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.”)

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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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