The Battle for Benghazi

Special forces versus Islamists—and the struggle for control of Libya’s army
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A Libyan army trainee runs with the Libyan flag during a graduation exam in Geminis, in October 2013. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

BENGHAZI, Libya To enter Benghazi is to enter a city under siege. Unseen assailants spray checkpoints with automatic weapons; security men and military officers perish in booby-trapped cars. The staccato of nightly gunfire and pre-dawn explosions have assumed a customary quality. The culprits go undiscovered and unpunished. Residents beseech the Libyan government to dismantle the area’s freewheeling militias and replace them with the official army and police, and many hold out for a strongman who can save the troubled eastern city from itself. Last November, I met the man who seems to be filling that role.  

The ‘Sisi of Benghazi’

Colonel Wanis Bukhamada, the commander of a Benghazi-based special-forces unit, received me in his office on the grounds of a sprawling, fortified barracks. Dark-skinned and in his mid-fifties, he has a furrowed brow that suggests intense concentration, combined with a suspicion of outsiders that is typical for officers who spent a lifetime in Muammar Qaddafi’s army. A throng of supplicants loitered outside his doorway: bearded men, a riot of mismatched fatigues, and clouds of cigarette smoke.

Bukhamada’s special-forces unit, known colloquially as the Sa’iqa (Lightening) Brigade, was among the first military units to defect from Qaddafi’s army in the early days of the uprising against the Libyan leader in Benghazi. At the time, the brigade was led by General Abdul Fattah Younis, a charismatic figure whose assassination under shadowy circumstances in July 2011 has since polarized the city, exposing sharp divides between tribes and Islamists.

In leadership and temperament, Bukhamada is a natural heir to the Younis legacy. He too won acclaim for fighting Qaddafi loyalists in the final battle for Sirte. After the revolution, he used a mix of persuasion and force to quell tribal conflict in the southern town of Sebha.

Colonel Wanis Bukhamada speaks to a crowd of reporters. (Facebook)

In Benghazi itself, Bukhamada was at first reluctant to get involved in policing activity. He deferred instead to a coalition of more powerful, semi-official Islamist militias. After all, as he told me in his office, his special forces were not designed or equipped for urban policing. They lack an investigative and forensic service, which means most crimes go unsolved. 

But this past summer, when violence in the city escalated and the regular police proved incapable of addressing it, Bukhamada declared that enough was enough and mobilized the Sa’iqa’s reserve forces. In October, he became the effective military governor of Benghazi, charged with coordinating the efforts of disparate militias and government agencies. His men ringed Benghazi with sandbagged checkpoints, paraded armed convoys down its thoroughfares, and raided its open-air arms market. They fought running gun battles with Ansar al-Sharia, the most notorious of the city’s Islamist groups.

The showdown with Ansar al-Sharia ultimately ended in negotiations, underscoring a key component of how Bukhamada keeps order in Benghazi: He relies less on formal authority and more on guile, charm, negotiation, and, most importantly, tribal pedigree. “He is more of a tribal sheikh rather than a military commander,” a fellow special-forces officer in the capital, Tripoli, noted with approval. Although Bukhamada, who hails from the prominent Magharba tribe, was raised in the south, in Murzuq, Benghazi’s prominent families have welcomed him as one of their own—the quintessential outsider who fights for his adopted home. In early November, a group of tribal sheikhs pledged to help Bukhamada keep order in the city, promising that they would not apply the tribal code of protection or retribution to any tribal members who were arrested or killed by his Sa’iqa forces.

The public response to Bukhamada has been feverish and congratulatory—at least in certain quarters. “We are all Wanis Bukhamada,” Facebook pages proclaim. Stories abound of his professionalism, selflessness, and dedication to his men. “You won’t be able to meet him,” a friend in Benghazi cautioned me. “He’s always out with his men at night, moving around the checkpoints.” When another Libyan friend showed me a photo of a chocolate cake adorned with a small, camouflaged figurine bearing Bukhamada’s likeness, I was reminded of the popularity enjoyed by the Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew President Mohammed Morsi in July and may now seek the presidency. Of course, the parallel is crude in many ways. The Libyan colonel appears to have none of the political ambitions that drive his Egyptian counterpart. And the Libyan army is a pale shadow of the economic and political behemoth that is the Egyptian military. But what is strikingly similar is the thunderous applause for the uniform in Benghazi and other cities. “We want Sisi here,” several tribal leaders from eastern Libya told me in November. “If it can work in Egypt, it can work.” In Tripoli, I heard similar murmurs.

The Democracy Report

There is, however, another side to the story. Not everyone is a fan of the charismatic commander and his deployment of soldiers across the city. Every day, Bukhamada’s special forces struggle for power and authority with a constellation of Islamist militias with deep roots in the city. Sa’iqa soldiers have been the targets of an assassination campaign, and Bukhamada’s own son was kidnapped in late January. The outcome of this contest will have an impact not only on the city, but also on the future of Libya’s army—and on the country’s democratic transition.

The ‘People of Values’

The most powerful Islamist militias arose in the early days of the anti-Qaddafi uprising, which erupted exactly three years ago. Some of their leaders and rank-and-file had spent time in Qaddafi’s Abu Slim jail, a notorious detention center for political prisoners. Some had field experience on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The restless young men of eastern Libya flocked to these militias, drawn by the promise of camaraderie, purpose, an ethical code—and, later, income. Few had other options. When I scanned the roster of recruits for one of these units, the Zawiya Martyrs Brigade, a number of pre-revolutionary employment categories appeared with depressing frequency: day laborer, unemployed, mechanic, student. Battling loyalist forces in Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Brega, and Sirte, these young men developed a sense of mission. They forged new bonds. When the tyrant fell, they found it hard to go back to what they were before.

In the heady days of the post-Qaddafi era, these Islamist brigades filled the security vacuum in Benghazi, prompting the weak transitional government, the National Transitional Council, to put the militias on its payroll. Ironically, these subsidies swelled the ranks of the militias with new volunteers and spawned armed groups that had not participated in the uprising. “If the Libyan government said tomorrow that it was going to pay fishermen, then everyone would become fishermen,” one Libyan official in Tripoli quipped. “So it goes with militias.” By a recent government count, there are roughly 165,000 registered “revolutionaries,” but only a fraction of these actually fought in the war. (These fighters never refer to their organizations as “militias”—the word carries an overtone of ill-discipline and illegitimacy—but rather “brigades” or “companies.”)

Over time, most of the militias subordinated themselves to the Ministry of Defense. Many joined the Libya Shield forces, which filled the role of the non-existent army, or the Preventive Security Apparatus, a counterintelligence and investigative service that arose in the early days of the revolution to root out Qaddafi loyalists. A smaller number in the east joined the Supreme Security Committee under the Ministry of Interior—although this body is stronger in Tripoli.

Of these coalitions, none has proven more problematic than the Libyan Shields. Powerful militia commanders launched the Shields to keep their units from being incorporated into the regular Libyan army, which they loathed for its association with the old regime. The Libyan government, in turn, deployed the Shields to quell ethnic and tribal fighting across the country. The results were mixed, if not negative. An eastern Shield force sent to the southern oasis town of Kufra to subdue violence between Arab tribes and black Tabu only inflamed ethnic tensions.

A militia member stands in Benghazi's Freedom Square, in February. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

Today, many Libyans point to the Shield project as the original sin of the National Transitional Council—a Faustian bargain that put the country on a downward trajectory. In the space of two years, the Shields rapidly became a shadow army with greater power than the country’s regular forces. The monthly government salary for a Shield member exceeded that of a regular policeman and army recruit, giving militia members or would-be recruits little incentive to join the government’s security forces (Libya’s prime minister recently raised army salaries to address this issue). Double and triple dipping occurred: A young man might be a member of a Shield, his local militia, and the police all at the same time. But the most damning defect was that the Shields preserved the structure and cohesion of the militias. Militia bosses were free to pursue their own agendas, using the official writ of the government as cover.

Nobody exemplifies this paradox more than Wissam bin Humayd the commander of the Benghazi-based Libya Shield One. Slim, bearded, and reserved, bin Humayd is 35 years old and a former mechanic. He earned combat plaudits during the revolution as the commander of the Ahrar Libya Brigade. When I spoke to him last summer, he was adamant that he was a loyal servant of the military’s chief of staff, and his Shield an official extension of Tripoli’s authority.

Nevertheless, over the spring and summer, bin Humayd became political. He created and led the Supreme Revolutionaries’ Council, a coalition of militias, Islamists, and disgruntled politicians from the powerful city-state of Misrata. In April, the Council forced the country’s dysfunctional legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), to pass a law banning Qaddafi-era officials from public service, and later besieged government ministries demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.

For many Libyans, such strong-arming set a dangerous precedent in the political life of the country—it was the first explicitly political action by the militias. “A silent coup,” was how some described it. On June 8, 2013, protesters marched to the compound of bin Humayd’s Shield forces, calling on the central government to abolish militias and the Shields, and to replace them with the regular army and police. Thirty-two people died after Shield forces opened fire, and bin Humayd fled, first to Tripoli and then to the central coastal city of Misrata.  

The Libyan government responded to mounting popular outrage by pledging to incorporate all independent militias into the regular army by the end of 2013—a goal that has obviously failed. In Benghazi, the militias vacated their compounds and left the streets, as security conditions plummeted even further. The militias like to say this is because they are no longer in charge of security. But their critics retort that the Islamists are themselves responsible for the violence, playing the roles of arsonist and fireman. Since being driven off their compounds, the argument goes, they have waged a ferocious campaign against ex-Qaddafi officials and security forces.  

Meanwhile, a new security landscape has emerged in Benghazi—one marked by a tenuous division of labor between formal forces led by Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa and informal forces comprising the Islamist militias. The Libyan government set up a “Joint Security Chamber” to coordinate and strengthen the efforts of Benghazi’s formal security institutions in the summer of 2013, but the Chamber defers much of the actual policing in the city to the militias that comprise the Benghazi branch of the Libya Revolutionaries’ Operations Room, including Ansar al-Sharia.

For the Islamist militias and Shields, Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa is at once an uneasy partner and an implacable foe, in part as a result of historical memory. Under Qaddafi, the special forces spearheaded a ferocious crackdown on an Islamist uprising in Benghazi and the Green Mountains during the late 1990s. Although many leaders of that uprising fought side-by-side with the Sa’iqa during the 2011 revolution, the bad blood runs deep.

Today, many Islamists are dismissive of the Sa’iqa’s capabilities and suspicious of its motivations. Ismail Sallabi, the former commander of the Benghazi-based Rafallah al-Sahati Companies, asserted in an interview with me last spring that nothing could get done in the city without the Islamists and revolutionaries. The Sa’iqa’s ranks were filled with “drug users and womanizers,” and their contributions to security and policing were frequently heavy-handed and clumsy. “They still think they are fighting in Sirte,” he charged. “They would use Grad rockets to go after drug smugglers.” He derided Bukhamada for “militarizing” life in the city. “We don’t need another Sisi in Benghazi,” he told me. Part of this denigration reflects the Islamists’ claims to ethics and piety as a means of setting themselves apart from Qaddafi-era leaders. “We are people of values. The Sa’iqa are people of interests,” Sallabi observed.

But the animus is as much about history and genealogy as it is about morals. Part of the Benghazi violence pits eastern families like the Baraghitha and Awaqir against families with historic origins in Misrata, some of whom fill the ranks of the Islamist militias. The struggle is about political power, economic privilege, and, most important of all, authenticity and belonging. In describing the Awaqir and Baraghitha, one Islamist figure of Misratan origin revealed just how raw the emotions are on both sides. They “are racists,” he told me. “They say, ‘We are the original sons of the land,’ even though families from Misrata came to Benghazi 350 to 500 years ago.”

In light of such tensions, the common framing of Benghazi’s woes as “civilians versus the militias” or “Islamists versus the state” is ultimately shallow and incomplete. It fails to capture the depth of the family conflicts and personal rivalries that drive the city’s politics. The protesters arrayed outside Wissam bin Humayd’s Libya Shield compound on June 8, for instance, were drawn predominately from the Baraghitha. The compound is located in al-Kuwayfiya, a Benghazi neighborhood that is Baraghitha turf. In the eyes of local residents, the Shield had adopted a feudal, proprietary stance toward them. The protest, then, was about re-establishing a social equilibrium. It was about revenge. In October, the Baraghitha attacked the home of bin Humayd’s parents, believing that he was responsible for the assassination of one of their kinfolk, the chief of military police in Benghazi. When I spoke to Bukhamada about all this, he maintained an air of neutrality. But his Islamist opponents accuse him and his Sa’iqa of blatant partisanship toward the Baraghitha and Awaqir.

Returning from Benghazi to Tripoli, one thing became clear: In the new Libya, the weak state, Islamists, and militias rest on a deeper stratum of familial and regional divisions. There are multiple claimants to legitimacy and multiple truths. It is into this maelstrom of contending loyalties that Washington and its allies have stepped, to stand up new security forces for the country.

The General Purpose Force

Since early 2013, the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) have been quietly constructing a new Libyan army and counterterrorism force. The project originated in a plea during last year’s G-8 summit by Prime Minister Zeidan for outside help in building what would later be known as the “general purpose force,” totaling up to 20,000 new soldiers. When it became clear last summer that Libya’s elected government couldn’t function free of militia influence, the plan gained greater traction in Washington. The U.S., Turkey, Britain, Morocco, and Italy have plans to train and equip the Libyan military at bases overseas. AFRICOM, for its part, will train 5,000 to 8,000 soldiers at a base in Bulgaria. According to a recent congressional notification, the Libyan government is paying over $600 million for the training and logistical support.

Libyan army recruits train in Tripoli, in December 2013. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

Pentagon and AFRICOM officials privately assured me that they were asking tough questions about the plan, having learned hard lessons in recent years about building armies in shattered states amid a patchwork of tribal and regional loyalties. “We want to train new units as a whole to ensure that individually trained recruits don’t return to Libya and melt back into the militias,” one AFRICOM official told me. Some officials at the Pentagon expressed concerns about creating a factional militia or even a praetorian guard that might subvert the country’s democratic transition. It’s not an entirely implausible scenario, given that the British trained then-captain Muammar Qaddafi in the 1960s.

The most pressing issue, however, is the force’s inclusiveness. Since it is intended to eventually replace the Shields in quelling ethnic and tribal violence, its non-partisanship and professionalism must be above question. A top priority, then, is vetting recruits, ensuring that they represent a broad swath of tribes and regions—and inducting them as individuals, rather than in groups as militiamen, to ensure that the trainees develop an identity distinct from those of the militias.

The greatest challenge to broad inclusion comes from the old guard, the aging members of the Libyan officer corps who express contempt for the young revolutionaries, particularly the Islamists. “I would rather resign than share this army with those bloody idiots,” one Libyan colonel told me last fall in Tripoli.

Islamist militia bosses are similarly ambivalent, and demand that the bloated senior ranks of the army be purged of Qaddafi-era holdouts before they join it. But they reserve their fiercest criticism for what they see as Zeidan’s opacity and guile in soliciting foreign assistance to build the army. Abdel-Raouf Kara, a prominent Islamist commander in Tripoli’s Supreme Security Committee, told me that Zeidan “doesn’t have the right” to go around foreign capitals asking for help in building the army. Other Islamists from the east and Misrata worried that the new army would become a political tool for revolution-era Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) or, even worse, the United States. A common refrain is that the despised prime minister is opening the country to an Iraq-like military occupation. When, for instance, U.S. forces—allegedly with Libyan assistance—captured the wanted al-Qaeda leader Nazih al-Ruqai (Abu Anas al-Libi) in October, Libya’s grand mufti issued a statement speculating that Libyans receiving training abroad were getting schooled in the art of kidnapping. “The army has to be loyal first to Islamic law,” Ismail Sallabi, the Islamist commander, told me. “If the state goes against Islamic law then the army should protect Islamic law. We don’t want an army that helps foreign powers.”

Already, though, there are signs that just such an arrangement may be taking shape—through a SOCOM-led effort to train an elite Libyan counterterrorism force.

The Counterterrorism Battalion

Camp 27, also known as Camp Younis, lies outside Tripoli. Until recently, it was the site of an under-the radar effort by U.S. special operations advisors to train the Libyan army’s first counterterrorism battalion. The military unit, the 22nd Libyan Special Operations Forces Battalion, comprises roughly 700 soldiers, according to the battalion’s commander. As of November, the commander told me, 84 Libyan soldiers had received training from U.S. personnel on the ground, with the U.S. set to ultimately train 250 troops. (Special Operations Command did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the training or the number of Libyan soldiers involved.)

The commander of the battalion is a wiry, athletic officer with an easy smile from the western region of Zintan, the stronghold of Jibril’s National Forces Alliance, which has wrestled for political supremacy with Misrata. The stated goal of the unit, he told me, is to “combat terrorism.” But a U.S. military officer involved in training the battalion acknowledged that the definition of terrorism is hazy and a matter of perspective in the Libyan context. The force’s targets could easily slide from al-Qaeda to include political opponents—especially for anti-Islamist politicians, some from the NFA, who use the “al-Qaeda” label to denote all manner of Islamists, from Muslim Brotherhood supporters to former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an anti-Qaddafi militant organization that was once linked to al-Qaeda but has since split with the group.

Over the summer, U.S. forces aborted the training effort when Camp 27 was raided and U.S. military equipment was stolen. Theories abound as to who was behind the attack. One senior officer in Libya’s oil-protection force, originally from western Libya, sketched me a map to demonstrate that the camp’s location threatened a lucrative narcotics trade flowing into Tripoli from the Nafusa Mountains in the west. In his view, a coalition of rogue militias from the mountains, led by the so-called Salah Wadi militia from the town of Warshafana, decided to shut down the camp and make some cash in the process by ransoming the equipment.

But for the commander of the 22nd Battalion, something bigger than drug money was at stake. For him, the creation of the counterterror unit epitomized the larger dilemma of creating a capable army in the midst of profound political strife. Islamists and militias from Misrata, he alleged, were determined to bloody the nose of the army before it even got off the ground. It was a worry I heard echoed by U.S. officials in Washington. The training at Camp 27 crossed, in the commander's words, “a red line” for Islamist politicians and their militia allies who oppose a strong army. Libyan TV had broadcast a graduation ceremony at the camp in the summer and, from that point on, the unit’s security was in jeopardy. “The attack was plotted from within the General National Congress,” he alleged.

Aside from questions about the security of its training location, the unit appears to be struggling with broad-based recruitment from Libya’s far-flung provinces, towns, and tribes. Already, there are signs of exclusivity. Of its 700 soldiers, there are no troops from Misrata, which fields the best-organized militias. “The Misratans only go join the military police,” the 22nd Battalion commander said. There is also a dearth of easterners in the battalion’s ranks. “We have only five or six Benghazinos,” he acknowledged, using the popular Italian appellation for the city’s inhabitants.   

This is worrisome; without an eastern or Misratan component, the unit could be a force for disunity rather than a neutral arbiter. Islamists might perceive that, as they suspected, the battalion is meant to go after them. Most of its soldiers and officers are from the south, Zintan, and other Nafusa strongholds, leading to speculation that the raid on Camp 27 was an inside job. In the midst of the raid, the battalion commander had ordered his men not to fire, believing that doing so would test their loyalty to the breaking point. It was a portent, no doubt, of future dilemmas for the new army: How can it secure the country when it is reluctant to intervene for fear of exposing regional, tribal, or ethnic divisions within its ranks?

A Libyan woman marches in a November 2013 demonstration in support of the army and police, and against the Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia, in Benghazi. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)

These concerns are all the more worrisome given the deep fissures and muddled lines of authority within Libya’s defense establishment. There are fierce tensions between Zeidan and his military chief of staff, and between Zeidan and the president of the General National Congress, who wields the Islamist-leaning Libya Revolutionaries’ Operations Room (LROR) as a private army (it was the LROR that briefly kidnapped Zeidan in October).

In recent weeks, there have been two military threats against the General National Congress. On February 14, Khalifa Hiftar, a former army commander, threatened to shut down the country’s elected legislature, though, lacking both an army and a base of support, he never made good on his threat. Three days later, two well-armed militias from Zintan issued an ultimatum to GNC members to resign or face detention. When I met with the head of one of these militias in 2012, he emphasized that his force was under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. “We are here to secure the capital,” he said, “and we want American and British training.” The showdown was averted only through the last-minute intercession of the United Nations.

Whether the country’s new security forces succumb to such rivalries or act to temper them in the service of democracy will depend on the wisdom of Libya’s leaders and the foresight of outside supporters. But the Libyan people will also decide. Desperate for security, some are engaging in army worship that, while far from the levels we’re seeing in Egypt, is disconcerting. The path to dictatorships, in the Arab world and elsewhere, is paved with such applause.

I asked the 22nd Battalion commander about Benghazi’s worsening violence and what should be done about it. He shrugged. “We offered the 22nd Battalion to help Bukhamada but he declined. He said he has it under control,” he explained. And then: “I guess he’s a hero there and he doesn’t need any more heroes.”

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Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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