In our previous post, we discussed the Amazigh and Tuareg tribes, who were marginalized and persecuted under Qaddafi, and their current involvement in the war. Similarly, the Toubou faced persecution and marginalization in the recent past, but became more powerful after the 2011 revolution, a result of their contribution to revolutionary forces. As a result, the balance of power over smuggling routes in Southern Libya (Fezzan) shifted to one that favored the Toubou, which drove the Toubou and Tuareg to end their long-lasting Midi Midi truce and clash in Ubari. This shift in power has also brought about violent clashes between Toubou and Arab tribesmen over smuggling routes and regional power.

Here, we shall discuss the Toubou political grievances, their alliances, and their conflict with Arab tribes, as well as the main Arab tribes and their alliances. We shall also examine the effects of shifts in trade route control and the role of Arab tribal alliances in Operations Dawn and Dignity.

[Check also “The Islamic State in Libya – When Libyan Tribes Pledge Allegiance to the Khalifah, and The Islamic State in Libya – Force, Fighters and Tribes, by H Lavoix, April & May 2016).]

Toubou (Tebu, Tabu) Tribes

In general, they are allied with the Council of Representatives and Operation Dignity.

The Toubou primarily inhabit Southern Libya, as well as the northern regions of Chad, Niger, and Sudan (Martin and Weber, June 21, 2012; RT, July 1, 2012). According to Laura Van Waas (2013), there could be as many as 50,000 Toubou inhabiting Libya.

Political Grievances

Toubou tribesmen in Tripoli protest discrimination.

Under Qaddafi, the Toubou faced discrimination and state persecution by being denied access to “decent health care, education and skilled jobs,” being treated as foreigners by authorities, and being “[stripped]…of their Libyan citizenship” in 2007 (for those tribesmen who had it) as part of Qaddafi’s Arabization process (Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014; Murray, InterPress Service, May 17, 2013; IRIN News, May 14, 2012). Currently, according to McGregor (Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014), the Toubou are experiencing a “cultural revival” by emphasizing their “non-Arab status,” causing them to renew demands for political integration and social recognition.

However, they also refuse the idea of a bounded nationality; perhaps because they have inhabited the area before the creation of a Libyan state,

“We [Toubou] great population of Libya indigenous nation do not need papers or documents in order to prove to the world that we [are] Libyans… our cards are palm trees and our passport is Saharan Africa and Africa as a whole is our nationality and no one can change it that never.” – [Toubou] Channel on Facebook, March 24, 2015

The Toubou’s political grievances have yet to be adequately addressed by Libya’s post-Qaddafi governments, which have led the Toubou to utilize political protests/boycotts and create the Toubou National Assembly to pursue their political interests (Payot, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, 2014). In July 2012, Toubou leaders threatened to boycott the country’s elections if government forces did not withdraw from Kufra, where they allegedly targeted Toubou tribesmen during a Toubou-Arab clash (Batrawy, Yahoo News, July 1, 2012).

Along with the Amazigh and Tuaregs, the Toubou have expressed disapproval over the lack of tribal representation in the Constitutional Drafting Committee and boycotted the Committee election in July 2013 and February 2014 (Shennib, Reuters, July 17, 2013; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014). Toubou guards then halted the production capabilities of the Elephant oil field in June 2013 to “demand more employment opportunities for local community members in protecting the oilfield,” which resulted in the hiring of more Toubou guards (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014). A few months later in December and January, the Sarir power station was “blockaded” by Toubou tribesmen to “demand greater representation in Kufra’s municipal government and an extension of the power supply to the Toubou community at Rebyana” (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014). Toubou protests in March 2014 called for the state to “implement policies against alleged state-sponsored discriminations and to provide tribesmen with enhanced security” (Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014).

Toubou protesters at El-Sharara oilfield in December 2012.

The continuance of political grievances has also led some Toubou to use rhetoric regarding Toubou autonomy – an issue on which they are split (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014). Sources attribute the rhetoric for Toubou autonomy to the lack of a state presence and state security in Southern Libya (Shkolnik, May 15, 2012), to Toubou-Arab clashes, as we shall see below (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014), and to anger at the government in August 2013, when it announced that one million Tuareg and Toubou “fake ID’s” were cancelled during the implementation of national ID cards (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014).

“If we don’t get our rights and they keep mistreating us, from this checkpoint on, all the way down to the border, we will declare it’s not part of Libya.” – Mohammed Wardugu, Toubou militia commander (Daragahi, FT Magazine, January 10, 2014)

As shown by a pattern of protests and boycotts, as well as autonomy rhetoric, unaddressed Toubou grievances have the potential to increase instability in Southern Libya. According to Toubou military spokesman Hassan Mousa, “The stability of the south depends on [Toubou] rights. And Libya’s stability depends on the south’s stability” (Murray, InterPress Service, October 11, 2012). Although the stability of Libya is in part dependent on Southern stability, the stability of the South is also dependent on Tuareg rights, as well as the mitigation of Toubou-Arab hostilities, as we discuss below.

Furthermore, the pursuit and subsequent declaration of an autonomous Toubou region would certainly be detrimental to the legitimacy of the rival governments, as would Amazigh and Tuareg declarations of autonomous regions and governing bodies (see Mitchell, “Tribal Dynamics & Civil War II”).

Toubou Alliances

The National Transitional Council gave control of the Southern border to the Toubou for their alliance with the revolutionaries, which “significantly strengthened [Toubou] cross-border ties” (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014; Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014). The Toubou then allied with Zintan militias to take control of the El-Sharara oilfield, which they guarded for three years until the Tuareg and their ally – the Misratan Third Force – took control of the oilfield in November 2014 (Murray, Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015; Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International peace, December 10, 2014; Libya News Today, December 5, 2014; Daragahi, Gulf News, February 6, 2014). This escalated into Tuareg and Toubou clashes over the nearby strategic town of Ubari, as we discussed previously.

In September 2014, the Toubou allied themselves with the Council of Representatives and Operation Dignity, after “rival Arab tribes in the area gave their support to the Tripoli government” (Michael and Keath, UT San Diego, September 9, 2014; Reeve, Oxford Research Group, January 13, 2015). Zintan’s strong alliance with Haftar and Operation Dignity could also have influenced the Toubou’s decision to support Dignity, as the Toubou and some Zintani militias have cooperated in Southern Libya to guard oil resources.

Toubou and Extremist Groups

As seen previously, al-Qaida affiliates have an established presence in Fezzan, and an Islamic State branch (Wilayat al-Fizan) has begun to operate there as well. The Toubou, in particular, have iterated concerns about extremist groups in Fezzan, including associations between Tuareg tribesmen and al-Qaida affiliates, while “portraying their own community as a bulwark against jihadism” (Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014; Murray, McClatchy DC, January 23, 2015; Roeskestad, Al-Monitor, November 13, 2014). In response, Tuareg tribes accuse them of “exaggerating the terrorist threat” and “embellishing the truth for their own political gain” (Murray, Middle East Eye, January 17, 2015; Murray, McClatchy DC, January 23, 2015). The Toubou are likely less susceptible to Salafism compared with other groups, considering their strong anti-terrorist rhetoric, their alliance with the anti-Islamist Operation Dignity, and less reliance on transactions with jihadists (unlike the Tuareg), as a result of their control of an increased number of trade routes in Southern Libya.

However, the Islamic State branch in Tripolitania released a recruitment video on March 12, 2015 in the Toubou language that portrayed a lone Islamic State fighter calling on Toubou tribesmen to join Islamic State groups in Libya (Libya Institute for Advanced Studies, March 26, 2015). Yet, the Islamic State may have more difficulty recruiting Toubou tribesmen, not only because of tribalism’s incompatibility with Salafism (as discussed in the previous post), but also because of the Toubou’s public stance on extremist groups, as stated above.

Trade Routes and Toubou-Arab Clashes

As we saw previously, the Tuareg and Toubou broke their long-lasting Midi Midi truce and have clashed in Ubari for strategic control of smuggling routes and the nearby El-Sharara oilfield. However, the Toubou are not exclusively at odds with the Tuareg. Economic control over vital trade routes, often doubling as smuggling routes, has caused clashes between the Toubou tribes and the Zawiyah tribe (Arab) in Kufra, as well as between the Toubou and the Awlad Sulayman tribe (Arab) in Sabha.

Toubou militia checkpoint near Sabha.

Under Qaddafi, Arab tribes such as the Zawiyah were favored and used to control the minority groups in the South (Stratfor, December 4, 2012) – an action that likely fostered Toubou resentment toward the Southern Arab tribes. Clashes between the Zawiyah and Toubou started in December 2007, when a Toubou militia began attacking Zawiyah in Kufra, but was soon stopped by security units (Martin and Weber, June 21, 2012). In 2012, Conflict between the Toubou and Zawiyah escalated when the National Transitional Council awarded the Toubou control over Southern trade routes and borders, as the two tribal groups are in direct competition for control of trade routes near Kufra (Ibid, Murray, InterPress Service, October 11, 2012). According to Stratfor (December 4, 2012), the Zawiyah are upset over “the loss of their preferential status and dominance over local governance in Kufra.”

Kufra 10 May 2015, Libya, Toubou, Libyan war
“The latest developments in the city of Kufra” 10 May 2015 – Meeting between rivals – Toubou Facebook Page – Click to access

Kufra has endured cycles of fragile ceasefires and clashes that have killed hundreds, particularly from February 2012-June 2012 (Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014). Intervention and peacekeeping units sent by the government have been unable to maintain ceasefires between the Toubou and Zawiyah (Ibid; Shuaib and Zargoun, Reuters, February 23, 2012; Martin and Weber, June 21, 2012).

Sabha is a strategic city that is home to a military base/airfield and “serves as a commercial and transportation hub for the Fezzan” (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014). The Sabha region is marred by Toubou-Arab rivalry, which led to deadly clashes beginning in March 2012 in what Daragahi labels an “all-out tribal and ethnic war between Arabs and [Toubou] and Tuaregs” (Daragahi, Gulf News, February 6, 2014; Murray, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 10, 2014; Security Assessment in North Africa, February 2014). The Toubou primarily clash with the dominant Awlad Sulayman and Awlad Abu Seif tribes over smuggling routes, resources, and regional power, although some clashes are a result of intertribal shootings, ambushes, and assassinations (Mezran, et al., Atlantic Council May 5, 2014; IRIN News, May 14, 2012; RT, March 31, 2012; McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014). Furthermore, some leaders from the Awlad Sulayman tribe have spread xenophobic sentiment about the Toubou, saying “Not all the [Toubou] are Libyan. Libyans are welcome here, but outsiders are not” (IRIN News, May 14, 2012). Similar to Toubou-Arab clashes in Kufra, Sabha experiences cycles of ceasefires and violent conflict (RT, March 31, 2012; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014). Violence erupted in January 2014 when Toubou tribesmen murdered Sabha brigade commander Mansur al-Aswad, supposedly “in retaliation for crimes committed by his Abu Seif militia during the 2012 clashes in Sabha” (McGregor, Jamestown Foundation, January 23, 2014; Dugulin, International Security Observer, April 30, 2014).

Toubou-Arab clashes in Sabha, March 2012.

The awarding of Southern border control to the Toubou after the revolution likely escalated the clashes between Toubou and Arab tribes, as the revolution removed some advantages and existing power arrangements previously awarded to  Arab tribes – creating a change in the Southern power dynamics. This also explains the wider range of Toubou-Arab animosities compared to Tuareg-Arab animosities.

Arab Tribes

Arab tribes are divided in their alignments with Operation Dawn and Operation Dignity.

Here, by Arab tribes, we refer to tribes with Arab or a mixed Arab-Berber ethnicity, which encompass Libya’s main tribes that are not Amazigh, Tuareg, or Toubou. Note that any alliances described below are in general, and there may be exceptions at a sub-tribe or familial level. Arab tribe strength varies considerably; for example, the Warfallah are estimated to number over one million while the Qadhadhfa are estimated around 100,000 (Bell and Witter, Institute for the Study of War, September 2011).


Two primary alliances of Arab tribes labeled by Kamel Abdallah as the “[U]pper alliance” and “[L]ower alliance” dominate the Libyan political landscape, (Abdallah, Al-Ahram, February 6, 2014; Engel, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2014), each aligning respectively with Operation Dawn or Operation Dignity, with some outliers.

The Upper alliance is composed of Zintan, Warfallah, Qadhadhfa, Warshefana, Magarha, and some Farjan tribes, while the Lower alliance comprises Misrata, Zawiyah, and some Farjan tribes (Ibid; Abdallah, Al-Ahram, July 24, 2014). It is important to note a fracture in the Upper alliance involving the Zintan and Warfallah tribes. According to Abdallah, Zintan left the Upper alliance during the 2011 revolution to fight against Qaddafi, which broke, or at least seriously strained, its historical alliance with the Warfallah (Abdallah, Al-Ahram, February 6, 2014; Abdallah, Al-Ahram, July 24, 2014). Zintan is now trying to rekindle its alliance with the Warfallah, which could be a strong tribal asset to Operation Dignity, considering both tribes are rivals of Misrata (Ibid; Obeid, Alakhbar, August 26, 2014; AbdallahAl-Ahram, May 29, 2014).

The Zintan, Warfallah, Qadhadhfa, Warshefana, and some Fajan tribes of the Upper alliance, as well as the Maghariba, Obeidat, and Baraasa tribes have aligned themselves with General Haftar and Operation Dignity, while the Misrata and Zawiyah tribes of the Lower alliance have allied with Operation Dawn (Engel, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2014; Stevenson, Al-Monitor, September 14, 2014; Karasik, Al-Arabiya News, December 7, 2014; AbdallahAl-Ahram, May 29, 2014; Doha Institute, June 10, 2014).

The Warfallah are likely a major tribal asset for Haftar, considering it is the largest tribe in Libya with approximately one million people – although it comprises about 50 sub-tribes, of which some may be pursuing local or regional agendas instead (Kurczy and Hinshaw, Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 2011; Al-Arabiya News, September 1, 2011).

However, support granted by tribes to one or another side is not always that clear-cut or even that easy to identify. For example, the Tarhouna tribes’ allegiance appears to be controversial; Obeid (Alakhbar, August 26, 2014) and the Doha Institute (June 10, 2014) claim that the Tarhouna are allied with Operation Dignity, while a Libya Herald article (August 20, 2014) reports that the Tarhouna have rejected the Council of Representatives in Tobruk and aligned themselves with Operation Dawn. A possible reason for the conflicting information could be that these sources reached out to sub-tribes of the Tarhouna that have differing agendas, as we mentioned regarding the Warfallah.

Libyan tribalism is flexible, and allegiances fluctuate according to circumstances and pragmatic opportunities.

Tribal alignment with either Dawn or Dignity does not always mean political or ideological support, as shown by the Tuareg’s pragmatic relationship with Dawn of Libya (see previous post). As another example, the Obeidat and Baraasa tribes support Dignity, but are unwilling to support any alternative “political or military ambitions,” lest they lose their “traditional control and influence over the military” (AbdallahAl-Ahram, May 29, 2014). We also have Toubou support pledged to the Council of Representatives and Operation Dignity, which occurs only after their Arab rivals’ pledge of support for Operation Dawn. This shows again, as suggested previously, that Libyan tribalism is flexible, and that allegiances fluctuate according to circumstances and pragmatic opportunities. Yet, even this opportunism should not be overstated, as, religious (or refusal of some extremist positions, such as Salafism), political, or city/regional loyalties may override larger tribal decision for sub-tribes. (see Mitchell, Nationalist Forces I; Islamist and Misrata Forces I & Islamist and Misrata Forces II).

As we discussed in the first post of our series on tribes in Libya, Libyan tribalism played a dominant role under King Idris and eventually under Qaddafi; and tribes continue to play key roles in the post-Qaddafi era, particularly in the political and security sectors. We could even wonder if the whole Libyan conflict is not strongly determined first by tribal dynamics. The political grievances of the Amazigh, Tuareg, and Toubou will likely impact any future political process, as well as the stability of Southern Libya. The re-forging of a Zintani-Warfallah alliance has the potential to enhance Operation Dignity in the West, particularly since both tribes are rivals to Operation Dawn’s powerhouse – Misrata. Meanwhile, the incompatibility of tribalism with Salafism could serve to slow the progress of Islamic State presence in Libya, particularly in the South. While political and religious dynamics certainly have their place in Libya’s civil war, the participants have roots in Libya’s many tribes, and the tribalism dynamic will certainly play a role in Libya’s future.


Featured Image: Toubou guards of Libya’s Southern border posted on the Tabu Sons of the Desert Facebook page on May 8, 2013

“150 dead in Libyan tribal clashes reveal vacuum in authority,” RT, March 31, 2012

Al-Arabiya News, “Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe,” September 1, 2011

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Tabu Channel Facebook page

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Tom Stevenson, “Dozens killed in Tripoli suburb under siege,” Al-Monitor, September 14, 2014

4 thoughts on “War in Libya and Its Futures – Tribal Dynamics and Civil War (3)”

  1. The real reason for the war between the Tuareg and Toubou is not to compete for control of the oil fields or smuggling routes in the south of Libya
    The real reason is the Tabu invasion to the city of Ubari (capital of Touareg for centuries ) in implementation of the Tabu state in the south of Libya , a project backed by a supper power to restore its former colonial influence in the south of Libya

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