Msaed (eastern Libya), Asharq Al-Awsat—No one could imagine how a simple car mechanic, working at a garage in the eastern city of Benghazi, could in just a few short years find himself in command of thousands of armed fighters. Wissam Bin Hamid, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Libya Shield militia, is one of the new generations of warlords that has emerged in post-Gaddafi Libya.
The turmoil in Libya has led to the emergence of an extremely well-off class of warlords who, having achieved considerable influence on the ground, have been able to amass enormous wealth and power. Bin Hamid, who is in his mid-thirties, is reportedly worth tens of millions of US dollars, heading one of the most powerful militias in Benghazi—the eastern city where Islamist fighters, including Libya Shield, are fighting against the Libyan National Army led by military strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity a former Libyan official said that militia leaders are receiving their funding from the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC).
Each fighter receives a salary of between 1,500 to 3,000 Libyan dinars per month, however after the Libyan National Army launched “Operation Dignity” to “purge” Islamist militias from Benghazi, salaries almost doubled, the Libyan official said.
This has led some Islamist militia commanders to seek to exploit the situation for their own personal gains. Warlords who lead militias of 3,000 fighters claim to be in charge of 15,000 fighters in order to claim extra funds, the source said.
Wissam Bin Hamid is one of the new generation of Libyan warlords; his Libya Shield militia is part of the Islamist alliance that has declared an independent Islamic emirate in the city of Benghazi last month. Haftar’s forces have denied being pushed out of the eastern city, portraying their fallback as a strategic retreat ahead of a forthcoming military advance.
An alliance of mainly Islamist militias, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Al-Sharia, overran key military bases last week, a stronghold for self-declared secularist forces belonging to retired Libyan general Khalifa Haftar.
An Ansar Al-Sharia video showed Wissam Bin Hamid congratulating masked followers inside a Benghazi military base that had previously been occupied by Libyan Special Forces.
“We will not stop until we establish the rule of God,” Bin Hamid said.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with people close to Bin Hamid in an attempt to learn more about the man who has gone from car mechanic to warlord, emerging as one of the most influential military figures in the civil war-torn country.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat Nasser Mohammed, one of Bin Hamid’s former neighbors in Benghazi, said the militia leader is in his thirties and originally hails from the northwestern city of Misrata. Before the 2011 revolution against former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, Bin Hamid used to work at a car repair garage in Benghazi. He put down the wrench and took up the gun, like thousands of other Libyan nationals, during the Libyan revolution. Bin Hamid quickly rose through the ranks due to his personal charisma and leadership skills, making a name for himself within Libya’s close-knit revolutionary community. But it was not until several months after the death of Gaddafi that he formed his first militia.
According to local sources, despite his latest Islamist rhetoric, Bin Hamid had no real connection with the leader of Ansar Al-Sharia, Mohammed Al-Zahhawi, until Islamists’ popularity started to dwindle following military strongman Khalifa Haftar’s emergence on the scene.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, a retired Libyan military officer Hussein Othman said that Haftar’s military successes forced Libya’s Islamists to reorganize themselves into a unified front—ultimately allowing them to successfully push back against Haftar’s Libyan National Army.