by Sundar J.M. Brown
The balance of force in present-day Libya is not held by the Libyan military, but is distributed amongst a shadowy conglomeration of paramilitary gangs, revolutionary committees, alien mercenaries and tribal leaders. The official Libyan Army is a largely destabilized and malnourished entity, composed of roughly 40,000, insufficiently armed and inadequately trained personnel. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is intentional, one of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s enduring tactics meant to curtail the threat of a military coup-d’état. It’s hard to miss the irony, or maybe even harder to not miss the brilliance of this orchestration, particularly in light of the fact that a military coup-d’état is exactly how Gadhafi himself came to power in 1969. If history is doomed to repeat itself, this is a textbook example of Gadhafi’s having heeded that maxim.
Thus, the recent defections to the side of the Benghazi opposition by a significant number of the Libyan Army’s leaders, is implausible in Gadhafi’s eyes. He can do without their allegiance, and his loyalists, with purpose and as if to demonstrate the former army member’s wantonness, have launched devastating air strikes on the barracks housing the defectors.
With the country and the sociological apparatus being pulled in so many directions, who are the persons offering their support to Gadhafi’s regime, lending it at least plausible inertia to remain in power, despite the entire regions’ massive political deterioration?
Libyan Internal Security
Libya has a wide-ranging and long-armed internal intelligence gathering network, well-funded and often brutal in their reprisals of any individual or organization opposed to Gadhafi’s reign. Their methods are quite reminiscent of East Germany’s Stasi, Hitler’s Gestapo, or the KGB’s Stalin-era Secret Police. Any public, or even private, anti-Gadhafi criticism is dealt with swiftly and harshly through “disappearance”, prison terms, or direct assassination. Additionally, the Libyan internal security forces have worked to build an extensive network of civilian “informers” who are rewarded for reporting dissension.
The key figure in the current internal security world is Gadhafi’s brother-in-law, Abdullah Senussi. Senussi has a reputation as a thug with a zero-tolerance policy. He is thought, by almost everyone in the global intelligence communities, to be the catalyst behind the violent suppression of the recently begun public protests. Senussi is as committed as Gadhafi is to “going down with the ship”, and it is unlikely that he will step down, leave the country, or even distance himself from Gadhafi.
The People’s Militia and The People of the Tent
Gadhafi’s entourage houses a number of “special brigades”, also known as the People’s Militia, paramilitary units which are an extension of Gadhafi’s Revolutionary Committees. All of them may be counted as members of a self-identified inner circle of Gadhafi loyalists, called in the Libyan Arabic vernacular, “Ahl al-Khaimah” (the “People of the Tent”).
Hannibal Gadhafi, Colonel Gadhafi’s fifth-oldest son, is strongly believed to be in command of at least one such paramilitary special brigade. Hannibal is known to be of unpredictable temperament and was recently arrested by Swiss police after allegations from two of his servants that they had been abused by him during his stay in a Geneva hotel.
To date, the People’s Militia groups have remained loyal to the Gadhafi family and are an important factor because of their history with, and extreme physical and emotional proximity to, Colonel Gadhafi. If the People’s Militia groups began defecting to the opposition, the sanctuary and security of Ahl al-Khaimah would become severely undermined and extremely vulnerable. Ultimately, this would grievously weaken Gadhafi’s confidence and ability to remain in power or, even, to remain alive.
Arguably, the most disturbing facet of Gadhafi’s response to the civilian uprising has been his extensive use of African mercenaries. Imported from Chad, Niger and, most recently, Algeria, the African mercenaries are responsible for the majority of the slaughter and injury inflicted upon unarmed, or lightly armed, civilian protestors. Firsthand HUMINT accounts tell stories of the mercenaries firing indiscriminately into large crowds of demonstrators. HUMINT also suggests that these acts are orders which were passed on to Libyan soldiers who, after refusing to obey them, were executed by the mercenaries, the mercenaries then carrying out the murderous acts in the dead soldier’s stead.
Prior to, and in the early phases of his rule, Colonel Gaddafi had remained a strong proponent of Pan-Arabist ideology, the notion of transforming all Arabic countries into a single polity. He failed to generate sufficient Pan-Arabist interest amongst the Arabic populations and, frustrated, turned his back on the Arab world. His recourse was to use Libya’s abundant oil reserves to establish a strong economic position for the country. His most successful transactions were with other African countries, and he then worked tirelessly to cultivate close relationships, based on trade and liberal immigration, with his African business partners. Amongst a total population of 6 million, an estimated 500,000 persons are African expatriates residing in Libya.
Gadhafi’s long-standing relationships with African countries have allowed him to easily beguile African men into serving as protest-quelling mercenaries. Many poor Africans see Gadhafi as a hero and as a friend to the African people. The opportunity to both serve Gadhafi’s cause and to earn a decent amount of money while doing so (the African mercenaries are paid by the day and by the kill) is an attractive prospect for many impoverished Africans. Without the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, the African mercenaries continue to be imported with ease.
As referenced by Colonel Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam in his recent speech to the Libyan people, Libya is a country whose contemporary origination derives from its ethnic tribes. Tribal lineage have, historically, been intimately tied to political loyalties. However, as Libya entered the modern world more thoroughly, ethnic and tribal distinctions became blurred. At present, the country, as a whole, is much more “Libyan” than it is “tribal”, quite a distinction from the strong tribal identities that were present in the Libya which Gadhafi took possession of in 1969.
Gadhafi himself descends from the Qadhadfa tribe, a linguistic derivation of which serves as his namesake. Throughout his forty-plus years of rule, Gadhafi has made liberal use of nepotism, appointing many Qadhadfa tribal members to key positions in his regime. Gadhafi has, especially, exploited the tribal/ethnic connection by trusting the majority of his personal security details to be comprised of Qadhadfa tribal descendants. This is a prime example of Gadhafi’s diplomatic acumen, as he relies implicitly on either reviving, creating, extending or maintaining a strong sense of tribal-centric nationalism, to the extent that persons from his own Qadhadfa tribe deeply internalize their loyalty to him based on those sentiments.
In a hypocritical turn, Gadhafi has remained ever-adept at playing both sides of the fence and has not hesitated to play the tribal leaders off of one another. Like his downsized and disparate grouping of Libya’s soldiers, Gadhafi politically maneuvers the tribal people such that no one tribe becomes a threat to his command. The present concern is whether Gadhafi will deliberately arm and finance those tribes loyal to him as a means of employing a very simple, yet potentially effective, divisive strategy.