Libyan Tribal Groups and Allegiances

This piece will be mostly exploratory, as I am looking to fill-in large gaps in my knowledge of the clans and ethnic groups across the country formerly known as Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

A distinction which is being drawn in the MSN between the Benghazi-based NTC and the western rebels which tore out of the Nafusa mountains on the borders with Tunisia and Algeria is that the former is Arab-led whilst the latter are dominated by Amazigh, a principal Berber group in the region. Whilst there is a distinction between Arabized North Africans, especially in urban centers and Berber-speakers in more rural areas, the “Arabs” in the region inevitably are genetically indistinguishable from Berbers who, in turn, may vary in appearance from the fair-skinned Amazigh from the Nufasa mountains and the Tuareg with similar phenotype to the Nilo-Saharian-speaking Tebu.

Gaddafi co-opted in assistance from sub-Saharan African mercenaries during the Chadian wars, especially the ill-fated attempt to annex the Aozou Strip. Undoubtedly there has been continued assistance which could be compared to Franco’s use of dark-skinned Moroccan regulares to terrorize Spanish villagers during the Spanish Civil War; yet an element of racism has been seen as sub-Saharan migrants were targeted en masse in the Cyrencia region and northern cities falling to rebel control.

Of the tribes rewarded with political control during the Green Bookist period, the principal one undoubtedly was Gaddafi’s own otherwise numerically small Ghadafa tribe from around Sirte. The Italian colonial period was marked by a levelling – often literally – of pre-existing social structures, with any and all introduction of civil infrastructure being solely for the benefit of colonial arrivals. Compare this to the similarly destructive policy in Italian Somaliland which corresponds to the chaotic area of modern Somalia, whilst the British-controlled territory at least retained pre-existing social structures; and the corresponding statelet of Somaliland is a relative success story.

Yet, Gaddafi has failed to continue moves to create a functioning civil society evidenced in the first few years of his rule. His 1969 coup was conducted with the assistance of the Maghraha and the Warfalla tribes, with the former fielding his long-time friend and high-ranking official, Abdessalam Jalloud. Jalloud fell from grace somewhat following the 1993 coup in what both Maghraha and Warfalla collusion sought to topple Gaddafi. He recently defected to the NTC, although it should be noted that Abdul Fatah Younis was similarly distrusted/detested by many in the NTC for his previous role as Minister of the Interior; although other explanations for his assassination in July include that he was about to reveal dirty links between the Algerian military and Gaddafi.

Other members of the Maghraha tribe are Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and his co-accused Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, as well as Gaddafi’s wife. Married to her sister is Abdullah Sanussi, former intelligence chief who has been convicted in absentia for the UTC Flight 772 bombing, and linked to early civilian massacres in Benghazi.

The NTC has been dominated by eastern Libyans from the start, with one reason being that Gaddafi marginalized groups from this area following his deposition King Idris – no known links to Seionysm despite the name – of the Butnan tribe (from around the border with Egypt). Looking through the roll-call of NTC big cheeses, I have not seen mention of Ibrahim Abdulaziz Sadah, current secretary-general of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya or other NFSL figures. For over 30 years, this organization had been a major anti-Gaddafi force abroad, and its members were leading the protest outside the Libyan Embassy in London where WPc Yvonne Fletcher was murdered.

King Idris also was the head of the Salafist Sanussi movement, and this may be significant considering the proportionately high number of foreign suicide-terrorists in Iraq who hailed from eastern Libya.

There. Any corrections or additional information will be gratefully received. Paging Abu Faris and DaveM.