Islamists tasked with drugs crackdown in Tripoli

What now for the rule of law in Libya?

Libyans are facing a dilemma. Nearly two years after the 17 February uprising began, the euphoria of defeating Gaddafi and ending his 42 years of tyranny and oppression has faded. In its place is a nationwide balance sheet of significant achievements and demoralizing failures. Recent attacks in Benghazi, the hostage crisis in Algeria and the ongoing conflict in Mali are testament to the very real dangers of allowing Libya to become a playground for militias and armed groups with anti-Western ideologies. Yet, with a legitimate but weak government, local gangs offer a semblance of order and stability. The decision by the Ministry of the Interior to empower an Islamist militia to crackdown on drug smuggling in the capital has divided opinion. Do these groups have a role to play in achieving rule of law, or will they act as a hindrance?

The Libyan capital Tripoli is more secure than other places in Libya. It is still safe to walk around and drive at night. There have been few attacks on foreigners. Police presence on the ground is thin. The peace is kept for the most part by "thuwar" (revolutionaries). These autonomous brigades of armed fighters insist that they are the last line of defence protecting the revolution, for which they were formed. They are also accused of  pursuing their own interests to the detriment of their compatriots. Infighting and drug dealing is on the increase. The Ministry of Interior recently announced that the murder rate in Libya has increased by 500% since 2010. Speaking to the Libya Herald newspaper, Khaled Karrah, the former head of Tripoli’s Suq Al-Jumaa's local council, said: "the instability of the state is due to the drug dealers and young drug addicts. They are responsible for about 80 percent of the cases of night-time abductions. The false checkpoints are also organised by young Libyans under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They steal the nicest cars and abduct people to get money to buy more drugs. When they are arrested, most of them are drunk or in a trance-like state."

The Libyan authorities, with only weak national security forces behind them, have chosen to combat these gangs by empowering another. The new anti-drug brigade, the "Quat Rida al Khaasa", although nominally part of the government-run Supreme Security Council (SSC), is controlled by Abdul-Raof Karrah. This well-known figure is head of the powerful Tripoli militia, the Nawasi brigade, and widely seen as hard line Islamist.

The Nawasi brigade has already caused controversy by carrying out its own vigilante fight against crime. Its anti drug squads have taken to covering their faces to protect themselves from retaliatory attacks from well armed drug dealers. Their hidden identities  mean they can act with impunity. A common criticism levelled against such groups is that arrested prisoners have no official recourse to justice. There have also been many allegations of torture being used against those taken captive. In January an alleged drug dealer from the Fashlum area of the capital died "unlawfully", according to Interior Ministry Undersecretary Omar El Khadrawi, after being taken into custody by Nawasi. This sparked a gunfight in central Tripoli in which several people were injured and at least two killed. The following days saw protests against the Nawasi brigade in the central Martyrs' Square, as well as a demonstration in support of the fight against drugs attended by around 2,000 people.  

This empowerment of Nawasi by the Ministry of the Interior has split opinion in Tripoli. On the one hand there are "idealists" who believe completely disbanding the militias is the only way to truly establish rule of law within Libya. For Tripoli resident, Nisreen, “these militias are basically just glorified gangs. They accuse anyone they don't like of being drug dealers then arrest them and take their revenge. We are fed up of guys with guns doing whatever they want. We need to get rid of the militias so that Libya can become secure and stable again."

Suliman Ali Zway, a journalist from Benghazi, agrees, "I don't want militias with certain ideologies to have any power because even though they say that they 'follow orders' of the Ministry of Interior, in reality they answer to no one. I think that the existence of militias (regardless of their ideology) will only prevent Libya from building a civilized state."

There is fear Nasawi will use their new role to enforce their strict religious views. When challenged, most Libyans are quick to remind you that in the July 2012 general elections Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood won less than a quarter of the party seats. A clear sign, they say, that while Libya is undoubtedly an Islamic nation, it has little sympathy for brands of extreme political Islam imported from Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Libyan support for the NATO intervention which led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi also remains strong, with supporters of the revolution hailing Western countries that supported the intervention. Huge demonstrations have been held in both Benghazi and Tripoli protesting against violence and extremism. When Ambassador Stephens was killed in September 2012 by Al Qaeda affiliated groups, thousands of Libyans turned out to express their sadness and regret.

Others argue opposing Nasawi is a luxury Libya cannot afford. A significant number of Libyans wholeheartedly support the anti-drugs tirade of these brigades. The Facebook page "We are all Abdul-Raof Karrah" has nearly 12,000 likes.

The issue of drugs and alcohol is an emotive one. In this conservative society, many are saddened and angered by what they see as  their country being corrupted. Majdi Swaidan, member of an SSC brigade based at Mitiga airport, believes there can be no compromise when it comes to the issue of drugs. "Anyone who is against drugs has to support Nawasi," he says. He admits that ideally it should be the police taking on this role, but explains that until they are strong enough,  militias like Nawasi are the only groups powerful enough to successfully tackle Tripoli's drug problem.

"At the moment it is a choice between the lesser of two evils,” says Tahir Busrewil, a former revolutionary. He argues criminals should not be left to act with impunity until such time that the government can effectively enforce law and order.

Until recently, this debate was framed as an internal Libyan issue; but developments in the region have catapulted the issue on to the international stage and injected a new sense of urgency into finding short term, as well as long term, solutions to Libya's security issues.

While in Tripoli last week, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that "there are dangers, there are problems of security in this country", and although Libya is not the anarchic hellhole some are making it out to be, there are undoubtedly some serious security concerns. There is a sense of sinking optimism and growing frustration across the country as Libya slips once more into the role of the dangerous pariah state in the eyes of the outside world. Although Cameron was keen to stress the potential for foreign investment in Libya, the reality is that foreign companies and organisations are starting to think twice about continuing or resuming activities in the country. This is the last thing that Libya wants or needs.

Libyans want to make it clear to their enemies and the rest of the world that they are not sitting idly by as militias hijack their revolution. However, solving Libya's security problems is not as straightforward as forcefully disbanding each and every militia in the country (which is by no means straightforward to begin with). The Libyan authorities are trying to exert their power over society while dealing with decades of ingrained corruption, inefficiency and bureaucracy. They are inexperienced and overwhelmed, but this does not mean they are not trying. In the place of  waiting for a fully functioning army and police force to miraculously appear, the beleaguered government has few options at its disposal.


Libyans wait to hand over their weapons during a ceremony at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli on 29 September, 2012, Gianluigi Guercia, CREDIT: Getty Images
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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at