Forces opposed to the president of the internationally backed Libyan Presidential Council, Fayez Al Sarraj, launched an offensive in the last week of August to take control of Tripoli, the capital. The leaders of the Presidential Council did not expect such a large attack.
The leadership of the Presidential Council took office under the auspices of the United Nations in late 2015, based on a political agreement between the different Libyan parties. Since then, the Presidential Council has been unable to reunite the Libyans or eliminate chaos. The council was accused of wasting billions of dollars of Libyan wealth. All this has alarmed local and international interests.
The attackers belong to the Seventh Brigade, which owns well equipped military bases in the town of Tarhona, 70 km south east of Tripoli, and are considered the elitist forces that worked under the instructions of the former Muammar Al Gaddafi, and his son, Khamis until their deaths in 2011. To this day, the military leadership of this brigade is not known to the public although every now and then media data is broadcast through a spokesman in uniform named Saad Hamali.
Major General, Al Warfali of the Libyan Tribes Council said, "The Seventh Brigade is a military formation that belonged to the battalion of Emhamed al-Maqrif, the main guard battalion in Tripoli, who served during the days of Al Gaddafi, and the 32nd Brigade and battalions that were in Tarhouna following the Ninth Regiment.”
Prior to the 7th Brigade attack on Tripoli most of the leaders of the Presidential Council, including Al Sarraj himself, were on the Eid al-Adha holiday which began on August 21st. Some leaders were outside Libya itself. The lull continued until August 25th. No-one was on duty in the Defence Ministry room in Tripoli. A large number of soldiers of the "Deterrent" forces and the "Central Security" forces, two of the main forces allied with Al Sarraj and responsible for securing the capital, were also on holiday.
The 7th Brigade attack occurred suddenly, to the surprise of everyone. Al-Sarraj announced the state of emergency to his allies and forces. His defence plans, some of which were found in several operations rooms, seemed unrealistic. In fact, there was no central operations room to manage the battle. There was no defence minister. The Chief of Staff seemed weak and Al-Sarraj ordered the military and militia chiefs to repel the "Seventh Brigade" offensive, which works hand in hand with the 22nd Brigade, located in Tarhouna, a brigade of the General Command of the National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
The Al-Sarraj government had previously granted the Seventh Brigade legitimacy by recognising them as one of the battalions of the Presidential Guard formed under the Skhirat agreement. Later, Al Sarraj realised that the force could pose a threat to his government and he issued a decree to dissolve them in April.
The fierce fighting in the August attack on Tripoli continued for more than two weeks. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds were injured, Several thousand people were under siege on the battlefield itself and on the outskirts of the city, with a population of about two million people. Electricity was cut off by targeting key power stations. Among the rocket-propelled grenades, paramedics screamed for medicines and blood. Bodies lay in the streets.
Up until September 3rd, Al Sarraj was reassuring his leaders in Tripoli that the international community would not leave him alone to face the Seventh Brigade attack and that they should withstand the attack for as long as possible. Some parties in the Presidential Council suggested that Italians and Americans would intervene in favor of Al Sarraj but this has not happened.
Meetings were held hastily in the corridors of the Presidential Council and at the Posta base, where Italian soldiers were stationed. There was increasing frustration after Council members said that the Russians and the French were opposed to any outside intervention to repel the Seventh Brigade attack.
Once the Seventh Brigade had arrived on the outskirts of Tripoli International Airport, foreign companies, including Italian companies, working to renovate the airport, which had been devastated by earlier wars, decided to leave the site quickly and install equipment at a large headquarters near the airport and await developments.
A senior official in the Presidential Council said that the Italian Defence Minister, Elisabetta Trenta, was in contact with the leaders of the Council to follow the situation, especially as the process of redevelopment of Tripoli International Airport also included an agreement to develop a military base next to the airport.
Forces loyal to Al Sarraj believed that it was possible to defeat the Seventh Brigade if they launched air strikes on its bases in Tarhouna. On August 29th, a military aircraft was launched from al-Watiya base, west of Tripoli, and bombed sites in Tarhouna, killing some 20 people and injuring others.
The airstrike on Tarhona led many tribes and military leaders to support the Seventh Brigade against the Presidential Council. A tribal leader from Tarhona said, "This is the first time in 100 years that Tarhouna has been attacked by a military plane. This did not happen even in the days of strikes by Nato forces in Libya in 2011. The only military aircraft that struck Tarhouna was during the Italian occupation of Libya.”
By September 1st the Seventh Brigade had occupied most of the capital, mostly in the south of Tripoli, in addition to the international airport and the police college building in the Al Hadaba area. Other opponents of the Presidential Council had also started to advance on Tripoli.
A military officer in the operations room said, "The Seventh Brigade is seeking entry from the south but there are other forces that want to take advantage of the opportunity to enter from the east and the west. This is a disaster. Where will the besieged population go?” There have been reports of troop advances from the "Rahbat Tajora" side in the east. Those forces belong to the leader of the militia known as the "cow", who has historical disputes with the forces in the heart of Tripoli allied with Al Sarraj. The forces protecting Tripoli have been at a disadvantage, especially with attacks coming at the same time from the east and south.
Two streets away from the centre of Tripoli, aides to the army's chief of staff, General Abdul Rahman al-Tawil, were running a small office, relying on telephone and other communication networks. A week after the Eid al-Adha holiday aides were surprised that most of the brigades commanded by the Chief of Staff were still away from work. The majority of these soldiers were found to be from the town of Tarhona and its allied Al Nawahi Alarba area. "This is a rebellion," one aide said. “The soldiers' absence was deliberate. This is a conspiracy.”
Hours later, the remaining 301st Battalion, in the area of Sawani, arrived on the airport road, south of the capital. The force was not very loyal to the Presidential Council but rather affiliated with the city of Misrata, which is heavily armed. Misrata, 200 km east of the capital, is still distancing itself from Tripoli.
Amongst the forces allied with Al Sarraj is the Tripoli Revolutionary Battalion, which is led by Haitham Tajouri. The battalion launched missile attacks against the Seventh Brigade to hinder their advance on Tripoli. Other militants in the battalion were piling sand in the streets to establish barricades against the attacking force. Many mocked this defence mechanism because the sand would not block the Seventh Brigade’s tanks and armed vehicles from progressing.
Military officers under Major General Abdulbaset Marwan, the head of the Tripoli military area, were shocked to receive news of further advances by the Seventh Brigade from the south. The Tripoli Revolutionary Battalion withdrew back to the farthest point from the Seventh Brigade’s reach to its base in Zawya Al Dahmani near the coast. A battalion leader said there was a conspiracy, citing it as the reason behind their retreat. He said that that five of the Battalion commanders had been killed in battles with the Seventh Brigade and three had been assassinated inside the Battalion base under mysterious circumstances. The first was shot from a distance of three metres, the second died after being struck on the head by a sharp object and the third was drowned.
The first and the second line leadership of the battalion was concerned by reports of revenge operations and assassinations. Dozens of military officers withdrew from the battalion, especially those originally from Tarhona, which is where the Seventh Brigade came from.
In the area of Abu Saleem, headquarters of the head of the region’s military council, Abdul Ghani Al Kakli, who is one of the commanders Al Sarraj relies on, complained of a major shortage of ammunition for the fighters who must face the advance of the Seventh Brigade. Ammunition for the forces in the area of Abu Saleem were stored in the area of Al Hadaba to the south, which means it can no longer be reached, as the attackers currently control it.
Police officers affiliated with Brigadier Abdulsalam Ashour, the Minister of the Interior in Al Sarraj’s government, attempted to strengthen the lines to face the forces of the Seventh Brigade. From the beginning of the confrontation until September 3rd, they complained about their limited capabilities and the shortage of weapons and fighters. The army officers had requested the Ministry of the Interior to send its men in south Tripoli to the centre in the bin Qashir Palace. However the Ministry said that it can not risk its lightly armed men against the heavily armed attackers. The Minister’s assistant said, “the best firepower we possess does not exceed Kalashnikov rifles, whilst the attackers from south of the capital have missiles and heavy hardware, we will not send our men to their death.”
The Central Security forces led by Brigadier Jamal Basha, who also follow Al Sarraj, are located east of Tripoli. They have been under siege as the Seventh Brigade advanced towards them from the ring road of Wadi Rabi. The forces requested support from other Central Security units in the centre of the capital. The Ministry of Interior rejected their request as it risked leaving a security void in the centre of Tripoli, which would affect the security of government premises.
Al Sarraj’s military leaders held a meeting the next day to discuss securing the city centre, specially the government buildings and the banks. Many of the militia leaders that Al Sarraj relied on did not attend the meeting. A military source said, “Nobody from Abu Saleem Military Council has attended the meeting. They said they are mandated with securing the centre of Tripoli. It seems that the Abu Saleem Council has its own plans. They operate in isolation from anyone. They know nothing about military discipline and real wars.”
There were indications that Tripoli was collapsing without any hope of receiving regional or international support for the forces of the Presidential Council, scattered and besieged in Tripoli. Members of the Presidential Council have begun searching for new allies to help them save the Council and its government. A source in the Presidential Council said that Major General Mohammed Al Hadad, the commander of the Central Military Area, attempted to use his connections with Misrata forces which defeated Isis in Sirte to defend Al Sarraj.
Two days before this chaos ensued, Al Sarraj had assigned Al Haded to protect areas in east and west Tripoli. He assigned Osama Jweili, the commander of the Western Military Area to protect south and central areas of Tripoli. Al Sarraj assigned both the Chief of Staff Al Tawil and the commander of the Presidential Guard Al Nakou to provide for all the military requirements for Al Hadad’s and Jweili’s forces, such as arms and ammunition, vehicles, food and communications equipment and salaries for the fighters.
Amongst the issues facing Al Hadad’s and Jweili’s forces is the small armed groups loyal to Al Sarraj but operating independently in their areas. A military source in the Central Military Area said that the forces of the Seventh Brigade had already taken over the areas that Al Hadad’s and Jweili’s forces were assigned to protect. Misrata forces. specifically the Al-Bunyan al-Marsous brigade which defeated Isis in Sirte in 2016, has not been in harmony with the chairman of the Presidential Council in the past few months. The forces are no longer unified as they had once been in the past. According to a source, Al Hadad has had disputes with leaders in Misrata that ended with them locking him up in the city, beating him and leaving him unconscious in the middle of the street.
A tribal leader in Misrata said, “Major General Al Hadad asked the leaders in Misrata forces to fight for the protection of Tripoli. They refused and told him that our fighters were wasted in previous wars. We have nearly 700 dead in Sirte in Al-Bunyan al-Marsous Operation and we have many enemies in Tripoli. We will only secure Misrata, our city.” The source added, “Al Hadad spoke to them firmly this is why he was kidnapped after the meeting ended.”
Al Hadad’s injury cost the Presidential Council one of its most influential members. After a week of battles in Tripoli it became clear that militias and formal military groups loyal to Al Sarraj were working without any coordination. The issue of the lack of coordination was even mentioned in a report by the Presidential Guards operations room, citing it as the cause of failures in security.
The Tripoli Revolutionary Battalion and the Deterrence force were working independently and in isolation from other groups. They randomly opened fire and caused casualties among the forces of the Presidential Guard in the Salah Adeen area and bin Al Nafis buildings, assuming they were affiliated with the Seventh Brigade’s forces.
Tripoli intelligence received information that fighters from many tribes had joined the attacking forces, including from Al Makarha, Rashfana, Ghadadfa, Warfla, Al Nawail, Al Ajeelat and Al Saiaan. Al Makarha has powerful forces that had participated two months before in an operation with Haftar to eliminate the extremists in Derna in the eastern part of Libya.
Other battalions had also joined the Seventh Brigade that were centred near Tripoli, such as Al Awfeya (meaning “the loyals”) Battalion. There is information suggesting that the reason behind the success of the Seventh Brigade in advancing to the centre of Tripoli is the support they received from former businessmen and leaders during the Al Gaddafi era.
On the sixth day of the battles, the Al Sarraj military began to discuss the demands of the Seventh Brigade. Tribal leaders from Zintan, Al Zawia and Tarhona cities have participated in the negotiations in the absence of the military leadership of the Seventh Brigade. A tribal delegation from Tarhona represented the attacking force.
Tarhouna forces asked for the withdrawal of the Tripoli Revolutionary Battalion, Abu Saleem forces, and the Deterrence forces from their positions in the capital and handing them over to the Ministry of Interior. The two forces rejected Tarhouna’s conditions. A member of the Presidential Council said, “These are not negotiations of a truce. These are conditions for surrender and we will not accept them.” In the morning after the failed negotiations, Al Sarraj forces, Abu Saleem and the Tripoli Revolutionary Battalion, used their heavy military hardware, including tanks, missile launchers and landmines in an attempt to defeat the attackers.
The Seventh Brigade responded to the rejection of the proposed truce with a new and major attack on the south eastern part of Tripoli, and advanced closer to the centre of the city, the fighting almost reaching the government and Presidential Council buildings. Al Warfali said, “the Seventh Brigade has reached Zohour Street in the centre of Tripoli and taken over the area previously controlled by Abu Saleem forces.” The main fuel line that feeds the power station south of Tripoli was dramatically damaged during the fight, causing the power generator to stop functioning. Local criminal gangs took advantage of the situation to commit armed robbery. More than 500 prisoners also took the opportunity to break out of their cells and escape, amongst them no less than 100 of the former leaders in the Gaddafi regime.
A security source said, “Robbery had spread in the neighbourhoods of Tripoli. We have received hundreds of reports about the theft of commodities from warehouses, commercial stores and cars from both companies and individuals, in addition to the major shortage of bread and the miserable condition in hospitals.”