Magnates, Media, and Mercenaries: How Libya’s conflicts produce transnational networks straddling Africa and the Middle East

Wolfram Lacher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin [1]

War transforms societies and their boundaries. How it does so depends on the particularities of a society and the forces at work in a conflict. The nationalist mobilization of the first and second world wars provoked a forced displacement of millions that turned diverse empires into ethnically homogeneous nation states. The Rwandan genocide and ensuing Tutsi takeover triggered refugee movements that led to a series of conflicts in eastern Congo and deeply transformed that region’s social makeup. The transnational networks formed during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union laid the groundwork for several generations of jihadist movements. The Algerian civil war was first and foremost the traumatic experience of a nation, but the flight of small remnants of the insurgency to northern Mali planted the seeds of what would eventually become wholly indigenous jihadist movements in the Sahel.

It is not surprising that Libya’s conflicts since 2011 should act as a melting pot of transnational networks straddling the Middle East and Africa. Among North African societies, Libya has long been the most deeply integrated with sub-Saharan Africa. This integration partly stemmed from previous conflicts: for example, Ottoman and Italian campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries twice forced the Awlad Suleiman to flee to what is now Chad, where they settled and intermarried with locals.[2] After Qadhafi’s takeover in 1969, elite figures linked to that tribe’s Saif al-Nasr family again escaped to Chad and helped establish the exiled opposition there. Qadhafi, in turn, hosted rebel groups from across the continent and recruited thousands of young men from Sahelian states, including for foreign military adventures.

But the connections created through Libya’s conflicts since 2011 transcend historical patterns. This is partly due to the inherent tendency of violent conflict to tear people apart from each other or force them to stick together; the chaotic twists and turns of war often leaving them with little choice between the two. More fundamentally, new patterns emerge because the international environment of the past decade differs from previous eras. The relative decline in Western influence and the rise of regional powers have produced a multipolar disorder.[3] That disorder has promoted the emergence of intersecting regional conflict formations centred on Syria, Libya and the Horn of Africa.[4] If the examples above are any indication, the networks created in such wars can form the basis of conflicts for decades to come.

Qadhafi’s Legacy and the Present

If it had not been for Qadhafi’s penchant for meddling in African conflicts along with his idiosyncratic Pan-Africanism, Libya might well have turned its back on sub-Saharan Africa in the decades of postcolonial nation-building, much as its neighbours did. Whether it was intentional or not, Qadhafi’s policies forged transnational ties that have retained relevance since the demise of his regime. His persecution of opponents, elite families and intellectuals forced thousands of Libyans into exile, where many built ties with the leadership of states that were, at varying times, opposed to Qadhafi, such as the leaders of Algeria, Sudan, Chad, and Morocco. He encouraged members of Libyan tribes who had settled in Chad and Niger – and some communities whose Libyan ancestry was more doubtful – to “return” to Libya.[5] There, they were highly dependent on state patronage, and formed a pool for military recruitment. His support for African rebel groups and recruitment of men from Sahelian countries brought specialists in violence from across the continent to Libya. It also allowed many of Qadhafi’s intelligence operatives and military officers to develop networks among these groups.

Such networks played an important role in the 2011 civil war. Libyan exiles in the West lobbied the US, UK and French governments. Libyan businessmen and religious scholars with longstanding ties in the Gulf states used their connections to mobilize support, thereby building relationships that would have a lasting impact over the following years. Qadhafi not only deployed the Tuareg soldiers of Sahelian origin in his Maghawir Brigade, but also reached out to former Tuareg rebels in Mali and Niger to mobilize additional recruits, and hired Darfur rebels who had found refuge in Libya.[6]African leaders who had benefited from Qadhafi’s support led the African Union (AU) to oppose the NATO intervention in Libya, and would later host senior former regime officials.

Middle Eastern Connections

Two main dynamics drove actors in Libya’s conflicts to establish ties in Middle Eastern states: the mobilization of support for the war against Qadhafi in 2011, and the formation of new Libyan diasporas as a result of the 2011 war and the conflicts that followed it.

In 2011, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) both supported the war against Qadhafi. But as Libyan factions competed for their support, these two states ended up backing disparate Libyan networks. The National Transitional Council’s “prime minister” Mahmoud Jibril and the businessman-cum-Sufi scholar Aref al-Nayed both leveraged their connections in Doha and Abu Dhabi. But the Islamic scholar Ali Sallabi, a close associate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Doha-based religious authority Youssef al-Qaradhawi, eventually won the favour of Qatari officials. Through Sallabi, Qatar increasingly channelled its support to Islamist-leaning groups, including former leaders of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). In addition, former LIFG leaders who had spent time in Sudan during the 1990s used their connections to oversee weapons shipments from Sudan, some of which were financed by Qatar. Separately, rebel leaders from Misrata also established ties with Qatar to obtain arms. Meanwhile, Nayed and Jibril channelled shipments from the UAE. In the Nafusa Mountains, UAE support went to groups from Zintan, while groups based in Nalut benefited from Qatari assistance.[7]

The formation of new communities of Libyan exiles created additional transnational networks. Just as thousands of exiles returned to Libya in support of the revolution, hundreds of thousands of people associated in one way or another with the regime fled abroad, most of them to Tunisia or Egypt. Former senior regime officials mostly converged on Egypt, eventually settling down after the July 2013 military coup removed the threat of extradition to Libya. In Cairo, they established the satellite channel al-Jamahiriya al-Khadra’ (“Green Jamahiriya”), and Qadhafi’s cousin Ahmed Qadhafeddam reactivated ties with the Egyptian security services forged during long years of acting as Qadhafi’s envoy to Egypt.[8]

From mid-2014 onwards, many western Libyan opponents of the Libya Dawn militia coalition moved to Cairo, including members of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. In Cairo and Abu Dhabi, those who left Libya in 2014 gradually mended ties with exiled former regime supporters. As Khalifa Haftar advanced in his Benghazi military campaign during 2015, some former regime officials began returning to eastern Libya and joining Haftar’s operation. In Abu Dhabi, the Palestinian politician Mohamed Dahlan oversaw Emirati support to Haftar, working with the former right hand of Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam, as well as with Qadhafeddam and the super-rich Benghazi businessman Hassan Tatanaki in Cairo – the latter a former business associate of Saif al-Islam turned supporter of the 2011 revolution, then proponent of the eastern autonomy movement.[9]

Conflict in Benghazi and Tripoli also forced groups on the other side of the political divides into exile. Dozens of thousands of people fled the war in Benghazi, many of them members of families that were forcibly displaced by Haftar’s armed groups because of their western Libyan origins. Most settled in Misrata or Tripoli, but many also left to Istanbul. The Istanbul-based Benghazi diaspora included leaders of armed groups and prominent businessmen who supported the fight against Haftar. They ranged from ordinary people pushed into opposition to Haftar by their family ties or their belief in the 2011 revolution, to Islamists and jihadists.

From 2016 onwards, Islamists seeking refuge from the changing political climate in Tripoli and Misrata joined the Benghazi exiles in Istanbul. In Tripoli, a handful of militias expanded their control over much of the city in 2016-17, while growing increasingly hostile to political Islamists, including the former LIFG leaders. In Istanbul, these senior figures mingled with the Benghazi diaspora, as well as with exiled Islamists from Egypt and Syria. But they also kept in touch with former regime officials exiled in Cairo and elsewhere, with whom they held repeated meetings in Istanbul and Doha from 2015 onwards, in an attempt from both sides to break their political isolation. Key go-betweens in these efforts were the aforementioned Ali Sallabi as well as an immensely wealthy former companion of Qadhafi from Misrata, Ali Dabeiba, both of whom spent more and more of their time in Istanbul.

The media was one domain through which exiles exerted political influence in Libya. After the fall of the regime, political entrepreneurs in Tripoli launched several privately owned TV channels directed at a nationwide audience. But successive attacks by armed groups forced these channels to close down or relocate abroad. In Libya, only channels that enjoyed the protection of a particular local constituency or armed group remained. Abroad, influential figures established highly successful TV channels and media outlets, relying on their own money or foreign sponsors.[10]

As the political landscape split in two opposing camps in 2014, Ali Sallabi took over the Doha-based TV channel Libya li-kull al-Ahrar, forcing its previous head, the former NTC official Mahmoud Shammam, to move to Cairo. There, Shammam established the al-Wasat website, which was broadly sympathetic to Haftar’s alliance. Another former executive of Libya li-kull al-Ahrar, Huda al-Serrari, launched the TV channel 218 in Amman, which was staunchly pro-Haftar. In Amman, too, Aref al-Nayed established his Libya TV channel, whose pro-Haftar line became increasingly pronounced over the years. The funding of such channels remained murky, though Nayed’s and Serrari’s good connections in Abu Dhabi fuelled persistent rumours of UAE funding. The influential website al-Marsad, which specialized in aggressive attacks on the government in Tripoli, kept its ownership hidden, though it also appeared to be run by Nayed out of Amman.

Meanwhile, Libya li-kull al-Ahrar relocated from Doha to Istanbul in 2017, as part of Qatar’s broader effort to create distance between itself and Muslim Brotherhood circles. In Istanbul, the Muslim Brother Suleiman Dogha now ran the channel. Two other Islamist-leaning TV channels escaped Tripoli for Istanbul: Tanasuh TV, run by a son of Libya’s controversial mufti al-Sadeq al-Ghariyani; and al-Naba TV, linked to circles surrounding former LIFG leaders, which later transformed into Febrayer TV.

From the safe distance of exile, these media outlets projected their highly partisan agenda back into Libya – in many cases the agenda of people who had lost much of what they had in Libya, and were intent on getting it back by fuelling the country’s conflicts.

African Connections

If Libyan exiles in Middle Eastern capitals relied on capital to exert influence back home, African fighters in Libya entered into the labour side of the equation. After the fall of the regime, several hundred Tuareg fighters famously left Libya to northern Mali, where their arrival provided the spark for a rebellion that had already been brewing. But many of them returned to Libya after the beginning of the French intervention in Mali, in January 2013.[11] By 2014, African fighters were flocking to Libya, rather than escaping it.

The first foreign fighters to reach Libya in sizeable numbers were jihadists from the Maghreb countries who were hosted in Libyan coastal cities by well-implanted jihadist networks. Initially, most of these foreign fighters came to Libya to undergo training and then travel on to Syria. As Libyan and foreign jihadists brought back the Islamic State (IS) brand from Syria, some local jihadist groups declared allegiance to the IS. In Darna, Benghazi, Sirte and Sabratha, local IS affiliates began recruitment drives.

By early 2016, the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya reached its zenith, with  foreign fighters in its ranks numbering in the low thousands, and Tunisians representing, by far, the largest contingent. Nationals of other North African states and Sudan also featured in sizeable numbers. But recruits from the Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Chad and Eritrea also numbered at least several dozen each.[12] Many of these fighters were undoubtedly killed in the various military campaigns against Libyan IS strongholds, the most significant of which was the Misratan-led offensive on Sirte (May-December 2016). It is impossible to say how many may have escaped, and whether the ties forged between fighters of different national origins will spawn new jihadist networks across Africa. Time will tell.

More significant, in terms of its scale and implications, is the recruitment of Chadian and Sudanese armed groups by Libyan parties. Former Chadian rebels, left empty-handed after the rapprochement between Sudan and Chad in 2010, had already begun moving to Libya before the revolution. In Darfur, the situation also became increasingly difficult for the rebel groups from 2011 onwards. Sudanese and Chadian fighters therefore had their own reasons for moving to Libya, beyond the fact that Libyan factions sought to hire them. On a small scale, Tubu armed groups were among the first to do so, in their conflicts with armed groups from the Awlad Suleiman and Zwayya communities in Sabha and Kufra, from 2012 onwards.

With the escalation into civil war in 2014, multiple factions began recruiting Chadian and Sudanese fighters. Tubu militia leaders, who themselves joined Haftar’s operation in Benghazi, facilitated the recruitment of Chadian and Darfur rebel groups. Armed groups from Zintan, trying to fend off the Libya Dawn coalition, recruited Chadian fighters from the Goran (or Daza) ethnic group. In the Oil Crescent, the militia leader Ibrahim al-Jadhran also recruited Chadians, aided by Tubu militia leader Hassan Musa. In Ubari, Tubu armed groups recruited Chadians and Darfuris in their fight against Tuareg militias.[13]

As these conflicts wound down during 2015, the roles of Chadian and Sudanese groups shifted from fighting as mercenaries to securing remote outposts. But their numbers continued to grow, and their presence in Libya transformed these groups. In late 2014, militia leaders and power-brokers in the Libya Dawn coalition began prying some of the Chadian mercenaries away from their adversaries. Misrata’s Third Force – an umbrella organisation including several of the city’s armed groups – assembled these Chadians at a remote location in central Libya, Jabal al-Sawda. Misratans then contacted Chadian rebel leader Mahamat Nouri in his French exile, who sent his lieutentant, Mahamat Mahdi, to take charge of the Third Force’s Chadian fighters.

But once in Jabal al-Sawda, Mahdi established himself as the leader, clashed with Nouri’s loyalists, and founded a new rebel group, the Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT). Later, Haftar gave vehicles and a base in Sabha to a FACT commander, Mahamat Hassan Boulmaye, who split from FACT to form the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR).[14]

These are just two examples for how conditions in Libya transformed Darfurian and Chadian rebel groups. Their historical leaders in Qatar, France and elsewhere often saw their influence wane as lieutenants on the ground dealt with the constraints of Libya’s fragmented landscape, and seized the opportunities Libyan actors presented to them. Chadian and Darfurian factions frequently switched sides – in some cases several times – as Libyan factions fought over central and southern Libya during 2016-2018. But most eventually aligned themselves with Haftar. In the case of Chadian groups, this meant that they had to shelve all plans for action against the government of Idriss Deby, whom Haftar saw as an ally.

By the time Haftar launched his Tripoli offensive in April 2019, Darfurian fighters in Libya numbered around 2,000 and Chadians well over 1,000.[15] Seeking to free up forces for the Tripoli war and strengthen the defence of strategic locations in the Oil Crescent and Jufra region, Haftar then continued to recruit in Sudan and Chad. Over the summer and autumn of 2019, hundreds of young men from Chadian and Darfurian Arab communities joined Haftar’s forces in central Libya. But contrary to widespread reports, there was no evidence of a massive transfer of Sudanese fighters from the Rapid Support Forces to Libya.[16]

The role of foreign support has only grown as the Tripoli war has dragged on, adding even more significant contingents of foreign fighters to the fray. Russian mercenaries employed by Wagner and other private military firms began fighting in Tripoli in September 2019, tilting the balance in Haftar’s favour.[17] Three months later, Turkey began sending several thousand Syrian militiamen to Tripoli to prevent any further advances by Haftar.[18] In response, Russia began recruiting Syrians from areas under Bashar al-Assad’s control through Wagner, and deploying them to Libya in support of Haftar.[19] Contrary to Chadian and Sudanese fighters, these contingents came to Libya not through the networks of Libyan war entrepreneurs, but sent by foreign states.

Libyan Brokers

Well-connected Libyan brokers are the links between the networks of Libyan exiles exerting influence on events back home and those of African fighters seeking refuge or fortune in Libya. A typical profile is that of military or intelligence officers from the Qadhafi regime’s core tribal constituencies, such as the Qadhadhfa and Maqarha. Such people might have contacts to Sudanese and Chadian groups going back to the Qadhafi era. They might even have family ties in Chad, especially if their families had spent decades in Chadian exile. In most cases, they work for Haftar, responding to his demand for foreign fighters.

War entrepreneurs from the Tubu ethnic group are in another category. As representatives of a crossborder community, they tend to scoff at their Libyan adversaries’ claims that they are able to distinguish between Libyan Tubu, and those from Chad or Niger. They often have family ties in other Chadian communities, such as the Goran or Zaghawa. They can host Chadian and Sudanese fighters in areas under their control, and make profits by acting as intermediaries between these fighters and their employers in northern Libya.

At times, the nodes of Libyan networks connect all the dots. In autumn 2014, two Tubu military leaders, Barka Wardogou and Hassan Musa Keley, spent time in the UAE with the then Libyan ambassador, Aref al-Nayed. Both already had fighters with Haftar in Benghazi, and Keley was emerging as a key broker for the recruitment of Chadian and Sudanese groups. Through Nayed, they organized UAE weapons shipments to Tubu forces in southern Libya. (Wardogou died in the UAE the following year). Keley later switched sides, and in late 2016, he joined an offensive led by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) to seize control of the Oil Crescent from Haftar. The planning for the offensive had involved significant amounts of money to buy off Chadian and Sudanese groups whom Haftar had deployed in the region. Whether the money really did come from Qatar, as several people involved claimed, is unclear. But at the very least, the offensive had the backing of Ali Sallabi in Doha, whose brother Ismail was the BDB’s leader. Keley and the BDB would become a prime target of Nayed’s Amman-based media outlets.[20]


Several patterns emerge from this analysis of transnational networks forged through Libya’s conflicts. The capital-intensive nodes of these networks are primarily located in Middle Eastern capitals, where they enjoy political protection, financial largesse, or access to military hardware. In Libya, we find the brokers: people who have accumulated contacts and expertise in bridging these networks over the past nine years of conflict or even longer. Their connections reach into sub-Saharan Africa, bringing foreign labour into Libya’s conflicts. In these networks, we can see the new multipolar order spawning a regional conflict formation.

Since the outbreak of the latest war in April 2019, a new pattern has emerged: it is no longer well-connected Libyan actors but foreign states that bring in contingents of foreign fighters. This goes for the Wagner Group in Russia, for the Syrian fighters Turkey and Russia have deployed to Libya, as well as for Sudanese recruits a UAE-based company hired under false pretences, for deployment in Libya’s Oil Crescent.[21] Such operations may be less likely to create lasting transnational ties, particularly not ones that will be permanently linked to Libya. But what applies to the many crossborder networks that have formed through Libya’s conflicts also applies to them: once such relationships have grown, they may open up new possibilities in other locations, in future conflicts.




[1] An earlier and longer version of this article was published as “Le conflit libyen, creuset des réseaux régionaux” in Hérodote 172 (1/2019): 23-42.

[2] Dennis Cordell, “The Awlad Sulayman of Libya and Chad: Power and Adaptation in the Sahara and Sahel,” Canadian Journal of African Studies19, no. 2 (1985): 319-343.

[3] Wolfram Lacher, “Drones, Deniability, and Disinformation: Warfare in Libya and the New International Disorder,” War on the Rocks, March 3, 2020,

[4] On regional conflict formations, see Andrea Armstrong and Barnett Rubin, “Conference Summary: Policy Approaches to Regional Conflict Formations”, New York University, Center for International Cooperation Policy Paper, 2002; and Reinoud Leenders, “‘Regional Conflict Formations’: Is the Middle East Next?,” Third World Quarterly 28, no. 5 (2007): 959-982. On intersecting conflicts, see International Crisis Group, Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts (Brussels: ICG, 2017). On multipolarity in the Horn of Africa, see the contributions of Donelli and Al-Bulushi in this volume.

[5] Olivier Pliez, “Nomades d’hier, nomades d’aujourd’hui: Les migrants africains réactivent-ils les territoires nomades au Sahara?,” Annales de Géographie 652 (6/2006): 688-707.

[6] Yvan Guichaoua, “Tuareg Militancy and the Sahelian Shockwaves of the Libyan Revolution”, in The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, ed. Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn (London: Hurst, 2015), 321-35; Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle, HSBA Working Paper 43 (Geneva: Small Arms Survey), 139-140.

[7] Peter Cole and Umar Khan, “The Fall of Tripoli (Part 1),” in Cole and McQuinn, Libyan Revolution, 55-79.

[8] David Kirkpatrick, “Leaks Gain Credibility and Potential to Embarrass Egypt’s Leaders,” New York Times, May 12, 2015.

[9] Benjamin Barthe, “De Gaza à Abou Dhabi, l’ascension de l’intrigant Mohammed Dahlan,” Le Monde, October 6, 2017.

[10] For an overview, see Anja Wollenberg and Carola Richter, “Political Parallelism in Transitional Media Systems: The Case of Libya”, International Journal of Communication 14 (2020): 1173–1193.

[11] Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Instability,” Small Arms Survey, Security Assessment in North Africa Dispatch, February 2014,

[12] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Others: Foreign Fighters in Libya, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy,” Policy Note, 2018,

[13] Tubiana and Gramizzi, Tubu Trouble, 139-149.

[14] Author interviews, Libyan war entrepreneurs involved in the transactions and Chadian rebel leaders, various locations, 2016-2019. See also Tubiana and Gramizzi, Tubu Trouble, 146.

[15] Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, Lost in Trans-Nation: Tubu and Other Armed Groups and Smugglers along Libya’s Southern Border, Geneva: Small Arms Survey, December 2018,; United Nations Security Council, Final Report of the Panel of Experts on the Sudan, S/2020/36, January 14, 2020, 16-17.

[16] Author telephone interviews, observers in southern Libya, July 2019 – January 2020. See also United Nations Security Council, Final Report: 17.

[17] Samer al-Atrush and Stepan Kravchenko, “Putin-Linked Mercenaries Are Fighting on Libya’s Front Lines,” Bloomberg, September 25, 2019,

[18] Jared Malsin and Raja Abdulrahim, “Surge in Mercenaries Threatens Attempt to Stop War in Libya,” Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2020,

[19] David Wainer, “Russian Mercenaries Act as ‘Force Multiplier’ in Libya, UN Says”, Bloomberg, May 5, 2020,

[20] Author interviews, Keley, Wardogou, and multiple individuals involved in planning the BDB oil crescent offensive and in transactions with Chadian and Sudanese groups, various locations, 2014-2018.

[21] Sudan Tribune, “UAE Security Firm Repatriates Sudanese Youth from Libya after Protests,” January 29, 2020,