Stratfor: Libya – the difficult task ahead


On Oct. 23, three days after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s last outpost, the National Transitional Council (NTC) officially declared the liberation of Libya. Though the NATO operation is not expected to end immediately, the Gadhafi regime is gone, the Libyan war is effectively over and the NTC is now moving to form a transitional government.

Among those who have just declared victory, however, the coming months could see the outbreak of a new conflict.


Though the death of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on Oct. 20 was symbolically important, the fall of his hometown of Sirte that same day will have a greater impact on the future unity of the Libyan revolutionary forces. The leadership of the National Transitional Council (NTC) had used the ongoing combat operations against Gadhafi loyalists to justify a delay in moving toward the formation of a more inclusive transitional government. Now that the last outpost of Gadhafi’s regime has fallen and the NTC has formally declared the liberation of Libya, there is nothing the NTC leadership can do to avoid engaging in the difficult task ahead. Now comes the hard part.

The NTC was founded in February in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. It was able to solidify into the country’s most organized political formation in large part because of the safe haven created by the NATO no-fly zone implemented in March. Starting with France and then Qatar, more than 60 countries eventually recognized the NTC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. It served as a key intermediary for the foreign powers that helped prosecute the war against the Gadhafi regime. In the process, the NTC leadership came to be publicly seen as synonymous with the Libyan opposition itself, a de facto government that drew its legitimacy from the pledges of allegiance from rebel militias countrywide.

The NTC is an umbrella group that brought together disparate local councils (including several autonomous militias) under one body. Though it proclaims Tripoli as its capital and intends to move there at some point, its core leadership has always been based in Benghazi, where the formal ceremony for the liberation declaration took place on Oct. 23. The council’s leadership is made up of many former members of the Gadhafi regime, including overall NTC head Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who was the justice minister until his defection in February; his deputy, Mahmoud Jibril, who once worked on a national economic council after years spent in the West; and the late Abdel Fattah Younis, who was Gadhafi’s interior minister. Younis’ replacement was NTC military commander Mahmoud Suleiman al-Obeidi, who was a top general based in the east when the rebellion broke out. NTC Defense Secretary Jalal al-Dughaily, a close aide to Abdel-Jalil, also once served in the Libyan army.

The NTC is now tasked with moving post-Gadhafi Libya into a new era, and the first step is to form a transitional government by Nov. 22, as stipulated in a previously-issued NTC Constitutional declaration. This is to be followed by general elections that Jibril said on Oct. 22 should take place within eight months. Jibril and other top-ranking NTC officials have vowed that they will not run in these elections, but there is no certainty they will honor this pledge. In any case, they have a significant challenge ahead of them.

Problems Facing the NTC

The biggest hurdle is one of unity now that the common goal of overthrowing Gadhafi has been achieved and the fighting has stopped. There are many armed groups who feel they deserve a reward for their sacrifices during the war, and the NTC is not a strong enough single authority to bring them all to bear.

The NTC now must struggle to satisfy everyone. At stake is not just political power but also the anticipated oil revenues that will come to those able to establish a presence in the centralized power structure, whether in Tripoli or Benghazi. As the NTC tries to mediate between armed groups, the council will see its authority weaken. This had already begun following the fall of Tripoli. Various NTC leaders have demanded repeatedly that certain armed militias vacate the capital only to have their calls rebuffed. Many militia leaders also have openly attacked the credibility of those holding high-ranking positions within the NTC.

The infighting that occurred among the Egyptian opposition after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak provides a decent comparison to what will happen in Libya. There are two main differences, however. In Libya there is a much higher potential for infighting to transcend the mainly political confrontation occurring in Egypt and trigger a civil war among the anti-Gadhafi militias. Unlike Egypt, Libya also has no Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still in power to help divide the opposition. The regime collapsed in Libya and there is no longer any real “opposition.” There is only a country full of people who helped topple Gadhafi and now must decide among themselves — and in some cases with foreign help — what the new power structure will look like.

Another problem is a crisis of identity. Just as there is no longer a true opposition in Libya, neither do terms like “rebels” or “NTC fighters” apply to the current situation. Though the NTC is the official political body that represents all those who fought against Gadhafi, its credibility is not as strong as its image in the international community suggests.

There are not yet any armed groups in Libya that have completely severed ties with the NTC, but that does not mean that the council’s leadership has real authority over the former NTC fighters. When this term was used to describe militias opposed to Gadhafi, it implied the existence of an organized military force. Such a force never truly existed, and NTC leaders are now trying to convince these groups to submit themselves to the will of a new national army — a distant possibility.

And because the NTC itself is not a totally unified body, the ways in which its leaders are perceived in the country exacerbates the identity crisis. The most fundamental divide lies in the perceptions held among the country’s militias of NTC head Abdel-Jalil and his deputy Jibril. Abdel-Jalil is more widely respected, especially by the Islamist militias, while Jibril, who has closer contacts with Western governments, is widely reviled by many at home, especially Islamists and others outside Benghazi. Jibril has threatened to resign many times — including Oct. 23 — but so far has not followed through.

Regardless of how these two leaders are perceived, neither has true authority over the militias operating in places like Tripoli, Misurata and Zentan, or even many of the armed groups in the east. Just as it is difficult to find a label that accurately describes Libya’s former revolutionary fighters, it is also difficult to know how to refer to the NTC, which often does not act with common interests in mind.

Libya is geographically predisposed to different power centers in the east and west. Tripoli and Benghazi are both located in the middle of historically populated areas, both have sea access, and a large tract of desert serves as a buffer in between. (Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, located on the coastal road in the middle of this desert buffer zone, is today able to support the population it does in large part due to Gadhafi’s largesse, namely, the Great Man-Made River.) This is the Tripolitania-Cyrenaica dynamic that has defined the way in which the territory now known as Libya has existed for much of its history. The coming power struggle, however, will not simply be a case of east vs. west. Nor will it be simply a struggle between Islamists and secularists, a tribal or ethnic-based conflict or a battle between regime loyalists and those who have spent their lives fighting it. It will be a struggle for power that combines all of these elements, and it will involve the influence of foreign players as well.

Tripoli Military Council

Since the NTC is primarily a political organ, it depends on the allegiance of a sufficient number of armed groups to maintain its authority. This is especially true when it comes to areas distant from its power base in Benghazi. There are now dozens of armed militias in Tripoli that arrived during the rebellion, but Abdel-Jalil has given his official blessing to only one of these groups: the Tripoli Military Council (TMC).

The TMC is an umbrella group of several Islamist militias that is believed to be the strongest force in Tripoli today, with a reported 8,000 to 10,000 fighters at its disposal. It is not without challengers, and it has not yet proved that it has the ability to enforce its will over its rivals. The overall head of the TMC is a Tripoli native named Abdelhakim Belhaj, whose nom de guerre in Islamist circles is Abu Abdullah Assadaq. Belhaj has a long history of fighting against Gadhafi; he founded the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the early 1990s after returning from training in Afghanistan, with the intent of overthrowing the regime. He later returned to Afghanistan, and in 2004 — after being arrested by the CIA and rendered to a Thai prison used for interrogating U.S. detainees — was handed over to Gadhafi during a time in which relations between Libya and the West were warming. Belhaj remained in prison until March 2010, less than a year before the rebellion began, when he was released as part of a reconciliation program engineered by Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam.

Belhaj’s rise to prominence came after months of secret preparations for the assault on Tripoli, many of them spent training in rebel-held bases in the Nafusa Mountains. Belhaj and his men were armed and trained for Operation Mermaid Dawn by Qatari forces, and reportedly by the French, British and Americans as well. Shortly after entering the capital, Belhaj reportedly led the final siege on Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya complex. He was then named head of the newly formed TMC, which had received the NTC’s official blessing.

Belhaj’s selection to this post showed the high level of influence he was already wielding among Islamist rebels who participated in the assault on Tripoli — and how little of what was happening inside Libya all these months was known to the Libyan people or the outside world. Belhaj’s past ties with jihadism as well as his own experience being incarcerated and reportedly tortured by Western intelligence agencies has created concerns in Western capitals about what might be in store in the post-Gadhafi Libya. He denies accusations that he has followed an ideology of transnational jihad, saying his intent had always been to use Islamist forces only to topple the Gadhafi regime. Belhaj also denies that he seeks revenge against the West for what happened during his incarceration.

The TMC uses Abdel-Jalil’s endorsement as leverage to compel the other armed groups to submit to its authority. Belhaj has tried to create a brand that intertwines the identity of the TMC with the larger NTC. When Belhaj and his deputies give press conferences, for example, their banners always display the logos of both councils, with the NTC’s printed on top. During one such press conference on Oct. 3, Belhaj’s then-deputy Mahdi al-Harati said, “Whoever doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the [TMC] doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the [NTC].” He then added that it was time “for the revolutionaries of Libya to fall under the umbrella of the Tripoli Military Council and the national army.”

Abdel-Jalil’s perceived pro-TMC bias has generated angry responses from the other militias in Tripoli that also took part in the assault on Tripoli and question Belhaj’s credentials. Belhaj, however, is not completely subservient to the NTC. He has drawn criticism from several NTC officials for his close ties to Qatar, which was one of the NTC’s biggest backers throughout the war and continues to support the council.

The NTC’s political power rests largely on the perception that it is the sole liaison with the outside world. If certain militias begin to form direct ties with outside parties, thereby sidestepping the council, the NTC will see its authority erode even further. This is why the growing signs of Qatari influence within the TMC are troubling NTC officials. It has been known for months that Qatari trainers were on the ground in eastern Libya and the Nafusa Mountains training anti-Gadhafi guerrillas, even though Doha did not admit it until Oct. 26. Such activity was always cleared with the NTC leadership. Shortly after Tripoli fell, however, reports emerged that the new camouflage fatigues being worn by Belhaj’s men had been recently supplied by Doha, and both Belhaj and his close aide Anis al-Sharif have made trips to the Qatari capital in recent weeks. When the chief of staff of the Qatari armed forces, Maj. Gen. Hamad Ben Ali al-Attiyah, visited Tripoli in September, Doha-based media outlet Al Jazeera broadcast images of al-Attiyah and Belhaj in a warm embrace, and even mentioned Belhaj’s name before that of NTC Defense Secretary Jalal al-Dughayli in its report on the visit.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, al-Attiyah accompanied Belhaj to a Sept. 11 meeting in Tripoli that had been organized by the heads of several of the other armed groups in the capital. Belhaj believed they were conspiring to form a coalition that could counter the strength of the TMC, and after arriving at the meeting late he reportedly threatened those in attendance, saying they could never assume power without him. The meeting came to end without an agreement, but the message had been sent that Belhaj was Doha’s man.

Most alarming to both the NTC and the other armed groups in Tripoli are reports that the TMC has been receiving its own personal shipments of weapons from Qatar. Doha was a constant supplier of weapons to rebel fighters during the war, but it always acted in coordination with the NTC. NTC Oil and Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni implied in an Oct. 12 press conference that Qatar is no longer consulting with the council on such matters and said it was time to “publicly declare that anyone who wants to come to our house has to knock on our front door first.” Tarhouni did not specify which countries he meant, but he did say that he hoped the message “will be received by all our friends, both our Arab brothers and Western powers.”

A foreign-backed group of Islamist fighters assuming responsibility for security in Tripoli and acting independent of the NTC would represent a serious threat to Jibril in particular, since he and Belhaj are fast becoming archrivals. Jibril has tried on multiple occasions to order the TMC to remove its heavy weapons from the capital and allow “the city’s residents” to take control of Tripoli (it is not clear which force Jibril favors instead of the TMC). Belhaj has ignored all such calls and has demanded that Jibril resign from his position and allow the revolution to move forward. It is difficult to envision how both Belhaj and Jibril could exist in the same government now that the war is over.

Even the TMC has shown signs of fracturing. The largest individual militia within the TMC was the Tripoli Brigade, run by a Libyan-Irish citizen named Mahdi al-Harati. Al-Harati was Belhaj’s deputy until his resignation from the TMC on Oct. 7, when he returned to his home in Ireland. He had previously threatened to resign on at least two other occasions, reportedly due to disagreements with Belhaj. Though al-Harati has withdrawn from the TMC, he reportedly continues to run the Tripoli Brigade and made plans to return to Libya shortly after Gadhafi’s death.


While the Libyan revolution began in Benghazi, Misuratans believe that they were the ones who paid the highest price. Misuratan fighters have a reputation as the country’s fiercest warriors, and Misurata was the first city outside the east that successfully held out against the Libyan army. In the process, the city was practically destroyed during months of continuous bombardment. Its wartime experience turned the city into a national symbol of resistance to Gadhafi. The fact that it was a Misuratan militia that captured (and likely executed) Gadhafi on Oct. 20 — and that his body was subsequently taken back to Misurata to be put on public display in a cold-storage locker before being buried by a group of Misuratans — has only added to this image.

Though Misurata does have an organized security body called the Misurata Military Council, which includes the Misurata Brigade, there is no one militia that wields unrivaled power in the city. Nor is there an easily identifiable group that would be able to emerge as such. Some media reports place the total number of armed groups in Misurata at 180, which means various commanders have thousands of fighters at their disposal, and these fighters have reportedly been stockpiling arms stolen from abandoned weapons dumps in other parts of Libya. The city has already gained notoriety for its makeshift munitions factories fabricated improvised weapons during the Libyan army siege, including heavy machine gun-equipped “technical” vehicles, mortar tubes, rocket launchers and even a Mexican cartel-style armored truck. Should Misuratans feel they are being pushed out of the new leadership structure in Libya, their independent streak could eventually lead to the city evolving into a de facto city-state. Indeed, some visitors to the city in recent weeks have reported that self-appointed customs officials have begun to put Misurata stamps on passports.

Misuratans did receive critical shipments of supplies from Benghazi during the war, but they are extremely suspicious of people from Benghazi and the NTC as a whole and do not believe power should now shift entirely to eastern Libya. Like Belhaj and his supporters, Misuratans are also especially hostile to Jibril, a sentiment that has brought many of the city’s militia commanders into a budding alliance with the TMC.

A Sept. 22 meeting in Misurata revealed the links between the city’s fighters and the TMC. Belhaj traveled to Misurata to attend a televised news conference announcing the beginning of talks to bind together militias from all of Libya’s regions under a unified command structure. The news conference was short on specifics, but the images of Belhaj speaking alongside a local commander named Salem Joha created the perception of a TMC-Misurata alliance in the making. Belhaj and Joha said the new unit would be called the Union of Libya’s Revolutionary Brigades. Occurring more than a week after the reported encounter between Belhaj and his rival militia leaders during al-Attiyah’s visit, the Sept. 22 announcement could be seen as Belhaj’s attempts to counter any coalition-building that might be directed against him. (Since the meeting there has been no clear sign that a Belhaj-Joha alliance is in the making.)

One Misurata-based political figure with aspirations to become Libya’s new prime minister is a man named Abdul Rahman Swehli. He is the grandson of a famous member of the resistance against the Italian occupation and, like Belhaj, has an immense dislike for Jibril. Though Swehli has repeatedly sought to deny any associations with Islamist ideology, he claims that the Union of Libya’s Revolutionary Brigades personally asked him to become the next prime minister of Libya. Swehli is not a household name in Libya, or even in Misurata, but he could serve as a viable political figurehead for any military-based alliance between the TMC and Misuratan armed groups in opposing their rivals in Benghazi.

When Gadhafi’s body was taken back to Misurata, leaders from both the TMC and NTC immediately traveled to the city. They all sought to further their respective group’s causes by seizing on the event’s propaganda value. Belhaj arrived first and confirmed the news of Gadhafi’s death in a televised address, upstaging a planned national address by Abdel-Jalil from Benghazi. (Abdel-Jalil was reportedly upset about the manner in which Belhaj and others exploited the news of Gadhafi’s death for their own ends.) The NTC’s Tarhouni arrived later in the day and gave several media interviews about the disposition of the body, but it was the Misuratans who seemed most able to capitalize on the death of Gadhafi and promote their claims to leadership in the new Libya.

Zentan Military Council

The city of Zentan was a center for rebel activity in the Nafusa Mountains for most of the war, and it was from these mountains in northwestern Libya that the assault on Tripoli was launched. The operation was preceded by months of training for militias from all across Libya by foreign special operations forces. The Nafusa Mountains are home to a large portion of Libya’s Berber (also known as Amazigh) population, and though there has yet to emerge a full-blown Berber nationalist movement among Libya’s armed groups, the sight of Amazigh symbols tagged on the walls of Tripoli in the wake of the assault, as well as armed fighters wearing clothing and driving vehicles adorned with Amazigh symbols, shows that militias from the area are now operating in the capital. Many of these militias fall under the umbrella of the Zentan Military Council (ZMC).

Many ZMC commanders are defected military officers from the Gadhafi regime, and their backgrounds are much different from the Islamists who are now commanding the TMC. The most well-known militia within the ZMC is the Zentan Brigade, led by a man named Mukhtar al-Akdhar, who served more than 20 years in the Libyan army. The brigade, consisting of some 700 fighters, had been headquartered at Tripoli International Airport for several weeks until it recently vacated the area — a rare sign of deference to the wishes of the NTC. Another notable subset of the ZMC is the Kekaa Brigade, which has a comparable number of fighters as the Zentan Brigade.

Al-Akhdar is an extremely vocal rival of Belhaj and, like many other Zentani commanders, is said to support Jibril, a clear sign of a developing fault line between the ZMC and the TMC. While the Qataris are known to support Belhaj and the TMC, some reports allege that the United Arab Emirates has backed the militias from Zentan.

The Zentanis have refused to vacate the capital despite calls from both the NTC and the TMC. They fear they would lose all ability to influence the formation of the Libyan government and thus lose out on the future oil revenues. Tension between Zentanis and Islamist fighters loyal to Belhaj and al-Harati nearly led to an outbreak of violence between the two camps during the Oct. 3 TMC press conference. Belhaj and al-Harati had both demanded that anyone who did not submit to the authority of the TMC take their weapons and vacate the capital. Al-Harati’s tone was especially threatening. Shortly thereafter, a group of Kekaa Brigade fighters reportedly arrived on the scene carrying rocket-propelled grenades and an arrest warrant for Belhaj. The warrant reportedly carried the signature of a ZMC official, though no one in Libya currently has the authority to issue such warrants. In response, dozens of Tripoli Brigade fighters rushed to the scene and surrounded checkpoints that had been set up around the building by the Kekaa Brigade. Both sides were able to talk each other down and no shots were fired.

Tripoli Revolutionists Council

The newest armed umbrella group in Tripoli to openly defy Belhaj and the TMC is the Tripoli Revolutionists Council (TRC). Its founder and leader, Abdullah Ahmed Naker, has tribal links to Zentan (his full name is actually Abdullah Ahmed Naker al-Zentani) but professes no affiliation with the ZMC. It is unclear which militia he was associated with during the invasion of Tripoli, but Naker claims to have personally fought in at least 36 battles against Gadhafi’s forces during the war. He was giving interviews with foreign media in Tripoli as far back as Sept. 2 in which he called for the armed groups that were not run by “the sons of Tripoli” — specifically those from Misurata and Zentan — to return home.

Naker announced the creation of the TRC on Oct. 2 in a press conference in Tripoli. His announcement was timed as an explicit rejection of the TMC’s attempts to force all revolutionary leaders in the capital to come into its fold. Naker’s words were believed to have been a leading factor in Belhaj’s decision to hold the Oct. 3 TMC news conference that nearly saw the Kekaa Brigade come to blows with al-Harati’s Tripoli Brigade.

There is no accurate estimate of the size of Naker’s forces. His own claim is clearly an exaggeration: 22,000 armed men drawn from 73 factions, all of whom had agreed to pool their resources, giving him control of 75 percent of the capital. Naker has asserted that Belhaj, on the other hand, can call on only 2,000 fighters. If the TRC were truly this strong and the TMC truly this weak in comparison, such an imbalance would have been obvious by now. Nonetheless, Naker could develop into a formidable threat to Belhaj and the TMC.

Naker was calling for the abolition of the TMC even before the creation of the TRC. He is a leading critic of Belhaj’s ties to Qatar and says he has personally brought this up during meetings between Abdel-Jalil and the other armed groups in Tripoli. Like all other militia leaders in Libya, Naker speaks of Abdel-Jalil in respectful terms but indicates that he is not beholden to the wishes of the NTC as a whole. Indeed, he has been extremely critical of the NTC decision to hold the liberation ceremony in Benghazi as opposed to Tripoli, viewing the choice as indicative of what the council represents: a move to transfer power in the new Libya to a group whose loyalty lies in the east.
“Libya – the difficult task ahead” republished with the permission of Stratfor,