By: Wolfram Lacher
On my visit to Libya’s war-torn capital in mid-June, a Libyan friend I’ll call Mohamed* helped arrange a meeting with two commanders in the Mahjub Brigade — one of the largest armed groups of Misrata, a port city 200km east of the capital. Mohamed was a fighter in the brigade and went along to the meeting, at the group’s rear base near the frontline, not far from the Tripoli International Airport. Much of the airport is controlled by hostile forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, who had launched an offensive to take control of Tripoli from the Government of National Accord (GNA), the internationally recognized government, in early April this year.
The Mahjub Brigade is one of at least eight forces of different local origins fighting Haftar’s forces at the international airport. Several of these forces stood in conflict with each other over the past years, and I was interested in understanding their relations with each other, and in corroborating information I had on tensions between them. Why, I asked, were the forces fighting against Haftar in Tripoli making so little progress?
The answers I got were similar to those in meetings with members and leaders of other armed groups. The war against Haftar had united western Libyan forces, they said, and there was no distrust between them. They had not prepared for the war and did not choose it. But after Haftar sought to capture Tripoli by force, they had no other choice but to fight. They were fighting with the weapons and ammunition they had seized from Muammar Qaddafi’s arsenals in 2011, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt had for years armed Haftar’s forces with advanced weaponry, and nighttime strikes by UAE drones made it difficult to advance. Nevertheless, they were confident they would eventually prevail. ‘Our sons are fighting at the front. Haftar’s sons are in Egypt.’
As we left the meeting, Mohamed shared a warier assessment. Ammunition was short, he said, and the government provided little support to the forces fighting on its behalf against Haftar. Why did the authorities not supply ammunition or compensate groups for vehicles that had been destroyed in the fighting, he asked? Did they seek to drag out the war? (Two days after the meeting, Mohamed suffered a minor eye injury when a bullet hit his vehicle. He was back at the front fighting two weeks later).
Mohamed’s doubts echoed those I heard from commanders in other groups fighting Haftar. The armed groups were reluctant using their own — substantial — stocks of ammunition. According to most interlocutors, the support the government mobilized from Turkey was negligible in comparison with the almost unlimited supplies available to Haftar’s forces. The commanders suspected the government of using the war to exhaust their arsenals, and sought to conserve large stocks of weapons for the eventuality that in the next phase of the conflict, they would need to defend their cities, or would turn to fighting each other.
During the 2011 war, Mohamed had been too young, but three of his four brothers fought against Qaddafi in Misrata. They did so alongside relatives, neighbours and friends from school, within armed groups that formed in their neighbourhood. When I first met his brother Omar* in November 2011, he was recovering from a leg injury he’d sustained during the war. After the fall of Qaddafi, they resumed their studies at school and university. Later, they married, had children and got jobs: a university lecturer, a bureaucrat in the local administration, a nurse. Two of the brothers mobilized briefly in the 2014 civil war before returning again to civilian life. Three joined the offensive against the Islamic State (IS)’s stronghold in Sirte, a bloody, seven-month-long conflict in 2016 that was mostly fought by forces from Misrata. Out of a sense of responsibility, though somewhat reluctantly, Omar retained a leading role in the force that secured Sirte after that war — despite the fact that most of the time, the government did not pay him or the rest of the force for this work.
The five brothers are quiet, modest, educated, and politically alert young men. The two currently fighting do not expect material gain. They are risking their lives — Misratan armed groups have already suffered heavy losses in the war — and their groups are depleting their vehicles and heavy weapons. Their families and neighbours staunchly back what they see as a struggle to prevent the establishment of a military dictatorship.
They are not an exception. Most fighters and commanders I talked to in the forces fighting Haftar are volunteers and seem genuinely dedicated to the cause. These forces largely come from the same tight-knit communities that supported the war against Qaddafi in 2011, and they have much of the same leadership. After 2011, their alliance dissolved into power struggles with ever more fleeting alignments. But although their current coalition is fragile, it is far from opportunistic: to them, Haftar represents much of what they fought against in 2011. This also applies to the local divides that have returned to the fore in the current war: Haftar’s forces from western Libya are mostly recruited from communities that experienced the 2011 war as a defeat and humiliation. Some of these communities had suffered forced displacement and other indiscriminate punishment at the hands of revolutionary forces.
Since 2011, Libya’s conflicts and its war economy have seen the rise of war entrepreneurs and predatory militias. Some of them are also part of the forces fighting Haftar, though they represent a small proportion of these forces, and would not have lasted long without the mobilization of large armed groups drawn from civilian volunteers. Such war entrepreneurs are already trying to exploit these forces’ demands for government funding and arms supplies for their personal gain. They are whipping up the widespread resentment among fighters and commanders over corruption and complacency in the government, gearing up for future political struggles.
But among these forces, there also seems to be a greater awareness than before that politicians had used them for their narrow ends in previous conflicts, and a determination not to let this happen again. There is also a pervasive aversion to Islamists — a legacy not only of the war against IS in Sirte, but also of what many see as the political opportunism of the moderate Islamist movements these forces had allied with in the 2011 and 2014 wars. Contrary to widespread misconceptions, the Islamist contingent among the forces opposing Haftar today is negligible.
If Haftar has no realistic prospect of bringing Tripoli under his control despite massive foreign backing, this is due primarily to the cohesion and resolve of these armed groups. But their sacrifices also lay the ground for new societal divides and political struggles. Just as these forces are deeply rooted in local communities, they also see some western Libyan towns as overwhelmingly supportive of Haftar. Other towns, such as Zintan or Sabratha, are deeply divided, with fighters participating in the war on both sides. The war has brought old rifts back to the fore and created new ones. Powerful new militias are likely to arise from it. Worse may yet be to come.
*Names have been changed
 In Arabic, they refer to themselves as the ‘Libyan Arab Armed Forces‘; in the western media, they are often identified as the so-called ‘Libyan National Army‘ or LNA.
Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and a frequent collaborator with the Security Assessment in North Africa, a project of the Small Arms Survey. This blog post is drawn from field research conducted as background for an upcoming Briefing Paper by Mr Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi. The Briefing Paper, about the conflict in Tripoli between forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar and those fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, will be released in August, 2019 and is a follow-up to Capital of Militias: Tripoli’s Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State.
Disclaimer: Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss issues of small arms and armed violence, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Small Arms Survey.