Benghazi’s overlooked lesson: The militia-ization of Libya

October 18, 2012

Libyans in Benghazi protest the rise of militias such as Ansar al-Sharia. (Mohammad Hannon/Associated Press)

From the first days of the Libyan conflict, Western leaders who wished to intervene against dictator Moammar Gaddafi's brutal crackdown faced a problem: Who would fight back? No outside country had the appetite for a ground invasion, and though the Libyan military was slowly fracturing, no single faction appeared both capable of fighting Gaddafi and trustworthy enough to displace him, even temporarily.

There were, however, plenty of passionate young men and disaffected former soldiers in Libya willing to take up arms themselves. At first, they didn't do so well, "less an organized force than the martial manifestation of a popular uprising," as the New York Times' C.J. Chivers gently described the poorly organized volunteer forces. But as time dragged on, some local groups of fighters coalesced into informal militias. Facing no obviously better options, the Western governments offered them recognition, training and some weapons. As Gaddafi lost control of his overstuffed weapons stores, weapons found their way into the hands of militias, and sometimes of anyone who walked up to the depots and picked something up.

The militias often took charge behind the front lines as well, administering basic policing services that had once been handled by Gaddafi's now-evaporating security state. As a small interim government of exiles, defectors and volunteers attempted to conjure a national government out of thin air, the new civilian leadership relied on the militias as utterly as did the Western powers. Much of Libya was entrusted to a loose network of volunteer groups, which civilian leaders had neither the resources nor the capability to properly vet. 

The U.S. struggle to maintain basic daily security in militia-ized Libya has gotten so tangled that, as The Post's Michael Birnbaum revealed recently, one Benghazi-based militia that provides security for Americans there had threatened before the Sept. 11 attack to withdraw their services, believing the U.S. was showing too much support for a Libyan politician whom they oppose.

The militia-ization of Libya was never meant to be permanent, but it's taken on a momentum of its own, endangering the country's ability to fully emerge from a conflict that technically ended with Gaddafi's death almost exactly one year ago. Though many groups have disarmed, many have not, and the country's government is struggling to control the volunteer fighters that it also relies on to serve as Libya's only real security force. That means more than just policing: multiple militias are fighting to retake the town of Bani Walid from Gaddafi loyalists. The world is perhaps just beginning to grasp the dangerously chaotic nature of militia-ized Libya, where the line between volunteer police and youth gang isn't always clear, and the state is beholden to largely self-sufficient groups who often disagree and can shift priorities with little warning.

This week brought two indicators of Libya's struggle to control what you might call its militia federalism. The first is the ongoing investigation into the group believed to be responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia. The group formed after Gaddafi's ouster but its members had participated in the fight against him, picking up experience and weapons. Their ability to form this new militia, with a very different ideological mission than what drove the initial revolution, underscored the government's inability to shut down the militia system, though it has made clear it desires to do so. The Libyan government left its share of the consulate security in part to another militia, the February 17 Brigades. 

The second indicator is a lengthy report from Human Rights Watch on the events surrounding Gaddafi's death last October, which they conclude was one of dozens of summary executions conducted that day by militias. The report details both the fractiousness of the militia system and its inability to self-govern. The Misrata-based militias that killed Gaddafi and others had openly clashed with militias from Benghazi, the two at times competing for control of the Sirte, where the Libyan leader was captured. Some members of the Benghazi force that had helped capture Gaddafi later claimed they'd shot the former dictator in a dispute with the Misrata fighters about who would take custody of him, according to Human Rights Watch. “We understood that there needed to be a trial, but we couldn’t control everyone, some acted beyond our control," a rebel commander told the NGO.

When the revolution ended, so did the common cause that once bound many of the militias together, leading some groups to find new causes. Many of the networks are local, unlike the more disparate al-Qaeda factions that are easier for U.S. intelligence to track because of their reliance on phone and Web communication. Most Libyans are not militia members, of course, and many have publicly protested the militias' rising power. 

Beneath the domestic U.S. political debate over the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi incident is a larger question: How to do you improve security in a country where self-regulated citizen militias wield so much autonomy and power, where small arms are ubiquitous, and where just about anyone can get together with some friends and declare themselves an independent armed group? And how do you get Libyan officials, who are consumed with political infighting and struggling to maintain control, interested in addressing the problem? "Many ministries, including those that would take the lead in an investigation, are on autopilot as the new lawmakers plot alliances and betrayals over endless cups of coffee in Tripoli, the capital," Birnbaum reported for The Post.

Rajan Menon explained the self-reinforcing momentum of Libya's reliance on militias: "The more a government relies on the muscle of armed militias, the less reliable it appears to its citizenry as a provider of public order. The weaker a government appears because of this dependence on militias, the more its legitimacy erodes and the less able it is to move against them. The less willing or able a government is to disarm and disband militias, the more audacious they become and the greater their inclination to act as statelets." And the more likely that an anti-American group like Ansar al-Sharia tries to establish itself as one of those militia-statelets.

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