Libyan militia groups have been dubbed a blessing by some and a curse by others. However, regardless of your political or religious position, it is generally agreed that they contribute to problems of physical security in Libya. The absence of an effective army has provided a security vacuum that is currently being filled by countless militias, some larger than others, some local, and others that operate throughout the country. There are a few militia groups that are loyal to the transitional government, and others that operate on their own accord with their own agenda. In this fiche a brief typology of the different militia groups will be discussed. However a disclaimer is necessary in order to note that there is no clear answer for many of the questions regarding Libyan militias at the moment and thus this evaluation may be scrutinised.
In the huge chaos of different armed groups, brigades, and militias a useful distinction can be made between four main categories: pro-government, independent, localized, and ideological.
The pro-government armed groups are generally consistent of revolutionary militias that were formed during the rebellion against Col. Ghaddafi. These militias have now been included in the governmental pay-roll and thus are “loyal” to the government. Some of them take on policing duties (such as the National Security Directorate (NSD)) and others stand in for the National Army (such as the Al-Saiqa Forces). The gravest problem with the pro-governmental militias is that they are numerous and have relative autonomy. This entails that even though they nominally fall under the ministries of Interior or Defense, they operate largely on their own accord. These militias generally operate across the country with different brigades.
The “Independent” armed groups often overlap with the “Ideological” groups; however certain distinctions can be made. Two of the most prominent examples of independent forces are the Al-Zintan Revolutionaries' Military Council and the Misrata Brigades. The Al-Zintan council forms an umbrella organization for 23 separate brigades predominantly operating near the city of Al-Zintan and the Nafusa mountains. It is currently under the leadership of Mukhtar Khalifah Shahub, a former navy officer. The Misrata Brigades have their stronghold in the coastal city of Misrata, however they are active throughout most of central Libya. The Misrata Brigades are grouped under the “Misratan Union of Revolutionaries” comprising of some 40,000 members. The Misrata militias are known to be the most active in central Libya and are blamed for numerous kidnappings and assassinations.
The Localized militia is a category on its own. These militias tend to be very small and are predominant in the southern part of the country. Small villages or towns, that are left unprotected by the lack of police of military presence, have become home to unofficial policing groups that fill the security vacuum. More so than with the larger, geographically extended armed groups, these smaller militias often carry strong ethnic or tribal ties. For example, in the city of Kufra ethnically different militias were found clashing.
Furthermore, there are certain armed groups that have ideological agendas, mainly Islamist. The most notorious and well known of which is the Ansar Al-Sharia in Libya. Ansar Al-Sharia is based in eastern Libya, most prominently in Benghazi and Derna. The nature of Ansar Al-Sharia is much debated, but what is generally known is that it holds significant power in the north-east of the country and has a strong Islamist agenda. Some have speculated ties with the Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They are also accused by the US for being behind the attacks on the American embassy in September 2012.
While the four above-mentioned categories are not exhaustive, they are meant to group the different militias and forces into intelligible categories. The nature of each militia currently active in Libya is very difficult to summarize, however there is one general remark that can be made. Libya currently finds itself in a security vacuum that is being filled with many regional armed groups who are either trying to restore the rule of law, or counter the central, transitionary council. The consequence of this is a perpetuated state of lawlessness with kidnappings, killings and destruction, all of which are left thoroughly unaccounted for by the government. The government is desperately trying to rebuild the national army and bring it to the forefront to restore stability to the country, but until then the different forms of militia will continue to encroach upon a greater national legitimacy.
Islamists lack popular support in Libya as they do not have strong ties with the population. They see militias as a tool to gain influence in the security sector and to put weight on the political process, however direct links between Islamist movements and militias cannot be precisely determined. More worrying for Libya is the resurgence of terrorist activities by Al Qaeda, using the lack of governmental presence in areas of lawlessness especially in the Sahara region to construct their bases. Some even say that Libya has become 'AQIM's headquarters' in the region, leading to terrorist attacks in neighbouring countries and helping jihadist groups in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. The attack on the industrial compound of In-Amenas in January 2013 in southern Algeria is believed to have been organised from an AQIM basis in Libya. It is also widely speculated that weapons going to Islamist factions in Northern Mali pass by the Libyan frontiers through AQIM's networks. Even if the influence of Islamist movements does not reach the local population's daily lives, the situation is starting to be of concern. Especially regarding the development of social networks and illegal activities to the benefit of the local population is worrisome. A good example of this normalisation of Islamist influence was a three-day conference which was held in September, in Benghazi by Ansar Al-Sharia and AQIM- affiliated jihadist groups.