The Libyan Arab Armed Forces: A Hybrid Armed Actor?

What exactly is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF)? Is it simply the country’s army — a state force — as its supporters contend? Or is it no more than an alliance of militias or a family enterprise, as its detractors claim? The answers to these questions require understanding the nature of state authority in Libya as well as the nature of the relationship between armed groups and society.

In December 2019, the LAAF appeared poised to enter the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Haftar had sunk U.N.-led efforts to reach a political settlement when he launched the offensive that April. His backers insisted that he was seeking to rid the capital of militias and extremists. But his ambitions clearly stretched further: The international community had been courting him, yet he had walked away from every deal on the table. His ambition of controlling the country was finally in reach. And yet, six months later, a humbled Haftar appeared at a press conference alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives (the internationally recognized, but perennially divided, parliament), conveying his support for a ceasefire and a political settlement. Turkey’s military support for Haftar’s rivals had turned the tide of the conflict. The LAAF was losing territory and its quest to control the country had come to an end.

The ramifications of Haftar’s failure are still unfolding. A new round of political negotiations is ongoing, but the unresolved dilemma of how to engage — or marginalize — Haftar and his LAAF remains. The field marshal’s erstwhile international backers — the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and France — do not appear to have entirely lost faith, despite the significant amount of military and political support Haftar has squandered. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Haftar’s offensive, his political opponents, particularly in civilian authorities, began to be more openly critical of the LAAF. But Haftar retains influence over the political process. To understand where these developments might be heading it is necessary to pose questions as to the nature of the LAAF.

Does Libya’s Security Sector Contain Any State Actors? Does It Matter?

The language used to describe the LAAF is consequential. Central to its claim to legitimacy is how the LAAF has tried to position itself as the military arm of the state, while dismissing its opponents as “militias,” a pejorative term in the Libyan context. However, the terms currently in use to describe armed groups in social science literature lack sufficient explanatory power to describe the LAAF’s behaviors. This article uses an assessment of the LAAF to engage in the debate over usage of the term “hybrid armed actor,” rendering the coining of the term “hybrid armed actor” term preferable.

Much of the academic discourse on state-building in Libya in recent decades has involved the concept of “statelessness.” This “statelessness” was borne of a Gaddafi-era “aversion to reliance on state institutions and ideologies for political legitimacy and loyalty,” according to Lisa Anderson. For example, the Libyan security sector has long been atomized. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Muammar Gaddafi attacked the Libyan army as an instrument of repression, developing a series of praetorian units to “coup-proof” the regime. No effective state military has emerged since Gaddafi’s death in 2011. Instead, a series of locally constituted armed groups have been formed. These groups are powerful within their local constituencies, but have limited ability to project power and consolidate nationally. The exception is the LAAF, which has steadily expanded from 2014 until 2020, when its bid to control Tripoli failed. Its portrayal of itself as a national force that can cut deals in order to expand has been important to this expansion.

Toby Dodge contends that all actors are effectively state actors — he rejects the distinction between “states” and “societies.” But, in the case of Libya, aren’t they all just actors competing for control of the state in various fields? Although the answer may not matter for academics it does for policymakers, who must make practical judgments about which individuals, entities, and armed groups (and extended networks) they should engage and how they should engage them. Terms that explain how armed groups and their affiliated networks operate are thus very helpful.

Hybridity: An Acceptable Analytical Crutch?

Analysts examining Libya’s security sector have engaged with the concept of hybridity to describe the nature of a Libyan security sector in which the supposed agents of the state do not submit to the authority of the state and its institutions. They note that understanding the nature of these relationships is critical to the development of implementable security sector reform processes. Yet, this approach comes with tradeoffs. All the contributors to this series highlight the problems associated with an abstract Weberian conception of a separate and disinterested state. Similarly, all acknowledge that, by labelling an armed actor as “hybrid,” the implicit assumption is that they are a combination of a state and nonstate actor, thereby reinforcing the Weberian conception of the state, but in new garb, (i.e., a neo-Weberian formulation).

But this flaw is offset by the practical need to be able to explain how armed actors relate to the de jure institutions of the state and to how that state functions. This is critical for analyzing the evolving relationship between de jure and de facto power, capability, and the legitimacy of rival actors in the countries in question. Seemingly agnostic terms such as “armed groups” elide the economic and political aspects of these networks.

LAAF: Neither a State Actor nor a Military

The LAAF falls short of the threshold for being considered a state force or military on three counts. First, its legal basis is contested: The LAAF is an alliance of groups that are affiliated with a government — the eastern-based Interim Government — that is not recognized by the United Nations, and a parliament — the eastern-based House of Representatives — that is. Yet, owing to chronic divisions, procedural violations, and lack of due process, the House of Representatives’ 2015 decision to appoint Haftar as general commander for Libyan armed forces is disputed. The LAAF has, however, successfully utilized support from the House of Representatives and the Interim Government to ensure legislation is passed to access funds through state sources and to legitimize its expanding interests in the private sector. The founding of a Defence Committee in 2016 by the LAAF and the eastern-based government, parliament, and central bank created a vehicle for direct funding for the LAAF, while military investment legislation supported the development of a Military Authority for Investment and Public Works in 2017, emulating the Egyptian model of military control of key areas of the economy. The LAAF has used this veneer of legality to exceed its actual legal powers and has been implicated in economic activities that it has no mandate for, such as the export of fuel and the issuance of work visas.

One particularly telling incident was the use of a newly created parallel entity of the Brega Fuel and Marketing Company to sign a 10-year fuel distribution deal with the Military Authority for Investment and Public Works. The Military Authority for Investment and Public Works in turn signed a contract with a United Arab Emirates-based company to sell subsidized Libyan fuel to commercial customers on a floating station near the Libyan coast. This mechanism would have allowed the Military Authority for Investment and Public Works to profiteer from a subsidy intended for citizens, but the arrangement did not get implemented, likely as a result of international scrutiny.

Second, the LAAF is neither a partner of, nor subject to oversight from, any legislative or executive authority. It has rarely even paid lip service to the House of Representatives’ oversight of its activities. Haftar has said he is too busy managing the war to appear before the parliamentary body. A putative announcement of military rule in April 2020 that never came to fruition illustrates that, rather than being subject to the state, the LAAF wants to become the state.

Third, the LAAF falls short in terms of its consolidation as a military institution. The group fuses former elements of Gaddafi-era armed forces, new recruits trained through central command structures, and assorted militia with ideological (Salafist), tribal, and regional groups. The debate over the LAAF is perhaps best summarized as a dispute over the relative balance of these components. The relationship of each of these elements to Haftar and his central command varies. Some of the largest and best-equipped groups were formed by the central command beginning in 2016. Brigade 106 is a good example of the type of unit that the LAAF is seeking to develop. The brigade originally formed in 2014 and was previously in charge of Haftar’s protection before being formalized by the LAAF in 2016. It is now the LAAF’s largest single group. From its formalization, young military recruits have enlisted in Brigade 106 in large numbers. Yet, the group has largely stayed out of battle, although it has suffered heavy losses when it has engaged. The leadership of the brigade reflects the duality of the LAAF. Officially, its commander is Maj. Gen. Salem Raheel. But in reality, its de facto leader remains Haftar’s son, Khaled. This is further evidence that the key elements of the LAAF are closely connected to Haftar by familial and kinship ties.

Other groups, however, appear to have little more than a tactical alliance with Haftar. This is true particularly in geographical areas into which the LAAF has expanded, beginning in 2019. In these areas, some local protagonists simply appear to have concluded that Haftar was the player to back on the national chessboard. Many of the armed groups that form part of the LAAF alliance negotiated deals with Haftar. Excluding the bloody campaigns in Benghazi and Derna, the LAAF’s expansion has come mostly as a result of deals rather than conquest. The LAAF had developed something somewhat akin to a franchising model. Consider, for example, Battalion 128, which is headed by Hassan Maatuq al-Zadma. The battalion was formed in 2016 to protect the town of Harawa, which lies 70km from Sirte, from Islamic State attacks. It quickly gained the support of LAAF leadership and has since expanded across the country, incorporating preexisting groups and individual fighters. Battalion 128 now has approximately a dozen units and, in the south of the country, it appears to have reached out to groups sidelined during broader LAAF expansion there. This may have been done in coordination with the LAAF leadership, but it is notable that Battalion 128’s coherence appears heavily reliant on Zadma as an individual. This is indicative of the challenge that the LAAF has in ensuring command and control over the assortment of groups and personalities it has brought together.

So, if the LAAF is not a military, what about another state-centric term, such as “paramilitary”? This may navigate the legal deficits, but it remains inappropriate because the LAAF, in its present form, is not a creation of formal state structures.

Some of the terms used to describe nonstate actors, such as “criminals,” “warlords,” and “bigmen” (a term widely used in scholarship on sub-Saharan Africa) are not satisfactory to describe the LAAF. While these terms describe some of the socio-economic and revenue-generating characteristics of the LAAF, they rely on analyzing the individuals steering the organizations rather than the organizations themselves. To describe all actors as subservient to Haftar oversimplifies the complex bargaining processes in areas where the LAAF operates, even if Haftar the cadre of men around him are the most powerful elements of the network. These terms also have little place for the motivating role that ideology plays: The LAAF’s nationalist rubric, forged in its campaigns in Benghazi and Derna, is a source of ideational power that appears to differentiate it from opponents, even though the LAAF’s forces are better viewed as a vehicle for Haftar’s ambitions. A focus on “rebels,” “rebel governance,” and “insurgents” may be more apt, conveying the resistance that the LAAF presents to state control from all directions. Yet, the LAAF’s connections to state structures listed above make these terms also unsuitable.

Reflecting the Empirical Reality

Thus, the terms discussed above all provide limited explanatory power. The term “hybrid armed actor” better reflects the LAAF’s complex relationship to the formal de jure institutions of the state (defined here as the Government of National Accord, the House of Representatives, the ministries, and state institutions) and the LAAF’s de facto dominance of areas under its control. Use of this term opens important lines of enquiry for policymakers who need to understand the connections of the LAAF in the political and economic fields, as well as the military.

Western states have been slow to appreciate the LAAF’s expansion in these fields and have been, to some extent, blindsided by their own refusal to engage with civilian leaders that they do not recognize as legitimate in eastern Libya. This lack of broader engagement has contributed to an absence of effective strategy for engaging with Haftar and the LAAF. The result has been to give Haftar a carte blanche in political negotiations in the hope that he can deliver the east of the country, a mistake that was made clear by the field marshal’s decision to launch an offensive on Tripoli in late 2019. A more effective strategy for engagement should begin with an accurate assessment of what the LAAF is — and what it isn’t. Using the right terms will aid this process.