With this post of our series on the war in Libya, and the next, we shall examine the pro-Islamist Libyan actors, including Islamist groups, militias from Misrata, the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, and their regional supporters – Qatar and Turkey, after having focused previously on the Nationalist forces and the internationally recognized Council of Representatives in Tobruk (see Nationalist Forces I & Nationalist Forces II).
The complexity and lethality of Libya’s civil war is steadily increasing for a host of reasons. As underlined previously (Mitchell, “Features of a War”), the Libyan conflict is not easily categorized. As far as ideological affiliation is concerned, for example, several Islamist militias in Libya hold to a Salafi-jihadist ideology. However, Seth G. Jones of the Rand Corporation stresses that “While there are some similarities among Salafi-jihadists, there are also substantial differences. Salafi-jihadist leaders and groups often disagree about the size and global nature of their desired emirate…” (Jones, February 4, 2014). This is the case with the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and the Shura Council of Islamic Youth in Derna (see State of play – Islamist forces 2, forthcoming). The General National Congress, the government in Tripoli to which the Council of Representatives is opposed, is a primary variable in the war, however support and allegiance to it are varying. In general, the major Islamist militias have joined one of three coalitions: Dawn of Libya (Western Libya) – a faction independent from the GNC (Blanchard, Congressional Research Service, September 8, 2014), to which it nevertheless gave its political and military support – the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (Benghazi), and the Mujahideen Shura Council (Derna). Yet, other groups are also involved in the war, while affiliations may shift. Meanwhile, other interests also interact. Regional powers are involved with what can be loosely defined as “the Islamic side”, but in various ways. Qatar is directly supporting the Dawn of Libya with arms shipments, while Turkey is suspected of politically supporting the GNC – both of which will be covered in the next post. Finally, we have supra-national and supra-regional dynamics at work as a result of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State elements at play.
Considering the intricacy of Islamic forces and their ideologies is crucial to understanding the Libyan civil war and should not be oversimplified – even more so if we want to foresee its plausible futures. In this post and the next one, we shall examine all three Islamist coalitions, focusing first on the primarily Islamist yet democratic and pro-revolutionary forces of Dawn of Libya, then on the mainly Salafi-jihadists of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, and finally on the forces in Derna, the Mujahideen Shura Council, as well as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State elements in Libya. We shall mainly focus on the primary militias, and present the regional actors involved.
Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) handed power to the newly elected General National Congress on August 8, 2012 (Tripoli Post; February 8, 2012). Although the NTC-established mandate provided authority to the GNC until February 7, 2014 (an 18-months term), the GNC extended its term to the end of 2014 because it failed to accomplish any of its established mandates (see “Features of a War”; Engel, Washington Institute, May 20, 2014; House of Representatives). This caused many Libyans to demand the resignation of the General National Congress and engage in countrywide protests on February 7, 2014 (Megerisi, Carnegie Endowment, February 25, 2014; House of Representatives).
Facing immense pressure in the forms of protests, militia threats of removal by force, and threats to arrest GNC politicians, the GNC decided in May 2014 to allow elections on June 25, 2014 (Ibid.). It then “decided to replace itself by a new elected body called…‘The Council of Representatives’,” which would function as a “temporary, transitional council” until the drafting of a new Libya constitution (House of Representatives). The newly elected Council of Representatives took over on August 4, 2014, effectively replacing the General National Congress (Ibid.).
Disgruntled Islamist members of Libya’s parliament then “decided to boycott the sessions held in Tobruk” – which influenced subsequent actions by Islamist militias, such as those that would form Dawn of Libya (Morajea, Middle East Eye, September 11, 2014).
Haftar’s Operation Dignity was launched in May 2014, after the GNC’s expired term, with both military and political objectives. Militarily, Haftar and his forces plan to eliminate radical Islamist groups, but politically, they aim to dissolve the power of Islamist political groups (such as the Muslim Brotherhood), which remain in the illegitimate GNC – as evidenced by his storming of a GNC session in May 2014 to forcibly demand its “suspension” (Mahjar-Barducci, Gatestone Institute, June 13, 2014; Engel, Ibid.). As a result, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (formed June 20, 2014), Dawn of Libya (formed July 2014), and the recently created Mujahideen Shura Council (December 2014) rose up in response to Operation Dignity, although only Dawn of Libya backs the General National Congress (see below).
“Militias allied to Islamist politicians led offensives in the country’s two largest cities in hopes of reclaiming control by more forceful means, after losing the battle on the political table.” – Hassan Morajea, Middle East Eye, September 11, 2014.
After Dawn of Libya – a coalition of Islamist and Misrata militias – refused the legitimacy of the Council of Representatives, and opposed “inclusion of ex-regime officials into the new political order” (Wehrey, Lawfare, December 17, 2014) – took control of Tripoli, Misrata militias “requested that the GNC be reinstated in the HoR’s [House/Council of Representatives] stead” (Morajea, ibid.). The former General National Congress has since reestablished itself as a rival government with Omar al-Hassi as its Prime Minister (Ibid; Al Jazeera, August 25, 2014).
Here, we see the three coalitions’ common enemy is Haftar and Operation Dignity, but we also see the main split in the Libyan Islamists – with Dawn of Libya pursuing combined military-political objectives (outlined below) and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and the Mujahideen Shura Council, as well as other groups, pursuing jihadist-aligned agendas (discussed in next post).
Additional splits naturally exist in the General National Congress, particularly between the National Forces Alliance and the Justice and Construction Party (Muslim Brotherhood affiliate). The National Forces Alliance (NFA) is considered a “liberal” party (“National Forces Alliance,” Berkley Center) while the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), is often considered the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) (Heneghan, Reuters, August 23, 2013; Ajbaili, Al-Arabiya, May 6, 2014).
Although affiliated with the Brotherhood and incorporating MB members, the Justice and Construction Party is “structurally independent” from the Muslim Brotherhood and presents itself as “independent and open to everyone” (Fitzgerald, Foreign Policy, May 1, 2014). The Brotherhood-affiliated political party entered the scene in March 2012, but lost the 2012 elections to the NFA (Ibid, Heneghan, Reuters, August 23, 2013; Ajbaili, Al-Arabiya, May 6, 2014). Recently, the NFA’s power and unity have drastically declined as a result of political fighting within its ranks (Fitzgerald, Foreign Policy, May 1, 2014).
Despite the weakening of its rival, the JCP’s public support base has not significantly improved, even though it is the leading political party of the illegitimate GNC in Tripoli (Daily News Egypt, December 28, 2014). A “Brotherhood-heavy” upper echelon in the JCP and regional “setbacks” for the main Muslim Brotherhood group has contributed to the widespread public skepticism of the JCP’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood (Fitzgerald, Foreign Policy, May 1, 2014). Mary Fitzgerald describes the Muslim Brotherhood dynamic in Libya’s new civil war:
“The association with the Brotherhood has proved a burden in a country where many conflate Islamists who engage with the political process with radicals who denounce democracy altogether.” – Mary Fitzgerald, Foreign Policy, May 1, 2014.
Meanwhile, the United Nations is in the process of holding peace talks – mediated by UN Special Libya Envoy Bernadino Leon – between elements of Dawn of Libya, the Council of Representatives in Tobruk, and members of the General National Congress (Charbonneau, Reuters, December 23, 2014; Laessing, Reuters, December 8, 2014). Started in September, the negotiations have largely stalled (Charbonneau, Reuters, December 23, 2014), but renewed efforts will take place on January 5, 2015 to discuss three vital elements to a Libyan roadmap for peace: “a national unity government, stabilizing the country through cease-fires of militias and a new constitution” (Ibid.).
In order to bring these three parties to the peace talks, Leon has strayed from the official UN recognition of the Council of Representatives’ legitimacy by choosing not to recognize the legitimacy of any party (Fetouri, Al-Monitor, December 8, 2014). However, considering the complexity of the situation in Libya and the existence of parties not represented at the Peace Talks it is likely that the negotiations will not fully succeed.
The Primarily-Islamist yet Democratic and Pro-Revolutionary Forces: Dawn of Libya (Fajr Libya)
The Dawn of Libya coalition in Western Libya, also known as Fajr Libya, launched Operation Libya Dawn (a counter-offensive to Haftar’s Operation Dignity) in July 2014. It is an umbrella group for both Islamist militias and regional militias – such as the Misrata Brigades.
Its ideology can be considered both Islamist-leaning and pro-revolutionary in that it supports the Brotherhood-dominated GNC and is actively opposed to the “inclusion of ex-regime officials into the new political order” (Wehrey, Lawfare, December 17, 2014). Dawn of Libya has thus aligned itself against Nationalist forces and the Council of Representatives, which are viewed by Dawn of Libya as inclusive of former Gaddafi officials and seeking to subvert the revolution (Middle East Monitor, November 28, 2014; Reuters, December 26, 2014).
Two Dawn of Libya factions – Libya Central Shield Force and Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR) – initiated Operation Dawn by attacking the Zintani-held Tripoli International Airport. According to Wehrey (Washington Post, July 28, 2014), this offensive had a two-fold goal: to push the Zintan militias (see Nationalist Forces II) out of the area, and to deprive them of the strategic site near Tripoli, “thus shifting the balance-of-power in the capital” (Wehrey, Washington Post, July 28, 2014). Although the Zintan militias managed to hold control during the July offensive, Dawn of Libya captured Tripoli International Airport in August 2014 – causing the Nationalist Coalition to lose a major strategic site in Western Libya (Daleh, Al-Monitor, August 25, 2014; Pack, Foreign Affairs, July 28, 2014).
Dawn of Libya comprises the Misrata Brigades, Libya Central Shield Force, LROR, Zawiya militias, and the Knights of Janzour Brigade (Blanchard, Congressional Research Service, September 8, 2014). Though both Dawn of Libya and the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia (forthcoming post) oppose Haftar and the Nationalist Coalition, the fundamental difference between the two groups lies in Dawn of Libya’s support of a democratic government (namely the GNC), although it still opposes the Council of Representatives in Tobruk, as explained above, and Ansar al-Sharia’s support of Salafi-jihadist ideology and rejection of democracy (Wehrey, September 2014; Blanchard, Ibid; Yahoo News, August 26, 2014). As a result, Dawn of Libya and Ansar al-Sharia reject each other’s political ideology, although they are militarily allied with each other to oppose Nationalist forces (Wehrey, Lawfare, December 17, 2014). Dawn of Libya has three primary goals, as outlined by Al-Arabiya Institute for Studies (August 25, 2014):
- “Defend the military presence of Islamist groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist movements in the east and their allies in Misrata.
- Obstruct the civil movement’s success in the last legislative elections in order to restore the General National Congress, which they consider the “only legitimate body.”
- Bolster political Islam in the region. Libya is Islamists’ last haven for political and military activity, after Brotherhood rule collapsed in Egypt and the Ennahda party handed over power in Tunisia.”
According to Middle East Eye (Fox, December 15, 2014), the Dawn of Libya coalition recently launched another offensive, as part of Operation Dawn, to seize the Nationalist Coalition-controlled Es Sidre (Libya’s largest oil terminal) and Ras Lanuf (largest refinery), “one of the biggest operations so far in the six-month war between the country’s two rival governments, and potentially the most decisive” (Ibid.). The 300-vehicle Dawn of Libya force deployed from Sirte and is still battling Nationalist forces for control (Ibid.). As oil exports make up 90% of Libya’s revenue, Fox (Ibid.) noted, “who controls the ports controls the finance”. Should Dawn of Libya take control of the major oil terminal and refinery, the Council of Representatives would lose both financial and territorial strategic assets.
Misrata Union of Revolutionaries (Misrata Brigades)
Formed during the 2011 revolution, the Misrata Brigades constitute one of the largest militia groups in Libya and are the fierce rival of the Zintan Brigades (Pack, et al., May 2014; see previous post). The Misrata Brigades originate in Misrata, Libya’s third largest and currently “safest major city”, a result of its self-sufficient security (Ibid.).
Misrata endured a siege by Qaddafi’s troops during the 2011 civil war, but the Misrata Brigades managed to repel them and solidify their position as a militia powerhouse in Western Libya (Ibid; Mangan and Murtaugh, United States Institute of Peace, September 2014). The brutality of Qaddafi’s forces on the Misratans is a major element of the Misrata Brigades’ ideology – causing them to “refuse to accept any security institution” that includes former Qaddafi loyalists, a major element in Dawn of Libya’s ideology (Pack, et al., May 2014; TRAC). In August 2014, the Misrata Brigades and allied militias strategically took control of Tripoli International Airport from the Zintan Brigades (Morajea, Middle East Eye, August 27, 2014). As a result of this territorial shift, the Misrata Brigades control Tripoli International and southwest Tripoli, in addition to their own region around Misrata (Ibid.).
Misrata has its own military council and falls under the Misrata Union of Revolutionaries (MUR) – an umbrella group of revolutionary militias in the Misrata region (TRAC). Through MUR, the Misrata Brigades are “attached to the Libyan Ministry of Defence”, the MOD under the GNC (Ibid.). The Misrata Brigades include six large “super-brigades” (1,000+ each), which have separate “brigade command structures” with formal organization (Ibid.). The Misrata Brigades have expanded from 36,000 fighters at the end of the 2011 revolution to 40,000 members – making up 236 registered militias (Ibid., Pack, et al., May 2014; Finucci, 2013). Their members acquired massive quantities of weapons from stockpiles in Tripoli and Sirte during the revolution (Finucci, 2013; TRAC). Weapons capabilities include: 800 tanks, 2000 light/heavy vehicles, 30,000 light weapons, 16 field guns, 536 GRAD rockets, 13 truck-mounted GRAD launchers, 2480 mortar rounds, and 202 artillery shells (Ibid.).
Led by Ali Mousa, MUR has affiliations with the Justice & Construction Party, although its loyalty to the city of Misrata can supersede its loyalty to a political group or national government – as demonstrated by its defiance of the government when it seized oil fields “for ransom” in 2013 (TRAC; Pack, et al., May 2014). Also, MUR is currently split on the issue of Haftar and Operation Dignity. While the Misrata Brigade participants in Operation Dawn are currently located 20km from Tripoli, “vowing to defend Congress [GNC]” (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014), some Misrata brigades do not wish to participate in Operation Dawn, and have instead chosen to station themselves in Misrata. This seemingly insignificant division in the Misrata Brigades over participation in Operation Dawn is indicative of some militias’ loyalty to their city rather than to a national political agenda.
Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR) – Tripoli branch
The General National Congress established the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room in June 2013 with the purpose of providing security in Tripoli (TRAC; BBC News, May 20, 2014; Finucci, 2013; Pack, et al., May 2014). This Islamist umbrella group of former militias, previously numbered at 350 fighters (underestimated), kidnapped Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on October 10, 2013, but was forced to release him after their location was “stormed” by the Zintan militia (TRAC; Pack, et al., May 2014). As a result of this action, LROR lost its security responsibility in Tripoli, but was later recalled on November 12, 2013, provided that LROR would submit to oversight by the General Chief of Staff (Finucci, 2013; TRAC; BBC News, May 20, 2014). Led by Adel al-Tarhouni, the Tripoli branch of LROR has strong ties to the Social Justice and Construction Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and is opposed to General Haftar (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014). According to an Al Jazeera report, LROR now protects the GNC in Tripoli by guarding “the Radisson Hotel to which the parliament has moved” (Ibid.).
— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) December 31, 2014
The Tripoli-based LROR is heavily armed, based on the weaponry used in a January 2014 “counter-crime operation in Tripoli” (TRAC). That same month, LROR allegedly kidnapped several Egyptian embassy staffers after Shaban Hadia, a LROR leader, was arrested in Egypt and investigated by Egyptian authorities “over his residency status” (Ibid., ITN Source, February 3, 2014). LROR was involved in the capture of Tripoli International Airport, as noted above, and is now deployed with other Dawn of Libya militias to take Es Sidre and Ras Lanuf.
Libya (Central) Shield Force
The Libya Shield Force (LSF) is an umbrella group created in 2012 with the purpose of quelling violence and providing security in the absence of a Libyan army, while simultaneously providing the transitional government some control over the multitude of militias (TRAC; Wehrey, September 2014; Reuters, October 10, 2013).
Libya Shield was officially under the authority of the Chief of Staff of the Army, but has become what Wehrey calls a “shadow army,” where each Shield division pursues its own goals while operating under the guise of a GNC-sanctioned force (Wehrey, September 2014; Pack, et al., May 2014). Wehrey describes this utilization of state-sponsored militia groups in conjunction with official military and law enforcement as a “hybrid security order” (see Mitchell, “Features of a War”; Wehrey, Ibid.). Compounding the tension between state-sponsored umbrella militia groups and the official military is first the higher salaries of the Libya Shield forces compared with the military’s, second the LSF’s view of the military as a “hollow, corrupt force”, and third senior-ranking military officers’ view of the LSF as “nothing more than ill-disciplined rabble who are highly politicized and Islamist (Wehrey, Ibid; Testimony by Frederic Wehrey, May 1, 2014).
“The Shields actually enlarged the gap between rebels and soldiers.” Wehrey, September 2014.
Sources note the presence of Libya Shield brigades in Central, Southern, Eastern, and Western Libya, including Libya Central Shield, Libya Shield One, Libya Shield Two, and Libya Shield Seven (known as the Rafallah Sahati brigades) (Pack, et al., May 2014; Wehrey, September 2014). Libya Central Shield is a primary faction in Dawn of Libya, while the eastern-based Libya Shields One and Seven are members of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, as we shall see with the second part. The total Libya Shield Force comprises an estimated 6,000-12,000 members and 1,200 vehicles (TRAC; Finucci, 2013).
Among the LSF, Libya Central Shield is the most important brigade. Headed by Muhammed Musa, the Libya Center Shield is a primarily-Misratan division with the larger part of its strength located in the Misrata region (Pack, et al., May 2014; Finucci, 2013; Wehrey, September 2014; TRAC). When pro-federalist, former Petroleum Facilities Guard (see Nationalist Forces I) commander Ibrahim al-Jathran and his militia seized key Eastern oil facilities in 2013, the Central Shield was deployed to the region (Hanly, Digital Journal, August 3, 2014). However, because Central Shield has a heavy Misratan membership, it was “perceived by easterners as an invading force from Misrata, raising fears of a broader civil war” (Wehrey, Ibid.). This response lends credibility to a regional dynamic at play in Libya. The federalist Eastern Libyan response combined with the division in the Misrata Brigades over participation in Operation Dawn proves the importance of the regional and city loyalty dynamic.
Libya Central Shield is one of the primary groups in the Dawn of Libya coalition and is heavily credited for capturing Tripoli International Airport in August 2014 (Al Jazeera, August 23, 2014).
In this post, we have examined the primarily Islamist, yet pro-democratic and pro-revolutionary, Dawn of Libya coalition that ideologically differs from the jihadist coalitions in Eastern Libya. Also, we analyzed the multiple effects of the actions taken by the General National Congress and its role in the formation of Islamist coalitions. Our next post will evaluate the Salafi-jihadist coalitions (Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, Mujahideen Shura Council and other elements in Derna), their Islamic State and Al-Qaeda elements, and the regional governments affiliated with Dawn of Libya and the GNC.
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