Journal Essay

Libya since 2011: Political Transformation and Violence

Hanspeter Mattes

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Dr. Mattes is a senior research fellow at the Berlin office of GIGA (the German Institute of Global and Area Studies).

After more than 40 years of authoritarian rule, the Qadhafi regime was overthrown by force in October 2011.1 The total collapse of the "Jamahiriya State" and its civil as well as military institutions is a characteristic feature of this transition of power. The collapse had three main consequences:

• First, the implosion of Qadhafi's institutions left a vacuum, which the new institutions were only able to fill partially and in successive steps.
• Second, the power vacuum implied the development of new capacity for the activities of, in particular, armed nonstate actors and those Islamist groups that were persecuted and banned during the Qadhafi era. The Islamists were thus the first and also the main groups to use the new freedom for their claim to power and their Islamization activities.
• Third, the collapse of the state's exclusive right to use force made it easier for new armed actors to implement their political and sociopolitical ideas with force in some subregions. Salafist jihadists, as the most aggressive factional group of Islamists, were also the first to use violence, physically and in their discourse, against political opponents and people of other faiths.

At the same time, the loss of state control also enabled conflict constellations between cities and ethnic groups and tribes, which had been repressed for years, to surface with force and generate armed struggles for power and resources.2

These dynamic developments took the new political and military institutions of the Libyan state (al-daula al-libiya) by surprise. They were unable to assert their authority: to reinstate the exclusive right of the state to use force and to institutionalize legislative and executive branches that were recognized by the majority of the population. In particular, the Islamist groups' claim to power polarized institutions and armed groups as well as the public. Since 2012, it has given rise to an institutional partition of the country, in which Islamist and non-Islamist actors with regional dominance in greater Tripoli (Islamist) and Cyrenaica (non-Islamists) are facing each other. Since 2014, this polarization has escalated into an open military conflict (civil war). So far, efforts for dialogue and peace, such as the dialogue process engaged by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), have not led to pacification. The fact that ultra-extremist Islamist actors have aligned themselves with the "Islamic State" (IS; Daesh in Arabic) in Libya (in Darna, Benghazi, Ajidabiya, Sirt) is an additional factor impeding peace efforts. Combating them seems to be a higher priority than implementing a national process of dialogue.


Muammar al-Qadhafi assumed power on September 1, 1969, with the "September Revolution," a de facto military coup. From the beginning, his rule was authoritarian and repressive against anybody who questioned the new political structures. Violence against opposition was a basic element of Qadhafi's rule. This was also clear proof that regime change could only be effected through violent means. However, it was unforeseeable that this regime change should occur in 2011, brought about by the momentum of a protest movement that started in Tunisia and spread throughout the region. Though there had been challenges endangering the regime in Libya in the 1980s, the threat at that time from the National Front for the Salvation of Libya — as well as from armed Islamist groups in the 1990s3 — never sparked nationwide protests.

The protests of February 17, 2011, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, took place in several cities of eastern Libya as well as in Tripoli, Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan in the Jabal Nafusa region. The reaction by security forces quickly caused widespread confrontation, leading to the withdrawal of Qadhafi's security forces from Cyrenaica. The National Transitional Council assumed political leadership in the "liberated" areas on February 27. The security forces managed for a time to maintain the upper hand in Tripoli and Tripolitania, with the exception of Misrata and Zintan in the Jabal Nafusa southwest of Tripoli. The remnants of Qadhafi's rule were fought from Cyrenaica and Jabal Nafusa until October 2011, with NATO support. Capturing Tripoli on August 20, 2011, was an important step towards the complete "liberation of Libya" on October 23, 2011. The battles between February and October killed around 11,000 people (4,200 of Qadhafi's combatants and 6,600 brigade members) and left some 50,000 people wounded.4

The looting of Qadhafi's immense weapons arsenal, however, was the most severe collateral damage from the collapse of the regime in 2011. Sustained negative consequences ensued for the transformation process in Libya as well as the development of the neighboring states, especially Tunisia and Mali. Millions of small arms, grenade launchers, portable rocket-propelled grenades, as well as explosives, fell into the hands of opposition brigades and criminal gangs specialized in arms trafficking. These weapons have allowed the brigades to pursue their political aims with violence until today.


The Civil Sector

The demolition of the political and administrative structures established during the Qadhafi regime created a short-term vacuum that was initially all the more palpable as political parties were prohibited under Qadhafi and only a few civil-society organizations had been legalized. However, several hundred NGOs were quickly organized (4,000 by the end of 2014). The formation of parties started at the end of 2011, as parliamentary elections were scheduled for 2012.5

Even the establishment of political institutions proceeded swiftly. Membership in the National Transitional Council expanded from the original 33 to 88 by October 2011, when the amount of liberated territory increased. The council created its own executive branch and passed a resolution for the interim Constitutional Declaration on August 3, 2011.6 This served as a roadmap for the formation of the new political institutions: parliamentary elections (for the General National Congress, GNC7) would be held within 240 days (eight months), to be followed by the election of a government and the drafting of a constitution by a separate committee.8

These provisions were implemented accordingly, with the election of the GNC's 200 delegates on July 7, 2012; the inauguration of the al-Kib government in November 2012; and election of the constitutional commission in January 2014. However, the growing polarization between Islamists and non-Islamists, NGOs, parties and affiliated brigades has affected the work of the congress and the government, undermining a consensual and nationally oriented development.

The Islamist actors pursued, and are still pursuing, an Islamist concept of society comprising the following components:

• Sharia law, ranging from family matters to the prohibition of interest rates
• Islamic criminal law
• Guardianship of men over women
• Separation of the sexes in the public domain (transportation, schools/universities)
• Rejection of vocational activities for women except for a limited amount of social work
• Extension of the Quranic school system.

Elections and parliaments are either rejected or merely tolerated until they have been used by Islamists to gain power and establish an "Islamic state," or caliphate.

The main representatives of this societal concept in Libya are these:

• The Muslim Brotherhood, which was persecuted under Qadhafi, and the party they founded in 2012, the Justice and Construction Party (Hizb al-Adala wal-Bina)
• The Watan party, founded by the elite of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, led by Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, which was active in the 1990s
• Salafists, who are organized in small groups throughout the nation, perform grass-roots missionary work (dawa) and run Quranic schools
• Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani (head of the Fatwa Office Dar al-ifta), a legal scholar well-known for his Salafist orientation, who was appointed Grand Mufti by the National Transitional Council in May 2011.

However, the Islamist brigades (see below), which have been established since spring 2011 and seek to assert their agenda of Islamising Libya or founding an Islamic state after the overthrow of Qadhafi, are the most dominant.

The Military Sector

Overthrowing a regime is, in itself, an expression of a massive violent mobilization by the opposition. Due to the elimination of previous structures that provided order, this process releases a large destructive potential. The fight against Qadhafi's regime was not carried out by a regular army, but by quickly assembled voluntary associations, so-called revolutionary brigades, without any of the usual military command structures. This accounts for their destructive potential, released after the liberation of Libya in October 2011. These brigades (katiba) each consisted of 100-1,000 members (thuwwar, revolutionaries). They were founded after February 17, 2011, on the basis of tribe or shared background, mainly in Cyrenaica but also in Misrata and Jabal Nafusa. The brigades were the "armed forces of the National Transitional Council," yet de facto were not subordinate to any central authority (a high military command of the National Transitional Council). Initially, they shared the aim of ousting Qadhafi; having achieved this, each brigade acted according to its own interests. The revolutionary and Islamist brigades were at the beginning only conceived as temporary military associations for ousting the regime. However, they solidified rapidly, have remained in control of entire city districts, and still operate their own prisons.

In the wake of the victory over Qadhafi's security forces, there were attempts to form a new national army with defectors and brigade members, but this failed for various reasons.9 The resulting embryonic army split in 2014, one part following the command in Tobruk, the other that in Tripoli. The Islamist brigades resisted dissolution and integration into the army, pursuing their own agendas. They were the instigators of the murder in July 2011 of Abd al-Fattah Yunis al-Obeidi, the first head of the new Libyan army's general staff. Furthermore, the GNC (2012-14), de facto dominated by Islamist delegates, also prevented the swift increase of army personnel and equipment because these delegates doubted the army's loyalty. Substantial material demands made by the brigades in exchange for their consent to demobilize constituted an additional factor.

This meant that significantly more combatants were organized into brigades than into the national army. These combatants belonged to two groupings:

• "Secular" brigades without an Islamist agenda and consisting of several thousand members, such as the western Zintan brigades, the southern Tuareg and Tebu brigades, and several brigades of eastern tribes
• Islamist brigades of thousands of members with a wide range of radicalism and propensity to violence. From the outset, the plans of these brigades went beyond the ousting of Qadhafi and were aimed at implementing an Islamist state (emirate or caliphate), the constitution of which was to be based on the sharia.

Belonging to this category are, among others, the various brigades with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood in Misrata, the Zawiya Martyrs Brigade under the command of the Salafist Mohammad al-Kilani, a GNC member killed in 2014, and in particular the Islamist bri gades in Cyrenaica with over 10,000 troops. The most prominent representatives of the Islamist brigades in Cyrenaica are these:

• Ansar al-Sharia10 mainly based in the territory of Benghazi and Darna — on the UN list of terrorist organizations since November 19, 2014
• The Omar Mukhtar-Brigade
• The Rafallah al-Sahati-Brigade
• The Abu Jarra-Brigade
• The Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade
• The February 17 Martyrs Brigade
• The Shura Council of the Islamic Youth (Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, MSSI), which pronounced itself the Emirate of Darna in October 2014 and announced its fealty to the terror organization "Islamic State" in November (see below).

All who decline to follow these brigades' interpretation of Islam are deemed infidels. Thus their members are responsible for over 500 executions of former Qadhafi security officers as well as many political murders since the beginning of 2012: human-rights and women's-rights activists such as Hamida al-Hadi al-Asfar and Salwa Bugaghis; delegates such as Fariha al-Barkawi and journalists, liberal imams and others who publicly criticize and reject the ideas of the Islamists.11 In their fight against supposed idolatry, the brigades use mechanical diggers or bombs against Marabout monuments, which they perceive as un-Islamic. Over 100 Marabouts and tombs have been destroyed since 2011. Furthermore, the Karamanli and the Draghut mosques have been heavily damaged, along with the old Ottoman artisan school in Tripoli, and the Umar al-Mukhtar memorial in Tripoli has been destroyed. All this could happen because, for one thing, it was tolerated by the Islamist GNC delegates, but also because the presence of state security organizations was insufficient. Furthermore, the Supreme Security Committee (al-Lajna al-Amniya al-Ulya), founded in 2012 to provide domestic security, was seeded with staff of an Islamist orientation.

The conflict with Islamist groups was exacerbated in 2014, when an IS affiliate was founded in Libya. The IS phenomenon as such only started to develop with the proclamation of a caliphate by Muhammad al-Baghdadi on June 29, 2014, in Syria. The appeal of the caliphate is apparent in the proliferation of IS throughout the entire Mahgreb (to the detriment of the existing structures of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb/AQIM). There have been reports in the Libyan media since the beginning of July 2014 that IS was establishing itself in Cyrenaica. In particular, the Shura Council of Islamic Youth officially declared in Darna on Friday, October 3, 2014, its "baia" (subordination) to al-Baghdadi and his self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate; the territory was called "Wilaya Darna." Since then, IS jihadists have been fighting in Benghazi as well as in Qadhafi's former hometown of Sirt, on the eastern coast of Tripolitania, fully occupied during the summer of 2015. So far, attacks of Islamist brigades against Misrata have been repelled.


The Interim Constitutional Declaration of August 2011 announced the aim of building a multiparty democracy.12 This goal was sustained by the euphoria of the imminent victory over the authoritarian Qadhafi regime. The presence of the Islamist brigades, which played a significant role in the victory of the Libyan "revolution," quickly revealed the limitations of its implementation. The Islamist actors felt allegiance to completely different objectives, due to their belief in being an absolute religious truth and its specific societal requirements.

This resulted in a polarization between Islamist and non-Islamist opponents affecting all levels of the conflict's trajectory and the concomitant practice of violence. The polarization resulted in a vicious circle as the Islamist actors sought to prevent constitution-based development, using violence, which in turn provoked counterviolence.

The confrontation assumed an increasingly coercive form in the political domain. Even though the Islamist delegates of the GNC lacked a majority, they attempted to put an Islamist prime minister, the Muslim Brother Mustafa Abu Shaqur, into power in 2012. However, this attempt failed, and in November Abd al-Rahman Kib, an engineer, became the new prime minister by a small majority. Yet the Islamists succeeded in preventing several "anti-Islamist" legislative measures or in influencing laws to that end by threatening or using violence (such as the short-term abduction of Prime Minister Zaidan in October 2013). Here are four examples:

1) The liberal draft law on the formation of civil-society associations,13 introduced by the Ministry of Culture and Civil Society at the end of 2012, was blocked because the formation of NGOs was seen as a "Western model" and thus alien to the Islamic order. The law is yet to be enacted.
2) The Political Isolation Law was passed, designed to exclude former functionaries of the Qadhafi regime from political or administrative functions in "revolutionary Libya." The draft law that was presented at the beginning of 2013 amid criticism from national and international NGOs for its too-strict criteria was enacted on May 5, 2013, in the most severe form possible, at a time when armed Islamist brigades had laid siege to the parliament building in Tripoli.14 The implementation of the law forced the resignations of such prominent persons as GNC president Muhammad Muqaryaf as well as 12 GNC delegates and the commander of the air force, General Saqr al-Jurushi. The unanimous perception among those who were not Islamists was as follows: "The isolation law harms Libya's democratic transition."15 After the institutional division of Libya, at least the House of Representatives, newly elected in June 2014, repealed the Isolation Law in February 2015.16 The GNC, which declared its continuing incumbency in the summer of 2014 and denies the legitimacy of the House of Representatives, maintains the validity of the law.
3) The brigades have exerted maximum effort since 2012 to assert their own interests, including by forming a rare coalition of "revolutionary" and Islamist militias. The main political demand consisted of appropriate representation for "revolutionaries" in political bodies; the move succeeded with the coerced nomination of Colonel Juwail of the Zintan Brigades as the minister of defense in the Kib government. In order to assert their interests, the "revolutionary brigades" formed regional associations (in Benghazi and Misrata) and a national body, the "National Council of Thuwwar," in April 2012. Their main demands were implemented successfully: First, no punishment for actions committed during the war in order to protect the revolution (amnesty granted pursuant to Law No. 38 of May 2, 2012); second, compensation for injured combatants (by means of a pension law enacted in 2013); third, appropriate representation of revolutionaries in political bodies (unfulfilled due to political developments since 2014).
4) The Islamist brigades, in particular those associated with the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR),17 prevented the scheduled debate on the dissolution of the LROR by abducting Prime Minister Zaidan on October 10, 2013.

Outside of the political domain — and with increasing pressure from Islamist brigades on the legislative procedures — the conflict between Islamist and non-Islamist actors and the assertion of vested interests by each group took increasingly violent forms.18

TABLE 1. Target Groups of Politically Motivated Violence since the "Liberation of Libya"

Target Group / Victims


Former officers of Qadhafi's security apparatus

Primarily members of Islamist brigades; members of victim families

Members/commanders of "revolutionary brigades"

Brigade members who are hostile towards the respective target group; former members of Qadhafi's security apparatus or their families (revenge acts)

Army members

Primarily members of Islamist brigades, IS

NGO-activists (without Islamist agenda): human rights activists, lawyers, etc.

Primarily members of Islamist brigades; since 2014 also IS-members

Government members, politicians/GNC/House of Representatives members; members of the Committee of 60 (without Islamist agenda)

Islamist brigades; IS-members; e.g., attempted attack on PM Thinni on May 26, 2015

Government members (government in Tripoli), politicians/GNC/House of Representatives members (with Islamist agenda)

Revolutionary brigades; IS-members; e.g., attempted murder of General National Congress member/minister Ali Dib in Tripoli on May 17, 2015

Members of administration (ministries; judiciary administration; prosecution)

Predominantly Islamist brigades, but also members of "revolutionary brigades"


Generally members of Islamist groups/brigades; as, inter alia, in the cases of Hamida al-Hadi al-Asfar, Salwa Bugaighis, Fariha Barkawi, Intisar al-Hasairi


Predominantly Islamist brigades

Members of foreign organizations

Predominantly Islamist brigades

Embassies/embassy personnel
[The first victim of this category was U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (September 12, 2012); numerous other attacks against embassies followed (2013: France, UAE, Pakistan, Russia, PR Congo, EU vehicle; 2014: Egypt, UAE, Jordan; 2015: Algeria, Iran, South Korea, Morocco, Spain, Tunisia)]

Ansar al-sharia; Salafist jihadists; Islamist brigades

Extremist imams, Salafists

Members of Operation Karama

Moderate imams

Extremist Islamists; Salafist jihadists, primarily IS members


Primarily IS members

Hostile ethnic groups/tribes

Misratis vs. Warfallis; Misratis vs. inhabitants of Tawurgha; attacks against Warshafanas; Tuaregs vs. Tubus in Ubari/Sabha; Tubous vs. Arab Zuwaya in Kufra

Civilian population/civilians/family relatives

Depending on war zone, Libyan army, "revolutionary" and Islamist brigades, IS

Source: Mattes 2015


TABLE 2. Material Damage Caused by Politically Motivated Violence




"Revolutionary" or Islamist brigades (respective attacks against opponent)

Oil installations/oil fields

"Revolutionary" or Islamist brigades (respective attacks against opponent); Petroleum Facilities Guard (federalists)

Power stations

"Revolutionary" or Islamist brigades (respective attacks against opponent)


"Revolutionary" or Islamist brigades; IS (disabled east-west connection in August 2015)


Primarily Islamist brigades


Damage caused during liberation of combatants primarily by Islamist brigades


Islamist brigades; Salafist jihadists; IS

Residential areas

Libyan army, "revolutionary" and Islamist brigades, IS depending on combat situation

Source: Mattes 2015

At least seven further mostly violent phenomena are thus linked to state failure since 2012 (see Table 1), causing high human casualties and material damage (see Table 2):

The failure to reach an agreement on a law governing the reaction towards human-rights violations during the Qadhafi era.

The lack of a functioning judiciary in the transition period since the end of 2011 gave rise to acts of revenge committed by families or brigade members of all factions with increasing frequency against former officers of Qadhafi's security agencies (the domestic intelligence agency, Qadhafi's Revolutionary Committees and the armed forces). The number of such unlawful killings is in the hundreds, even though a decrease is discernible since the peak between 2012 and 2014. It cannot be proven whether the intervention by Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, who criticized such unlawful vigilantism as "un-Islamic," contributed to the decrease.

The struggle against alleged or real supporters of the old regime, which media reports also refer to as a conflict between representatives of the new regime and supporters of the ousted Qadhafi regime.

This conflict is particularly severe in Tripolitania and Fezzan, where armed confrontations between post-Qaddafi "revolutionary brigades" and tribal members recur, some of whom, such as the Warfalla, Wana Farsha or Rujban, are considered loyal to the Qadhafi regime. The repressive conduct committed predominantly by Islamist brigades against "Qadhafists" manifested itself with particular clarity in two cases. One was in the conflict of Misrata militias against Bani Walid in September/October 2012. As Bani Walid is the hometown of the Warfalla tribe, an ally of Qadhafi since 1969, many Qadhafi loyalists still reside there.19 The second case involved the fight of the Islamist militias of Operation Fajr against the Warsha Fana tribe (in the area from Zawiya to Aziziya, southwest of Tripoli) during September-October 2014. That tribe is also accused of continuing to sympathise with the old regime.20

The autocratic rule and self-administered justice of the "revolutionary" and Islamist brigades that have developed since the demise of the state's exclusive right to use force.

This autocratic rule becomes most apparent in the presumptuousness of exercising police and military functions, even if these are locally under the command of legitimate military councils. A particularly spectacular aspect of autocratic rule is the establishment of prison camps and prison centers in which opponents from the war against Qadhafi's armed forces during the first half of 2011 are held as so-called "enemies of the revolution of 17th February." These prison centers are outside of state-exercised or international control and have become notorious due to the use of torture and inhumane conditions. International human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as UN institutions21 continually denounce the situation in the prison centers. In this context, reference must be made to a prison center operated by the Zintan brigades in which Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi has been held since his capture in south Libya by Zintan members on November 19, 2011. The Zintan refused a transfer to competent state organs or the International Criminal Court. Instead, Saif has been on trial since 2013 before their own court, which has no legitimacy; judgment is pending.22

The burgeoning conflicts among various ethnic groups, suppressed by force during the Qadhafi era.

These started to erupt in 2011, in particular between the Tuareg and the Tubu, between the Tubu and Arab tribes and between Berbers of Jabal Nafusa and Arabs. In the meantime, the Berbers, oppressed by Qadhafi for years, have formed several political associations and have established a local council of the Berber cities in their main settlement territory, Jabal Nafusa. The Berber "revolutionary brigades" demand, for themselves and the Berbers, in general, more political self-determination as well as more representation in the government. They want to be included in the constitutional process and demand recognition of Amazigh as an official language. In the event of continued refusal, they threaten to take up armed resistance.23 Clashes have recurred several times between Berber tribes and the Arab population (e.g., Zintans) in battles for territory and influence since 2011.

The conflict of the Tubus with the Arab population (primarily with the Zawaya tribe) and the Tuareg tribes is particularly virulent in South Libya (Kufra, Sabha). The Tubus demand an end to their political and economic marginalization and have reactivated their Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya. Since 2011, there have been several armed clashes between Tubus and Zawaya as well as between Tubus and Tuaregs, claiming many fatalities.24 The intervention of tribal leaders, government representatives and the grand mufti provided only short-term resolutions. Individual conflicts erupted again in August 2015. Tuaregs and Tubus have demanded more substantial inclusion of their ethnic groups and their rights in the future constitution.25

The eruption of religiously motivated violence primarily in the form of Salafist brigade members and IS members against persons with dissenting opinions, be they Muslims or non-Muslims.

The Islamist brigades, which have been active since spring 2011, have not only destroyed Sufi shrines and Marabout tombs since autumn 2011. Members of Islamist brigades are also seen as the perpetrators of murders of liberal imams,26 journalists and women's-rights activists — de facto the main critics of the process of Islamisation27 — as well as artists accused by the Islamist brigades of "defamation of Islam." They are also suspected of perpetrating the attacks against employees of the International Red Cross as well as against the Orthodox church in Tripoli and the Coptic church in Misrata (two persons killed). Two Christian nuns were murdered and immense pressure exerted on local Christians to leave the country in Darna in January 2013. The cause of the violence directed against Christians lies in the general rejection of "infidels" and the increasing efforts by missionaries from the United States and South Korea and their distribution of bibles, which was observed in 2012-13, in particular in Cyrenaica.28 Furthermore, the emerging conflict with Libyan Shiites merits mention. Severe criticism was directed against Shiites for the first time in 2012 by Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, who accused them of having departed from the true path. Specific criticism was expressed against the Shiite mission operated from the Iranian embassy.29

The development of a movement which, by reinstating federal structures, wants to overcome the central administrative organization of Qadhafi's Jamahiriya State and its de facto marginalization of East and South Libya.

The point of reference for this movement is the Libyan constitution that was in force from 1951 to 1963 and regulated the existence of the Federal Kingdom, comprising the three autonomous regions of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fazzan. The post-Qadhafi federalism movement has its center in the eastern region of Cyrenaica (Barqa), but corresponding demands have also been made in Fezzan. The federalism movement of Barqa formed in successive steps since March 6, 2012, when the self-proclaimed Cyrenaica Transitional Council for the first time let thousands of supporters of the federalism movement demonstrate in Benghazi. The foundation of the Cyrenaica Political Bureau and an autonomous government under the leadership of Abdrabbo al-Baraasi followed in March 2013.30 Ibrahim Jadhran of Ajidabiya, commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which became the core of the planned Barqa Army (Jaish al-Barqa), was the military vanguard of the federalism movement. However, there were no armed clashes to violently assert autonomy.

The dramatic increase in violent criminality as a consequence of state failure and the inability to restrict the right to use force to the state (Table 3).

Primary criminal offenses during the Qadhafi era were, in addition to theft, narcotics and arms trafficking, alcohol smuggling, illegal migration and activities of human smugglers in combination with illegal prostitution rings (women trafficked from Sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria).

In post-Qadhafi Libya, the situation has deteriorated drastically due to three main factors. First, a security vacuum has occurred following the disintegration of the security forces, as well as the fact that the risk of police investigations for the commission of crimes has disappeared. Second, the release or liberation of some 14,000 criminals from prisons during the clashes in 201131 set them free to organize themselves into armed groups. Third, there has been continuing socioeconomic deterioration since 2011. Abductions of business persons or their relatives,32 the theft of antiques and, in particular, arms trafficking33 have supplemented the usual law breaking. This development is closely correlated with the deterioration of societal norms. Thus, the Libyan Ministry of Internal Affairs announced in 2013 that the number of murders had increased within two years by 500 percent, from 87 in 2010 to 525 in 2012.

The escalation of violence occurring in the context of the diffuse political transformation since 2011 is characterised by an overlap of different phases of violence involving various groups of actors, each of which has its targets set on different groups (cf. Table 4).

TABLE 3. Target Groups of Criminal Violence since the "Liberation of Libya" in October 2011

Victims of Murder, Robbery, Rape, Abduction, etc.


Urban civilian population

Criminal gangs: responsible for robbery, bank robberies etc. as well as the many abductions;

politically motivated abductions primarily committed by Islamist brigades

Foreign workforce members

Brigades, IS, criminal gangs

Migrants (in transit)

Brigades, criminal gangs (traffickers of migrants)

Members of criminal gangs

Counterparts of other criminal gangs (drug dealers; persons running prostitution rings; traffickers of migrants)

Source: Mattes 2015


TABLE 4. Practice of Violence in Libya since 2011: Overlapping Phases and Target Groups

February 17 - October 23, 2011: Battle of "revolutionary brigades" against the security organs of the Qadhafi-regime
Autumn 2011 - to date (with a focus on 2012/13): Destruction of Marabout tombs and mosques by Islamist extremists
Autumn 2011 - 2013: Murders of former Qadhafi security officers by brigade members and family relatives of victims of the regime
Autumn 2011 - to date: Nationwide recurrent (eruptive) clashes between hostile ethnic groups
Autumn 2011 - to date (since May 2014 new phases of confrontation coinciding with Operation Karama): Armed clashes between actors who had induced the ousting of Qadhafi, in particular between the Islamist and non-Islamist brigades, on the one side, and the army, on the other; the murder of Abd al-Fattah al-Obeidi, the head of the new Libyan army's general staff, on July 28, 2011, started this type of "intra-revolutionary" fighting; in May 2014: Army and non-Islamist brigades mounted Operation Karama to attack Islamist-controlled territories (primarily the territories in Benghazi controlled by Ansar Sharia), provoking counterreaction from the Islamist brigades and their allies with Operation Fajr
September 2012 - to date: Attacks of Islamist groups (Ansar Sharia) and Islamist brigades against Western targets (U.S.-consulate in Benghazi; killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens on September 12, 2012, International Red Cross; embassies)
July 2012 - 2014: After the election defeats of Islamist parties and personalities (GNC election; Committee of 60, House of Representatives), increasing pressure on the political decision-making process due to the pressure exerted by armed brigades
2012 and 2014: Attacks against cities/tribes accused of continued loyalty to the old regime/Qadhafi (in particular attacks of brigades from Misrata against Bani Walid in 2012; attacks against Wana Farsha in 2014)
2013 - 2014: Distinct pressure of federalists and their allied armed groups (Petroleum Facilities Guard) against political institutions granting Cyrenaica increased political-administrative autonomy
Autumn 2014 - to date: Fighting against the jihadists of IS (in Darna, Benghazi, Sirt) by units of Operation Karama as well as by Islamist brigades of Operation Fajr from Misrata; at the same time, IS fought against jihadists who refused to surrender (al-Qaeda)

Source: Mattes 2015


The polarization between Islamist and non-Islamist actors has significantly increased during 2014 and has taken ever-more-violent forms. The starting point for the intensification of the confrontation was the fact that a defeat for Islamist parties and individual candidates in the electoral process was becoming apparent. Even though Libyans are relatively conservative Muslims, a majority of them reject the reintroduction of the sharia as intended by Islamists — guardianship for women, segregation of the sexes in the public space and compulsory veiling. Thus, during the GNC elections of July 2012, the elections for the constitutional commission (Committee of 60) in February 2014, the municipal elections in spring 2014 and the elections for the House of Representatives of June 2014, the Islamist parties and candidates did not receive the expected number of votes. Instead of obtaining a majority, they were a minority. Therefore, Islamists believed their Islamization endeavor could only succeed if the Islamist brigades exerted coercion on the legislative process. Losing the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, where only 25 of 188 delegates were Islamists, was countered by denying its legitimacy and reactivating the GNC, which had expired. Fifty-five Islamist delegates of the former GNC declared its reactivation on August 23, 2014, introducing the institutional division of Libya:

• Two parliaments (the internationally recognized and elected House of Representatives in Tobruk; the reactivated former GNC in Tripoli)
• Two governments (Al-Thinni in Tobruk; Al-Hasi in Tripoli)
• Two armed forces and two heads of the armed forces (General Nazuri in Tobruk; General Obeidi in Tripoli).34

This step was easier to take, as on May 16, 2014, the Libyan army, supported by "revolutionary brigades" (with a secular orientation) from Benghazi started to fight together against Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist brigades in Operation Karama.35 As a counterreaction, the Islamist brigades joined together for Operation Fajr in July 2014 and resisted Operation Karama fiercely in both Benghazi and Tripolitania. In the context of Operation Fajr, they dispelled the secular brigades (the Zintan) from Tripoli and established themselves as of August 2014 as the armed forces of the reactivated GNC and its parallel government in Tripoli.36

The battles resulted in not only a drastic increase of fatalities in the fighting units/brigades and civilian population (Figure 1),37 in particular in Benghazi and Tripoli,38 but also the territorial fragmentation of Libya among various ruling forces.39

FIGURE 1. Number of Fatalities

Source:, April 28, 2016.


The conflict between Operation Karama and Operation Fajr has exacerbated the security situation. Focusing on the battles in Benghazi (Operation Karama vs. Ansar al-Sharia) and Tripolitania (Operation Fajr vs. Zintan/Warsha Fana/Operation Karama) allowed the radical Islamist brigades as well as IS to consolidate their positions in Darna after autumn 2014. Since spring 2015, the jihadists of IS were able to establish themselves in Benghazi, Ajidabiya and Sirt (after June 2015), using Darna as their base, and extend their terror regime.40 Neither Operation Karama in Cyrenaica nor the attacks of Islamist brigades from Misrata against IS units in Sirt could inflict enough losses against IS to force it to retreat or capitulate. The military battles only led to harm and displacement for the civilian population.41 The execution of 21 Egyptian Copts in February 2015, 86 Eritrean Christians in June 2015, captured soldiers in Operation Karama and combatants from Misrata, the bombing of facilities belonging to the opponent, the destruction of telecommunications between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in Sirt (August 2015) and the provocative opening of an IS media centre42 at the end of August 2015 all demonstrated the capabilities of IS and its confidence in its own strength.

In this situation of military powerlessness, the House of Representatives, General Khalifa Haftar (commander of the armed forces) and the government in Tobruk43 deliberated on augmenting efforts against IS with foreign military intervention. Egyptian and UAE air strikes against IS positions in February 2015, following the murder of the Egyptian Copts, were the "model." The newly discussed operation was to be issued with an Arab League mandate mobilizing 40,000 troops and 1,000 combat planes. Inter-Arab resistance (e.g., on the part of Algeria), but also on the part of UNSMIL and the UN Security Council as well as general doubts about the success of such an intervention have prevented its taking place.44 However, IS celebrated the "defeat" of the Arab anti-IS coalition on Facebook.45


It is difficult to predict the perspectives for political transformation in Libya, due to the multitude of conflict levels and parallel trajectories of events. The security situation will remain precarious, mainly due to the presence of Islamist brigades and IS terror groups as well as the weakness of state institutions. According to Western military expertise, the re-establishment of the state's exclusive right to the use of force — the creation of a strong state-run police and army — would take at least 10 years. Moreover, there is no program in sight to collect the millions of small arms in circulation. Thus, the military situation remains unpredictable.

On the political level, UNSMIL, which is active in Libya through its special envoy, the German diplomat Martin Kobler, as well as several Western and Arab states represented by their various special envoys for Libya, have opted for fast and inclusive political dialogue to resolve the conflict through negotiations. Whether a real breakthrough is achieved on the basis of the agreement reached in Skhirat in July 2015, after further amendments officially signed at the same place on December 17,46 is questionable, considering the ongoing quarrels. However, the political mediation, although proceeding hesitantly, does nevertheless show that Libya is to be maintained as a unified state. In order to guarantee its long-term existence, new power-distribution mechanisms will be necessary, but their development depends on which political actor (Islamist vs. non-Islamist) prevails.

Islamist and non-Islamist positions cannot be balanced through dialogue. Islamist brigades seeking to form an Islamic state and strictly apply sharia law will neither surrender their weapons nor agree to compromises. This will ultimately lead to further violent conflict with all its negative consequences for the re-establishment of state institutions and the implementation of development projects. However, it is also clear that neither Operation Karama nor Operation Fajr has the potential to prevail against the opposing party. The result: more or less stalemate and difficult tasks ahead for the newly installed Government of National Accord under premier designate Fayez Al-Sarraj.


1 Cherif Bassiouni, Libya: From Repression to Revolution. A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, 2011-2013 (Brill, 2013).

2 Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath (Hurst, 2015); Eberhard Kienle, Arab Uprisings: Transforming and Challenging State Power (I.B.Tauris, 2015); and Jason Pack, ed, The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave, 2013).

3 Primarily, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) (Jama'a al-libiya al-islamiya al-muqatila) is to be mentioned here; see Hanspeter Mattes, Qaddafi und die islamistische Opposition in Libyen (Hamburg: Deutsches Orient Institut, 1995).

4 Details given after count of persons reported missing, per statement of Libyan government dated January 2013; the frequent claim of 30,000 dead (Huffington Post, "Libya — Estimated 30,000 Died in War," August 11, 2011) is not correct.

5 Jean-Louis Romanet Perroux, "Libya's Untold Story: Civil Society amid Chaos," Brandeis University, Middle East Brief, no. 93, May 2015,; and UNDP/UNICEF, Libyan CSO Mapping. Comparative Highlights, 2015,

6 See the complete text at

7 The GNC's term was limited to 18 months and expired in February 2014; the problem was solved with an amendment of the Constitutional Declaration to provide a short-term extension of the GNC until the election of a new parliament on June 25, 2014; the new parliament is named Majlis al-Nuwwab (House of Representatives).

8 Originally, the committee was to be nominated by the GNC; after objections predominantly brought forth by Islamist delegates, an agreement was reached that the 60 committee members would be elected by popular vote; the election of the constitutional committee (Committee of 60) took place on February 24, 2014.

9 Hanspeter Mattes, "Rebuilding the National-Security Forces in Libya," Middle East Policy 21, no. 2, (2014): 85-99,

10 Stefano M. Torrelli and Arturo Varfelli, "New Trends in North African Jihadism: Ansar al-Scharia in Tunisia and Libya," in Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Patterns of Jihadism (2014, S.66), 45-72,

11 UNSMIL/Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, "Human Rights Defenders under Attack," UNSMIL, March 25, 2015,

12 See Article 4 of the Interim Constitutional Declaration (op.cit.): "The State shall seek to establish a political democratic regime to be based upon the political multitude and multi-party system in view of achieving peaceful and democratic circulation of power."

13 See text of The Interim Transitional National Council: Draft Law on Associations (Tripoli, 2012), 5,

14 See text of Libya's Political Isolation Law of May 2013,

15 See, for example, Mohamed Eljarh, "Isolation Law Harms Libya's Democratic Transition," Foreign Policy, May 8, 2013,

16 See HoR abolishes "Political Isolation Law", Temehu, February 8, 2015,

17 On LROR, see TRAC (Terrorism Research Analysis Consortium),

18 However, civil society increasingly organized itself against the arbitrariness of the brigades; demonstrations such as "Save Benghazi" with up to 40,000 participants on September 21, 2012, and similar demonstrations in Tripoli and Darna are part of a temporary counter-mobilization, which decreased in 2013 in the wake of attacks committed by brigades.

19 On the background of the conflict and its chronology, see and Clay Claiborne, "The Fall of Bani Walid and Libya's Counter-Revolution, The North Star, November 17, 2012,

20 For background, see Amnesty International, Libya: Rule of the Gun — Abductions, Torture and Other Militia Abuses in Western Libya, October 2014,

21 Cf. UNSMIL/UN Human Rights Office, Torture and Deaths in Detention in Libya, October 2013, 17 pages,

22 Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi was sentenced to death by shooting in absentia by a court in Tripoli in July 2015. He was found guilty of, inter alia, incitement to murder and rape. The trial was subject to severe criticism as it was conducted under the control of Operation Fajr brigades and questionable legal standards (confession by torture).

23 "Libya's Berbers Fear Ethnic Conflict: The Country's Main Ethnic Minority Feels Targeted amid Growing Political Upheaval," Aljazeera, January 6, 2015.

24 See, for example," Des Affrontements Font 40 Morts dans le Sud Libyen: Les Toubous et les Touareg loin de la Paix," El Watan (Algiers), July 23, 2015.

25 "Touaregs et Toubous Veulent ĂȘtre Reconnus Par la Future Constitution," RFI, August 24, 2015.

26 For example, an UNSMIL report of August 18, 2015, states the following: "A local Imam, Khaled Ben Rajab al-Ferjani, known for his vocal opposition to ISIL, was shot dead on August 10 in Sirt."

27 Several of the murdered critics were members of the GNC or the House of Representatives.

28 Mid-February 2013, arrest of missionaries accused of "proselytizing Muslims" and confiscation of, inter alia, 45,000 bibles.

29 Several Iranians working for a humanitarian aid organization in Misurata were arrested in this context in 2012, abducted and accused of illegal proselytization.

30 For an overview, see Karim Mezran and Mohamed Eljarh, "The Case for a New Federalism in Libya," The Atlantic Council, 2014,, as well as "Federalism in Libya: The Never-Ending Debate," Aljazeera, May 9, 2014,

31 1,200 prisoners were able to escape from the main prison in Benghazi on July 26, 2013.

32 There were more than 600 abductions between February 2014 and April 2015; see Amnesty International, "Libya: End Rampant Abductions by Armed Groups," August 5, 2015.

33 The smuggling of arms and the concomitant proliferation of weapons commenced in the full arms depots of the Qadhafi regime, which have fallen into the hands of the opposition movement and the brigades since the end of February 2011 and have been completely looted. As of yet, there has only been speculation about the exact whereabouts of the hundreds of thousands of small arms. It is a fact that the major portion of the weapons were absorbed by brigades, but were also funneled to the AQMI network. Additionally, international arms trafficking rings have established themselves in Libya. Hence, Libyan weapons surfaced via transit in large quantities in Egypt, in Gaza, Darfur, Tunisia (e.g., depots in Medenine; purchase price of a Kalashnikov 25 Tunisian Dinars) and have reached Algeria, and in particular North Mali as well as the Sahel area. The collection and control of the weapons through the military and police was named as one of the most urgent tasks by the government, but the weapons collection programs remained sporadic and low in yields.

34 Hanspeter Mattes, Libyens institutionelle Zweiteilung ohne exakte Territorialgrenzen, Eine Faktische Darstellung, Edition Wuquf, Wuquf-Kurzanalyse, no. 25, November 2014,

35 The aim of Operation Karama was to fight against the Islamist brigades, in particular "terrorist jihadists," and to end their influence on politics; the primary drive was against Ansar al-Sharia, which controlled large parts of the city of Benghazi, as well as the nationwide dispersal of the Islamist brigades from Misrata; see also Barfi 2014.

36 Mattes, "Rebuilding the National-Security Forces in Libya."

37 See the indexes/lists of NGO Libya Body Count,

38 2013: in total 643 fatalities; 2014: 2,825 fatalities; 1/2015-9/2015: 1,273 fatalities; The highest number of fatalities were recorded in Benghazi (2014: 1,473) and Tripoli (2014: 532); in 2015, regional distribution was almost identical.

39 See in detail Mary Fitzgerald, "Mapping Libya's Factions, 2015,"

40 For an overview, see, among others, and the periodic survey of terrorism by the Libyan Institute for Advanced Studies,

41 The civilian population not only fled from fighting in the context of IS; there is also regular civilian flight when fighting involving Ansar al-Sharia takes place in Benghazi; see Human Rights Watch, Libya: Civilians Trapped in Benghazi, May 25, 2015,

42 See, "Islamic State Opens Media Center in Libya's Sirte," August 31, 2015.

43 See RFI (English), "Tobruk-Based Libya Government Calls for Airstrikes on IS-Held City, August 17, 2015. In this context, however, representatives of international institutions, such as the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, have demanded more international (but civil) efforts to reconstitute stability in Libya; see

44 "Libya: On the Consequences of Intervention," Alahramonline, August 30, 2015,

45 See Facebook, "Islamic State Reportedly Celebrates Arab Coalition 'Failure' in Libya," August 31, 2015.

46 The text of the document: