July 6, 2012 4:04 pm

Shadow army takes over Libya’s security

Libyan Justice and Construction supporters.©AFP

Libyan officials are taking no chances in securing Saturday’s election for a General National Congress. They’ve set up a well-equipped operations centre, complete with flat-panel computer terminals and telecommunications gear, to co-ordinate the 13,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of security personnel safeguarding the vote.

But they’ve entrusted the facility not to the army or police but to an entirely new force, the Supreme Security Committee, made up almost entirely of former militiamen who toppled Col Muammer Gaddafi in last year’s uprising and have now taken key roles in the country’s security apparatus.

Youssef Said, SSC spokesman, brushes off any concerns about the organisation’s role. “It doesn’t matter who is in charge,” he said. “In the end we are all under the state.”

Officials hope the vote will empower a new government with the authority to stamp out the lawlessness that has plagued post-Gaddafi Libya, including deadly inter-communal clashes between rival tribes. Many voters hope that a democratically elected government will encourage restless young militiamen to lay down their weapons and make their voices heard through politics.

Saturday’s election is the first nationwide vote since a 1971 referendum. The last general election was in 1965, although political parties had been abolished after the 1952 poll.

Experts say Libya’s security challenges run so deep they will be much tougher to unravel than the officials are suggesting. Parallel military institutions have arisen that lord over the regular police and armed forces. They include the SSC and the Libya Shield, which serves under the defence ministry and answers to the army chief of staff. Experts say potentially destabilising rivalries are cementing between the established and new security institutions.

Made up of former citizen militiamen who fought against Gaddafi and are considered more pious and ideologically committed than the security forces, these units see themselves as guardians of the uprising against the former regime and the primary line of defence against those who would seek to undermine it. Some liken the Libya Shield to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which serves as a highly ideological counterpart to Iran’s regular armed forces.

“You have entrenched interests in the national army and ministry of defence, and the revolutionary brigades explain that they created the Libya Shield to safeguard the ‘values of the revolution’,” said Brian McQuinn, an Oxford university scholar who spent seven months researching the Libya Shield

They are motivated by their commitment to last year’s revolution as well as suspicions that the army and security apparatus remains infiltrated with Gaddafi loyalists. Though Gaddafi’s top layer of loyalists have fled the country, been killed or captured, analysts say the bureaucracy of both institutions remains intact.

Armed forces personnel complain they are being unfairly maligned by the new forces who have begun to infiltrate their ranks. Several noted that pro-government militias loyal to Gaddafi and his sons, rather than the regular armed forces, were responsible for the excesses of last year’s war.

“It’s not the armed forces that have blood on their hands but Gaddafi’s militias,” said a long-serving member of the armed forces. “Even if there are some former Gaddafi loyalists present in the ministry of defence, it’s known who they are. The revolutionary forces have their own security and intelligence networks.”

Transitional government officials acknowledge that the Libya Shield and the SSC units are better equipped, more motivated, and more experienced than ordinary soldiers, who mostly stayed in their barracks over the last quarter century. But they insist the new forces will eventually fade away or be merged into the regular forces under the ministries of defence and interior.

“Most of them are engineers and doctors,” Taher Diab, a National Transitional Council member, said of the new forces. “They will go back to their old lives once the country is secure. In two or three years, I’m sure they will be dissolved.”

But there’s little evidence to corroborate that and plenty to show that they’re digging in for the long haul. SSC officers strut around in crisp black uniforms, pack shiny Glock semi-automatic pistols, hold brand-new walkie talkies and have launched a new website which glorifies their achievements. In addition to specialised intelligence and investigations unit, Libya Shield fighters – numbering tens of thousands – have established complex logistics systems.

“The national army often calls upon us to help them,” said Jumaa Dardira, a leader of the western branch of the Libya Shield, based in the coastal town of Sobrata. “We are the main unit for enforcing ceasefires and establishing the peace.”

So far, there has been little evidence of all-out fighting between the old and new institutions, in part because the revolutionary forces are far more powerful. Analysts and NTC officials estimate that Libya Shield, SSC and other revolutionary units control three-quarters of the weapons in the country.

During an outbreak of intercommunal fighting in the southern city of Kufrah, it was the Libya Shield that did most of the peacekeeping while the tiny contingent of regular forces manned checkpoints and stood on the sidelines, said Essam Ezzobair, a journalist for the al-Arab daily who visited the site.

“The revolutionaries are the real force on the ground,” Mr Ezzobair said.

Mr McQuinn and others believe the Libya Shield would be more willing to dissolve if the country would begin the process of purging former regime loyalists from the regular security forces.

“If you can’t vet the ministry of defence and national army in a way that results in an institution that is seen as representative of Libya and the revolution, it is very likely you’ll see the parallel security arrangements become entrenched,” Mr McQuinn said.

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