As the US struggles to understand last September’s attack on its diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which took the lives of four US citizens, including US ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a formal investigation has not even been opened in Libya — and likely never will be. The country’s leaders face myriad challenges — from a vocal federalist movement in the east, aimed at usurping the central government’s prerogatives, to a wave of assassinations targeting security officials — which leaves them few resources to allocate to a case that poses no immediate threat to their domestic standing.
Instead, they are focusing on rebuilding the state that former leader Muammar Qaddafi destroyed. They have been grappling with the need to create effective administrative institutions and foster an independent judiciary. While the National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim governing body that replaced Qaddafi’s regime, failed to lay the groundwork for a modern state, it is too soon to pass judgement on the elected leadership that took power in November last year.
The litmus test will be progress on security. The Benghazi attack and the lack of a credible Libyan response demonstrated that the country is neither governed by the rule of law nor in a position to impose it. The new government must change this situation by disbanding militias and integrating their members into official Libyan security forces.
For starters, the government must stop coddling the militias and focus on building the national army — something that the NTC neglected. To be sure, persuading the militias to transfer their loyalties to the state will not be easy, especially given the fighters’ strong, often ideological connections to their individual units. However, it is a crucial step toward establishing order and enhancing the newly elected government’s legitimacy.
Brigades in eastern Libya, or Cyrenaica, for example, are strongly rooted in traditional Islamist ideology. Fighters in the region have been organized into powerful units, such as the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, the large government-allied force that was hired to protect the US mission in Benghazi, and the Libya Shield Force, the widely deployed coalition of militias that assisted the US mission on the night of the attack.
By contrast, militias in western Libya, or Tripolitania, tend to emerge in individual cities, with the most powerful brigades based in Misrata and Zintan. These groups want to join the security services as units, rather than as individual fighters, in order to retain their communal bonds and, in turn, to prevent their full integration into a national army.
For its part, the government has treated the creation of national armed forces as an afterthought. During the revolution, NTC leaders funneled resources and funding to the Islamist brigades with which they shared a common ideology, rather than to the fledgling Libyan National Army (LNA). After Islamist fighters killed the commander-in-chief of the rebel forces in July 2011, the military was sidelined.
Indeed, the NTC willingly facilitated the military’s demise. When tribal clashes erupted in the remote desert town of Kufra early last year, the council dispatched the Libya Shield Force, not LNA units, to quell the unrest.
Moreover, the military receives inadequate financing, with officers forced to use their personal funds to purchase gas for military vehicles. Meanwhile, the governments of the wealthy Gulf States provide funding directly to militias, allowing them to purchase new vehicles and cutting-edge communications equipment.