Libya’s new government has issued an ultimatum to its militias: disband and disarm – or else. The drive to flush out the numerous militia groups that have operated with impunity since the fall of the Gaddafi regime follows the killing of the US ambassador, Chris Stephens, two weeks ago, and demonstrations over the weekend that saw protesters seize control of several militia headquarters.
On the face of it, these moves look promising. Libya’s democratically elected rulers are beginning to take responsibility, backed up by a population that has become increasingly dissatisfied with the state’s slow progress in establishing itself as the principal power since the upheaval last year.
The post-conflict environment has brought ongoing clashes between rival militia groups, clashes between the state and militias, assassinations and turf wars over smuggling routes. Furthermore, the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi was the second of its kind since June – a month in which the British ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith, was also targeted.
However, there are still two principal obstacles to sidelining militia groups, including jihadist militias operating in Derna, Libya’s Islamist stronghold.
While Libyans and international commentators alike have been celebrating the weekend’s events as a victory – in particular the storming of the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia (the group blamed for the ambassador’s killing) – the militias are simply being driven underground. They have abandoned their bases with their weapons and ammunition, rather than being detained or brought under government control.
That will compound existing security problems because it means militias could switch to operating as small units, instead of larger groups that are more easily identified and targeted. The government could still try to eliminate militias in their new form, but it remains doubtful that the state army, usually suited to targeting larger military formations and identifiable headquarters, has the organisation, experience and effectiveness to combat smaller, dispersed units that might continue and even increase their hit-and-run operations.
Moreover, this implies that the government is abandoning the idea of a reconciliatory process in favour of direct armed confrontation. That could be problematic in an unstable post-conflict environment that has yet to remedy differences between existing rulers and their predecessors. It could also be detrimental because of the links militias have with local regions and neighbourhoods. Some have extensive tribal, political and familial ties. The ramifications of this will be all the more severe because of the lack of state control and a functioning security force.
The extent to which the government intends to see out its pledge to defeat militias remains to be seen – since it has yet to define the parameters of legal and illegal militias. That means certain groups will not be challenged because of their untouchable status. For example, militias of the Nafusa mountains in the western part of the country, especially those from Zintan (who continue to hold Saif Gaddafi despite the government’s protests), will retain their autonomy.
What this essentially means is that the government will really be able to tackle only the opportunistic militias that emerged after the downfall of the regime. These are groups of armed men that were formed locally to look after their neighbourhoods in the ensuing security vacuum and who may or may not engage in petty criminal activities. However, more robust and broader networks of militias, especially those that developed during the 2011 uprising, will operate as normal.
Yet if certain groups are allowed to remain autonomous, that will not only prolong the precarious security environment (as well as tarnishing the political process because of the protection they are given) but also invite smaller groups to join their ranks, making the government’s efforts a futile and tokenistic endeavour.
In a previous article I argued that one realistic approach to security challenges in Libya would be to recognise that the most powerful militia forces will remain the primary force on the ground.
It may be that the Libyan government is beginning to accept this reality. But it is imperative to do so as part of a regulated framework – making militias not just more accountable but also more effective and efficient as law enforcers working in partnership with a centralised state security force.