Security Exchange News

The Battle for Tripoli

27 September 2018

On Wednesday a fresh ceasefire was agreed between rival militias in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The agreement, which was announced by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), was reached after days of heavy fighting in the south of the city. Since 26 August almost 120 people have been killed and thousands more displaced in the capital. Under the deal militias from the town of Tarhouna and rival fighters linked to the interior ministry agreed to implement the earlier UN-brokered accord, which was signed on 4 September.

The fighting in Tripoli has highlighted both the continued fragmentation of Libya, which has blighted the country since Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 and the failure of the GNA to establish any real control over the city where it is based. In the latest wave of violence, the Seventh Brigade from the town of Tarhouna has been battling a coalition of armed brigades - Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, Bab Tajoura Brigade, Nawasi Brigade, Ghnewa Brigade – which are linked to the interior ministry. Misrata’s 301 Brigade also took part in the fighting but later withdrew from the city. Both sides are attempting to increase their influence in the capital, specifically key institutions such as Libya’s Central Bank. The Seventh Brigade claimed they were trying to remove corrupt militias who they accuse of blackmailing state institutions, while the coalition said they were fighting against “criminals and outsiders”.

During a brief lull in fighting earlier this month, gunmen attacked the offices of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in central Tripoli, killing two staff members. The Special Deterrence Force (SDF) – a militia used by the GNA to police the city – said the incident was carried out by “terrorists.” The interior ministry also suggested the assailants were linked to the Islamic State (IS), which later claimed the attack. IS said the NOC and oil fields in eastern Libya were “legitimate targets” for its fighters, claiming that the oil company was the “most important economic pillar” for its enemies in the country. Earlier this year IS-linked militants carried out a twin suicide bomb attack on the election commission’s offices in Tripoli, killing seven people. The group has also carried out similar attacks in eastern Libya against the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalif Haftar. The LNA has recaptured the former IS strongholds of Sirte and Derna; however, recent reports suggest that the extremist group is regrouping in the south of the country. The raid on the NOC is evidence that IS remains a serious security threat in Libya.

There continues to be a high kidnapping threat in Tripoli, with a number of senior figures abducted in the city this year. At the start of September Ahmed Al-Farjani, an official from the Central Bank, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen at Martyr’s Square in the city. The incident prompted several colleagues to protest outside the Bank to demand Farjani’s release and to call for increased protection from the GNA. In July the Chief of the Central Security Department at the Ministry of Interior, Mohammed Al-Damja, was taken from outside his house. The SDF said they had detained Al-Damja over bribery allegations and were questioning him at their headquarters at Mitiga International Airport. The SDF, which is comprised of various militias, has been accused of carrying out arbitrary arrests and torturing suspects, while its leader Abdul Rauf Kara is reported to be a hard-line Islamist.

The GNA has relied on various militias to provide security in Tripoli after failing to integrate them into a conventional or unified national army. The brigades have divided the capital into rival fiefdoms run by warlords. As a consequence, these groups have become increasingly powerful, while the recent clashes have exposed the GNA’s limited ability to exert any authority over them. There has been a steady militarisation of politics in Libya, and the situation in Tripoli is mirrored across the country. In May Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the GNA met with Haftar along with the president of the house of representatives, Aguila Saleh and the head of the council of state, Khaled al-Mishri at a summit in Paris. The various groups agreed to hold elections on 10 December as a part of a renewed attempt at reconciliation, but these talks didn’t include the powerful and heavily-armed militias, many of which have benefited from Libya’s instability.  Several of these militias – including the Misrata Military Council and the Zintan Military Council – issued a statement rejecting the Paris talks. The divisions are deep and rushed elections are unlikely to signal an end to Libya’s turmoil.