Former revolutionary fighters in Libya develop a ‘national army-in-waiting’

5 July 2012

New research examining how armed groups formed in Libya to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi says the revolutionary brigades are still a cohesive military force. The study highlights the emergence of the National Shield, which it calls an 'army-in-waiting'. The research suggests there is a power struggle over the rebuilding of the Libyan National Army as revolutionary commanders still distrust much of the leadership of the Libyan National Army and the Ministry of Defence who ran the war against them.

The research findings are published today by the Small Arms Survey in 'Research Note 18: Armed Groups in Libya - Typology and Roles'. It is based on seven months of field studies in Libya by Brian McQuinn from Oxford University, who was based in Misrata at the time of the uprising but also conducted research in Benghazi, Sirte and Tripoli.

The research suggests that Libya's revolutionary forces still command 75 to 85 per cent of the seasoned fighters and weapon stockpiles not controlled by the government. In Misrata, 236 distinct armed groups are registered with the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, accounting for almost 40,000 brigade members. McQuinn's study links the demilitarisation of revolutionary brigades to the creation of a legitimate national army. Despite calls by commentators for revolutionary brigades to join the national army, the study shows that there is a power struggle over how it is rebuilt.

Study author Brian McQuinn, from Oxford University's Centre for Anthropology and Mind, said: 'While moves to reform of the Ministry of Defence and the Libyan National Army are critical to long-term demobilisation efforts, local security initiatives are driving national policy.  Revolutionary brigades have created a national network of revolutionary unions and established the National Shield, a national army-in-waiting, in order to safeguard the 'ideals of the revolution'. The revolutionary unions trust the Head of the Libyan National Army, General al-Mangoush, but the practical result is that he now controls two national armies.'

The study distinguishes between four types of armed groups operating in Libya: revolutionary brigades, unregulated brigades, post-revolutionary brigades and militias. It details their different histories and objectives, highlighting that it is critical to differentiate between them for effective international policy. It notes that most of the available analysis to date has tended to label them all as 'militias'.

While some armed groups continue to present a threat to stability, others are playing an active role in securing the country's future, according to the research. Most of revolutionary brigades took up arms to protect their local communities. Thus far, brigade leaders still command the respect of brigade members, but the study warns that this situation could change over time.

The research highlights the support given to revolutionary military leaders by military councils, which formed during the war to provide security in many cities. The National Shield has already been deployed in coordination with other state and non-state armed groups to subdue violence in Kufra, Zuwara, and Sebha. Revolutionary brigade leaders could also support efforts to rein in 'rogue' brigades, a small minority who are responsible for a disproportionate number of the security incidents and human rights abuses, suggests the research.

The issue of who currently controls much of Gaddafi's vast arsenal of weapons and munitions is also raised in the study. It says local military commanders and civilian leaders have expressed concerns about a lack of secure storage for weapon stockpiles and the quantity of assault weapons still held by individuals in the community.

McQuinn said: 'Successful national elections in July will be critical for establishing a government that is seen as legitimate. The current delay in demobilisation programmes for brigade members is breeding disappointment among fighters. This situation has led to them being less willing to listen to local civilian and military leaders and it is weakening their commitment to participate in the transition to a new Libya.'

The Research Note will be available at midnight tonight on the Small Arms Survey website at http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-18.pdf

For more information or the Research Notes ahead of publication online, please contact the University of Oxford Press Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Notes for Editors

  • Brian McQuinn is a Research Associate at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peace-building in Geneva, Switzerland, and is completing a doctorate at the University of Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind. His research investigates the social practices and organizational structures underpinning cohesion in civil war armed groups. He recently completed seven months of fieldwork in Misrata, Libya, during the war and its aftermath. Before that, Brian worked in conflict-affected countries as a dialogue specialist for 12 years with the United Nations and other international organisations. He serves as a lead trainer for the UN System Staff College course on 'Applied Conflict Analysis for Prevention and Peace-building'. See his profile: http://www.cam.ox.ac.uk/students/brian-mcquinn/
  • 'Research Note 18: Armed Groups in Libya: Typology and Roles' is based on a forthcoming report to be published by the Small Arms Survey, based on seven months of fieldwork (July 2011 - March 2012). Misrata served as the primary field site but research was also conducted in Benghazi, Sirte, and Tripoli. This Research Note precedes the publication of a larger study authored by McQuinn, and to be published by the Small Arms Survey later this year.
  • The Small Arms Survey is an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. It serves as the principal international source of public information on all aspects of small arms and armed violence and as a resource for governments, policy-makers, researchers, and activists. The project has an international staff with expertise in security studies, political science, international public policy, law, economics, development studies, conflict resolution, criminology, and sociology. Its staff works closely with a worldwide network of researchers and partners. See http://www.smallarmssurvey.org
  • The research is based on McQuinn's own observations and interviews with focus groups and semi-structured interviews. In total, over 300 interviews were completed from 21 separate fighting units ranging in size from 1,042 to 12 members. Additional interviews were conducted with non-combatants including: civilian leaders, medical personnel, journalists, educators, humanitarian workers, and community organisers. Particular effort was made to interview women, where appropriate, as they played a crucial role in organising the logistical support for the frontlines. The researcher also inspected weapon stockpiles: the most recent inspection to six weapons storage facilities was undertaken in March 2012 in Misrata. The inspection sites were randomly selected from the 236 brigades registered with MUR. In order to ensure that brigades did not have time to prepare, inspections took place immediately after the random selection was made.
  • Financial support for the fieldwork was provided by the Berghof Foundation and Small Arms Survey. The research also contributes to the Ritual, Community and Conflict project funded mainly by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at http://www.esrc.ac.uk
  • The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as very good.
  • In Libya, kata'ib (singular, katiba) was the designation for the military units in the Qaddafi army headed by a Colonel. During the fighting, the anti-Qaddafi forces appropriated the term to describe any group of insurgents, irrespective of group size. In English-language reporting of the war it is most commonly translated as brigade(s).