The international effort spearheaded by the United States and the European Union (particularly Italy) continues to secure widespread recognition of the Government of National Accord (GNA) as the legitimate state authority in Libya (U.S. Department of State, March 22; Al-Wasat [Tripoli], February 14; Al-Wasat [Tripoli], January 6). These efforts continue to be threatened by Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces organization that opposes the GNA (The National [Abu Dhabi], February 21; Reuters, February 1; Reuters, November 10). One of the key Libyan militia organizations positioned to determine the success or failure of the international effort to stabilize Libya under the GNA — and to combat the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other militant Salafist actors — is the Zintan Military Council. The Zintan Military Council, neither an active opponent nor a close ally of Haftar, is an estimated 3,000-fighter force that is one of the most powerful armed organizations in western Libya’s Tripolitania province and all of Libya. Since December 2016, the Zintan Military Council has signaled that it will engage in dialogue with the GNA (al-Araby al-Jadid, February 16; Libya Observer [Tripoli], December 17, 2016; al-Wasat [Tripoli], August 27, 2016; Formiche [Rome], May 21, 2015).
Leading the Zintan Military Council
Osama al-Juwaili, 56, is the overall commander of the Zintan Military Council and an important power-broker throughout Libya (al-Araby al-Jadid, February 16; Libya Observer [Tripoli], December 17, 2016; al-Wasat [Tripoli], August 27, 2016). He is a native of Zintan — a de facto city-state with an estimated population of 80,000 people, located approximately 180 kilometers southwest of the capital of Tripoli —which provided a key force that took part in the capture of Tripoli from Gadhafi’s loyalist forces in August 2011 (YouTube, March 3; al-Jazeera [Doha], February 23, 2014; see also Terrorism Monitor, January 19, 2012). Under al-Juwaili’s command, the Zintan Military Council is one of the most battle-hardened, unified and consequential armed coalitions in Libya (YouTube, March 3; The Daily Beast [Zintan], February 22, 2016).
Al-Juwaili served as an officer in the Libyan military under Gadhafi, rising to the rank of general and specializing in electronic warfare (YouTube, December 11, 2013; YouTube, April 19, 2012). After he left the Libyan military, al-Juwaili took up residence in Zintan and became a prominent local leader with personal connections throughout Libya and also internationally (The Daily Beast [Zintan], February 22, 2016; Jeune Afrique [Paris], December 10, 2014; YouTube, October 11, 2012). Based on this experience, and his ability to serve as an ambassador for the Zintan militias with other revolutionary forces led by defected military officers throughout Libya, he became the overall commander of the Zintan Military Council during the revolution (YouTube, October 11, 2012; YouTube, April 19, 2012; YouTube, January 16, 2012; YouTube, May 22, 2011).
Significantly, al-Juwaili served as the first defense minister of the post-Gadhafi era in the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC), a position that he held from November 2011 to September 2012 (YouTube, August 29, 2016; Reuters, November 21, 2011). He was appointed to this position in the TNC shortly after the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Brigade, a border patrolling force from Zintan, captured Muammar Gadhafi’s son Sayf al-Islam Gadhafi (Le Monde [Paris], February 21; Liberation [Paris], October 13, 2013; YouTube, November 19, 2011). It is believed that the opportune timing of Sayf al-Islam Gadhafi’s capture by the Zintan Military Council was the impetus for al-Juwaili’s appointment as defense minister on the TNC (The Economist, November 29, 2011). Still under the control of the Zintan Military Council in the present, and as the highest ranking surviving son of Gadhafi and the ancient regime under Libyan militia control, Sayf al-Islam Gadhafi is a powerful bargaining chip that provides the Zintan Military Council with leverage over other Libyan militias (YouTube, March 3; Le Monde [Paris], February 21; YouTube, August 29, 2016; Anadolu Agency [Tripoli], July 13, 2016).
During his tenure as defense minister, al-Juwaili initiated and oversaw the process through which Libya’s multitude of militia forces were supposed to become integrated into a Libyan national army under the control of the government based in Tripoli (YouTube, October 29, 2012; The Telegraph [London], December 26, 2011; YouTube, December 3, 2011). This process was ultimately unsuccessful. In his capacity as defense minister, however, al-Juwaili was able to interact closely with a number of foreign actors interested in Libya’s stability. These included the United States, European Union countries, and regional actors like Egypt and Algeria (YouTube, August 29, 2016; Tripoli Post, March 5, 2012). The relationships with foreign actors that al-Juwaili formed at this time, and his engagement with a wide range of militia actors throughout Libya, provide him with a ready-made network of influence as the politicking around the legitimacy of the GNA continues.
Controversially, al-Juwaili continued serving as the nominal commander of the Zintan Military Council while also serving as the defense minister during the TNC period (YouTube, August 29, 2016; The Daily Beast [Zintan], February 22, 2016). After his tenure as defense minister, al-Juwaili remained the leader of the Zintan Military Council and continued the Zintani militias’ garrison presence in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. This presence greatly contributed to the conflict that broke out in the city between the Libyan Dawn and Libyan Dignity coalitions in July 2014 (Reuters, October 8, 2016; Jeune Afrique [Paris], December 10, 2014; YouTube, September 27, 2014; Al-Monitor [Tripoli], July 29, 2014; al-Arabiyya [Dubai], September 7, 2011). These battles in Tripoli took on a tone of a Misrata versus Zintan conflict, the two most powerful city-state forces garrisoning Tripoli at that time, with the Misratan militias supporting Libyan Dawn and the Zintani militias supporting Libyan Dignity (Reuters, October 8, 2016; YouTube, September 27, 2014).
Zintani forces were eventually displaced from Tripoli by the Misratan militias. This has heightened tensions between the two cities over the subsequent two years — and driven a low-intensity conflict between the two — though both the Misrata and Zintan Military Councils now appear to support the GNA (YouTube, March 3; Libya Herald [Tripoli], December 19, 2016; Jeune Afrique [Paris], December 10, 2014). Over the course of 2016, al-Juwaili has supported sustained, direct dialogue between Misrata and Zintan, including talks between representatives of the two city-states that have been held in Italy (Sant’Egidio, December 8, 2016). Italian interest in investing in Zintan has also increased during this time, with potentially tens of millions of Euros worth of investment by the Italians set to begin over the next couple of years (Padova News [Milan], March 28; Libya Herald [Tripoli], March 15; Agenzia Nova [Rome], March 13). These factors, both internal and external, and the uneasy relationship that al-Juwaili has with Haftar, drive the Zintan Military Council’s pragmatic engagement with the GNA (al-Wasat [Tripoli], February 12; al-Raseefa [Tripoli], October 1, 2014; al-Wasat [Tripoli], June 7, 2014).
Al-Juwaili is one of the most important militia leaders in Libya. Under his command, the Zintan Military Council is poised to play a key role in determining the success or failure of the GNA to expand its ability to govern Libya outside of Tripoli. His promotion of Zintan’s outreach and reconciliation talks with the Misratan Military Council is highly consequential for the future stability of Tripolitania and the success of the GNA. However, al-Juwaili’s role is far more than that of a powerful military commander inside of Libya, he is also emerging as a key interlocutor for promoting Zintan’s autonomous city-state within the international community, particularly with Italy. Additionally, he is engaging in diplomatic outreach with Libya’s neighbors, such as with Algeria, which has a deep interest in the Zintan Military Council’s ability to provide militia forces to patrol Libya’s Saharan border regions.
The relationships that Zintan can form with wealthy foreign actors, such as Italy, that are willing to invest in the Zintan region in exchange for the Zintan Military Council’s support for the Government of National Accord, could prove decisive for the long-term economic prosperity of Zintan. Although he is not a day-to-day military commander, al-Juwaili is a respected figure in Zintan and an important figure with the ability to reach out across all sides within Libya. He has credibility among key international actors, which are now courting his support for the GNA. It is unlikely that without al-Juwaili’s backing the GNA will be able to consolidate its authority in Tripolitania, and from there, over a staged process with international backing, the rest of Libya.