Libya’s Descent into Chaos: Warring Clans and Its Impact on Regional Stability

Libya’s Descent into Chaos: Warring Clans and Its Impact on Regional Stability

Publication: Terrorism Monitor

By: Dario Cristiani

The Jamestown Foundation


Since the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011 and the collapse of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya (Republic of the Masses), Libya has fallen into a process of constant and ever deeper chaos, which has lately reached a new climax. This conflict, however, has its roots in some specific features characterizing Libya as a “nation-state”: while Libya may be a nation-state on paper, it has yet to become a proper and unified national society. Indeed, the very roots of the revolution in Libya lie in the significant structural, regional and territorial imbalances that have characterized Libya since its establishment and the dominance of parochial and narrow interests.

Indeed, regional and political imbalances – the neglected east and south against the stronger and richer west – were key in setting the landscape in which the Libyan revolution took place. Revolts started in Benghazi and moved east to west, with a long military stalemate occurring in Ras Lanuf, historically a sort of informal cultural border dividing Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. [1] Geographically, this was similar to what happened with the 1969 revolution. That revolution was a reaction against the dominance of the east, Benghazi and the royal circle. Among the 12 members of the Revolutionary Command Council, which led the revolution and then acted as the supreme authority in Libya between 1969 and 1975, only four were from the east. [2]

Moreover, another factor explaining the complete collapse of order in post-Qaddafi Libya is the complete lack of any reliable state institution. Despite being the “Republic of the Masses”, Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya was essentially based on his sole, complete personal rule: 42 years under this system left Libya as a sort of institutional desert following the collapse of the regime. The regime overlapped the state and as a result the boundaries, both conceptual and organizational, between the two became soon nonexistent. [3] That explains why, in Libya, the fall of the regime caused the fall of the state, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where the regimes, not the state, collapsed. However, this lack of institutional capacity must be seen in a longer-term perspective: that was a structural feature of Libya as a nation-state since its foundation. Libya at independence did not have a stable state apparatus and oil and external revenue allowed the rulers to avoid building a bureaucratic state, moving from the rentier patronage of King Idris and the Senussi monarchy to the distributive republic led by Qaddafi. [4]

The Dynamics of the Current Crisis

Institutional incapacity and dominance of localism represent the key structural elements of the Libyan socio-political environment. At the end of 2013, the General National Congress (GNC) voted to extend its life beyond the original February 2014 deadline (Libya Herald, December 23, 2013). This triggered a number of reactions from a few groups through the entire Libyan political spectrum: the Zintanis, supported by the forces of Ibrahim al-Jadhran, threatened to storm the parliament. On February 14, General Khalifa Haftar announced the continuing work of the National Conference, the Libyan government, and the constitutional declaration in a statement broadcasted by a private TV channel, with the prime minister of that time, Ali Zeidan, who said that the government was nevertheless safe and the situation under total control (Reuters, February 14). [5]

Despite these reassurances, the situation in Libya continued to deteriorate. In mid-May, after weeks of clashes and violence, the self-declared Libyan National Army, led by Haftar, launched an attack against Islamist-oriented militias, namely the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, in Benghazi. This was the start of “Operation Dignity” whose aim was, in Haftar’s words, to “eradicate terrorism” from Libya (See Terrorism Monitor, May 30). Fighting erupted in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, on May 18, when the Zintan-based Qaaqaa and Sawaaq brigades attacked on parliamentary facilities. Authorities proposed new elections to end the stalemate and reduce conflict and on June 25, Libya held elections to elect members of the new House of Representatives (HoR) (Reuters, May 20).

This election did not stop the country from falling into chaos. On the contrary, it accelerated the polarization of the country. A number of groups and militias supporting the previous GNC parliament launched “Operation Fajr Libya” (Libyan Dawn) on July 13; this led to the splitting of Libyan executive and legislative power into two competing parliaments. By the end of August, Libyan Dawn forces had taken control of Tripoli, forcing the HoR to move to Tobruq, in the far east of the country (Al-Monitor, August 25). The recent decision by the Supreme Court to consider the HoR “illegitimate” has reignited the attempts by the Tobruk based government to use force to regain the formal control of the country (Libya Herald, November 6).

On November 28, General Haftar claimed that his forces controlled 80 percent of Benghazi and he further said that he wanted to regain the control of Tripoli within three months. He said that the real military threat was represented by militant group Ansar al-Shari’a, considered to be well-equipped and skilled fighters, while he dismissed the capacities of Libyan Dawn and the “local branch of ISIS [in Derna].” He also criticized what he perceived to be the lack of external support, lamenting that regional countries who supported him had only provided old and outdated military equipment and weaponry. He also dismissed alleged support from the United States and stressed once again that the significance of the battle he is leading goes beyond Libyan borders; it is part of a wider effort against “terrorism” (Corriere della Sera, November 28).

However, claims by Haftar of a quick and relatively smooth victory are far too optimistic. The situation remains in the balance and no side can yet claim an open and clear superiority.

Dignity vs. Dawn

Making sense of the current alliances in Libya remains a challenging exercise as interests and ambitions are fragmented, diversified and can shift suddenly. It is almost impossible to find a unified, clear and coherent agenda shared by all the actors of one bloc and, most of the time, alliances remain based on tactical and short-term interests. The historical fault lines through which Libyan politics and social conflicts have been largely analyzed – Tripolitania vs Cyrenaica; inter- and intra-tribal conflicts; rural vs urban realities; Qaddafi loyalists vs revolutionary hardliners; Islamists vs secularists – cannot provide a clear and satisfying conceptual explanation to understand the current conflict. The ongoing events can be more thoroughly explained by an overlapping of these fault lines and the current crisis in Libya is absolutely something more than a simply tribal conflict or a clear dispute between two coherent and homogeneous groups. These two groups can be described as General Haftar’s supporters and Operation Dignity and the supporters of the previous GNC government and Operation Libyan Dawn.

The “Dignity” Front

The Dignity Front is led by the forces of General Haftar who considered the GNC too oriented towards Islamist and conservative forces. Although partially true, this is not entirely accurate. Among Operation Dignity’s supporters, there is the Zintani Sawaq Brigade, led by Imad Mustafa al-Tarabulsi and considered to be one of the strongest factions in Libya. Another major group supporting Haftar is the Qaaqaa Brigade, formed by other Zintan rebels back in 2011. Its commander is Othman Milaiqtah, who survived an assassination attempt in February 2014 (Libya Herald, February 20). Like many other Libyan politicians such as Mahmoud Jibril, the former Libyan parliamentary speaker Muhammad al-Maqrif and the post-revolution interior minister Ashour Showail, Milaiqtah met the criteria enlisted in the contested Isolation Law (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20, 2013). The Isolation Law was voted by the GNC in 2013 to eradicate the presence of members who served the Libyan state under Qaddafi. [6] Indeed, groups of former loyalists now back Haftar and Operation Dignity, including militias from Tobruq and Sirte – a major stronghold of Qaddafi loyalists. Haftar also won the support of a number of influential tribes, such as al-Ubaydat, al-Bara’isa, al-Awaqir and al-Arfa (Limes [Rome], May 29). Ibrahim al-Jadhran, the controversial leader of the Barqa council in the east, also supported Haftar (Libya Monitor, May 20). Moreover, Haftar’s alliance includes the air force, significant sectors of the military intelligence and several police groups (al-Arabiya, May 23). Concerns about the capacity of the GNC to maintain security in the country and a campaign to assassinate senior military and intelligence officials in Benghazi by Islamist forces as well as the presence of groups in the actual Libyan Army that perceive the rise of Islamist forces as dangerous explain why many military leaders have aligned themselves with Haftar.

The “Dawn” Front

The groups forming the Dawn front are those who backed the previous parliament, the GNC. Depicting these forces as simply Islamists can be misleading. While in the east the anti-Haftar forces are largely Islamist, at the same time it is not possible to define this bloc as “Islamist.” The associated groups are better described as an alliance of groups with specific territorial interests (in the case of Misrata) and Islamist and more conservative groups who had an interest in moving forward the transition along the lines that emerged immediately after the end of Qaddafi’s regime. This explains why these groups were so active in promoting the Isolation Law.

This alliance is centered on the militias associated to the Misrata Militia, a key organization that has brought together all of the militias in Misrata; they had a significant hand in winning the 2011 civil war. One of the most important is the Libyan Shield militia, present in Misrata and Tripoli as well as in Benghazi and Khoms. Misratans often aligned themselves with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, although they cannot be considered the same as the Misrata militia is a wide group of different brigades whose outlook and interests can also diverge. In the east, Islamist forces are now part of the so-called Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries formed in June 2014 (al-Arabiya, August 25). The Council includes the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, one of the biggest Islamist brigades, which is based in Benghazi and receives financial support from official institutions, such as the Ministry of Defense. Ansar al-Shari’a, the largest armed jihadist group in Libya, includes Libyans and thousands of foreign fighters from Tunisia, Algeria and other African countries also belongs to the Shura Council. Other group belonging to this alliance are the Rafallah Sahati Brigade, centered in Benghazi, the Brega Matryrs Brigade and Libya Shield 1, a militia close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Another associated Islamist group is the Tripoli Brigade, which is considered close to Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a historical leader of radical Islam in Libya and the head of al-Watan party. This group is however mainly active in Tripoli and western Libya. Finally, an offshoot of the Islamic State organization has also emerged in Libya, specifically in the city of Derna. The city is historically the stronghold for Libyan radical Islamists and has provided hundreds of fighters to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (Al-Monitor, October 20).

The Role of External Powers

Although foreign powers have remained wary of getting openly involved in Libya, largely because they aware of the country’s complexity and the possibility that clear and open support for any of the Libyan factions fighting at the moment may harm their interests and reduce policy options should the factions they support lose their positions, at the same time it is clear that there are two major external alignments in Libya. Haftar is mainly supported by a wide coalition of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Algeria) whose interests sometimes diverge. For instance, Egypt’s and Algeria’s relations have been historically troubled, but on Libya, the two converge. Haftar is also supported by the United States though quietly. The Dawn forces are supported mainly by Qatar and Turkey, which have close relations with the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and with fighters from Misrata and Benghazi. [7]


The dynamics described above have shown that, over the past few months, the crisis in Libya has deepened further. The emergence of two competing parliaments and governments highlights this. This is the result of interlocking of short-term developments, such as the reaction of some key leaders against the Isolation Law and the rising rivalries between those groups who fought the war against Qaddafi (for instance, the Zintanis vs the Misratans and the Islamist groups in the east) and long-term dynamics, such as the predominance of narrow-based, local and parochial interests and the lack of institutions able to manage political conflicts without resorting to violence. This, together with a number of important regional and international problems and declining oil prices that will also have a major impact on a sector already burdened but still fundamental to Libyan economic and social stability, will likely prevent the country settling its domestic conflicts (See Terrorism Monitor, April 4). As such, it is extremely likely that Libya will continue to suffer significant instability.

Dario Cristiani is an adjunct professor in international affairs at Vesalius College in Brussels and a senior analyst at the Global Governance Institute.

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  1. For instance, this is considered Explaining the process of State creation in the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century, Fred Halliday used the Libyan case to provide a good example of the persistence of longue dureè identities in the new, emerging order of the region: “Modern states superimpose on, but do not eliminate, earlier divisions: that in western Libya, around Tripoli, food is based on couscous, whereas in the east, separated by hundreds of miles of desert, it is based on rice, is a longue dureé fact is ever there was one” (Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.77.
  2. Amal S. M. Obeidi, “Political Elites in Libya since 1969,” Dirk Vandewalle (ed.), Libya since 1969. Qaddafi’s Revolution Revisited (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008), p.115.
  3. Hanspeter Mattes, “Formal and Informal Authority in Libya since 1969,” in Vandewalle (ed.) Libya since 1969. Op. cit., pp. 55-81.
  4. Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 251-269.
  5. For a more detailed description of Haftar’s history, see: Derek Henry Flood, “Taking Charge of Libya’s Rebels: An In-Depth Portrait of Colonel Khalifa Haftar,” Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2011,
  6. The GNC passed the Political Isolation Law in May 2013, banning anyone involved in Qaddafi’s regime from participating in the government for 10 years. Theoretically, this was a measure take to protect the revolution but it has instead triggered the reaction of a large number of key leaders within Libya who fear that their political role may be jeopardized. On this see: Roman David and Houda Mzioudet, Personnel Change or Personal Change? Rethinking Libya’s Political Isolation Law, Brookings Doha Center-Stanford Paper 17/03/2014, available at:
  7. On the international politics of the Libyan conflict see: Dario Cristiani and Kacper Rekawek, “Algeria and Egypt Struggle with the Implications of Libya’s Political Chaos,” Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor, June 27, 2014,; and Militant Leadership Monitor, June 2014,



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