Musaid, Libya, Asharq Al-Awsat—As conditions in Libya worsen, the conflicts that have destabilized the country have turned into a standoff between the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, elements associated with Al-Qaeda, and the renegade army officer Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in October 2011, power has slipped completely through the fingers of the new government. The power vacuum spawned a number of political entities that quickly warped into militias with regional, tribal or religious agendas. The conflict raging today can thus be boiled down to a confrontation between four main groups, three of which are fighting tooth-and-nail over strategic landmarks such as Tripoli’s airport, while the fourth is simply biding its time.
The first group constitute the various manifestations of Islamist militancy, of which there are at least 20 different armed groups composed of both Libyans and foreigners. They take their orders either from Al-Qaeda-affiliated individuals or the Muslim Brotherhood in Misrata, and their main goal at this point is to take control of Tripoli. They are also engaged in fierce battles with the forces of Khalifa Haftar in the east of Libya.
West of Tripoli, the Islamist militias call themselves the “Shield Brigade.” In the eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna they go by “Ansar Al-Shari’a,” which the United States has recently classified as a terrorist organization.
The second group is composed of liberals and supporters of the state. This group has controlled the Tripoli International Airport for more than two years, and its two main militia groups are known as the “Qaqaa Brigade” and the “Lightning Brigade.” These two, along with several smaller militias, hail from the city of Zintan, southwest of the capital. Several of these groups distinguished themselves during the revolution against Gaddafi.
The third group is the “National Army” led by Gen. Haftar. His forces are stationed largely to the southeast of Benghazi, and their strategy is based mostly on projecting air power against Islamic radicals, along with the occasional ground operation. Unlike the first two groups, Haftar’s faction is relatively new: It only surfaced at the beginning of this year. Sources, however, say that it is within Haftar’s power to rebuild the former Libyan military. Thousands of volunteers have already flocked to his cause, creating a rudimentary version of a standing army. However, Haftar has yet to receive recognition from the government or any of the large tribes with whom he might find common cause against the Islamist militias.
The fourth group is the tribal sphere of Libya, which has been marginalized and excluded by Islamist militias from the beginning. While the tribes maintain a level of consensus and coordination, they have not yet entered the fray on either Zintan’s side or Haftar’s. The most they have done is level criticisms against the “Misrata group,” which has been accused of siding with Gaddafi during the civil war.
Issa Abdul Majid, leader of the Tebu tribe, told Asharq Al Awsat earlier this week that conditions in the country are rapidly deteriorating. It seems that he, like many other Libyan tribal leaders, prefers to distance himself from the war raging between Haftar and the Islamist militias bankrolled by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda sympathizers.
The door was opened for these militant groups after Gaddafi was killed and the new government failed to form an army or centralize the country’s weakened security apparatus. They also failed to achieve any meaningful national reconciliation following the civil war. In the three years since, Islamist influence has been bolstered by an influx of thousands of foreign fighters from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Sudan and Yemen. Some Libyan security officials estimate the number of foreigners at about 15,000, primarily concentrated in Derna, Benghazi and Libya’s border regions.
Security sources say that Islamist leaders have long felt that Haftar, the Zintan group, and the major tribal powers could constitute a serious military threat to Islamist interests. This invited the influx of foreign fighters from Algeria and Egypt, many of whom have now taken up leadership roles in Islamist militant groups. Their numbers have swelled even further with the return of Libyan militants from Syria and Iraq.
According to several Libyan leaders, the Islamists’ recent defeat in parliamentary elections precipitated the war between the forces of radical Islam and the rest of Libya. One source among the opponents of the militias said that the strategy from the beginning has been to stall the conflict long enough for one of two things: either a comprehensive national reconciliation agreement, disarmament and an end to exclusionary policies, or the formation of an alliance between Haftar, the Zintan group and the tribes that have the military might to defeat the Islamic radicals. The source said that “unfortunately, Islamist militants, under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Misrata, have succeeded in dragging us into a war we are not prepared for. But if we are forced to fight, we will fight. Each side has its part to play.”
Opponents of the Islamist militias say that Misrata and the Brotherhood have acquired massive quantities of weapons over the last three years, both from Gaddafi’s armories and from sources abroad. An official close to Gen. Haftar said that Misrata’s militias first appropriated hundreds of tanks and anti-aircraft missiles from Gaddafi’s army during the final days of the civil war.
He went on to say that Islamist militias that work with the Shield Brigade, the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group have used the last three years of anarchy to establish training camps to organize the fighters that have joined their cause. They have benefited to a large extent from numerous government facilities acquired through parliamentary leaders.
Ansar Al-Shari’a, who have adopted the black banner and iconography of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have said they want to implement “the law of God” and that elections and the democratic process are the work of infidels, despite the fact that they have made ample use of parliament and the government over the last two years. On the battlefield, Ansar Al-Shari’a have focused their energies on a war of attrition with Haftar’s forces in the east, whereas other Misrata-affiliated groups fight mainly in the west.
According to a source close to Haftar, as of last month the general claimed to have 70,000 troops and officers under his command, including 40,000 new recruits. However, the same source claims that Islamist militias outnumber Haftar’s forces significantly, and that their power continues to grow due to foreign support. Haftar’s forces have managed to strike several of Ansar Al-Shari’a’s camps near Benghazi and Derna over the last two months, but despite taking heavy losses the militias have moved into the city and forced Haftar to engage in urban warfare. At the outset, Haftar’s forces were able to isolate militant armories in rural areas around Benghazi, but in the last few days, militias have managed to transport their stores to residential areas in the city or in farmhouses nearby. According to sources, elements of Ansar Al-Shari’a and groups affiliated with them possess an armory of anti-aircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and armored cars.
The scene is therefore set for further violence, on a wider scale.