Libya’s Policing Sector: The Dilemmas of Hybridity and Security Pluralism

Frederic Wehrey,[i] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30,The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.” 

Restoring and reforming the policing sector has long been regarded as one of the critical tasks of post-conflict reconstruction, essential for service delivery, the promotion of the rule-of-law, and the protection of elected institutions. Yet it is beset with multiple challenges for international donors: the formal police, depending on their status pre-conflict, may have fragmented amidst communal and factional conflict; they may be outgunned by more powerful non- and sub-state actors who have yet to demobilize; they may have committed human rights abuses.[ii] Libya offers intriguing insights into the form of post-conflict policing best suited to the challenges of reconstruction in today’s Middle East.

Scholars of post-conflict policing increasingly argue that outside assistance focused solely on state-centric policing actors discounts the everyday impact of the informal security sector, which may in some cases be more responsive to the public’s needs.[iii] As noted by a recent study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), “the dominant focus on state providers of security also overlooks the existence of alternative forms of security provision.”[iv] Acknowledging the power of these alternate providers, the so-called hybrid model, as explained by Mark Sedra, envisions “co-governance arrangements between state and non-state authority,” recognizing that the “Weberian state is out of place in most settings.”[v]

This paper draws on extensive interviews conducted with Libyan security actors from 2015 to 2017 to apply the models of hybridity and “security pluralism,” to analyzing Libya’s policing sector. After a brief survey of the decrepit state of MOI policing forces, it discusses how a number of informal actors— namely, militias, tribal leaders, and Salafist armed groups— are making their presence felt in local policing processes. It concludes by arguing that hybridity is inevitable over near and medium term, though international donors must proceed carefully to avoid exacerbating the risks and perils inherent in this arrangement.

The hybrid framework for security governance seems particularly apt for Libya, where Qadhafi’s 42-year reign and experiment in “statelessness” left formal institutions impoverished. Policing bodies were especially hollow. Long neglected under Qadhafi in favor of security brigades commanded by the dictator’s sons, the intelligence apparatus, and the revolutionary committees, Libya’s national policing suffered further deterioration during the country’s post-2011 collapse. Successive efforts by Libya’s transitional authorities, assisted by outside states, to reform the police have largely failed. This was partially due to scattershot international initiatives but also political fractures on the Libyan side and especially, the distortions of Libya’s rent-based oil economy which incentivized a culture of predation and plunder by armed groups.[vi] The result has been a political and factional contest for control of policing bodies and access to state funds, resulting in the creation of parallel policing bodies, typified by the Supreme Security Committees in 2012, to perform policing duties under the nominal authority of the Ministry of Interior (MOI).

With the fracturing of the country into warring factional blocs in 2014 (the “Dignity-Dawn” split) the political contest for control of police intensified.[vii] In tandem, the growth of subnational armed formations tied to towns, neighborhoods, or religious groups has vastly eclipsed the power of the uniformed police. Judicial processes have ceased to function, and customary tribal law has filled the vacuum. The net result of this disorder has been a situation in which weak “official” policing bodies must coordinate and cooperate with informal security actors, namely, powerful armed groups and social authorities such as tribal elders. [viii]

Ministry of Interior Police Forces: Ill Equipped and Fractured

Ministry of Interior forces across Libya suffer from an array of afflictions: national political conflict; shortfalls in equipment and training; poor administration, procurement, and resource management; challenges from local armed groups and criminals, to name a few.[ix] Interviews with policing officials reveal that the most pressing shortfalls are in the areas of security communications technology (partly a legacy of the Qadhafi era when such equipment went to the intelligence service), body armor, forensics and laboratories, and armored vehicles. Libya also lacks sufficient in-country police training facilities.[x]

Adding to this is an incapacitated judicial and penal system, competition between different policing units for funds and equipment, blurred lines of authority, and the creeping dominance of military bodies in policing. Processes for personnel appointments and promotions are sometimes non-transparent and based on personal and tribal patronage. Mechanisms for apportioning responsibility to units are similarly opaque, often through task-specific “contracts” or direct cash payments to armed groups.[xi] Policing functions with low political or economic stakes operate with greater autonomy and less political interference—these include the municipal police or baladiya (who deal with such matters as the certification of restaurant hygiene) and traffic police.[xii]

At the municipal level, MOI policing capabilities reside within Security Directorates that include criminal investigation (CID), emergency or first response forces (quwwat najda), and other functions. MOI police across the country operate on the basis of a number of Qadhafi-era laws, combined with more recent decrees such as Article 179 of the draft constitution.[xiii] At least in theory, the MOI in Tripoli appoints the heads of local Security Directorates across the country—the MOI website lists 57 Security Directorates across the country subject to its authority.

The reality on the ground is much different. At the national level, security sectors are split between two competing blocs, each claiming legitimacy and sovereignty: the House of Representatives (HOR) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Well over half of these directorates are outside Tripoli’s control and under the nominal oversight of the eastern HOR bloc. Security Directorates under eastern control appear to derive their authority from Resolution 705 issued by the Undersecretary of the Interior of the Libyan Interim Government (the Bayda-based government) in the summer of 2017.[xiv]  Such resolutions, however, are often vague making effective oversight by legislative, judicial, and executive authorities almost meaningless.

Hybridity at Work in Libya

Despite the common portrayal of Libya as a Hobbesian free-for-all, there are pockets of effective security governance in certain towns and regions. In particular, municipalities with a degree of social homogeneity (along tribal and ethno-linguistic lines) have managed to affect limited success in policing through hybrid security arrangements. Here, usually under the umbrella of an elected municipal council, MOI police coordinate, often uneasily, with other security actors. These include armed groups that have been “deputized” by political authorities with legal cover. Often, however, these groups are deeply involved in smuggling and other illicit activities and their provision of security amounts to little more than a protection racket. These arrangements have deep roots in post-revolutionary Libya, in structures such as the “security coordination rooms,” which were set up in 2012 and 2013 by successive Tripoli governments and whose whose overall record has been mixed.  Overlaying this cooperation between formal and informal forces is the continuing influence of traditional norms as a framework for settling disputes. The resolution of crimes through customary law (urf) and social mediators (hukama) continues to be prevalent across the country, even if the majority of Libyans in recent polling express a preference for formal state mechanisms.[xv]

The dilemmas of hybridity are starkest in the capital of Tripoli. Here, security is ostensibly maintained through coordination between the official Tripoli Security Directorate and a number of armed groups who hold sway over various neighborhoods—all of which are notionally tied to the Ministry of Interior under the Government of National Accord. Increasingly, this arrangement is delineated both geographically and in function. In theory, the Tripoli Security Directorate can patrol all over Tripoli, but it must often inform the reigning militia of a particular neighborhood of any actions it takes—and, because of it weakness, it cannot undertake armed actions such as SWAT-type raids on drug dens, deferring instead to the militias, especially a Salafi-leaning militia called the Special Deterrence Force.[xvi]

The limitations of this arrangement are obvious. First, the police are no more than checkpoint police—visible to the casual observer to be sure, but lacking real authority to enforce the writ of the state on serious offenses. More importantly, to this is the growth of the militia-turned police into what scholar Wolfram Lacher has termed “cartels” who control the city’s shadow economy and exert substantial political leverage over the Government of National Accord.[xvii] The arrangement carries additional risks because of the presence of powerful Salafist militias who exploit their policing narrative to conduct attacks on Libya’s Sufi heritage, which they deem heretical, and various other “un-Islamic” offenses (described at length below).

In eastern Libya, hybridity has been present as well through security relationships between tribes, MOI police, and local armed groups.   In Benghazi, the latter were especially evident in the form of neighborhood vigilantes and urban paramilitaries, known in the local idiom as “support forces” (al-quwwat al-musanada).  The support forces were formed just prior to and after the start of General Khalifa Hiftar’s Dignity campaign in 2014; by some counts, these militias comprised over 80 percent of Dignity-aligned military units at the height of fighting. In the aftermath of Benghazi’s war, they have increasingly taken over neighborhood policing functions, with some being folded under the MOI or, more often, under the authority of the General Command of Hifter’s LNA.

One such support force, the Majuri Protection Force, based in the central Benghazi neighborhood of Majuri, consisted of 200 personnel, mostly civilian young men along with some police and army officers, according to a key figure in the group. With many of its members hailing from the Awaqir tribe, the unit played a crucial role in combat during Operation Dignity, and then shifted to policing, both in Majuri and beyond, in areas like Sabri and Benghazi University in Gharyounis. In doing so, it coordinated via an “operations room” with the LNA and the uniformed police, along with another support force from the Bu Hdeima neighborhood.[xviii] In July of 2017, the Majuri Protection Forces announced the handing over of its headquarters to the Libyan National Army’s “anti-terrorism unit”[xix] While this is likely an attempt by Hiftar and the General Command to assert greater control over these local paramilitaries, whether it really diminishes their power is unclear.

This latter process highlights another trend of hybridity in the Hiftar-controlled east: tribal and communal conflicts over policing. In practice this has also been reflected in competition within and between Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Interior bodies, and a creeping militarization of policing, whereby MOD bodies such as the Special Forces challenge the MOI police. Often done on the basis of “counterterrorism,,” this militarization reflects the complex personal and tribal rivalries that permeate the various security bodies. Clashes between the Special Forces—specifically the 21st Battalion (also known as the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade) and the Benghazi Criminal Investigation Department (CID) recently led to the resignation of the chief of the CID.

As shown from other cases in the Arab world, dominance of MOD actors in internal security perpetuates the longstanding lower status of MOI policing actors—which makes itself felt in poor training, equipment, and facilities—and encourages bribe-taking and corruption by police officers.  It is also leading to the non-transparency of security sector data, rules and regulations, and performance reports.[xx]

Norms Based Policing: The Growing Strength of Salafi Policing Actors

One trend of hybridization that is common across the country is the dominance of Salafi-leaning armed groups in local policing. While theoretically eschewing political involvement on the basis of their doctrine of so-called “quietism,” Libyan Salafists had a longtime presence in the policing sector under Qadhafi who saw them as a useful counterweight to more politically active Islamists like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and the Muslim Brotherhood. Salafi policing actors gradually remerged in the wake of the 2011 revolution, focusing first on attacks on the rival Sufi sect and then on combatting the flood of narcotics and alcohol into the country. In western Libya, they are epitomized most starkly by the aforementioned Special Deterrence Force, based at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, and are increasingly present in other western towns. In the central town of Sirte, recently liberated from the Islamic State, a Salafi brigade with a narrow tribal composition, the 604th Brigade, has taken over policing functions.

In eastern Libya, many Salafis joined General Hiftar’s Dignity campaign, either via existing LNA units or newer, hybridized formations comprised of civilian fighters and uniformed officers. Still others joined an exclusively Salafi militia, the Tawhid Brigade, which was renamed the 210 Mechanized Infantry Brigade after the death of its commander. As of late 2017, the 210 Brigade was a major policing actor throughout Benghazi and the oil crescent though by 2018 it had reportedly been broken up and dispersed.[xxi] Among Libyans across the country, the Salafis are a source of unease.   While some laud them for tackling crimes like drug trafficking, many citizens have decried their increasingly aggressive ideological attacks, exemplified by the closure of Sufi mosques and attacks on Sufi shrines, the confiscation of books they deem heretical, and the well-reported closure of an “Earth Day” celebration at Benghazi University, which they accused of being “Masonic.”[xxii]


The overall picture of policing in Libya remains grim and is torn between two extremes. On the one hand, citizens face a state of endemic instability, criminality and the rule of militias, and on the other, a militarization of policing, marked by a return to Qadhafi-era strictures over civil liberties. Overlaying all of this is intense political competition for policing bodies, between the GNA and the eastern bloc, and the growing influence of Salafi armed groups in norms-based policing.

Recognizing this deficit, international organizations and donors have made reforming and professionalizing the policing sector an especially urgent imperative.[xxiii] But hybridity and “security pluralism” are likely to continue to dominate Libya’s security sector landscape. The dilemma facing international actors is how to harness the beneficial aspects of this trend, particularly community mediators, while mitigating its risks. Those risks and shortcomings are many. One critic of the hybrid model, drawing from fieldwork in Liberia, has pointed out the contested legitimacy among community-level providers and has critiqued hybrid theorists for their reliance on essentialist and fictively “organic” conceptions of local security actors.[xxiv] In Libya, this critique bears noting, especially in the case of the often-inflated notion of tribes as discrete and autonomous political actors and the preference of Libyans for state provision of policing and justice over tribes.[xxv] In some cases, the tribes’ notion of justice has come into conflict with the formal judicial sector as exemplified by the Benghazi CID’s demand that tribal elders cease their protection of “outlaws.”[xxvi] Added to this peril is the growth of Salafi policing formations and the enmeshment of militia-turned police bodies in smuggling activities and their plunder of state resources.[xxvii]

Mindful of these dilemmas, international actors should pursue a two-track process that regularizes and professionalizes the uniformed policing sector while at the same time promoting greater accountability, rule-of-law, and transparency among informal, community-level actors. The ultimate is goal is not the complete abandonment of the Weberian model but an interim arrangement that accommodates the realities of the state’s truncated sovereignty on the ground.[xxviii]

[i] The author is grateful for the research assistance of Katherine Pollock.

[ii] For discussion of these challenges see: William G. O’Neill, “Police Reform in Post-Conflict Socieities: What We Know and What We Still Need to Know,” International Peace Academy Policy Paper, April 2005; available at

[iii] See Michael Lawrence, “Security Provision and Political Formation in Hybrid Order,” Stability Journal: International Journal of Security and Development, 6 (1), 2017; Matthew Schwartz, “Policing and (in) Security in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Settings,” Global Center on Cooperative Security, May 8, 2015; Megan Price and Michael Warren, “Reimagining SSR in Contexts of Security Pluralism,” Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 6(1), 2017. Ursula C. Schroeder & Fairlie Chappuis, “New Perspectives on Security Sector Reform: The Role of Local Agency and Domestic Politics,” International Peacekeeping, 2014, 21:2, 133-148.

[iv] Lisa Denney and Craig Valters, Evidence Synthesis: Security Sector Reform and Organisational Capacity Building (London: Department for International Development, 2015).

[v] Mark Sedra, Security Sector Reform in Conflict-Affected Countries: The Evolution of a Model, (Routledge, 2016) p. 10-11.

[vi] Irene Costantini, “Conflict dynamics in post-2011 Libya: a political economy perspective,” Conflict, Security & Development, 16:5, 2016, pp. 405-422.

[vii] See Wolfram Lacher and Peter Cole, “Politics By Other Means: Conflicting Interests in Libya’s Security Sector,” Small Arms Survey Paper, Number 20, October 2014.

[viii] See Peter Cole, with Fiona Mangan, “Tribe, Security, Justice and Peace in Libya Today,” United States Institute of Peace, September 2, 2016;

[ix] Peter Cole and Fiona Mangan, “Policing Libya:  Form and Function Since the 2011 Revolution,” United States Institute for Peace, August 2016;

[x] Wehrey interview with MOI policing official, Tripoli, November 2017.

[xi] Wehrey interview with MOI officials and armed group leaders, Tripoli, May, 2017.

[xii] Wehrey interviews in Benghazi with activists and MOI police, May 2017.

[xiii] 2017 Proposal of a Consolidated Draft Constitution, Libyan Security Sector Legislation, DCAF,


[xv] See Peter Cole, with Fiona Mangan, “Tribe, Security, Justice and Peace in Libya Today,” United States Institute of Peace, September 2, 2016; p.16.

[xvi] Wehrey interview with MOI policing officials and a GNA security official, Tripoli, November 2017. For more on the Deterrence Force and on the dominance of Salafi militias in Libya’s policing sector across the country see, Frederic Wehrey, “Quiet No More,” Diwan blog, October 13, 2016, Carnegie Middle East Center,

[xvii] Wolfram Lacher, “Tripoli’s Militia Cartel,” SWP Comment, April 20, 2018,

[xviii] Wehrey interviews with members of the Majuri Protection Force, September 2015 and May 2017, Benghazi

[xix] Anon., “LNA closes down a Benghazi local defence militia,” Libya Herald, June 22, 2017;

[xx] Yezid Sayigh, Dilemmas of Reform:  Policing in Arab Transitions, Carnegie Endowment Paper, 2016, available at:

[xxi] Wehrey interview with 210 Brigade member, Benghazi, May 2017.

[xxii] Wehrey interviews with activists in Benghazi, Tripoli and Sirte, May 2017 and November 2017.

[xxiii] See the recent policing initiative launched by the UN in Libya. United Nations Support Mission in Libya, “Towards Effective and Democratic Governance, the UN Launches Policing and Security Programme for Libya,” February 7, 2018.

[xxiv] See Franzisca Zanker, “Moving Beyond Hybridity: the Multi-Scalar Adaptation of Community Policing in Liberia,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding Vol. 11, Iss. 2, 2017.

[xxv] A USIP study notes that while Libyans are comfortable with tribes in mediating roles they call on tribal justice only in “extreme circumstances.”  The growing spread of tribal justice is a reflection of Libya’s worsening fragmentation.  Cole, with Mangan, “Tribe, Security, Justice and Peace in Libya Today,” p. 35.  Igor Chertisch, “When Tribesmen do not act Tribal: Libyan Tribalism as Ideology (not as Schizophrenia),” Middle East Critique, Vol. 23, Issue 4, 2014, pp. 405-424.

[xxvi] See Libya’s Channel:

[xxvii] See Tim Eaton, “Libya’s War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness,” Chatham House, April 2018.

[xxviii] For a historical discussion of outside powers’ aborted efforts to impose statehood on Libya see, Lisa Anderson, “’They Defeated Us All’: International Interests, Local Politics, and Contested Sovereignty in Libya,” Middle East Journal, Volume 71, Number 2, Spring 2017, pp. 229-247.