AIS Special Report, November 10, 2017
NATO’s concentrated airstrikes destroyed Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan Army in 2011 and paved the way to victory for an assortment of untrained and inexperienced Islamist and tribal militias. With no other unifying ideology other than overthrowing Qaddafi, these militias not only staked out their own share of power in the collapsed state, but began to expand, bringing in recruits who had done nothing during the revolution but were now willing to pose, bully and extort the civilian population. Many veterans of Qaddafi’s army fled into exile or remained to find themselves imprisoned or at the receiving end of an assassin’s bullet. Such was the end of Libya’s professional army.
The United Nations and most parties in Libya agree that the formation of a new national army is essential to escape the rule by militia that is preventing Libyan reconstruction. Lack of coordination between armed groups allows space for Islamic State militants, human traffickers and smugglers to operate with impunity.
To understand the competition to form a national Libya army, it is necessary to first understand the rivalry between the different arms of the tripartite government called for in the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of 2015. The functions of head-of-state (including the authority to form a military) are carried out by a fractious nine-member Presidency Council (PC) based in the national capital of Tripoli and led by its chairman, Fayez Serraj. Also based in the capital is the executive authority, the Government of National Accord (GNA), which generally works in concert with the PC. The parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and competes with the PC/GNA, which needs the approval of the HoR to assume its full powers and legitimacy. An advisory body, the High Council of State, tends to side with the HoR. Making matters worse is the existence of another would-be government, Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS), which consists largely of members of the pre-agreement General National Congress (GNC) government who failed to be elected into the new government bodies and frequently attempt to restore the old order through violent incursions into the capital.
The question of legitimacy is inextricably tied to the ability to purchase arms on the international market through an exemption to the UN Security Council’s international arms embargo. Experienced officers and soldiers are awaiting the emergence of a unified military to which they can offer their services. In the meantime they have the choice of isolated aloofness, patient exile or participation in local, highly politicized militias that actually impede the creation of a national force.
At the moment, there are basically five contestants jockeying to compose the core of a national military. These might be split into two groups; the contenders and the pretenders:
1/ The “Libyan National Army (LNA),” actually a coalition of mostly eastern militias led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar and tied to the House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruk.
2/ “Bunyan al-Marsous (BaM)” (The Solid Structure), a coalition of mainly Islamist militias, most hailing from the Western city of Misrata.
1/ The “Libyan Army,” a national army still in formation under Major General Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil and authorized by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
2/ The “Presidential Guard,” led by Colonel Najmi al-Nakua and nominally under the GNA’s Presidency Council (PC).
3/ The “Libyan National Guard” (LNG), based in Tripoli and led by Brigadier General Mahmoud al-Zigal. The LNG is tied to the rival Government of National Salvation (GNS).
The Libyan National Army (LNA)
The LNA is a coalition of mostly eastern (or Cyrenaïcan) militias led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar and tied to the HoR parliament in Tobruk. Major General Abd al-Razzaq al-Nazhuri is the LNA’s chief of staff.
Many of Haftar’s closest aides and bodyguards are drawn from his own Furjan tribe. His sons Khalid and Saddam have been made leading officers in Haftar’s LNA despite lacking any military training or experience. The influential Cyrenaïcan Awaqir tribe has complained strongly of nepotism in the command structure, such as Saddam Haftar being given command of Benghazi’s 106th Brigade.
Though the LNA professes to be politically secular rather than Islamist, its ranks include units from the Saudi-inspired Salafist Madkhali movement as well as large numbers of mercenaries from Chad and Darfur.
An American citizen, Haftar was once a powerful colonel in Qaddafi’s regular army but his capture by Chadian forces in the disastrous 1987 battle at Ouadi Doum led to Qaddafi’s refusal to arrange for his repatriation or even acknowledge his existence. Cast adrift from Libya, Haftar and many fellow Libyan prisoners were extracted from Africa by the CIA to form the nucleus of a never-used force for use in an anti-Qaddafi uprising. After two decades’ residence close to CIA headquarters in Arlington Virginia, Haftar returned to Libya in 2011 to join the revolution. Ambitious and frustrated at failing to achieve a consensus that he deserved to be the new Libyan ruler, Haftar mounted a failed coup in February 2014. Haftar still managed to consolidate his control in 2014 over the “Libyan National Army” (as approved by the HoR, which does not have authority over military matters). As the United States backed away from involvement in Libyan political affairs following the 2012 Benghazi affair, Haftar sought out new support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and, to a more limited extent, France. On April 19, 2017 Russia’s deputy envoy to the UN told the Security Council that Haftar’s LNA must form “the nucleus of the Libyan armed forces in the future.”
Egypt declared on September 19, 2017 that it would take a leading role in the reorganization of the Libya Army around Haftar’s LNA. Chairing a Cairo meeting between Egyptian military officials and officers of the LNA was the former Egyptian chief-of-staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Ibrahim Hegazy (replaced as chief-of-staff by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazy on October 29, partly due to Mahmoud’s inability to secure Egypt’s border with Libya). After the declaration, an LNA officer said the LNA was “open to discussion with all parties excluding terrorist organizations,” but as Haftar refers to all his opponents as “terrorists,” this was not the opening it might appear.
In order to coordinate LNA activities, Haftar created a central operations room in Benghazi on October 11, 2017 under the command of Major General Wanis Bukhamada (Magharba tribe), leader of the Sa’iqa (“Lightning”) Special Forces and a capable veteran of Qaddafi’s regular army.
Almost before he could begin his new duties, Bukhamada became involved in the investigation of the torture and murder of 36 men found dead on October 26 in Abyar, east of Benghazi. Allegations that the dead had been held in LNA military prisons and the possibility of war crimes charges from the ICC have unnerved the LNA leadership, already under pressure from International Criminal Court (ICC) war crimes charges against Mahmoud al-Warfalli, a Sa’iqa commander videotaped executing dozens of unarmed prisoners in a series of incidents. The newly appointed Deputy Minister of the Interior for the PC/GNA, Faraj Egaim, opened his own investigation of the Abyar incident and was subsequently targeted by a car bomb in Benghazi on November 5, 2017.
Egaim’s appointment was part of a shift by his Cyrenaïcan Awaqir tribe from Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist “Operation Dignity” to the PC/GNA in Tripoli. The shift was prompted by Awaqir claims that Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa force had provided a safe corridor for Islamic State militants to escape Benghazi and a series of car bomb attacks against leading Awaqir members in Benghazi the tribe blames on Haftar and his supporters. Targets included tribal leader Braik al-Lwati, who was killed in May 2017, while Awaqir PC/GNA Defense Minister al-Mahdi al-Barghathi survived a July 2016 car-bomb. Egaim, whose defection to the PC/GNA was not well received in the Haftar camp, survived an earlier car bomb in September 2017. Egaim had been the commander of the LNA’s Special Tasks Force when he led Aqaqir tribesmen in a June 2017 attack on Benghazi’s Kofiya Prison to free Nuri Bu Fannarah, an Awaqir tribal leader who claimed he had evidence to prove Haftar had ordered the assassination of Braik al-Lwati.
On October 1, 2017, the HoR and the High Council of State issued a joint statement declaring a former Libyan Army officer in the Qaddafi era turned revolutionary, Salim Juha, the new chief-of-staff under Khalifa Haftar as commander-in-chief. It was not clear whether this marked a change in loyalties by Juha or if this meant General al-Nazhuri had been replaced or dismissed. Juha had previously been named chief-of-staff of the Libyan Army by PC deputy Fathi Majbri in late 2016 while Majbri was acting PC chairman during Serraj’s absence at a family wedding. This appointment (and several others suddenly made by Majbri) was overturned when Serraj returned.
Bunyan al-Marsous (BaM – “The Solid Structure”)
Bunyan al-Marsous is a coalition of mainly Islamist militias, most of which originate in the Western city of Misrata. The coalition is led by General Bashir al-Qadi.
BaM was formed in emergency circumstances when Islamic State fighters launched a surprise offensive towards Misrata from their base in Sirte in April 2016. BaM has pledged allegiance to the United Nations backed PC/GNA government in Tripoli, though it frequently complains of a lack of support from that administration. BaM has campaigned to have itself recognized by the PC/GNA as the national army of Libya and is now patrolling south of Sirte after repeated reports of Islamic State activity in the area.
BaM defeated strong Islamic State forces in Sirte after an eight-month campaign assisted by 495 American air strikes on Islamic State targets (Operation Odyssey Lightning) and a minor but separate contribution from the LNA. Eight hundred BaM fighters, mostly Misratans, were killed in the campaign to eliminate the Islamic State terrorists.
In October 2016, after some 200 American airstrikes on Sirte (largely from USS Wasp, a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship), the American air campaign came under surprising criticism from BaM’s Brigadier Ibrahim Bait, who claimed (with little merit) that the US airstrikes had been less effective than the sorties carried out by Misratan aircraft and had made no difference to BaM’s attempts to retake Sirte.
Rivalry between the LNA and BaM erupted soon after the collapse of the Islamic State occupation of Sirte. The LNA’s small air-force bombed BaM targets in the Jufra District city of Hun in northern Fezzan on December 26, 2016. The attack on BaM positions by their alleged allies in the Battle for Sirte took the coalition off-guard but left them angry, as spelt out by a BaM spokesman who reminded all of the coalition’s costly campaign against IS terrorists: “We warn the party that carried out today’s airstrikes on the brigade in Hun, Jufra, today against ever repeating such a criminal act, or else the GNA forces shall respond very strongly to any violations or targeting of its forces.” LNA aircraft again attacked BaM targets in the Hun and Sokna towns of Jufra District in May 2017, this time describing those killed in the attacks as “terrorists.”
The inclination of BaM’s leaders to conduct their own foreign policy has repeatedly placed them at odds with the PC/GNA politicians responsible for such matters. Several leading Misratan members of BaM visited Grozny and Moscow in April 2017, where they were urged (unsuccessfully) to reconcile with Khalifa Haftar, who is favored by the Russians.
BaM infuriated the PC/GNA by undertaking a visit by 15 BaM officials to Qatar on its own initiative in mid-August 2017 without the prior consent of the PC or the GNA’s Defense Ministry. The delegation included BaM commander Bashir al-Gadi and former BaM spokesman Muhammad al-Ghusri (who left the coalition to act as spokesman for the PC/GNA defense ministry in January 2017 but still joined the BaM delegation). The BaM delegation was received as an official visit by Qatar’s ruler. Nonetheless, the visit was unpopular in both Tripolia and Misrata. Hamid Aisa Khadr and Hamza Treiki, two Misratan commanders who took part in the BaM offensive on Sirte, called for the prosecution of al-Gadi and al-Ghusri after their visit to Doha.
PC chairman Fayez Serraj forbade further such meetings and warned of courts martial for future offenders. After Serraj’s response, BaM Colonel Ali Rafideh accused the PC of failing to provide salaries, logistical support and treatment for wounded BaM fighters after the victory in Sirte.
The growing gulf between BaM and the PC was recently illustrated by threats made by BaM Brigadier Muhammad Gnaidi against Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Libya’s Islamist Tanasuh TV. Gnaidi’s threats to attack the nations supporting Haftar’s LNA (and, in the case of Egypt and the UAE, participating in air attacks) followed LNA air strikes on the besieged Islamist stronghold of Derna that killed 15 civilians, mostly children. PC chairman Fayez Serraj’s call for an investigation of the “irresponsible” remarks was met by Gnaidi with the remark that unless Serraj took firm action against the three nations, he should leave Libya “on board the vessel that brought him to Tripoli.” In the face of this insubordination Serraj dismissed Gnaidi from the Military Intelligence Directorate and the leadership of the GNA’s Libyan Army. Gnaidi promptly announced a new allegiance to the military arm of the Government of National Salvation.
After an apparently unplanned clash between BaM and LNA forces both hunting Islamic State fighters south of Sirte in early July 2017, Sa’iqa Special Forces commander Wanis Bukhamada spoke highly of BaM’s performance in Sirte and said the LNA would welcome any regular forces that fought terrorism into its fold. BaM issued a stiff rebuke to Bukhamada’s invitation to join the LNA, stating there was “currently no army in Libya” to join, while adding the Libyan people were in need of a “capable military force.”
The Libyan Army
The “Libyan Army” authorized by the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli is intended to be a national army under the command of Major General Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil.
General al-Tawil was appointed by the PC as the chief-of-staff of the Libyan Army on September 1, 2017. The problem with his appointment was that there were no forces to place under his command other than the Presidential Guard, which appears to have remained under the direct command of PC chairman Fayez Serraj and will not become part of the planned national army. The appointment still angered HoR interim PM Abdallah al-Thinni and Khalifa Haftar, with the latter announcing he was breaking off all lines of communication with the PC/GNA.
Three of the seven members of the PC (Ali al-Gotrani, Fathi al-Mijibri and Omar al-Aswad) responded to al-Tawil’s appointment by rejecting Serraj’s authority and declaring Khalifa Hatar and the LNA chief-of-staff to be the sole military leaders of the Libyan nation.
Speaking for many, but not all, of the Misratan armed groups, the Misratan Military Council (MMC) announced on January 31, 2017 that all the brigades under its control would join the incipient “Libyan Army” loyal to the PC/GNA and in opposition to the “rogue general” Khalifa Haftar (Digital Journal, January 31, 2017).
The Presidential Guard
Led by Brigadier Najmi Ramadan Khari al-Nakua and his deputies, Ibrahim Bilad and Abu Lagri, the Tripoli-based Presidential Guard is intended to draw upon security personnel from across Libya, but from the start there has been pressure from Misrata to go with a Misratan majority.
The Presidential Guard was created under the authority of the PC/GNA in May 2016, with an initial base of 500 fighters recruited from various militias given the task of protecting Tripoli’s international airport.
Despite the unit’s name, the Presidential Guard’s loyalty appears to be somewhat capricious: when armed groups supporting Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS) attacked Tripoli in an October 2016 coup attempt, the Presidential Guard abandoned the PC, invaded the offices of the High Council of State and announced the installation of the GNS as Libya’s legitimate government. The Guard’s change of allegiance appears to have been provoked by unpaid salaries, though Ghwell was unlikely to make good on these as his coup quickly collapsed due to a lack of broad support from Tripoli’s militias. The Guard’s commander, Ali Ramali, who was alleged to have taken control of the unit’s payment system to reward those loyal to himself and deprive others, was subsequently dismissed for refusing to obey orders from the PC/GNA.
In June 2017, the Presidential Guard made an unsuccessful bid for an exemption from the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya. In the next month the Presidential Guard announced a plan to prohibit the possession of arms by “unauthorized individuals” in Tripoli as well as a ban on the entry of light, medium and heavy weapons to the capital, though progress on this file is so far difficult to discern.
Fending off critics such as Haftar who claim the Presidential Guard aspired to form a new national army, the Guard has stated that it is not to be viewed as a substitute for the army or as an obstacle to its reconstruction, while describing itself as a “disciplined force” loyal to the PC and without any allegiance to political parties, cities or tribes. The Guard has pledged to restrict itself to duties involving border control and protection of state facilities, government members and visiting dignitaries.
The Guard runs training facilities in Tripoli, Misrata and Gharian where recruits receive three months of basic training, followed by specialty training such as mechanical support, communications and Special Forces tactics. According to al-Nakua, Algeria has agreed to send gendarmes to train the Presidential Guard.
Italian general Paolo Serra, the military advisor of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), urged the PC to hasten the full establishment of the Presidential Guard in September, along with developing a program to disarm the militias. Al-Nakua has outlined plans for an ambitious expansion of the unit, adding six additional brigades in western Libya to the one already operating in Tripoli.
The Libyan National Guard (LNG)
Based in Tripoli and led by Brigadier General Mahmoud al-Zigal, the LNG was formed in February 2017 by supporters of Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS) who had fought against the Islamic State in the Battle of Sirte. Zigal insisted the LNG had no ties to political parties and would avoid entanglement in regional or tribal disputes.
The GNA described the National Guard as “outlaws” determined to “form a parallel body to the Presidential Guard” in order to “lead the capital into bloody armed conflict.” The PC quickly declared the LNG illegal, but did not have sufficient power to shut it down.
Following the National Guard’s February 10, 2017 parade of military vehicles and weapons in Tripoli, the US State Department issued a warning that the introduction of a new unit with such a significant quantity of weaponry would further destabilize the fragile security situation in Tripoli.
Shortly after the LNG’s creation, clashes broke out in Tripoli between Haithem Tajouri’s Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) and Misratan fighters led by Tripoli-based Misratan militia leader Mahmud Baiyu (a.k.a. Sharikan). Biayu was closely tied to many of those who had joined the LNG, but was disappointed when the newly-formed National Guard failed to support him, possibly the result of strong American criticism of the new force.
In April 2017, the National Guard announced it was sending units south to join the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) and the Misratan Third Force (lately renamed the 13th Brigade) in fighting against the LNA’s 12th Brigade around Tamenhint airbase (northwest of Sabha). Al-Zigal urged all forces based in southern Libya to fight “the idiot war criminal Khalifa Haftar.” If LNG units did reach the south, they do not appear to have played any significant role in the fighting, which ultimately went against the BDB and their Misratan allies. The many ex-soldiers of the BDB have made clear they will never agree to Khalifa Haftars rule and refuse to even consider laying down their arms until the “war criminal” is no longer a candidate for national leadership.
Signs of Cooperation?
A rare joint operation by LNA and PC forces occurred from November 2 to November 8, 2017, when the LNA-affiliated Special Operations Forces commanded by Major Imad Trabulsi and pro-PC forces commanded by Major General Osama Juwaili (commander of the PC/GNA western military region and a former officer in the Qaddafi-era Libyan Army) mounted a joint attack in the Wirshefana district (southwest of Tripoli) on the local 4th Brigade commanded by Omar Tantoush. Trabulsi and Juwaili are both from the western city of Zintan, where many powerful militias exist as rivals to similarly powerful rivals in Misrata. A loyalist general in Qaddafi’s Libyan Army during the 2011 revolution, Tantoush was released from prison in 2015 to serve in Khalifa Haftar’s LNA but left a year later. He was replaced by Trabulsi.
Tantoush’s 4th Brigade was accused by Trabulsi of harboring an armed group (including 120 mercenaries from Darfur) belonging to the pro-Qaddafist Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya (PFLL) who attempted to take control of the main routes in and out of Tripoli in mid-October. Apparently there were fears that the Qaddafists had lost faith in the leadership of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi (said to be in Wirshefana and afflicted with depression) and were preparing to join Haftar’s LNA. Oddly, both the PC and the LNA denied authorizing the operation, effectively depriving it of any significance as an example of possible cooperation.
There are elements of the LNA that support the PC/GNA and elements of BaM that support Khalifa Haftar. Though BaM and the LNA profess to have a common enemy in the Islamic State, there is little coordination between the two and incidents such as a July clash between BaM and LNA units that allowed Islamic State fighters to escape are not unheard of.
BaM has expressed its willingness to cooperate with any group to destroy the Islamic State in Libya, which they fear will begin recruiting amongst illegal migrants unable to get to Europe but unwilling to return home. However, as seen above, this willingness to cooperate does not appear to include entertaining overtures from the LNA. There are suspicions in Libya that both BaM and the LNA have a certain degree of tolerance for Islamic State activities in the hope that the extremists will attack their rivals.
At the moment, Khalifa Haftar’s LNA is the strongest military grouping in the country. BaM has significant internal divisions and resents the PC/GNA for failing to provide it with the support it expected during the battle for Sirte and afterwards. The PC/GNA’s “Libyan Army” does not yet exist, the loyalties of the Presidential Guard appear somewhat flexible, and the National Guard is simply the armed wing of a pretend government.
Though the LNA may be the leading contender to form a national army, there is still widespread and determined opposition to Haftar’s play for power in Libya; the leader of Libya’s High State Council, Abd al-Rahman Swehli, recently told Reuters that the LNA was an “armed organization outside the state” and rebuked Haftar for seeking a return to authoritarian rule: “The majority of Libyans will not accept the return of dictatorship or the militarization of the country once again… We will not accept another dictatorship in Libya under any circumstances.”
A successful advance on Tripoli by Haftar later this year or in 2018 may render the question of who will form Libya’s national army moot, but it will raise new questions about the military structure of an extended and expected armed resistance to the Field Marshal’s rule.
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