In Libya, militias call the government's shots

The head of a Libyan militia that kidnapped the country's prime minister earlier this month says the government is powerless to punish him. 

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan speaks during a news conference at the headquarters of the prime minister's office in Tripoli October 11, 2013. The head of a Libyan militia admitted to a key role in the kidnapping of Zeidan last month, but he's not on the run.

Abdelmonem al-Said admitted to a key role in the kidnapping of Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan last month, but he's not on the run. He's not even in hiding. Instead, he's giving defiant interviews at his home in a quiet Tripoli suburb, expounding on the weakness of formal government authority and the strength of militias like the one he runs. 

"Zeidan wants to harm me, but he’s so weak I don’t think it’s going to happen,"  Mr. Said says. At a Sunday press conference, he said he was "proud" of his role in what he called the "arrest" of the prime minister.

His militia is one of dozens that have been licensed to operate by the government in the two years since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi but in practice remain largely autonomous. In theory, Said's group answers to the interior ministry and is tasked with fighting crime.

Said led the armed men who abducted Zeidan on Oct. 10 from Triopli’s luxury Corinthia Hotel, the prime minister's residence, and released him eight hours later. Zeidan has since called his abduction an attempted coup and identified Said as one of the militiamen who interrogated him during his detention. 

Today is the second anniversary of the end of the 2011 civil war that ended strongman Qaddafi's rule. On last year's anniversary, Tripoli’s Martyrs Square was full of celebratory crowds, fireworks, and flags. This year, the gathering in the square was small and subdued – perhaps a sign of how much post-Qaddafi Libya has fallen short of Libyans' expectations.

Security has rapidly deteriorated in the last year. The fragmented militias that the state relies upon for security have become increasingly linked to political groups and conflict between them has become more frequent. Brigades that are campaigning for semi-autonomy for Libya’s eastern region, where Benghazi is located, have seized control of key oil ports, cutting the country’s oil production in half. Radical Islamist brigades that publicly praise Al Qaeda have expanded; The militant group Ansar al-Sharia has opened a number of new branches in the west of the country.

"Militias have long been both the source of security and insecurity in Libya, but the situation has got a lot worse over the last six months," says Ana Gomes, who holds the Libya portfolio for the European Parliament's security and defence subcommittee.

The core of Said’s brigade was formed during the civil war, when it was tasked by the transitional government with preventing looting and enforcing law in rebel-controlled territory. After the revolution it was absorbed by the interior ministry, but, according to Anti-Crime Unit chief Khalid Shanta, the brigade failed to properly integrate with the rest of the force and refused to cede autonomy. Said’s group "played by its own rules" and has a history of ignoring commands from above, he says.

Effortless arrest

On the night of the abduction, Said and his men approached the front of the hotel and said they had an arrest warrant for the prime minister, a statement that Said now says was a bluff. According to Said, despite the fact that he and his partners applied pressure on the attorney general’s office, it refused to issue the warrant.

Said says the attorney general was presented with official complaints accusing Zeidan of corruption, as well as having German citizenship (the prime minister cannot have dual citizenship under Libyan law). Said also accused Zeidan's family of being involved in the illegal drug trade and says the prime minister ordered raids on buildings owned by brigades loyal to him in order to destroy incriminating evidence.

When they reached the foyer of the hotel restaurant, there were dozens of foreign security workers waiting for them, but the militiamen quickly disarmed them and proceeded to Zeidan’s room.

"When I actually arrested Zeidan, I approached him with no weapon," Said says. "He was shocked and he broke down and wept."

Said refuses to reveal the techniques used to disarm the guards and bypass diplomatic security. Even though many of the men on both sides were armed, no shots were fired. 

Suspicion of intervention

In the weeks ahead of Zeidan’s abduction, the Justice and Construction party, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, repeatedly called for the prime minister's removal, but couldn’t drum up the 120 votes in parliament needed for a no-confidence vote. The new lawmakers behind the push for a no-confidence vote insist they were not behind the kidnapping, and only seek to bring down the government by legitimate means.

"This could well have been an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve something illegally that they failed to achieve through the legitimate means of a no-confidence vote," says Jason Pack, a research at Cambridge University and president of Libya-Analysis.com.

"The Brotherhood doesn’t necessarily want to replace him with one of their own ranks, but it does want to block his plans to build a strong army. It’s seen what happened in Egypt and sees plans to cooperate with the US and Europe over training troops as a threat."

British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande raced to condemn the abduction and pledged to help Libya rein in militias. NATO announced earlier this week that it would send security advisors to Libya to help it build up an effective defense force under the auspices of the government.

While this has been broadly welcomed in Libya, observers say the international community must be careful not to reinforce the militias' grip on the country's politics.

"Libya’s militias continue to dictate the terms of politics for the foreseeable future and risk the stability of the country in the process," says Oliver Coleman, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk analysis company Maplecroft. "Any sort of outside intervention that could be construed as Western interference is likely to provoke a serious backlash from some militias, and indeed from the Islamist JCP [Justice & Construction Party]."

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