This report examines the different directions that policing in Libya has taken since the fall of Gadhafi in 2011. Using two cities, Tobruk and Sabha, as representative case studies, the report examines how competing and overlapping groups have assumed policing functions and traces the social and political inclinations of those groups. Acknowledging that local variation prevents countrywide generalization, the report identifies features and tendencies of the Libyan landscape that are relevant to future reform. 


  • Libya’s security sector has changed significantly since the 2011 revolution and continues to change as actors compete for influence and power.
  • Before the revolution, policing functions were housed in specialized departments answering to the Ministry of Interior. Domestic intelligence answered to the Internal Security Organization.
  • After the revolution, which caused a wholesale collapse of policing institutions across the country, reforms empowered fundamentalists and neighborhood armed groups by legitimizing them.
  • Fragmented integration efforts by the Ministry of Interior have largely failed.
  • Each of Libya’s successive transitional governments has enacted a set of competing and overlapping security sector reforms.
  • How the interaction between national developments and local realities have played out in the cities of Tobruk and Sabha is representative of the country.
  • Political and tribal divides, combined with weak institutions, have effectively created different policing power dynamics across all of Libya’s towns and cities.
  • Civilian policing functions are split politically and structurally across a range of entities and allocation of responsibilities is neither well differentiated nor delineated.
  • Policing strategy and priorities are in part dictated by domestic intelligence or defense entities.
  • Localism is a key feature of Libyan policing and likely to remain so as long as the legitimacy of state institutions is questioned.
  • Legitimacy is a loaded term with military, religious, communal, legal, and political implications. Almost no institution in Libya is regarded as legitimate on all of those counts.
  • Any policing solution for Libya, whether national or local, will need to take the varying perceptions and aspects of institutional legitimacy into account if it is to be effective.
  • Likewise, any unity government will need to take decisive action on policing structures if it is to transform Libya’s chaotic security scene and establish sound state security institutions.

About the Report

This report tracks diverging modes of policing in Libya that have developed in response to the 2011 revolution and subsequent state collapse. Supported by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau of the U.S. Department of State, the study is part of a portfolio of rule of law work carried out by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Libya. Report findings are based on qualitative field research and a nationally representative survey carried out by USIP in partnership with Altai Consulting. A companion report examines the renewed role of tribes as guarantors of social stability and providers of security and justice services in postrevolution Libya.

About the Authors

Peter Cole is a scholar and researcher, primarily focused on Libya, the Middle East, and North Africa. The lead editor of The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath (2015), he has been a consultant for Altai Consulting since August 2015 and was formerly a senior analyst at International Crisis Group and a special consultant on nonstate armed groups at UNSMIL and to the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission. Fiona Mangan is a senior program officer with the USIP Center for Applied Conflict Transformation and Middle East and Africa Center. Her work focuses on prison reform, organized crime, justice, and security issues. Field research and initial analysis were carried out by Naji Abou Khalil and Valérie Stocker of Altai Consulting.

Related Publications

Factional Conflict Leaves Libya Deadlocked

Factional Conflict Leaves Libya Deadlocked

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

By: Thomas M. Hill

In April 2019, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army launched an offensive to capture Tripoli from the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord seated there. Four months later, the result has been a virtual stalemate that has claimed over 1,000 lives. And while fighting on the ground is at a standstill, multiple regional actors continue providing air support and direct aid to either side. USIP’s Thomas Hill breaks down the current situation in Libya and the possibility for peace amid this deadly standoff.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

 Thomas Hill on Libya and Tunisia in Transition

Thomas Hill on Libya and Tunisia in Transition

Thursday, August 8, 2019

By: Thomas M. Hill

The death of President Essebsi was a major loss for Tunisia, but the U.S. remains deeply invested in advancing democracy in the country. Alternatively, looking to the instability in Libya, Hill says, “The U.S. is not involved at all, [even though some] Libyans are pressing for the U.S. to do more … The most productive way the U.S. can be involved is not militarily or financially, but rather diplomatically.”

Type: Podcast

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications