Fighters from the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia hold a position during clashes in al-Aqrabiyah area, west of the Libyan capital Tripoli. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Four years after Libya’s revolution, two political-military coalitions are competing for power in Libya, which are often, yet inaccurately, described as two governments, two parliaments and two armies. Behind that seeming polarization lies a far messier reality. More than 200 armed groups from the western city of Misrata anchor the military power behind the western alliance in Tripoli. The commanders, structures and fighters of these groups remain largely unchanged since the 2011 revolution, a tapestry analyzed in depth in a new edited volume, “The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath.” The genesis and inner workings of these Misrata militias serve as a vignette into the complex coalitional politics playing out within these alliances.

By the end of the revolution, there were 236 distinct fighting organizations registered with the Misratan Military Council. They ranged in size from 12 to 1,747 combatants, with five groups counting more than 1,000 members. Approximately 45 groups stabilized at 250 to 750 members; the remaining 186 groups never expanded beyond 250 members, with the majority counting fewer than 100 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Total number of revolutionary battalions by membership size
Figure 1: Total number of revolutionary battalions by membership size

As a collective, these 200 revolutionary battalions remain the most cohesive and potent military fighting force in Libya. They are not, however, a monolith. Their genesis lies in the street-fighting cells of three to five fighters – the number of people transportable in a car – that first rose up against Moammar Gaddafi’s army and security battalions. For much of the war, the city was encircled, cutting Misratans off politically and militarily. The absence of a safe haven, which was enjoyed by the fighting groups in many other parts of the country, made the fighting conditions dire. Yet it was in part because of this intense military pressure that the Misratan groups that survived were so cohesive and integrated into civilian support networks.

As the fighting to dislodge government forces continued, these street-fighting groups fused and fissured. Through a process of “group shopping,” fighters determined which leader they trusted, resulting in strong bonds of loyalty between commanders and rank-and-file fighters. The intense military pressure also saw groups rely heavily on neighborhood committees that funded and fed them. This symbiotic relationship meant that a group’s civilian committees held significant sway over the group’s members – and they continue to even to this day.

The most serious impediment to the initial size of the Misratan force was the shortage of weapons as gun ownership was illegal under Gaddafi’s rule. The fighting force grew with every new shipment of weapons from Benghazi or government army position that was overrun (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: Estimated number of small arms and fighters in Misrata in 2011

After three months of urban guerrilla tactics, Gaddafi’s forces were pushed out of the city May 18, 2011. The shift from urban warfare to the open farm fields surrounding Misrata radically transformed the groups. Lightly equipped street-fighting units, potent at house-to-house fighting, could not monitor or defend miles of battle lines. This required larger groups, different weapon systems, organizational structures and military tactics. Smaller units merged, leading to what are now known as revolutionary battalions (or revolutionary brigades).

Coordination was continually negotiated among the groups and later, once established, the Misratan Military Council (MMC). The MMC did not, however, exercise authority over the revolutionary battalions. Instead it organized weapons supplies and radio rooms, which facilitate coordination and served as an intelligence repository. The dynamics within and between these groups highlights a cultural principle of the revolutionary battalions: consensus based decision-making and decentralized leadership.

One example of the extent of this practice was during the latter stages of the armed uprising. Along Misrata’s western frontline, 146 revolutionary battalions operated. Most journalists who witnessed advances described them as chaotic and disorganized. What these observers often missed was an organized core amidst the cacophony of advancing vehicles.

Each evening, the commanders of the largest and most successful battalions – usually a group of 12 to 18 leaders – met to review the day’s developments and discuss strategy. These commanders planned the timing and nature of attacks (in close coordination with British and French military spotters based in Misrata). On the morning of a planned attack, ammunition would be dispersed to the smaller groups with news of an imminent “push.” When the attack commenced, among the hundreds of groups driving forward, a core group implementing the pre-planned attack, would target specific government positions.

The military operation known as Libya Dawn, which precipitated the political divide now facing Libya, followed a similar logic. It was initiated in July 2014 by three of Misrata’s largest battalions: Hatten, Mercer and Haraka. The military operation was not, however, supported by the remaining Misratan battalions, which did not initially participate. The limited force of these three battalions was one reason why the operation did not easily dislodge the Zintani-based coalition occupying Misrata’s international airport. It was not until warplanes – allegedly from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – bombed the Misratan fighters, killing 70, that the remaining 200 groups in Misrata joined the fray. Fighters and commanders explained that after the bombing, which killed the two sons of the head of the MMC, they had no choice but to join, mobilizing hundreds of vehicles and thousands of fighters. Their arrival led to the retreat of the Zintani forces.

In my discussions with Misratan commanders, many felt they had been drawn into the conflict against their will. The commanders explained, however, that once Misratan groups started taking heavy casualties from airstrikes, the bond between revolutionaries trumped these concerns. Some even went so far as to suggest that the leaders of the initial attack had hoped for such a response when so many of the commanders did not agree to join the initial operation. Emulating the example above, even when commanders are not involved in decision-making, they will still join an operation when it is seen as a common threat or they would lose face by sitting on the sidelines. The commanders also explained that while they had misgivings about the operation, this paled in comparison to their extreme mistrust of the growing influence of Khalifa Haftar – with whom the Zintani groups holding the airport were aligned.

Similar to the position of the Misratan revolutionary battalions in the west, Haftar’s alliance of armed groups serves as the military backbone of the Tobruk-based “government” in the east. This force is often described as the Libyan Army but like Misrata, it is actually a diverse coalition made up of federalist-leaning militias, tribal-oriented confederations, disaffected military units, Zintani revolutionary battalions (based in Western Libya) and Gaddafi-era military personnel.

Misratan commanders fear Haftar’s goal is an Egyptian-style military dictatorship. Commanders point to his attempted coup in May 2014, when there was only one government, and Egypt’s strong backing (through military aid and political support). Haftar has been especially adept at demonizing any opponents as terrorists. This is aided by international media, which seems to have only two categories for political actors in Libya: secular or religious. In reality, each coalition includes a broad spectrum of religious conservatives. Nevertheless, Misratan leaders acknowledge that their members are, on average, more conservative. But as one commander pointed out when describing how religious the majority of the coalition is: “I would say most are less religiously conservative than the Republicans in the U.S. Congress.”

Unlike Haftar, however, the majority of Misratan military leaders have strong ties to their local communities, moderating their views and goals. This is one reason why many Misratan commanders grow uneasy with the increasingly undemocratic tendencies of the political leaders in their own alliance.

The engagement of local Misratan notables in recent U.N.-brokered talks is one indication of the desire by the majority of the commanders and rank-and-file to find a middle ground. Their military and political backing of the process could be the tipping point for the perceived legitimacy of the negotiations.

Expanding the United Nations’ engagement with locally elected officials, who unlike their national counterparts, are seen as legitimate in the eyes of most Libyans, is one of the best hopes for empowering these moderate voices. The strategy takes advantage of the messy reality behind each military coalition by ensuring the more moderate groups on each side have a proxy voice in the talks. It also sidelines hardline elements by undermining the perception that they speak for a larger constituency than they actually control. Ultimately, it is the anti-democratic leaders in both Tripoli and Tobruk that are most threatened by the prospect of peace.

If the talks fail, the extremist affiliates of the Islamic State will become a permanent element of Libya’s political landscape and, as a consequence, Europe’s everyday lived reality. In a year when the Islamic State can attack Europe across the undefended Mediterranean Sea, the West’s electorate will ask why more was not done. Unfortunately, it will be too late then.

Brian McQuinn is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology. He is the co-editor of “The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath” (Hurst 2015).