite attempts to present a “moderate” face while fighting under the national flag. The BDB draws support from Benghazi residents who have been driven from the city or lost property, land and businesses as a result of Haftar’s operation.
Both the Dignity and anti-Dignity camps in Benghazi continue to experience internal rifts. Within the Dignity camp, which comprises army units, militias and armed civilians, the most important actor is the military special forces unit, known as Saiqa. The Saiqa is led by Wanis Bukhamada, a popular figure in the city. Some Dignity commanders in Benghazi have been critical of Haftar’s leadership, including Mahdi al-Barghathi, the designated defence minister of the unity government. Also of concern to many residents are the hardline Madkhali Salafist fighters that joined Haftar’s coalition in 2014 and have been empowered as a result, taking over mosques and other institutions.
Once present in several regions of Libya, the PFG has fallen apart as a national entity and until September 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 September, 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 number have remained loyal to Jathran, who is trying to gather allies in a bid to recapture the terminals.
Libya is home to a range of jihadist groups, from the Islamic State group (ISIS) to al Qaeda-linked groups, to other Salafi-jihadi factions. Some are wholly indigenous and rooted in particular locales while others – particularly ISIS affiliates – include many foreigners at both leadership and rank and file level.
Libya’s jihadist network can be divided along generational lines, starting with those who emerged in the 1980s. Many from that older generation fought against Soviet-backed forces in Afghanistan. These veterans later created a number of groups in opposition to Muammar Gaddafi, the largest of which was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which is now defunct. Several former LIFG figures, including its final leader, Abdelhakim Belhadj, played key roles in the 2011 uprising and went on to participate in the country’s democratic transition, forming political parties, running in elections, and serving as deputy ministers in government as in the case of Khaled Sherif at the Ministry of Defence. This did not sit well with the second and third generation of jihadists – among the former were those who fought in Iraq after 2003, among the latter were those who fought in Syria after 2011 – who lean towards more radical ideologies and reject democracy as un-Islamic. The Libyans that have joined ISIS tend to come from the second and third generations.
Local returnees from Syria helped form Libya’s first ISIS affiliate in the eastern town of Derna in 2014. Many had fought as part of ISIS’s al-Battar unit in northern Syria before returning home to replicate the model with help from senior non-Libyan ISIS figures. The leadership of ISIS in Libya has always been dominated by foreigners. Its leader earlier this year was Abd al-Qadir al-Najdi, whose name suggests Saudi origins. He replaced an Iraqi whom the US claims it killed in an airstrike in eastern Libya in 2015.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recognised the presence of ISIS in Libya in late 2014, declaring three wilayats or provinces: Barqa (eastern Libya), with Derna as its headquarters; Tarablus (Tripoli), with Sirte as its headquarters; and Fezzan (southwestern Libya).
ISIS was driven from its first headquarters in Derna in 2015 by a coalition of forces which included the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an umbrella group comprising fighters led by local jihadists including LIFG veterans, who joined with army personnel who had rejected Khalifa Haftar and his Operation Dignity campaign. The same alliance later routed ISIS from its remaining redoubts on the outskirts of the town.
In early 2015, ISIS began to build its presence in Sirte, which was Gaddafi’s former hometown and one of the regime's last hold-outs. Prominent ISIS cleric Turki al-Binali and other senior figures visited Sirte as the group began to consolidate control. It did so by reaching out to locals who felt aggrieved over the city’s marginalisation in post-Gaddafi Libya. However, the group met some resistance as a number of residents attempted an uprising, which was then brutally quashed. ISIS tried to impose a system of governance on the city, using public executions to instill fear. Sirte became ISIS’ stronghold in Libya until May 2016 when a coalition of Misrata-dominated forces known as Bunyan al-Marsous (BAM) declared war on the affiliate there. The BAM operation, which was accompanied by over 400 US air strikes on ISIS targets in and around Sirte, declared victory in early December.
ISIS also had a smaller presence on the outskirts of Sabratha, a coastal town in western Libya, until a combination of US airstrikes and attacks by local forces – including former jihadists from that first generation – managed to uproot the militants earlier this year. In Benghazi, those fighting Haftar’s Operation Dignity include Libyan and foreign members of ISIS. Although Sirte was the group’s ostensible base, ISIS sleeper cells operate in Tripoli and other cities and towns in Libya. While the Pentagon estimated there were over 6,000 ISIS fighters in Libya prior to the BAM operation, the UN and many Libyans believed that the actual number was much lower. Many of these fighters fled Sirte before BAM forces entered the city, and in one of three directions: south-west towards Sebha, west towards Sabratha and south-east towards the border with Sudan. Others may have gone underground in different Libyan cities, raising the prospect of ISIS mounting an insurgency-style campaign in future.
Formed in 2012 by former revolutionary fighters calling for the immediate imposition of sharia law, Ansar al-Sharia’s first branch was set up in Benghazi, but affiliates have also emerged in towns such as Derna, Sirte and Ajdabiya. While Ansar al-Sharia’s leadership tended to be drawn from Libya’s second generation of jihadists, the majority of its rank and file were from the generation that came after it. The UN put Ansar al-Sharia on its al-Qaeda sanctions list in 2014, describing it as a group associated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Mourabitoun. Both groups mentioned also have a presence in Libya, both in the south and central/eastern regions, largely through Libyans who once worked with them elsewhere, particularly in Algeria, before returning home after Gaddafi was ousted.
Ansar al-Sharia has run training camps for foreign fighters, including a significant number of Tunisians, travelling to Syria, Iraq and Mali. Individuals associated with Ansar al-Sharia participated in the September 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
While they are, at the core, an armed group, Ansar al-Sharia adopted a strategy between 2012 and 2014 that focused on preaching and charitable work to build popular support and drive recruitment. As a result, it became the largest jihadist organisation in Libya, with its main branch being stationed in Benghazi.
In response to Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity, Ansar al-Sharia’s Benghazi unit merged with other militias to form the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) in summer 2014. While Ansar al-Sharia is now the dominant force in the BRSC coalition, it has experienced internal disarray due to the deaths of senior figures – including founder Mohammed Zahawi. It has also suffered the loss of a number of members through defection to ISIS. Other Ansar al-Sharia units across the country experienced an uptick in defections as ISIS began to expand in Libya. As ISIS tried to further co-opt existing networks, tensions grew between it and Ansar al-Sharia (and by extension with the latter’s associates in AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun) as they competed for members and territory. However, in Benghazi they still fight together against Haftar’s forces. The rivalry between ISIS – though the group is now significantly weakened – and al-Qaeda associated groups like Ansar al-Sharia is likely to define Libya’s jihadist milieu for the forseeable future.