In the Chaos of Libya – Part 2 : The situation of the military

The situation of the military
by Marcello Ciola, Mediterranean Affairs

Soon after Qaddafi’s removal, around almost 200.000 armed people gathered around the streets and the squares of Libya for celebrating the end of the regime. The rebel militias were supposed to be integrated within the new Libyan military, through the compulsory conscription and the voluntary quittance of weapons. Indeed, someone believed that the jihadists, who also played a significant role in the overthrow of the Jamahiriya (‘State of the Masses’ or People’s Republic), would be then pushed back to the desert. Even better, they thought that the jihadists could be defeated by the new Libyan state with the (purported) support of the US or of the EU.
Unfortunately, things did not go on as the National Transitional Council of Libya expected. As a result, the current government is now facing an unprecedented crisis – especially due to the lack of territorial control owing, indeed, to the chaotic situation within the military domain.
Which actors are involved, for better or for worse, consciously or not, in this chaotic situation? Which links put them together and which are the points of conflict? Which relationships exist between the above mentioned ones and the institutions, both national and international? What is the current military scenario in Libya and which are the instruments that the international and Italian political actors can adopt to this regards?

©Hamza Turkia/Xinhua Press/Corbis.  Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli

©Hamza Turkia/Xinhua Press/Corbis. Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli

In the next paragraphs, we will be trying to answer these few questions in order to better understand the central relevance of the Libyan ‘issue’ for the Mediterranean and European politics.
A conspicuous number of actors is active on the Libyan territory. We can group them in three macro areas but, still, it would be very hard to make precise distinctions as it not that unusual to have sometimes militias responding to Libyan institutions – like those asking for the defense of the 2011 revolution against the fundamentalist groups – or that are directly financed by these institutions. At the same time, it is not often clearly comprehensible how far these groups are from the jihadists’ ideas. In brief, the government forces and the paramilitary formations are the extremities of a continuum which has essentially two factors in common: the loyalty to the current Libyan institutions and the ‘degree of Islamization’.
At one extreme of this continuum, we can find the Libyan army which counts around 35.000 units, mainly former deserters of the foregoing army of Jamahiriya and groups of rebel militias that after the revolution of 2011 have abandoned their weapons for pursuing their activity within the Libyan institutions framework. Thus, the Libyan military apparatus still detains some remnants of the former Libyan army’s equipment, which was mainly bought from the USSR, but also from Italy, the US, China and others.
Parallel to the army, there is also a special force of 5.000 units, including in particular paramilitary organizations, called Al-Saiqa. This elitist group has rebelled to the Qaddafi regime and played a central role both in causing the fall of the Qaddafi’s regime and in the defense of Benghazi in summer 2013 and for all the 2014 as well.
The Al Saiqa’s establishment is much more ancient than 2011: in fact, it dates back to the 90s’ when it helped to prevent the rebellion of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Its role has determined the current rivalry with the fundamentalist groups connected to Al-Qaeda e AQIM. Not only Al-Saiqa has been perpetually clashing with the qaedist forces, but also its relationship with the police has been complicated. The latter, in fact, has not accepted that Al-Saiqa plays a role replicating the police’s, particularly in the fight against terrorism, and overcoming – thanks to its effectiveness – the Security National Direction’s. Furthermore, although Al-Saiqa’s forces are inferior in number, their training and equipment is better than the others’. Both Al-Saiqa and the Libyan army had frictions with the Libyan Shield Force (LS), a rather numerous organization, divided into brigades, of Islamic inspiration and distributed along the northern stripe of the Libyan coast.
The LS is a border-line organization between pro-governmental and pro-qaedist and fundamentalist groups. Sometimes its formations stood on the Libyan government’s side while, others, with the jihadists, in particular with Ansar al-Sharia and the brigades of Misrata. In collaboration with the latter, it contributed to the establishment of the Islamic emirate of Benghazi after days of violent clashes with the Al-Saiqa forces.
Among the other forces under governmental control, we can count the anti-crime unit, the Special Deterrence Force of Tripoli (the SDF, which had several problems with the local population); Joint security operations room and the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). The latter is a militia of masterpiece importance: it is formally controlled by the Ministry of Petroleum and financed by the Ministry of Defense; it includes at around 20.000 units of which only a little part – one tenth – has been trained by the Libyan army, while the others belong to the Ibrahim Al-Jathran militias (which is also a notorious political leader in Cyrenaica).
The latter, being the ‘tutor of the oil production’, obtained from the government the authorization to create his own oil company, ‘the Libyan Oil and Gas Corporation’. Al-Jathran did not hesitate to use the energy weapon for influencing the state politics and foreign companies working in the energy resources domain, in particular of ENI which is forced to stand the PFG’S vagaries.
Among the revolutionary militias which we have mentioned so far, we can find the Libya Revolutionaries Joint Operations Room (LRJOR), founded in 2013 thanks to an executive order the President of the Libyan Parliament, Nouri Abusahmain, with the aim of protecting the public order in Tripoli. Officially, these militias should respond to the Ministry of Defense; nonetheless, they have always acted independently: in fact, they have also been involved in the attempted coup d’état of 2013, which was followed their removal.

©Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. Libya’s foreign minister, Mohamed Abdel Aziz.

©Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. Libya’s foreign minister, Mohamed Abdel Aziz.

After a few weeks, the LRJOR came back to Tripoli and also to Benghazi in order to continue defending the revolution with the army. However, although it tried to ‘normalize’ the militias, refused to recognize the LRJOR’s role of tutor of the public order, especially for what concerns its brigade in Benghazi.
Among the above mentioned Islamic militias, we must also mention the Brigade of Al-Qaqaa which counts around 18.000 men and which is considered as one of the most important in Libya; the Al-Sawaiq Brigade, being very close to the Libyan army as well as the jihadist Rafallah al-Sahati. There is one difference: while As-Sawaiq has remained very faithful to the government during the disorders of the last months, Al-Sahati allied with the jihadists which took Bengasi. Tightly connected to the qaedist group of Ansar Al-Sharia, there is also the Omar Al-Mukhtar Brigade, inspired by the resistance of the homonym Libyan hero during the Ital-Turkish war of 1911-1912 and during the Italian colonization operations of 1935-1936.
During the last years, among the western block, leaded by NATO, some military bodies of several Member states to the Atlantic Pact gave assistance and trained the Libyan military. In the forefront there was the US, followed by the UK, France, Italy and Turkey. The greatest part of the training took place in Bulgaria at the end of 2013. Unfortunately, the training program did not obtain the expected results as the independence that some militias revenged face the central government triggered the instability within the army.
Thus, NATO did not have enough time for reinforcing the defense and anti-terrorism capacities of the Libyan military body. Therefore, the government control on the militias fell and, together with the almost inexistent political authority, it provoked the increase in political relevance of the jihadist/qaedist forces.
Resulting from the defeat of the forces of Al-Saiqa in Benghazi, which turned out in the worsening of the internal political situation, the international actors moved their personnel to Tunisia or brought it back home. The western military involvement in Libya, after its initial support to the rebels against Qaddafi, ended up as a negative sum game: who expected a huge advantage following to the regime’s fall (especially the US and France), had to face actually a undesirable situation due to the military instability especially around Tripoli and Benghazi, which affects also and in particular the border of the Libyan state where the commerce of weapons with the militias and the terrorist groups is concentrated. While the western (and Mediterranean) powers are seemingly losing the Libyan match, Qatar, on the contrary, seems winning.

Last June, General Khalifa Haftar accused the Qatar’s government of financing the rebel groups for avoiding the Libyan state to become strong once again. Moreover, the General stated that the position of Sudan with regard to Libya is not clear while Egypt Chad, Niger, Mali, Algeria and Tunisia are collaborating with the government (elected on June 25th but not installed yet).
On one hand, The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Federica Mogherini, underlined the importance of a stable installment of the Libyan Government, on the other, the Undersecretary of State, Mr. Marco Minniti, asked for the international community’s intervention. Also Mr. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s Prime Minister, shared the latter’s claim, and addressed for this purpose the UN attaché to whom he suggested, indeed, the establishment of a Roma-Cairo axis to solve the military (besides economics, political and humanitarian) emergence.
According to the data, arming the Libyan army and supporting the establishment of a western-oriented democratic government could not be sufficient for the stability purpose: this system, founded on diplomatic and soft power means, triggered the military ‘egoisms’ of the clans and tribes affiliated to various jihadist groups or militias (a similar effect was obtained in the past in Somalia). The paradox is that, in order to provide the sought stability to the country, it would be necessary to give the power to another Qaddafi (like in Egypt, where Al-Sisi took the power as a new ‘Mubarak’).
Italy does not have, unfortunately, the diplomatic, economic and military means for changing this Somali-like path in Libya. However, Italy could ask for the establishment of an internationally-funded, Mediterranean task force which would take charge of the stability in Libya and, therefore, of the whole Mediterranean area. The chances of success of this solution highly depend on the timing of the intervention: we cannot wait any longer as the European and Mediterranean stability highly depends on the (lack) of military stability in Libya.