Tripoli is a city flush with a cluster of powerful militias that prop up the weak UN-backed government and, for now, held at bay forces loyal to Libya’s Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
In the stand-off the Government of National Accord has turned on the taps to support the Islamist-tinged armed groups that dominate the capital. More than 300 people have died, 1,600 wounded and 40,000 people have fled their homes since the offensive began last month.
Following the 2011 revolution that ended the 42-year rule of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libyan security figures and international officials have signally failed to reign in the powerful brigades that have extended their grip across Tripoli’s institutions. As long as they remain part of or form the basis of government forces, the prospect of reconciliation remains distant.
Last month, the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli signalled this by announcing a 2 billion LD (Dh 5.26 billion) budget to cover the costs of the war. It is likely this will also go towards the forces protecting the capital, which is largely made up of militias from Tripoli and the surrounding regions.
Over the years a host of politicians, business leaders and well-known figures in Tripoli have been detained for long periods of time by the Tripoli groups
They have instilled a culture of fear, remain deeply embedded within society and are able to manipulate and control officials – although some in Tripoli contend they had ever so slightly stepped back in recent months before the LNA attack.
Among those to be arrested by the militias on corruption charges – multiple times – was the CEO of Libyan Airlines, Fathi Al Shatti. A local news report from 2018 says he was released although many in Tripoli remain unsure of his whereabouts.
A former member of the GNA’s presidency council, Fathi Majbri, had his Tripoli stormed last year after making comments seen as supportive of Field Marshal Haftar.
One of those claiming to be chairman of the Libyan Investment Authority, Ali Hamoud, was arrested this year on corruption charges. Often the men are taken by a particularly conservative Tripoli militia, who see themselves as a paramilitary police force and run a notorious prison.
Rather than separating into different factions as expected by some, the militias of Libya’s northwest have instead worked together to fend off the offensive from the Benghazi-controlled Libyan National Army.
The LNA’s repeated claims that Tripoli is infested with extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and other Islamist factions have received support from the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash.
On Thursday he tweeted that the priority in Libya was countering terrorism, but that “extremist militias” continue to control Tripoli and “derail search for political process”.
According to a Libyan source, who deals directly with the capital’s militias and businessman, the offensive by the LNA has resulted in the Tripoli militias tightening their hold even further.
“You have two options. Even to keep silent it is difficult. If you stay in Tripoli and you have a good position, you can’t be silent - because that's what they keep saying; silence, that means you are supporting Haftar,” said the source.
The militias “are controlling everything. We’ve seen many people escape from companies, they survive, they escape… the staff working in ministries, some of them work in the militias - so they are watching the ministry, they are watching companies, watching managers,” the Libyan source added.
Last August, UN Security Council experts warned that armed groups’ “predatory behaviour” remained a threat to forming a national government, that exerted civilian control over Libyan Investment Authority, National Oil Corporation and Central Bank of Libya.
“Armed groups are responsible for targeted persecutions and serious human rights violations, which are deepening grievances among some categories of the population and ultimately threatening long-term peace and stability in Libya,” the experts said.