Guide to key Libyan militias

  • 9 October 2015
  • From the section Africa
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Libya is awash with rival militia groups

As Libya continues to face a protracted political crisis, developments on the ground remain dominated by the many militias operating across the country.

In the west, pro-Islamist militias control the capital, Tripoli, alongside the defunct parliament, the General National Congress (GNC).

Meanwhile, fighters from the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) have established a stronghold in the central coastal city of Sirte, encroached on nearby oil sites, and have suffered some losses in their initial hub in the eastern city of Darnah.

In the east, groups supporting the recognized authorities are battling other Islamist militias, particularly in the country's second city of Benghazi, where battles have raged since early 2014.


Libya Dawn

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Libya Dawn militia is dominated by fighters from the city of Misrata

Libya Dawn is a grouping of pro-Islamist militias that in summer 2014 attacked Tripoli International Airport and went on to seize large parts of the capital.

The militia alliance is a staunch supporter of the defunct GNC and was in fact the party that called on it to reconvene and claim legislative authority, which it did in August 2014, in a direct challenge to the elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR).

In turn, the GNC is the militia grouping's key backer and Libya Dawn can in fact be viewed as the rival authority's "armed forces", particularly since the militia acquired military planes.

The name Libya Dawn originally referred to the militias' operation to seize Tripoli but soon came to refer to the armed group itself.

In December 2014, the militias launched a campaign, at the behest of the GNC,called Libya Sunrise, to seize control of oil installations in the country's resources-rich central regions.

Many of its fighters came from the city of Misratah, but in recent months the powerful militias based in that city appear to have drifted from the Libya Dawn coalition.

Libya Shield

The Libya Shield grouping is made up of several militias of the same name that operate in various parts of the country.

The Central Libya Shield supports the defunct GNC and is viewed by the unrecognized Tripoli authorities as part of its "Ministry of Defence" forces. The Central Shield is further broken down into smaller groups. Its Third Force seized control of Birak al-Shati airport in central Libya, over 700km south of Tripoli.

The Shield's Benghazi branch (known as Libya Shield Force 1) is led by prominent Islamist commander Wisam Bin-Hamid, who has fought alongside the now deceased commander of the hardline Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Shari'ah group, Muhammad al-Zahawi.

Bin-Hamid is also a field commander in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (see below).

Image caption Map Of Libya

Other pro-GNC groups

In addition to Libya Dawn, the GNC also relies on other armed groups that it deems to come under the control of its self-proclaimed "commander-in-chief", GNC Speaker Nuri Abu-Sahmain.

These include Battalion 166, which alongside Libya Dawn forces, has engaged in clashes with IS in and around Sirte.

The militias reportedly withdrew from Sirte ahead of IS's takeover of key swathes of the city in late May, prompting the internationally-recognized authorities in the east to accuse them of "collusion" with IS. For their part, supporters of the militias said they had not received enough support from the GNC to fight IS.

The GNC continues to maintain that the chief of staff when the congress was in power, Maj-Gen Jadallah al-Obaidi, continues to hold the post and head the "armed forces".


Islamic State (IS)

A major development on the ground in Libya in 2015 was the emergence of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS - also known as ISIL/ISIS) in the country. IS built on an existing presence in the eastern city of Darnah, a long-time jihadist hub, where groups active there pledged allegiance to IS and took over local administration buildings in their name. IS has recently suffered some losses in Darnah, however, in clashes with the Al-Qaeda-linked Darnah Mujahidin Shura Council in June.

By launching high-profile one-off attacks, for example those targeting embassies and hotels in the capital in January and February, IS also managed to strike in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Most importantly, IS-linked fighters seized "complete control" of the central coastal city of Sirte, the birthplace of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. In June, the group's official radio station, Al-Bayan, which is already operating in Syria and Iraq, reportedly began broadcasting from Sirte.

This followed reports that IS propaganda was already playing on the city's airwaves after militants linked to the group seized radio stations there in February.

IS also has a presence in nearby Al-Nawfaliyah, putting it significantly closer to installations in Libya's oil rich region.

It has divided Libya geographically into three "provinces": Barqah in the east, Tripoli (referring to wider Tripolitania) in the west, and Fezzan in the centre and south.

Ansar al-Shari'ah

Ansar al-Shari'ah, considered close to Al-Qaeda, is most prominent in eastern Libya. In Benghazi, its militants have been present since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 and have been continuously battling forces from the Libyan army (of the internationally-recognized authorities) for two years.

The militia has been accused of involvement in the attack on the US consulate in September 2012 in which Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed.

It uses its Twitter account, which is routinely suspended and reopened, to advertise its attacks on army forces.

Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council

A coalition of Islamist militias, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council is made up of groups including Ansar al-Shari'ah, the 17 February Battalion and the Rafallah al-Sahati Battalion.

As with its key component Ansar al-Shari'ah, the Benghazi Shura Council is another firm opponent of the Libyan army. It maintains strongholds in the eastern city that army forces have struggled to seize.

Darnah Mujahidin Shura Council

Another Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the Darnah Mujahidin Shura Council, is a coalition of Islamist militias formed in December 2014.

It came into the spotlight particularly in June 2015, after becoming engaged in fierce clashes with IS militants in Darnah.

The clashes escalated significantly after IS killed two Islamist figures linked to the Darnah Mujahidin Shura Council.

The fighters reportedly managed to oust IS militants from parts of the city, but the jihadist group still appears to have a hold on some districts.


Armed forces and allied units

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Khalifa Haftar returned from the US to help topple Gaddafi

On the side of the internationally-recognized authorities are various battalions comprising the Libyan armed forces as well as units supporting them.

Gen Khalifah Haftar, who in May 2014 launched Operation Dignity against Islamist groups, and largely operated alongside but outside of military's official ranks, was appointed army commander by the House of Representatives in March 2015.

Despite his official appointment as head of the armed forces, the pro-Islamist authorities, media and militias - which oppose the recognized authorities - continue to refer to his army battalions as "Haftar's forces".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some former rebels have been integrated into the army

The armed forces are supported by various units, including militias (see below) and the Special Forces, Al-Sa'iqah, which declared their support for Gen Haftar at the time of his announcement of Operation Dignity. Along with the government forces' Tanks Battalion, the Al-Sa'iqah Forces have been particularly targeted by Islamist militia attacks.

Al-Zintan, Al-Sawa'iq, Al-Qa'qa Battalions

The Al-Zintan, Al-Sawa'iq and Al-Qa'qa Battalions are anti-Islamist militias that operate especially in the west of Libya.

The powerful Zintan militia supports the internationally-recognized authorities and has clashed on numerous occasions with Libya Dawn. It continues to detain Saif-al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of the former leader, in the western city of Al-Zintan, while most other Gaddafi-era officials are held by pro-Islamist forces in Tripoli.

The Al-Qa'qa and Al-Sawa'iq battalions are also pro-official authorities and anti-Islamist. They attacked the GNC in Tripoli soon after Operation Dignity was announced in May 2014.

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