Special Report: Libya's Tribal Dynamics

18 MINS READFeb 25, 2011 | 21:39 GMT
Libyan tribal leaders welcome visitors.

Libyan tribal leaders welcome visitors during a gathering in the city of Zintan on March 28, 2018.


One of the pillars of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime is his ability to control Libya's tribes. Though he has consistently maintained ties with many smaller tribes affiliated with the other officers who formed the Revolutionary Command Council which carried out the 1969 coup that put Gadhafi in power, the foundation of his rule has been maintaining ties between his own tribe and the two largest tribes in the country. Because of the tribes' importance to Gadhafi, a grasp of Libya's tribal dynamics is important in understanding the current conflict in the country. Libya has an estimated 140 tribes, only about 30 of which are viewed as having any real significance. They live in the three historical zones that make up Libya — regions which have only recently been grouped together as one political unit. These regions are Tripolitania, site of the capital city Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast in northwestern Libya; Cyrenaica, which touches the Mediterranean but also extends into the Sahara and serves as home to what was for a time the alternate capital of Benghazi; and Fezzan, the only region located entirely in the desert. In an attempt to simplify an exceedingly confusing topic, Stratfor has divided Libya's tribal groups into two overarching categories: the coastal tribes residing mostly in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and the interior tribes which mostly live in Fezzan. Not all of the "coastal" tribes live along the Mediterranean, but they do live within the rough vicinity of the Libyan core. The second category encompasses the tribes who reside solely in the desert interior.

Most people in Libya fall into the first category. The coastal strip is home to the typical Libyan — a person of mixed Arab-Berber descent (there are very few pure Berbers left, and though Bedouins in the interior take pride in their "pure" Arab blood, the amount of mixing over the years has made this very rare). There is a difference between the family trees of the Tripolitania tribes and those of the tribes in Cyrenaica dating back to the 11th century, when the Banu Hilal and Banu Salim Arabs settled in the respective regions. This division is felt to this day. Cyrenaica is where the current uprising began in mid-February. This is a territory that Gadhafi — or any ruler of Tripolitania — has always struggled to control. In part, this is due to geography, as a vast stretch of desert and the Gulf of Sidra separate the regions.

This division has reinforced their separate historical developments. Cyrenaica has long been oriented toward Egypt and the eastern Islamic world, with Tripolitania more oriented to the western Islamic world and the Maghreb. Cyrenaica was also the home region of modern Libya's first ruler, King Idris I, who was overthrown by Gadhafi in 1969. (This is why so many towns in eastern Libya have begun flying the old flag of the Libyan monarchy in recent days.) Idris came from a line of rulers of the Sanussi order, a Sufi religious order founded in 1842 in Al Bayda, that practices a conservative and austere form of Islam. The Sanussiyah represented a political force in Cyrenaica that preceded the creation of the modern state of Libya, and whose reverberations continue to be felt to this day. It is no coincidence that this region is the home of Libyan jihadism, with groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). (The Gadhafi family has thus been calling the current uprising an elaborate Islamist plot, blaming nearly everything on the influence of al Qaeda, and accusing several people once imprisoned for their affiliations with LIFG of having established Islamic emirates in various eastern towns.)

A very small percentage of the Libyan population lives in the areas populated by the second category of tribes, including all of Fezzan and a significant portion of Cyrenaica. The desert simply does not allow for a large population to develop. Much of Libya's oil and natural gas is within this region, however, and that is what makes an understanding of the tribal dynamics there important.

The Coastal Tribes



The Gadhafi Tribe This is the tribe of the Libyan leader, who was born in a desert town about 50 miles south of Sirte. There are six Gadhafi subtribes, whose members can be found in the two largest Libyan cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, but their main stronghold is in the territory stretching from Sirte to the Fezzan district of Sabha (where Gadhafi attended secondary school). The Gadhafi tribe is not historically a force in Libya, in part because there simply are not that many members. The Gadhafi did not play a big role in the war against the Italian occupation, for example, nor did they have any influence during the monarchy, during which they mainly worked as herders. But the Gadhafi were allowed to join the armed forces and the police during this time, which is how the young Capt. Moammar Gadhafi found himself in the position to be able to lead the coup in 1969. (He promoted himself to colonel after the revolution.) As Gadhafi hails from the air force, this tribe continues to be very influential in this branch of the armed forces, which has been involved in some of the most severe crackdowns in eastern Libya and beyond.

Like any person in charge in a tribal society, Gadhafi has long favored members of his own tribe, especially in appointing leaders in the security forces, from regional military commanders to his personal bodyguard. But since the Gadhafi tribe is not especially large, the Libyan leader has been forced to form confederations with others. The foundation of the Gadhafi power structure for the past four decades has largely rested on an alliance with the two largest tribes in the country: the Warfallah and the Magariha, neither of which hails from eastern Libya. When Gadhafi first took power, he was heavily influenced by the ideology of then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Arab nationalism was his guiding force. This later manifested in the Jamahiriya project that Gadhafi implemented in 1977. "Jamahiriya," a word coined by Gadhafi which describes a new system of governance he defined as the "state of the masses," was billed as a unique brand of Arab socialism. Ostensibly, it was to do away with antiquated notions of tribalism and focus on national identity. But in reality, these power relationships never went away.

The Warfallah is the largest tribe in Libya. Its members can be found living in Tripoli and Benghazi but the tribe's stronghold is centered on the Wadi Warfallah and Bani Walid and reaches into Sirte. With an estimated 1 million members, the Warfallah tribe represents roughly one-sixth of the country's entire population. This is the dominant tribe in Tripolitania. The Gadhafi and Warfallah have blood ties, and have been in alliance for much of Gadhafi's 41 years in power. There have been times when all was not well between the Gadhafi and Warfallah tribes, however. In October 1993, after 55 military officers from the Warfallah tribe were implicated in a failed coup attempt, Gadhafi ordered a wave of arrests targeting the tribe. This sparked a backlash from among the Warfallah — most notably in Bani Walid, where there was an uprising in response.

This event did not cause a permanent rupture in the alliance, but it would lead to the establishment of a law in March 1997 designed to prevent this kind of tribal unrest from happening again. The so-called "code of honor," approved by the parliament in March 1997, meant that tribes and families could be collectively punished through the withdrawal of government services should members of the tribe get involved in opposition activities. On Feb. 20, shortly after violence exploded in eastern Libya, a group known as the Warfallah Tribal Elders released a statement in which they condemned Gadhafi, his sons, and all members of his tribe. The Warfallah Tribal Elders speak on behalf of the Warfallah confederation, which consists of six subtribes: the Matarfa, Zakarwa, Lotyyin, Fogyyin, Faladna and Mrabtin.

Other Important Tribes in Tripolitania

The Bani Walid Tribe The Bani Walid overlap geographically with the Warfallah, and also stretch northward toward the coastal town of Misurata. After African mercenaries contracted by Gadhafi were used to violently suppress demonstrations in Misurata, the Bani Walid defected en masse from their units, and are now part of the opposition. The Tarhuna Tribe The Tarhuna are another large Libyan tribe, especially in the capital, where they comprise an estimated one-third of the population. As just over 1 million people reside in Tripoli, that puts the total number of Tarhuna at a minimum of 350,000, with some estimates putting membership at two or three times that (though this is likely an exaggeration). There even used to be a district in Libya called Tarhuna district, located right next to Tripoli. The Tarhuna, who are heavily integrated into the Libyan military, have also joined in the anti-Gadhafi protests. The Zentan Tribe The Zentan are located around the towns of Nalut and Zentan, around 100 kilometers (km), or slightly more than 60 miles, southwest of Tripoli in the Nafoosa Mountain range, next to the Tunisian border. The Zentan are known as heavy participants in the Libyan army, but they, too, have shown signs of siding with the protesters. There have been several reports of clashes between protesters and security forces in Zentan areas since Feb. 16, with images of people burning photos of Gadhafi and burning an armored personnel carrier belonging to the Libyan military, among other demonstrations.

A very small percentage of the Libyan population lives in the areas populated by the second category of tribes, including all of Fezzan and a significant portion of Cyrenaica. The desert simply does not allow for a large population to develop.


The Zuwaya Tribe The Zuwaya might not be the biggest tribe in Libya, but they are still a considerable force, if only because of the geography the tribe covers. Its members are spread out all across Cyrenaica, from the areas around the oil export facilities on the Gulf of Sidra to the interior regions around the actual oil deposits, as well as the Al Kufrah oasis. The Zuwaya, along with the Warfallah, are one of the major tribes that have been the most vocal in their denunciations of Gadhafi since the crisis began. Zuwaya tribal leader Shaykh Faraj al-Zuway said in a Feb. 20 interview with Al Jazeera that the Zuwaya would halt oil exports if the army did not stop shooting at demonstrators. Faraj insisted that his words were to be taken as "a warning from the Zuwaya tribe," and gave a 24-hour ultimatum for Gadhafi to order the military to cease in the use of force to suppress the revolt. There are no signs that the Zuwaya have carried out their threat, however. The Zuwaya reportedly control the Sarir, Messla and Aquila oil fields.

And though Libya's oil production has been significantly affected by the overall environment of unrest in the country, this appears to be because the foreign companies and local technicians needed to operate the fields and export facilities have either evacuated or are no longer showing up for work. The Zuwaya, rather than attacking oil facilities, appear to be protecting them. A WikiLeaks cable from 2008 stated that the Zuwaya are a heavily armed tribe, though these weapons are restricted to hunting rifles and other automatic rifles given to them by the Libyan government during the war with Chad over the Ouzou Strip in the 1980s. Their presence in the Toubou tribe's traditional heartland, namely the oasis town of Jaloo, has caused tension between the two tribes, at times breaking out into clashes that the Libyan army is forced to suppress.

Other important tribes in Cyrenaica

The Misurata Tribe The Misurata tribe is said by some to be the largest tribe in eastern Libya, though there are no concrete numbers to prove this. The tribe took its name from an area in northwestern Libya — the town called Misurata — where they used to live in great numbers before a wave of emigration after World War II. The town of Misurata is due west across the Gulf of Sidra from the Misurata stronghold in Cyrenaica. Today, the Misurata live mainly in the cities of Benghazi and Darnah. The al-Awaqir Tribe This tribe is most prevalent in Al Bayda, the city in which the Sanussi order was established and where the current uprising began in mid-February. When Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam made reference to those who had established the "Islamic Emirate of Al Bayda" in his Feb. 20 speech on Libyan state television, it is quite possible that he was referring to members of this tribe.

The al-Awaqir are known for the prominent role they played in the war against Ottoman and Italian colonialism, and historically have played a prominent role in Libyan politics, both during the monarchy and during the Gadhafi era. The Obeidat Tribe The Obeidat are centered in the far northeastern military garrison town of Tobruk. Two top officials in the regime that come from this tribe have made very public defections in recent days: Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmud (whose full name is Suleiman Mahmud al-Obeidi), commander of the Tobruk military region, and Maj. Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis (whose full name also includes "al-Obeidi" at the end), the former interior minister. The latter announced his defection on Al Arabiya television Feb. 23. Mahmud, meanwhile, insisted after his defection that the tribes are not as fractious as Gadhafi claims, disputing the notion that Gadhafi's removal would lead to chaos.


The Magariha (The Magariha technically are not a coastal tribe, but since Gadhafi took power members of the tribe have come to play an integral role in the affairs of the Libyan core. Thus, STRATFOR is grouping them into this category.) The Magariha tribe is the second-largest in Libya. In addition to the Warfallah, it is the tribe that Gadhafi has consistently sought to keep in alliance throughout his time in power. The Magariha are the dominant tribe in Fezzan, though many Magariha live in Tripoli and other large cities on the coast, as is the case for almost all of the Arab-Berber tribes in Libya. The most powerful member of the Magariha tribe is Col. Abdullah al-Sanussi, the head of the Jamahiriya Security Organization (JSO), which includes both the Internal Security Organization and the External Security Organization, an organization which employed Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, better known as the Lockerbie bomber (Megrahi's surname is a clear indication of the fact that he hails from the Magariha tribe). Al-Sanussi is married to a sister of Gadhafi's second wife, Safia Farkash, and is famous for directing the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre in which more than 100 Islamist prisoners were executed. This incident has been often cited by the eastern opposition as a core grievance that has led to the current uprising. Al-Sanussi remains loyal to Gadhafi, and was explicitly accused by Bani Walid tribal leaders of directing the crackdown on Misurata. Likewise, protesters in the northwestern city of Zawiya on Feb. 24 told reporters that a Gadhafi aide named Abdullah Megrahi (whose tribe is revealed by his surname) had come to the town Feb. 23 to deliver a warning: End the resistance, or "there will be a massacre."

One day later, Libyan military units allegedly used anti-aircraft missiles and automatic weapons to attack a mosque in Zawiya that contained protesters. There are prominent Magarihas, however, who are said to have joined forces with the opposition. The most famous of this group is Abdel Salam Jalloud, al-Sanussi's cousin and a former classmate of Gadhafi's at Sabha. He is also one of the 12 members of the Revolutionary Command Council that carried out the 1969 coup. He served as prime minister for five years in the 1970s, and was once regarded as the second most powerful man in Libya. But after the failed 1993 coup, Jalloud fell out of favor with Gadhafi due to suspicions of his involvement. He was officially pushed out of the Jamahiriya leadership in 1995. Jalloud has retained influence with the Magariha tribe, however, and a STRATFOR source included him as part of a rumored plot by several current or former military officers to overthrow Gadhafi.

A separate source also reporting on this rumored plot indicated that another Magariha long known to be a member of Gadhafi's inner circle, Brig. Gen. Al-Mahdi al-Arabi Abdel Hafiz, had been chosen to lead the revolt. If there are indeed such plans, they have yet to be implemented. The stance of the Magariha as a tribal unit is unclear. While Al Jazeera reported Feb. 21 that the entire Magariha tribe had renounced Gadhafi, there are clearly certain elements that are not of this persuasion, and the exact extent of the divide is unknown. Certainly there are elements of the Magariha that have joined the opposition camp, but it does not appear to have been a clean break just yet. Gadhafi's fate could hinge on this tribe's decision.

The al-Awaqir are known for the prominent role they played in the war against Ottoman and Italian colonialism, and historically have played a prominent role in Libyan politics, both during the monarchy and during the Gadhafi era.

Interior Tribes



The Tuaregs As Fezzan is largely unpopulated, the tribal dynamics that affect only Fezzan and do not play out in the coastal areas are largely unimportant in terms of determining the outcome of the current conflict in Libya. The Tuaregs, however, matter because of their ability to attack oil and natural gas infrastructure deep in the Libyan desert.

(click here to enlarge image)

The Tuaregs are a nomadic people who roam around the Sahara and Sahel regions. A Berber people, the Tuaregs have a much different culture and history (not to mention language and appearance) from the Arabic peoples along Libya's coastal regions, as well as the "pure" Arab Bedouins who live in other parts of the Libyan desert. They live in small groups mainly in the southwestern part of the country, concentrated primarily around the Ghadamis and Ghat oases. The Tuaregs have joined the calls of the Warfallah, Zuwaya and other tribes in demanding that Gadhafi step down, clashing with security forces in the towns of Ghat and Ubary on Feb. 20. Tuaregs live near the Waha natural gas deposits on the Algerian border, as well as in the vicinity of the large Elephant oil field owned in part by the partially state-owned Italian oil firm ENI and Libya's state-owned National Oil Corporation. Indeed, Tuaregs reportedly took over the headquarters of an oil company in Ubari on Feb. 22, though details are scarce on what exactly transpired.


The Toubou Tribe Like the Tuaregs, the Toubou tribe is not a substantial factor in the conflict under way within the Libyan core. The Toubou are the most distinct tribe in Libya simply because of their skin color: they more closely resemble sub-Saharan Africans than their countrymen to the north. (Indeed, when reports first emerged about African mercenaries employed by Gadhafi to suppress the uprising, there was some confusion as to whether they might have been Toubou elements of the Libyan military mistaken for foreigners.) Toubou, like the Tuaregs, live in small groups in harsh desert conditions, albeit on the other side of the country, in southeastern Libya near the Tibesti Mountains along the Chadian border and in the vicinity of the Al Kufrah Oasis. Also like the Tuaregs, the main threat posed by the Toubou is to oil infrastructure. A rebel group called the Toubou Front for the Salvation of Libya threatened in 2008 to sabotage the Sarir oil field, located almost 400 kilometers from Al Kufrah. The Toubou have shown allegiance to Gadhafi in the past, but this was based on money more than anything else. Their loyalty to anyone as far away as Tripoli is not going to be permanent. Indeed, the Toubou tribe reportedly denounced Gadhafi as well on Feb. 20.

The Tribes in Context

Eastern Libya is no longer under the control of the government in Tripoli, which is relatively normal in the history of this part of North Africa. The tribes of the east — who view themselves as descendants of the Sanussi order and, before that, the Arab Banu Salim who populated this region — have for the moment re-created the old region of Cyrenaica, which has not formally existed since before the days of the monarchy. Across the Gulf of Sidra, in the capital of Tripoli, Gadhafi is holding on for the moment, and the portion of the armed forces still loyal to him are trying to push back against protesters fighting for control of cities in Tripolitania. Having lost the support of the largest tribe, the Warfallah, as well as all of the tribes of the east, Gadhafi is now relying primarily on members of his own tribe, individuals who feel more loyalty to the regime than to their own tribesmen who have revolted, and an unknown segment of Libya's second largest tribe, the Magariha. Tuaregs and Toubou in the Libyan desert continue to pose a threat to the country's oil and gas production, but have not shown any serious inclination that they seek to shut down production at this time. Their activities are not of any pressing concern to Gadhafi, who for the moment is entirely focused on staying in power. To do that, he must ensure that the tribes loyal to him continue to stay loyal and hope that the use of force will help him to overcome the widespread opposition to his rule.

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