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Libya arms anarchy

With the illicit inflow of arms into Libya increasing, prospects for a political resolution to the Libyan conflict appear ever more remote, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 10 Dec 2019
Khalifa Hafta’s LNA
Members of Khalifa Hafta’s LNA in Benghazi raising their weapons (photo: AP)
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Major reports on international arms transfers to Libya show that the anarchy that had prevailed in the arms market following the revolution has given way to quasi systematic and sustained flows of arms into the hands of the paramilitary groups and extremist militias operating in the country at present. They also testify to a growing demand for major defensive and offensive systems and weapons. According to the UN Security Council and the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council, it is still very difficult to check the flow of arms into Libya violating the international arms embargo. 

Reports also highlight the proliferation of militias or “small armies”, armed not just with conventional weapons (light to middle weight shielding equipment and weaponry) but also with unconventional weapons (drones, major explosives, land and sea mines, portable weapons systems, satellite communications systems and programmes, etc) as well as heavy weapons systems in some cases (such as missile systems).

These militias form one of the most formidable obstacles to the process of building a professional standing army. The loose alliances between the militia networks and political interest groups, on the one hand, and extremist organisations and organised crime, on the other, remain a predominant feature of the security situation in western Libya. 

Last week, three officials threw into relief the magnitude of the problem of “routine” arms flows in Libya. In his last briefing to the UN Security Council (18 November), UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame expressed his frustration at the “continued shipments of war materiel brought into the country in breach of the arms embargo”.

“Reports indicate that everything from spare parts for fighter aircraft to tanks, from bullets to precision missiles, are being brought into Libya in support of different groups involved in the fighting,” he said. Another dimension of the phenomenon was brought to light by AU Peace and Security Council Commissioner Smail Chergui during the 13th focal points meeting of the African Centre for Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT) held in Algiers on 18-20 November. A third of “the most advanced weapons” in the possession of terrorists in Africa come from Libya, he said, adding that terrorists now regularly use drones in their attacks against both armies and civilians.

Khaled Al-Mishri, chairman of the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS), underscored a third dimension of the problem. Some 23 million weapons are spread among the various warring factions in Libya. This comes to three weapons per capita, one of which might be a tank.


Libya is the world’s largest arms depot and the world’s largest hub for the illicit weapons trade. According to a recent report by SIPRI, which appeared in the first quarter of 2019, Libya is one of the four largest arms importers in Africa, alongside Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The four countries combined account for 75 per cent of the arms imports into Africa. In his briefing to the UN Security Council in early September 2018, Ghassan Salamé said that 40 cases of violations of the UN arms embargo to Libya were currently under investigation. “Violations of the arms embargo have been both routine and often blatant by both of the main parties to the conflict and their respective sponsor member states,” he said. 

Earlier reports reveal that most weapons smuggled into Libya are of European provenance. They cited 31 sources of arms, of which 30 were known while the other was described as the main source of armaments. It is linked to smuggling and trafficking sources that are difficult to identify.

The processes of arming the Libyan militias and others evolved in tandem with the phases of the Libyan conflict. At the outset, in 2011, most militias were able to obtain large quantities of weapons locally after the looting of the arms depots of the former regime. In 2013, MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service, warned that there were more weapons in Libya than in the entire arsenal of the British army, and described Libya as the “Tesco” of the international illicit arms trade.

With the developments in transnational terrorism, especially following the collapse of the Islamic State (IS) “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, when IS fighters turned their sights to north and central Africa, Libya became a major source of arms for terrorist groups in these regions. As the AU Peace and Security Council commissioner mentioned, a third of the weapons used by terrorists in Africa come from Libya. Speaking at the Rhodes Forum on the Dialogue of Civilisations in mid-October 2019, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou estimated that some 23 million weapons were smuggled out of Libya to date.


International reports on arms transfers are not consistent on how Libyan militias acquire their weapons. Some point to direct links between militias and their outside backers, others suggest that deals are handled through third party merchants inside Libya.

France, Italy, Russia and the UK had been poised to conclude arms deals with Tripoli in the post-Gaddafi era. However, they were compelled to vote in favour of the UN ban against arms transfers to Libya. Currently, arms transfers follow several routes. One might be described as “one sided”.

An example is the Turkish arms provisions to the Government of National Accord (GNA). Shipments include Bayraktar TB2 drones and fleets of Kirpi armoured vehicles. The latter are produced by the Turkish-Qatari commercial and military vehicle manufacturer BMC, whose majority shareholder and chairman of the board, Ethem Sancak, is a close confident of Turkish President Erdogan. The drones are manufactured by Baykar Makina, whose chief technology officer, Selcuk Bayraktar, is one of Erdogan’s sons-in-law. Turkey also funds the freighting of weapons to Libya by air and sea. For example, it was reported that the Ukraine Air Alliance (UAA) operated a regular series of secret flights of its Antonov cargo planes that passed through various airports in Turkey en route to Misrata carrying consignments of illegal weapons. Arrivals were sighted on 28 May, 31 May and 1 June 2019.

Also, on 18 May, the cargo ship “Amazon,” flying a Moldovan flag, was photographed in the Tripoli seaport unloading a freight of weapons that included around 40 Sipri armoured vehicles destined for the militias fighting for the GNA. The vessel had sailed from the northern Black Sea port of Samsun, Turkey. Experts maintain that the systems of some of the weapons, such as drones, would require Turkish specialists on the ground in Libya to operate them. In November 2019, Khaled Mishri officially acknowledged that Ankara supplied GNA forces with arms. 

A second type of arms transfer route is “two-sided”. It has been evidenced by weapons used by both sides in the Libyan war. Last week, for example, it was reported that the Libyan National Army (LNA) had downed an Italian plane suspected of belonging to GNA forces. Chinese-made weapons have been used by both sides in Libya. According to reports from local Libyan sources, France and Russia have secretly supported the LNA with arms, though Russia claims there is no evidence to support this. Refuting a SIPRI report claiming that Russian military aircraft and vessels were in Libya, Sergei Chemezov, the director of the Russian state-owned Rostec, which plays a key role in Russian defence exports, said that his country “will lose $4 billion because of the upheaval in Libya and the UN arms embargo”. 

The third and most common route is the black market that extremist groups and militias thrive on. There is an enormous trade in small and midsize qualitative weapons and, increasingly, in drones, much of it done over the internet. According to the Small Arms Survey (SAS), an independent research project based in Switzerland, the black market weapons trade over the internet burgeoned following the 2011 revolution in Libya, and terrorist groups, extremist militias and others eager to acquire arms through illicit channels were the first to benefit. Surveys of internet arms purchases noted that orders included heavy weapons, as well as light and midsize ones. 


Recent developments in arms acquisitions in Libya are driven by five main factors which are indicative of the security challenges.

-. Ineffective mechanisms to realise political stability: Libya has already experienced three transitional phases since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in February 2011. The mechanisms that had been conceived or even created never fully got off the ground for a number of reasons, foremost among them being the fragmentation of governmental infrastructure and, then, the sharp polarisation that set in following the Skhirat accord. 

- Continued foreign intervention: If foreign intervention began with the NATO operation that overthrew the Gaddafi regime and caused the collapse of the state, the phenomenon increased dramatically against the backdrop of post-Skhirat polarisation and the bifurcation of government institutions. While initially foreign meddling was limited to a handful of Western powers with long established interests in Libya, such as Italy and France, the escalation of tensions between eastern and western Libya lured new parties, from the US (which had largely receded from the scene and restricted itself to some counterterrorist operations) to Russia (as represented by the Wagner Group) and, more visibly and actively, Turkey.

Tripoli accuses regional powers such as the UAE and Egypt of intervening on behalf of the Libyan National Army. Egypt maintains that its interventions are limited to the requirements of Egyptian national security, such as operations needed to secure the Egyptian-Libyan border.

- The restructuring of militias: Most Libyan militias are homegrown although some have incorporated mercenary forces from neighbouring countries while others are related to military/political groups across the borders in, for example, Chad and Sudan. The Western militias were reorganised under the GNA in response to the “Flood of Dignity” operation the LNA launched in April 2019 with the aim of dismantling the extremist militia infrastructure in western Libya. 

- Increased military expenditures: The GNA government allocated $1.43 billion to military expenditures after the LNA launched its offensive, of which $28.5 million was earmarked for the defence ministry. The budget set a figure of $2,135 as the salary for combatants in the pro-government militias, without stating the total number of personnel this would cover. Nor were any figures given on the amounts earmarked for arms acquisitions, such as those the GNA acquired from Turkey. Nevertheless, Global Fire Power estimates that the amount spent on arms came to about $3 billion in 2019. Other international reports predict that levels of military spending will increase by 1.5 per cent per year, climbing to more than $3.4 billion by 2023. They attribute the rise to the GNA’s growing desire to purchase fighter planes and helicopters, radar systems and tanks, and other such costly hardware. 

- Porous borders: In the anarchy that has prevailed in Libya since 2011, security evaporated along the country’s extensive borders which are shared with six countries (Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia), all of which have been plagued by cross border infiltrations that threaten their national security. Porous borders have facilitated arms smuggling as well as other forms illegal commerce, including human trafficking as well as illegal migration to Europe.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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