Experts say Gaddafi relying on paramilitary forces, foreign mercenaries to crush protests

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is largely relying on paramilitary forces, some of them bolstered by foreign mercenaries, to crush a popular uprising amid signs of schisms in the regular army, according to Libyan and military experts.

Reports emanating from Libya suggest that foreign mercenaries have been among the most brutal forces sweeping through the streets of Tripoli, the capital, and other cities. Foreigners continued to flow into Libya on Wednesday.

Many of the paramilitary units, which have been firing indiscriminately at civilian protesters, have long been part of Libya's internal security system and have helped as a check on any uprising by the army. Now they are bloodying civilians.

"You have the traditional army and you have a parallel army," said Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at Quilliam, a London counter-extremism think tank, and a former Libyan jihadist. "The army is weak, not a significant power. The parallel units are controlled by the most loyal people, not just to the regime, but to Colonel Gaddafi personally."

Unlike the Egyptian army, which is a strong and independent institution, the Libyan army has been subject to overweening political controls.

Resources have flowed to loyalist units while other sections of the military have been effectively mothballed.

In the ongoing crisis, some of the loyalist units have been turning to foreign fighters for assistance.

The Khamis Brigade, named after Gaddafi's youngest son, was reported to be flying in additional mercenaries from African countries as recently as Wednesday, according to Omar Khattaly, a co-founder of the Libyan Working Group, an exile human rights group with offices in Atlanta and Europe. Some of the mercenaries were landing at what used to be the U.S. Wheelus Air Base, near Tripoli.

Identity cards from Guinea, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Sudan were reportedly found on individuals wearing Libyan uniforms and killed in the eastern city of Benghazi and other locations.

Parallel units

"I think the history of foreign mercenaries is one of the ability of those individuals to detach themselves from local conditions and to be relatively ruthless," said Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush. "And in Libya, it's a thug corps."

The exact number of paramilitary forces at Gaddafi's disposal is unknown. According to one estimate, there is a 3,000-man Revolutionary Guard Corps plus unknown numbers of fighters in the Islamic Pan African Legion, the People's Cavalry Force and various "people's militias."

"Libya is better at internal repression than in dealing with foreign threats," Anthony H. Cordesman and Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote in a study called "The North African Military Balance," in which they included the estimate. They noted that paramilitary forces "act as a means of controlling the power of the regular military and providing Gaddafi with security."

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