Non-State Actors

Libya: Battleground of Mercenaries

April 1, 2020

Louis Tayler




  • Mercenary fighters foreign to Libya are highly likely to prolong the conflict by providing fresh manpower to fuel the conflict. Mercenaries are of Russian, Sudanese, and Syrian extraction.


  • Some mercenaries are rebels or extremists. This includes those from the same tribes as the Sudanese “Rapid Support Forces”, and former Al-Qaeda fighters. Their actions, after the conflict in Libya ends, may put other countries at risk of destabilisation.


  • Mercenary fighters are highly likely to engage in other illicit activities and attempt to extract money from existing smuggling or human trafficking operations.



The Second Libyan Civil War has fundamentally changed character in the last year to six months. While actors like Russia have been involved for years, newer parties to the conflict such as Turkey are making a large impact, as previous Grey Dynamics intelligence articles (1,2) have noted.



Fueling the Fire


Mercenary fighters in Libya have three main sources:


  1. Russian fighters, fighting under the label of the now-infamous “Wagner Group” have been in Libya since at least 2018, providing not only training, but also playing a direct role in the fighting. Estimates on the number of Russian mercenaries vary, but perhaps more than 1000 fight on behalf of the Libyan National Army (LNA).

    Figure 1: Russian Defence Minister Shoigu meets General Haftar in 2018

  2. The second major group of mercenaries are those from Sudan (as well as potentially Darfur and Chad). Though some news sources allege that the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are directly involved in the conflict, on the side of the LNA, it seems unlikely. More recent sources (1,2) claim that there are simply Sudanese individual mercenaries in Libya, from the same tribal background as the RSF. Regardless, some Sudanese mercenaries are present in Libya, fighting for the LNA. Numbers and specific details are scarce and unreliable and subject to the opposition’s propaganda.

  3. The third grouping of mercenaries are the most recent, and consist of Turkish-paid Syrian fighters volunteering to leave Syria and fight for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. Unlike the other two groups, Turkey is openly training and equipping these fighters to act as mercenaries in Libya. Estimates range over time, as this involvement only started in January, however, the number of Syrian mercenaries may be in the low thousands.




Dubious Origins


Some of the mercenaries coming to Libya from elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East have dubious origins. The Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul Rahman, claims that of perhaps 4700 Syrian fighters brought by Turkey to fight for the GNA, as many as 130 could be former Islamic State or Al-Qaeda fighters. This is a not-insignificant proportion of fighters and is significant because they will be gaining resources, experience, and cash while in Libya. As for the Sudanese mercenaries fighting with the LNA, it seems that several of the commanders are simply in Libya for the financial rewards – they revealed to the Guardian that they intend to go home and displace the Transitional Government in Sudan after finishing fighting in Libya. Additionally, if any of the Sudanese mercenaries were in the Rapid Support Forces prior to fighting in Libya, they may well have been involved in crimes against humanity, such as the massacre of protestors in Khartoum, in 2019.







The presence of large numbers of fighters largely motivated by cash is likely to have knock-on effects in Libya outside of purely military effects. Tim Eaton, a senior research fellow for Chatham House, claims that mercenaries interact with smugglers, traffickers, and migrants in different ways. Either they impede them, extorting them for money, or facilitate their movement as a means of generating revenue. To be clear, this is not a problem exclusive to mercenaries, as armed groups of both sides have been involved in trafficking.






Image: Libya Tribune (link)
Image2: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (link)



Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grey Dynamics LTD.

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