This paper explores armed group-community relations in Libya and the sources of revenue that have allowed armed groups to grow in power and influence. It draws out the implications for policy and identifies options for mitigating conflict dynamics.
Libya's multitude of armed groups have followed a range of paths since the emergence of a national governance split in 2014. Many have gradually demobilized, others have remained active, and others have expanded their influence. However, the evolution of the Libyan security sector in this period remains relatively understudied. Prior to 2011, Libya's internal sovereignty - including the monopoly on force and sole agency in international relations - had been personally vested in the figure of Muammar Gaddafi.
After his death, these elements of sovereignty reverted to local communities, which created armed organizations to fill that central gap. National military and intelligence institutions that were intended to protect the Libyan state have remained weak, with their coherence undermined further by the post-2014 governance crisis and ongoing conflict. As a result, the most effective armed groups have remained localized in nature; the exception is the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), which has combined and amalgamated locally legitimate forces under a central command.
In the west and south of the country, the result of these trends resembles a kind of inversion of security sector reform (SSR) and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR): the armed groups have used their state affiliation to co-opt the state and professionals from the state security apparatus into their ranks; and have continued to arm, mobilize and integrate themselves into the state's security apparatus without becoming subservient to it. In the eastern region, the LAAF projects a nationalist narrative yet is ultimately subservient to its leader, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The LAAF has co-opted social organizations to dominate political and economic decision-making.
The LAAF has established a monopoly over the control of heavy weapons and the flow of arms in eastern Libya, and has built alliances with armed groups in the east. Armed groups in the south have been persuaded to join the LAAF's newly established command structure.
The LAAF's offensive on the capital, which started in April 2019, represents a serious challenge to armed groups aligned with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The fallout from the war will be a challenge to the GNA or any future government, as groups taking part in the war will expect to be rewarded. SSR is thus crucial in the short term: if the GNA offers financial and technical expertise and resources, plus legal cover, to armed groups under its leadership, it will increase the incentive for armed groups to be receptive to its plans for reform.
Prevailing policy narratives presuppose that the interests of armed actors are distinct from those of the communities they claim to represent. Given the degree to which most armed groups are embedded in local society, however, successful engagement will necessarily rely on addressing the fears, grievances and desires of the surrounding communities. Yet the development of armed groups' capacities, along with their increasing access to autonomous means of generating revenue, has steadily diluted their accountability to local communities. This process is likely to be accelerated by the ongoing violence around Tripoli.
Communities' relationship to armed groups varies across different areas of the country, reflecting the social, political, economic and security environment:
Despite their clear preference for a more formal, state-controlled security sector, Tripoli's residents broadly accept the need for the presence of armed groups to provide security. The known engagement of the capital's four main armed groups in criminal activity is a trade-off that many residents seem able to tolerate, providing that overt violence remains low. Nonetheless, there is a widespread view that the greed of Tripoli's armed groups has played a role in stoking the current conflict.
In the east, many residents appear to accept (or even welcome) the LAAF's expansion beyond the security realm, provided that it undertakes these roles effectively. That said, such is the extent of LAAF control that opposition to the alliance comes at a high price.
In the south, armed groups draw heavily on social legitimacy, acting as guardians of tribal zones of influence and defenders of their respective communities against outside threats, while also at times stoking local conflicts. Social protections continue to hold sway, meaning that accountability within communities is also limited.
To varying extents since 2014, Libya's armed groups have developed networks that enmesh political and business stakeholders in revenue-generation models:
Armed groups in Tripoli have compensated for reduced financial receipts from state budgets by cultivating unofficial and illicit sources of income. They have also focused on infiltrating state institutions to ensure access to state budgets and contracts dispersed in the capital.
In the east of the country, the LAAF has developed a long-term strategy to dominate the security, political and economic spheres through the establishment of a quasi-legal basis for receiving funds from Libya's rival state authorities. It has supplemented this with extensive intervention in the private sector. External patronage supports military operations, but also helps to keep this financial system, based on unsecured debt, afloat.
In the south, limited access to funds from the central state has spurred armed groups to become actively involved in the economy. This has translated into the taxation of movement and the imposition of protection fees, particularly on informal (and often illicit) activity.
Without real commitment from international policymakers to enforcing the arms embargo and protecting the economy from being weaponized, Libya will be consigned to sustained conflict, further fragmentation and potential economic collapse. Given the likely absence of a political settlement in the short term, international policymakers should seek to curtail the continued expansion of the conflict economy by reducing armed groups' engagement in economic life.
In order to reduce illicit activities, international policymakers should develop their capacity to identify and target chokepoints along illicit supply chains, with a focus on restraining activities and actors in closest proximity to violence. Targeted sanctions against rent maximizers (both armed and unarmed) is likely to be the most effective strategy. More effective investigation and restraint of conflict economy actors will require systemic efforts to improve transparency and enhance the institutional capacity of anti-corruption authorities. International policymakers should also support the development of tailored alternative livelihoods that render conflict economy activities less attractive.
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Abdul Rahman Alageli
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Policy Leader Fellow, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute
Co-founder and CEO, Libya Outlook