The fighting has been described as some of the worst violence in the Libyan capital for months and saw civilians trapped in their homes after shooting broke out. It is unclear as yet whether those killed and injured were combatants or civilians.
The fighting, which started late on Monday and had mostly subsided by Tuesday morning, apparently began when one militia detained a senior leader from another.
Mahmoud Hamza, a leader in what is known as the 444th brigade, was on his way out of town when another group known as the Special Deterrence Force detained him. Reports say the fighting ended when Hamza was released.
Although the situation in Libya has been comparatively calm over the last two years, long-time observers of the country’s turmoil continue to warn about the dangers posed by Libya’s militias. In fact, the incident this week is only the latest in a series of such clashes.
Where did militias come from?
Libya’s militias are the distant relatives of informal fighting groups that arose after the country’s long-standing dictator Muammar Gadhafi was toppled from power during the country’s 2011 revolution. In the fighting that followed, locals banded together to protect their own communities and fight forces loyal to Gadhafi.
Since 2014, Libya has been split into two, with opposing governments located in the east and west of the country. A United Nations-backed administration known as the Government of National Unity is based in Tripoli in the west, and its rival, known as the House of Representatives, is based in the east, in Tobruk.
Each is supported by a number of local militias and foreign powers, and each has tried to wrest control from the other. Attempts to hold an election that would unite the country have failed up until now.
During this time, Libya’s armed groups have evolved, proliferating, getting funding from the government and also gradually becoming part of Libya’s nascent state security institutions.
But the lack of a unified civilian government meant there was no real control over their growing number.
Libyan militias often fought others, competing for influence and wealth. They also openly harassed politicians, civilians and rights groups. As Roberta Maggi, a project officer at the Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance, wrote in a 2022 policy briefing, “Libya’s first parliament was regularly raided by militias that obstructed sessions and intimidated lawmakers, hoping to protect their [the militias’] benefits and extract further concessions.”
Political factions have also enlisted the militias to “bully their rivals and strengthen themselves,” Maggi adds.
In the east of Libya, former warlord-turned-politician Khalifa Haftar, has managed to consolidate control over various armed militias under his command. In the west, different militias have been competing and now there are fewer groups, albeit more powerful ones.
Who was fighting in Tripoli?
The two militias who were shooting at one another this week were the 444th brigade and the Special Deterrence Force. They are just two of many Libyan militias who have been vying for power in the country’s capital. As both are based in Tripoli, their conflict is more likely to have been about rivalry and influence, rather than the country’s political east-west divide.
Most of these armed groups have some kind of link to an official body like the ministries of defense or interior and operate “under the cover of state legitimacy,” Wolfram Lacher, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, explained in a July 2023 commentary. “In reality, however, they primarily defended the interests of their leaders, members or social base, while largely evading state control.”
The 444th is loosely affiliated with the country’s defense ministry and has a comparatively good reputation, a local journalist in Tripoli told DW. Many ordinary people in the city preferred the 444th to other militias because of the more professional way it behaved, the journalist said. He did not want to give his name for fear of repercussions.
“In Tripoli, which was dominated by particularly unruly militias only a few years ago, the 444th Brigade is now the new model,” Lacher writes. “It is a unit that is seen as disciplined, reliable and uncompromising in dealing with crime in the areas it controls south of Tripoli.”
Meanwhile the Special Deterrence Force, or SDF, are a hardline religious militia which works as a kind of police force in Tripoli. The group, also known as Al Radaa, controls many public amenities, including the city’s civilian airport, Mitiga, from where the 444th brigade commander was detained this week as he was trying to leave for an event.
The SDF was loosely linked with the government’s Ministry of Interior but, in effect, acts independently. The conservative group is notorious for randomly detaining locals, including a Libyan politician and civil society activists, and has been criticized by rights groups like Amnesty International as well as the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.
This is not the first time that the 444th and the SDF have clashed in Tripoli. Local media reported a similar incident in May this year when the SDF briefly kidnapped another 444th leader. In 2017 and 2018, the SDF fought other Tripoli militias and both times, the airport was also closed.
Will there be a new civil war in Libya?
This week’s militia-versus-militia clashes, like others before them, seem to have calmed for now. Both of Libya’s governments in the east and the west condemned the fighting.
But, according to experts on the country, there’s no doubt that militias like those fighting this week will continue to play an unfortunate and outsized role in Libya’s future.
“The armed groups that have formed in Libya since 2011 have progressively taken over the state,” Lacher of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, argued last month.
“They are undergoing a process of institutionalization, and their representatives are reaching the top levels of the army, the security apparatus and the civilian government,” he said. “At the same time, they are exerting massive influence over who gets key appointments and how state resources are distributed.”
The militias “adeptly play on politicians’ insecurity, illegitimacy, and general ineptitude to enrich themselves and entrench their positions within Libya’s institutions,” Tarek Megerisi, a senior policy fellow and Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a commentary late last year. “The country is divided between two governments that have no interest in governing or public support, and that are beholden to militias that feed on their myopic, unwinnable struggle for absolute power.”
Edited by Andreas Illmer