Militias clash in Tripoli

Kamel Abdallah , Thursday 24 Aug 2023

The Libyan capital Tripoli saw violent clashes between rival militias this week, raising fears about the fragile security situation in the country.

Militias clash in Tripoli
Libyan security forces stand guard in Tripoli, Libya(photo: AP)


Tripoli erupted into violent clashes on 14 and 15 August between the two largest militia groups that control the Libyan capital.

The sudden flare up between the Rada/Special Deterrence Force (SDF) and the 444th Brigade, causing dozens of dead and over a hundred injured, served as a frightening reminder of the inherent dangers in the fragile security situation in the seat of Libya’s sovereign institutions.   

The SDF, in charge of fighting organised crime and terrorism, is affiliated with the Libyan Presidential Council. Under the command of the Salafi leader Abdel-Raouf Karah, it is based at Mitiga Airport on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli.

The 444th Brigade is based near Tripoli International Airport south of the capital. It was formed in 2020 during the Tripoli War (2019-2020) around a special operations unit called the 20/20 Group which had originally been part of the SDF.

The fighting broke out in Ain Zara, a residential quarter in south-eastern Tripoli, after the SDF arrested Commander of the 444th Brigade Colonel Mahmoud Hamza on the grounds that he was wanted for questioning by the Military Prosecution in connection with corruption charges.

At the time of his arrest, Hamza was on his way to Mitiga Airport as part of a delegation led by Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, who was on his way to Misrata to attend a graduation ceremony of military cadets at Misrata Airbase on the morning of 14 August.

Dbeibah failed in his initial efforts to secure Hamza’s release and prevent the fighting.

The following day he turned to the Council of Notables to mediate between the two militias. However, by this time, the fighting had escalated, with the combatants using medium and heavy weapons.

As tanks rumbled into the streets of the capital, it looked almost as if the capital was on the verge of civil war. The Presidency Council was unable to rein in the SDF, which is directly subordinate to it, and could only issue a statement condemning the escalation and calling on both sides to lay down their arms.

Late on the evening of 15 August, the Council of Notables announced that the two sides had reached an agreement that would end the fighting. According to the terms of this, the SDF would hand the Commander of the 444th Brigade to a neutral party, cease all military operations, and return to its barracks.

It also pledged to assess the damage to public and private property and that the GNU would pay compensation to the owners.

Hamza was released on the evening of 16 August. The neutral party chosen was the Stabilisation Support Agency, another militia group subordinate to the Presidential Council. Several hours later, Hamza revealed the circumstances of his arrest and detention.

On his Facebook page, he related that SDF Commander Abdel-Raouf Karah had had him arrested while he was waiting in the passenger lounge at Mitiga Airport, and he denied that the Military Prosecution had a warrant for his arrest. He then charged that the SDF and the Judicial Police had attacked the headquarters of the 444th Brigade in southern Tripoli in an attempt to eliminate it.

Hamza subsequently deleted a post in which he harshly attacked the SDF and held it responsible for the clashes and the consequent damage to public and private property.

A train of statements by UN, the western powers, the Arab League and the African Union condemned the flare-up between the two largest militias in western Libya and stated that it was a reminder of the need to resume the political process and move towards general elections in order to establish a single authority capable of asserting control over all parts of the country.

The incident was also a reminder of the chronic security weaknesses in the capital that none of the formulas conceived by the Libyan stakeholders or the international community have been able to address.

As a result, Tripoli continues to experience intermittent confrontations between the militias, which have managed to manoeuvre themselves into becoming security agencies with the ability to control governing institutions, effectively perpetuating the volatile situation.

Neither the SDF nor the 444th Brigade have revealed the underlying causes of the conflict. Observers in Libya believe that their rivalry has intensified since they managed to impose their control over most parts of the capital under the security arrangements introduced by the GNU in June 2021. These eventually eliminated another major rival, the Nawasi Brigade, which had controlled the centre of the capital.

Some analysts have speculated that foreign powers were instrumental in fueling the tensions between the SDF and the 444th Brigade in the light of attempts on the part of foreign powers to engineer the security situation in the capital in tandem with ongoing UN efforts to broker a rapprochement between the armed forces in western Libya and forces under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the east.

These efforts are proceeding at a slow pace through the UN-sponsored Joint Military Committee (5+5 JMC).

However, the main reason for the seething tension is the security anarchy that has lasted since the UN-sponsored security arrangements in Tripoli introduced in 2016. The arrangements introduced since the formation of the GNU in accordance with the Geneva Processes of 2020 and 2021 have not only failed to remedy the situation, but they have also perpetuated the political impasse that is the crux of the Libyan crisis.

This will continue to engender tensions until the local stakeholders can bring themselves to reach consensuses on arrangements that will lead to effective resolutions to a range of political and security issues.

The recent flare-up in Tripoli will cast a dark shadow over the forthcoming phase unless its underlying cause is effectively addressed. If this is not done, it could not only aggravate the impasse, but also trigger a sliding back into a conflict that could draw in other militia formations in western Libya that are eager to gain a foothold in the capital in order to translate this into political control.

Tensions between the SDF and the 444th Brigade have been ongoing since Haftar’s failed military campaign in 2019 to seize control of the Libyan capital. The western powers have tried to mediate between the two militias but without success, and intermittent fighting has continued to erupt between them.

The last time this happened before last week’s clashes was in May when the 444th Brigade attempted to arrest officers of the SDF in Tarhuna, charging the SDF with engaging officers affiliated with the former Gaddafi regime and relying on militia elements that had formerly been affiliated with Haftar’s campaign against Tripoli.

The commanders of both the SDF and the 444th Brigade have categorically denied that any foreign powers played a role in the recent clashes. On the other hand, some SDF members have charged that Hamza had communicated with the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, which is commanded by Haftar’s son Saddam.

Members of the 444th Brigade responded by saying that the SDF was trying to monopolise communications with his sons.

The recent clashes in Tripoli may be attributable to aspirations on the part of Libyan stakeholders left out of the arrangements resulting from the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. These forces have been trying to reassert themselves in the framework of the run-up to another UN-sponsored process that could begin in the middle of next year.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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