When the ferocious battle for Tripoli's international airport broke out last summer between Libya Dawn and militias from the town of Zintan, it seemed obvious to Siraj Swalem that he should take part.
The baby-faced fighter hails from the once-besieged coastal city of Misrata and is the youngest in a long line of brothers who fought to topple Libya’s former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011. It was almost a rite of passage – taking up arms to bring about change.
Today, the charismatic 18-year-old is a widely liked field commander for Libya Dawn. He has a reputation for fighting with two Kalashnikovs and handling larger weapons with acrobatic ease.
Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist-leaning groups anchored in Tripoli and Misrata, is the military wing of one of two rival legislatures vying for legitimacy and control in this oil and gas-rich nation. And its complex history and internal fissures are emblematic of the unraveling of post-revolutionary Libya.
Since the fall of Qaddafi, Libya has caromed from one political crisis to the next as a series of governments struggled to build up the state and corral former rebels, while also attempting to stick to a transitional roadmap laid out by rebels in 2011. Libya's chaos has fueled a migration crisis in southern Europe – and raised fears of a new base of operations for anti-Western jihadists.
While Mr. Swalem’s face lights up when discussing his favorite war toys, it sinks into a befuddled frown when asked how the multilayered conflict could come to a halt.
“Victory, here, means pushing the Zintanis back to their place,” he volunteers after a long pause, referring to the fighters whose control of the airport before last summer had netted them a fortune. Zintan is a city in the Nafusa Mountains just 85 miles from the capital.
Long list of enemies
“It is not just an issue of the Zintanis, there are also the Warfalla, the Tribal Army, and all the pro-Qaddafi elements,” he continues, referencing some of the tribal and military units opposed to Libya Dawn and its allies.
“But the biggest problem of them all is the Islamic State in [the Mediterranean city of] Sirte,” he says. “We want to beat all of them, but we face the difficulty that they are fighting in their own territory and they have lots of weapons.”
Swalem’s long list of enemies reflects the splintering of Libya along tribal, territorial, and partisan lines in the broader struggle for domination, as well as growing awareness that IS may emerge as the largest threat to Libyans.
The jigsaw of alliances that make up Libya today has split fighters broadly into two camps, each named after military offensives that pushed the country into all-out conflict in 2014.
Swalem is a poster child of Libya Dawn, a military operation launched last summer that expelled Zintani militias from the capital and left Misrati and Islamist-led militias as the dominant force.
Libya Dawn backs the General National Council (GNC), a transitional legislature in Tripoli elected after Qaddafi’s fall that part of its members decided to resurrect last August.
Their foes make up Operation Dignity, the brainchild of Khalifa Hafter, a Qaddafi-era general who staged two coup attempts in 2014 and launched an offensive to flush the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups from the eastern city of Benghazi. He was finally appointed as army chief in March by the rival government established in the east.
Call for 'pure Libyan dialogue'
One strategic front where these two forces have squared off is Al-Aziziyah, a town 30 miles southwest of Tripoli. A tentative cease-fire brokered by tribal elders and community leaders appears to be holding for now. However, UN efforts to broker a peace and form a national unity government are viewed here with skepticism and disdain.
“Right now we are fighting against men who once fought with us on the same side,” says Mokhtar Farshuh, director of a pro-Libya Dawn faction focused on protecting the capital and its outskirts.
Sitting on a thin mattress alongside other fighters, Mr. Farshuh argues that the creation of political parties after Qaddafi was the nation’s undoing, empowering a small elite that flourished in exile while ordinary Libyans endured the dictator and fought his regime.
“The revolutionaries should negotiate directly with each other and not depend on the political parties. The politicians are just using us as a bargaining chip,” says Farshuh, adding that Zintan and Misrata can make peace because the two cities fought together against Qaddafi.
Pro-Dawn Commander Abdesalam Zubi, who sports a light military vest over a grey dishdasha and travels in a bulletproof pickup truck, sees the conflict as one between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces under Haftar. He believes grassroots mediation efforts are the only way out of a violent power struggle that has fanned intercommunal rivalries and grievances.
“What is happening now is that the Dignity and Libya Dawn operations are feeding on tribal hatred that has existed since the Qaddafi era and grew stronger now. Only a pure Libyan dialogue can stop this bloodshed,” he assesses, cajoling his men to shake hands with this female reporter to prove that they are “not Al Qaeda.”
Many reject Islamist label
In its battle for support and legitimacy, the Libya Dawn coalition is hampered by the view in parts of the West and Arab world that their ranks include extremists implicated in terrorist attacks against foreigners and in assassinations of secular activists.
The Dignity camp, which gets inspiration and support from neighboring Egypt, pushes the Qaeda narrative hard, putting Libyan Islamists of all stripes in the same basket and framing the current conflict as one between “terrorists” and “nationalists.”
Despite upholding conservative Muslim values and having hard-line Islamist allies like Ansar al-Sharia – a UN-designated terrorist group involved in the 2012 attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi – many here reject being labeled Islamists, let alone terrorists.
They point to the professional engineers, scientists, and businessmen in their ranks, listing the projects they wish to undertake when the war is over, and citing the spectrum of parties and candidates who they voted for in the country’s first democratic elections in 2012. Some declare themselves secular and point to a love of alcohol as evidence of their liberalism.
The bad reputation is partially rooted in the presence of former members of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – a jihadist group whose leadership fought the Soviets in Afghanistan before returning to Libya – in the power structures of Tripoli and Misrata; the past links between LIFG and Al Qaeda; and the outsized influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of these former LIFG men is Khaled al-Sharif, previously the deputy emir of the LIFG, who was detained in a CIA detention center in Afghanistan for two years before being handed over to Qaddafi in 2005. He is now commander of Libya’s National Guard and held the post of deputy defense minister in two governments.
In his view, General Haftar is a reincarnation of Qaddafi.
“This is the same pretext Qaddafi used from the first day of the February 17 revolution: those are terrorists, they belong to Al Qaeda, they will destroy the West. He used that pretext because he knows they play on the sensitivities of the West. Today they are trying to use the same pretext, saying Tripoli is run by terrorists and its people are suffering. They say that Libya Dawn is a terrorist militia.”
Libya’s rival camps ritually trade accusations in a bid for legitimacy. At the same time they harness the power of militias to push their agenda in a struggle that has weakened the democratic process, hamstrung state institutions, and left the country with two parallel, dysfunctional governments.
While Libya Dawn backers concede that the House of Representatives was democratically elected in June 2014, they believe that its decision to relocate to Tobruk instead of Benghazi violated the rules of the game. In their eyes, the revived GNC in Tripoli draws its legitimacy from a controversial November Supreme Court ruling that effectively dissolved the House.
'No one knows how this ends'
Haftar, in the eyes of the Libya Dawn faction, is pushing the country toward a military dictatorship and poses an existential threat to the gains of the 2011 revolution.
“Libyans do not want a new military strongman,” says Mr. Sharif.
Those on the frontline hold the same view. “They only difference between Qaddafi and Haftar is the name,” says fighter Ahmed Zawawi, as food trucks blaring Quranic verses arrive to the front line of Aziziyah.
Whether the UN dialogue succeeds or fails, these fighters are determined to hold onto Tripoli by keeping pro-Dignity forces at bay and their supporters in the capital in check.
“We want the country to move forward,” says the young Swalem, who aspires to a university degree in the future. “No one knows how this ends. I feel life passing me by. I’ve grown a beard. My death could be very near.”