Correspondent Bill Wheeler was awarded the first annual GroundTruth fellowship for field reporting on emerging democracies in the Middle East. In this running blog series for GroundTruth, Wheeler goes inside the militias that are still holding sway in the chaotic aftermath of Libya’s civil war.
TRIPOLI, Libya — Today the academy where Gaddafi's notorious female bodyguard once trained is painted with an image of the rebels’ tricolor flag, guarded by the men who helped topple his regime. On the day I visited, several lingered at the front gate wearing mismatched camouflage uniforms. One wore a red arm cuff with white lettering that signified he was operating under the authority of the state. At the front door, a wall tapestry with a portrait of the dictator as a young man was being used as a doormat, so that anyone who entered must first trudge across his face.
Inside I found Faraj Swehli, a hardline commander from a powerful clan, presiding over a lavish office paneled in wood and outfitted with leather sofas and glass tables. He sat behind an angular desk and, after greeting me, began flipping channels on a large flat-screen TV across the room. He wore an open collared shirt beneath a gray satin blazer, a pinky ring and a short beard. He carried himself with the air of a businessman–turned–warlord, and spoke softly, deliberately, like someone who is used to being listened to.
I would later learn that Swehli was a major player on the Supreme Revolutionary Council. His story illustrates how security in Libya today is a function of the trajectories set in motion by the war, which made new power centers of cities that were revolutionary strongholds. Chief among them is Swehli’s hometown, Misrata, which accounts for nearly half the experienced fighters and weapons caches in the country.
After security forces killed protesters in Misrata and crowds chased the police out of the city, Swehli, whose great grandfather was a legendary figure in the resistance to Italian colonial rule, had set about building his own brigade.
They began by using single-shot hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails. Over months of brutal house-to-house fighting some 300 armed fighters— who at first traveled to the battlefield by car with friends, then coalesced into larger units around the most able leaders — scurried through blasted-out walls between buildings where loyalist snipers were perched on the rooftops. The fighters moved shipping containers up block by block as they took control of each street to gradually box in their enemy. They grew into hierarchical brigades capable of deploying tanks and heavy artillery while guarding miles of front lines in three directions.
By war’s end, their numbers reached about 40,000 men in 236 close-knit, battle-hardened brigades, which were known for their strong loyalties and reputation for fearlessness.
After Misrata’s liberation, Swehli and his men moved west to join the fight in a neighboring town. They decided they would head straight to Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli. By then, rebels were making a dramatic push from the western mountains. A fierce race was on between multiple forces closing in on Tripoli from three sides.
Even though the rebels were all ostensibly fighting for the same goal, the geography of the war had heightened old tribal and regional divisions and also inspired new ones. The revolution had begun in the east, under the leadership of experienced opposition figures and army officers, who found a safe haven behind the NATO-enforced no-fly zone to defect with relative ease.
But after the rebel army got bogged down along the eastern front, they were seen as bystanders in the west, where local brigades formed, armed themselves, and trained their mostly civilian fighters with limited outside help.
Rather than by a single conquering army, the war would be won in a series of independent uprisings, leaving heavily armed groups — each with its own narrative of sacrifice and victory — in competition with one other and a weak national army and interim government that many viewed suspiciously because of their ties to the former regime.
Swehli’s men were so determined to get to the capital first that they staged a mutiny, warning him that if the revolutionaries from Zintan — another revolutionary stronghold that Misratans now consider their rivals — were to beat them to Tripoli “you will be our only enemy.”
But on August 20, 2011, Tripoli’s underground revolutionaries coordinated an uprising that brought residents out into the streets to take control of their neighborhoods, securing up to 80 percent of the capital in one night. He and his men joined the other militias rushing into the neighborhoods where loyalists were still fighting.
Over the next two months, his men participated in the fighting in the last two loyalist holdouts.
“I went to Sirte and liberated Sirte,” he said. “I was one of the first to enter Bani Walid, and I liberated Bani Walid.”
As the various brigades from around the country settled down in the capital, they soon began to clash over control of strategic sites. They also found new freedoms. The groups from Misrata and Zintan earned a reputation for looting, theft and involvement with drugs. I heard a new saying about how Gaddafi had spent 42 years trying to get Libyans to hate Misrata; it didn't work, but after the war Misratans themselves finally succeeded where the dictator had failed.
Militias from both cities, empowered by new weapons caches, launched attacks against tribal rivals that had sided with the regime, turning their cities into ghost towns: a UN investigation concluded that Misratans’ campaign of collective punishment against Tawerghans — the displacement of 40,000 people, kidnapping, torture and extrajudiciary killings — qualify as crimes against humanity. By this time, militia members talked of the need to turn over power to a central authority. But as time went on they continued to ignore authorities’ calls to leave the capital, and went on talking about submitting to state authority while consolidating their control and seeming ever more pleased with their new power.
“Leaders in Misrata watched these developments warily but made a cynical calculation,” described a fascinating piece of research by Brian McQuinn, a former conflict analyst who spent the better part of a year on the ground in Misrata researching the evolution of armed groups for his doctoral thesis in anthropology at Oxford University. The damage that Misratan militias in Tripoli were doing to both their city’s reputation and security in the capital was overshadowed by the strategic value of having proxies — like Swehli’s forces — to maintain their influence over the post-war transition.
Today, Swehli told me, he is “helping to build the country,” in charge of operations rooms and more than 10 police units under the umbrella of the national army. Since liberation, the state has outsourced security roles — guarding oil fields, border security, police and military functions — to an untold number of former revolutionaries operating under varying degrees of official recognition. But unlike regular security forces, they have resisted breaking up their command structures so their men can be integrated as individuals. This raises serious questions about where their loyalties truly lie.
When I asked whether working as part of the national army meant anything more than wearing an official band on one's arm, since they are the same tight units of fighters working together under the same commanders they fought with during the revolution, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“There's something called team spirit, “ he said. “When a team has fought and suffered together, they are not going to leave that team easily.”
If the government had incorporated the revolutionary commanders into the army from the beginning, he continued, the state would never have had to worry about the loyalties of their brigades in the first place. But it's not too late. If they hire the commanders now, they will be able to control the revolutionaries.
There is a power struggle underway over the rebuilding of the army, and revolutionaries and veteran army officers are both trying to position themselves to benefit. The divide that runs through parliament, between the National Forces Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliated blocs, is mirrored in the divide between competing blocs of allied forces in the security sector. A central question is how far the revolutionary camp wants the uprooting to go.
When I asked about the specific duties of his police units, Swehli said their job was to track down loyalists from Gaddafi's police and army — a dubious and subjective distinction in practice. He flipped through a sheaf of pages on his desk with name after name after name of wanted individuals. When I asked whether there was room for anyone at all who had served in Gaddafi's army or police, or whether only the leaders should be excluded from the new security forces, he said all the remnants of the regime must be gotten rid of: they were all thieves who shared Gaddafi's ideology.
Swehli had lost two brothers, 25 cousins, and 30 people from his brigade during the war, he said, and he intends to track down those that he holds responsible. “I don't have any more cousins — they're all dead,” he told me. “I will never let anyone escape who fought against me and the country.”
The commander agreed to let me spend some time with his men, observing them as they tracked down the names on their wanted list. But he soon stopped answering my calls. Only later did I begin to hear allegations his men were involved in criminal activity.
In contrast to the generic description of “lawless militias” used in the press, McQuinn’s research argues that the majority of armed groups in Misrata cooperate closely with local authorities. But Swehli’s brigade is one of the rare exceptions — a rogue brigade accused of selling memberships to Tripoli residents and engaging in extortion.
According to McQuinn’s research, the Swehli brigade took over control of the western gate in Misrata, the first checkpoint on the highway to Tripoli, which gave them leverage over anyone trying to enter or leave the city. Allegations of corruption and arbitrary detention eventually emerged, and local military and civilian leaders intervened, negotiating an agreement for his men to surrender control of the gate to the Interior Ministry. But then they didn't.
In February 2012, the Tripoli division of his brigade generated an international backlash, detaining two British journalists working for an Iranian outlet, whom he refused to release for a few weeks, claiming in a press conference that they were spies. The next day his men confiscated two Interior Ministry vehicles passing through the city's gate. Local officials scrambled a force drawn from 20 different brigades to take back control of the gate, and in the confusion that followed an ammunition depot caught fire and exploded, killing two people. After an emergency meeting that night, the brigade finally surrendered the gate.
For 18 years, Mokhtar Lakhdar served under the Gaddafi regime as a commando and instructor before he retired and went into tourism. In the first days of the revolution, he led fighters to seize a massive weapons depot. Two Air Force jets were sent to attack them and destroy the depot, he said, but through a fortunate turn of events the pilots instead dumped their payload in the desert and defected to Malta.
The fighters spent three days unloading weapons, with which they armed surrounding communities and opened a strong western front that analysts said was key to liberating the capital. “This cache is really what saved the mountain,” he said. Within weeks, they built a dirt landing strip and their international allies began flying in arms. “All the world was focused on the western front.”
Now he remembers those times fondly. “It was actually easier during the war. We were on the front line, but we were drinking tea, making jokes, laughing. We knew what our goal was. It was clear.”
Now he feels mentally exhausted from worrying about what direction the country is headed.
With a wiry frame, a tousled head of thick silver hair and a moustache, Lakhdar wore a black suit with an open-collared shirt. He was seated behind a desk in front of a chic orange slate wall on a Tripoli farm that had formerly been an intelligence station. Through a half-shuttered window I could see a rooster running through the weeds beside an empty swimming pool.
After the war, the Zintanis — both a tribe and a city — attacked and drove out the neighboring Mashashiya, their historical rivals whom they accuse of having sided with Gaddafi; in Tripoli, unruly Zintani brigades have earned widespread public disapprobation. But they see themselves as being ideologically and politically independent.
“We are Arabs. We are Muslim. But we are patriots,” said Lakhdar. “We support the legitimacy of the state.” But because Zintan’s revolution was led by former army officers, who retain ties to their former comrades from the national army in the east, they are also seen as leaning towards the old guard, hence in opposition to the Islamists and hardline revolutionaries.
Hence his frustration with the growing religious and political divisions in the country. He didn’t see religious extremists fighting on the front lines, he says, and neither did all the foreign officials and journalists that came to Zintan during the war to make sure they weren’t arming terrorists (his iPhone displays a photo he took with a smiling Hillary Clinton).
“Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and understanding,” he said. “And integrity and transparency. All these other gangs who want to hijack that in the name of religion, we don’t want these people. And if we feel that one day they will pose a threat to the security of Libya, we will face them down.”
He’s just as discouraged by the politicians who have emerged to claim their slice of the pie, and the brinksmanship of the two biggest parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mahmoud Jbril’s National Forces Alliance. “There are political parties now that have their own personal militias,” he said.
Othman Mlegta, from Zintan, the brother of the NFA's biggest sponsor, heads the Qaaqaa brigade — an 18,000-man unit operating under the auspices of the National Army that is seen, essentially, as Jbril’s personal guard. Congressman and hardliner Abdulrahman Swehli is tied to his own militia in Misrata, while the Muslim Brotherhood has its own allied forces.
It’s just like in the old regime, when Gaddafi’s sons each had their own military brigades. “The only thing that has changed is the names,” Lakhdar said.
And whenever they don’t like the way things are going, they can try to exert their power through the militias, he said.
“How were they able to pass the Political Isolation law? A lot of young armed men came with 14.5 mm guns and they laid sieges. I mean, this is a huge event! I don't think people realize it. It was a coup,” he said. “Libya as a state was sacked.”
This reporting was supported by a grant from The Correspondents Fund.