Skip to main content

In Libya, Militias Rule

The collapse of Libya’s intelligence and security sectors requires urgent reform.
Men grieve over a grave at the funerals for those killed in Saturday's clashes at the Libya Shield brigade headquarters, in Benghazi June 9, 2013. Libya's army will take control of a militia's bases in the eastern city of Benghazi after clashes in which 31 people were killed, an army spokesman said on Sunday. Fighting broke out on Saturday at the headquarters of the Libya Shield brigade when protesters demanded the disbanding of the militias, whose continued existence nearly two years after the fall of Muam

Piles of rubble and mangled metal litter the corners of two leafy upscale neighborhoods in Tripoli. A car bomb in April destroyed half of the diplomatic offices of the French Embassy, damaging vital infrastructure in a 200-meter [656 feet] radius. The June 11 car bomb at the Italian Embassy has created an atmosphere of diplomatic tension, with many wondering when it will end. On June 9, 31 protesters died outside a military base in Benghazi during a protest. In the last few days, indiscriminate attacks against the Ministry of Defense's special forces and burning of official security offices have killed more in the east of the country. Most worrisome, commander and de facto chief of the armed forces Salim Kenidi spoke to the media, asking the attackers, “Who are you? What do you want? Let us sit and negotiate.”

Vital security questions are being asked of [Prime Minister] Ali Zeidan’s government, which threatened Libya’s long-term diplomatic prospects. How have armed groups across the country been able to assemble lethal explosive devices, transport and execute attacks against sensitive targets? Moreover, how does the most densely armed territory on earth, with one of the most porous borders in the world, lack a functioning intelligence service?

Continued civilian protests across the country have focused on reinstating the army and police, and integrating militias under the Ministries of Defense and Interior. However, with numerous bombings and new actors seeking Libya’s depot of arms from across the region, the security picture is more complex than the domestic picture may indicate. The most feared arm of the ex-regime, the intelligence services, is never spoken of and could be the first step toward controlling the situation.

Intelligence services

As the regime of former President Moammar Gadhafi collapsed many hurried to herald Libya a blank canvas, a country with no real functioning arms or institutions. However, the intelligence agencies were Gadhafi’s strongest arm. They worked in tandem to create an environment of fear and simultaneously extinguish threats to the old regime at home and abroad. This arm was rapidly dismantled. Intelligence offices, files and dossiers were burnt or confiscated and members of the services were imprisoned, were killed or fled. A number of low- and mid-ranking officials have remained outside, but are subject to hostility from revolutionary brigades. With rampant absenteeism across the security forces — estimates ranging from 20 to 40% — and a culture of fear having served in such a brutal, highly sensitive and partisan section of the regime. The former National Transitional Council attempted to reinstate it in June 2012, but the damage was done by this point, stifling any efforts to reignite this needed arm of the state. A military intelligence report given to the General National Congress (GNC) this week was perhaps so weak that it was ignored by the congressmen themselves.

The continued growth and strengthening of militias attempting to fill in this void in the state have arguably worsened the problem. Acting extra-judicially and commonly employing torture, undermining the legitimacy of the government at home and abroad.

While militias look to prevent or apprehend suspected Gadhafists and former regime members — notably from the intelligence services — other threats go under the radar. Terrorists, criminals and paramilitary organizations have been able to attack civilian, state and foreign targets, evading capture or identification. Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar of the Algerian branch of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, according to various sources, visited Libya in 2012 to purchase arms. The alleged perpetrators of the 9/11 attack were photographed by US intelligence in Benghazi, but have still evaded capture or identification by the Libyan authorities.

Benghazi: new problems, old solutions

The threat of and systematic use of violence toward the international community has reached an alarming rate across the country. Attacks aimed at the UN, Red Cross, and Italian, British and US missions (twice) between April and September 2012 literally drove the diplomatic community out of Benghazi. Civilian protests at these occasions reflect the city’s displeasure and a strong demand for order. Though to date, neither individuals nor groups have been charged and these attacks, like others, have passed with little to no official action.

Today, Benghazi is caught in an environment of perpetuating violence. Politically (and revolutionary) motivated assassinations of the police have left the city with a catastrophic security deficit — and almost no arrests. Quasi-official militias such as Dera Libya, led by Wisam Bin Hmaid, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense are largely allocated the task by the government to provide security in the city, at the borders and often in other territories across the country. Protests in the past week outside the militia barracks demanding full disarmament and integration citing insecurity are equally nothing new. In the ensuing chaos, a flurry of shots were fired, killing 31 local men when protesters attempted to enter the barracks.

Bin Hmaid cites similar fears, but that he works alongside the Ministry of Defense, with a security deficit and functioning army as a reason for Dera to remain outside of the integration process. He has a point. Yusuf Mangoush, chief of the armed forces, resigned on June 10 following the death of protesters. Ministers of defense and interior Mohammed Mahmoud al-Bargathi and Ashour Shuwail are both out of jobs due to the recent political isolation law. As bombings continue, citizen protests continue to demand security, militias demand order before they integrate and the security services now in complete disarray, the revolutionary government is facing one of its strongest challenges. If they are to succeed they must look to shift entrenched attitudes and policy and develop a radically new security strategy.


In order to respond effectively, an emphatic push toward repatriating and reclaiming existing security infrastructure of the Libyan state must be made.

There remain countless intelligence offices, police stations and army barracks that house militias from all over the country. A number of these militias have a particular loyalty to the GNC and affiliation to the Ministries of Interior and Defense. However, a number of rogue militias operate in these and other buildings. Even the official and quasi-official security structures are confusing. More worrisome, in an interview with Al-Monitor, a senior member of a government militia claimed that there were over 30 different control rooms in Tripoli alone, issuing different orders and working independently with different communication systems.

The need to leverage existing security infrastructure and communications to bolster the state’s logistical power and conduct coherent unified operations with solid intelligence is crucial.

Repatriating security infrastructure in Tripoli began under former Minister of Interior Shuwail in the last few months. However, Libya’s other cities and border towns are littered with militias clinging onto vital infrastructure. With weapons trading between Algeria, Mali and a string of recent bombings in Niger, the inability to control this infrastructure confuses any coherent intelligence gathering, or wider national security strategy.

The ease and access to infrastructure to conduct terrorist activities is one of the biggest problems facing the Libyan state, shackling the democratic transition within an atmosphere of uncertainty.

A reformed, doctrinal security service that respects human rights must be a parallel initiative. By reforming and reinstating the most feared of Libya’s security services, Ali Zidan can begin to monitor and gradually improve the security quandary. A unified communication system to instill coherence in the process is only the beginning of a long-term process. International assistance will come in its droves in order to rebuild this feared arm of the state. The question for Zeidan will be where to draw the line between security and sovereignty to begin to navigate the country to safety.

Anas El Gomati is the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first Libyan think tank, and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on socioeconomics, democratic governance, the security sector and political Islam in Libya. He is also a visiting lecturer at the NATO Defense College in Rome, where his work focuses on political analysis and public policy. On Twitter: @AGomati

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial