NEW YORK – As the United States struggles to understand last September’s attack on its diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a formal investigation has not even been opened in Libya — and likely never will be.
Libya’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 does not pose an immediate threat to their domestic standing.
Instead, they are focusing on rebuilding the state that former leader Moammar Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi’s regime, failed to lay the groundwork for a modern state, it is too soon to pass judgment on the elected leadership that took power in November.
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. But 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 government-allied force hired to protect the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and the Libya Shield Force, the widely deployed coalition of militias that assisted the U.S. 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, Abdul Fattah Younes, 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.
Libyans complain that the new government has continued the NTC’s policy of favoring revolutionary brigades over institutionalized security services. After the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, frustrated Libyans poured into the streets shouting anti-militia slogans. Ten days later, protesters overran the base of Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist militia suspected of masterminding the attack, as part of a sweep of raids on militia compounds throughout the city.
Only a few hours after the demonstrations began, government authorities sent a mass text message that urged the protesters to return to their homes, adding that “the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, the February 17 Brigade, and the Libya Shield Force are legal, and are subject to the authority of the [military] general staff.” President Mohamed Magariaf later confirmed this view.
In response, a former NTC member lamented that the government had “lost a chance to finish off all of the militias,” stating that the groups responsible are backed by Qatar, and that the government did not want to interfere with their agenda.
Such patronage extends to the military establishment itself. Chief of Staff Yousef al-Manqous is said to favor Cyrenaican militias over the military units under his command, while government officials complain about the lack of an effective chain of command. For example, in June, Defense Minister Osama al-Juwali attacked the NTC for failing to consult with the appropriate officials on its decisions, stating that his role had been reduced to “signing the plans of the chief of staff.”
With ample foreign funding and preferential treatment from the government, the militias have no incentive to disband. Furthermore, they are wary of turning over control of their brigades to military commanders whom they claim supported Gadhafi or, at least, failed to oppose him.
While there is no shortage of challenges facing Libya’s new government, disbanding the militias must be at the top of its agenda. Otherwise, the aspirations that drove the anti-Gadhafi revolution — an end to corruption, stability, and shared prosperity — will never be fulfilled.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation. © 2013 Project Syndicate