Introduction to the Libyan Army: Can the Armed Forces Sustain, Overrule, or Survive Qadhafi?

This Middle East Insight is available for download: Germanos Insight 9

By Camille Germanos

Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi has been the ruler of Libya for the last 42 years, sitting on the largest oil reserves in Africa and ruling one of the most resource-rich countries in the world with an iron hand.  Libya’s public image and governmental institutions, immortalized in his political manifesto The Green Book, are the creations of the socio-political mind of Qadhafi, the “Guide of the Revolution.” Today he is at war against his own population and is seemingly harder to push out than Hosni Mubarak or Zein El Abadine Ben Ali, the now-deposed leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. One immediate consequence of the upheaval is the rise of petrol prices, a development that seems to shake public opinion and consciousness even more than the images of men slaughtered in the streets of Al Bayda and Benghazi.

Political analysts are concerned with the future of the country, and predictions range from an Egyptian military intervention, a multilateral or American intervention in accordance with recent statements from the UN Security Council and President Obama, or an endless civil war between the Tripolitanian regime and the liberated people of Cyrenaica the region which sits atop significant petrol resources[1]. Others try to anticipate what may come after Qadhafi. One key question persists: is a military takeover possible?

Little is known about the representation of Libya’s various social groupings in the Security and Defense apparatus, especially considering that the Ministry of Defense ceased to exist in 1991. Some publications indicate complicated imbrications between the Army, the “People’s Militia”, the “Navy”, the “Air force”, and the intelligence services, all of which are further monitored by independent agencies.

The Army itself is only a small part of the Libyan military forces and entrenched paramilitary legions. Libyan civilian society has indeed been deeply militarized since 1984, following the implementation in 1978 of mandatory military service (average service is three years). That means that over three hundred thousand people, or 20% of the population, belong to the paramilitary generation. They have received regular military training and been initiated into the official People’s Militia, the mission of which is to defend regional clusters run by local military commanders. This paramilitary subdivision of the territory has been implemented alongside administrative decentralization.

This People’s Militia is distinct from the police, who fall under the Ministry of Interior. It is actually an autonomous defense body among others, namely the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Yet these latter three bodies have been weakening due to reduced weaponry provisions ever since UN sanctions were imposed on Libya in 1992 and more so since Libya stopped developing its chemical and mass destruction arms programs. In 1995 the Army was divided into seven military districts, and five presidential guard units have been added since. While the Naval forces fall under a single command, mainly based in Tripoli, it seems to comprise many subcontractors from the former Yugoslavia (mostly Serbia), South Africa, and North Korea, who provide piloting and maintenance service.  Not only did Qadhafi multiply the armed bodies of his society, but he also divided them into units that would struggle to join forces.

Further to this military fragmentation, Qadhafi’s regime has relied on extreme intelligence activity under Internal Security, partitioned into the following security agencies:

  1. The Guide’s Intelligence Bureau, located in Tripoli
  2. The Libyan Intelligence Service, for internal and foreign security
  3. The Military Intelligence, the high command of the military armed forces
  4. The Security Battalions, responsible for the regime’s security in the cities
  5. The Revolutionary Guard, directly controlled by Qadhafi’s tribe since 1993
Interior Ministry

Internal Security

Armed Forces

The police

The Guide’s intelligence Bureau

The People’s Militia

The Libyan Intelligence Service

The Army (7 military districts, 5 presidential guards)

The Military Intelligence (Head of the military armed forces)

The Navy

The Revolutionary Guard

The Air Forces

This table illustrates the distribution of defense, police, and intelligence services in Libya.

Although the Libyan constitution bans the formation of political parties (being major obstacles to “direct democracy”), and thus has thwarted any political opposition, it is reported that since 2002 the Libyan intelligence services methods have been restructured to focus more directly on opposition groups. Dissidents overseas have also been targeted by Qadhafi, who began in the 1990s to call for the death of his opponents abroad (i.e. Mansour Kikhya’s disappearance from Cairo in December 1993). Such internal security mechanisms and the fear of hard retribution have largely silenced the opposition. Yet resentment towards the regime also emanates from among military officers. Since 1975, at least five coup attempts have been reported, leading to the arrest and murder of an undisclosed number of officers and civilians.

In addition to maintaining an intensive security apparatus and eliminating rivals, Qadhafi has constantly shifted his senior military officers around to prevent them from developing unified units capable of defying the regime. Moreover, it seems he has put members of his tribe into key posts, distributing some of his wealth and power among them and aligning them against other tribes. It was in this context that Qadhafi’s son Saif Al Islam warned Libyans last week of the threat of civil war if they do not comply with the regime.

Taken together, these methods basically leave Libya without a military corpus capable of taking over the dissidence against the dictator, as was the case in neighboring Egypt. Still, one possibility remains and that would be found among heretofore silent dissidents in Qadhafi’s inner circle. The British are already in touch with the heads of some Libyan special forces trained in 2009 by the British Special Air Services (SAS). Other top security figures have been in contact with the CIA since the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya, such as Musa Kusa who was the head of the Libyan Security Organization. Stratfor, a security-consulting firm, reported a coordination meeting held among military generals concomitant to the meeting of the UN Security Council on 22 February. Though formerly close to Qadhafi since the 1969 revolution, the report indicates that these generals may have plans for a military takeover.

Scholars treating Libya’s social and political structures have long grappled with the matter of tribal influence. Many have come to believe that tribal loyalty supersedes institutional hierarchy; tribal dissidence against Qadhafi, spurred by calls to disobey him, would then play in favor of the regime’s toppling. Alia Brahimi, head of the North Africa Program at the London School of Economics, contends that the tribal system will hold the balance of power, rather than the military, in a post-Qadhafi Libya. Qadhafi surely had this notion in mind when militarizing broad swathes of the population.

Yet it is not given that the Army will simply wither away.  After all, following decades of attempts to de-institutionalize Libya, it is the Army that may remain the only institutional structure still standing after the fall of the regime. The ultimate question that may remain unanswered is how global political consciousness watched Libyans endure this delirious political system until this day.

Camille Germanos is a research associate at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are her own


[1] About six million Libyans live between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica historical provinces. These citizens are concentrated in thirty-five agglomerations, and distributed quite evenly between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. The biggest population concentrations are in Tripoli (1,200.000=1/6population), on the Mediterranean coast near by Tunisia, and part of Tripolitania historical province, in Benghazi (697 000 people= 1/12) and part of Cyrenaica historical province, in Misrate near Tripoli (451000), and El Bayda (310,000) in Cyrenaica (Map1).


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