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18.4.2021 : 4:40 : +0200

Armed Actors








Despite a long tradition of state control of small arms and light weapons, North Africa remains beset by an ever-changing number of armed groups. These groups are driving instability in the region, disrupting government and social institutions, and prompting the population to arm itself. Such non-state actors do not exercise uniform levels of control over their armaments, resulting in varying levels of threats to security, such as from illegitimate use or accident.

The Security Assessment in North Africa produces studies on armed actors in the region to answer several essential questions: What types and quantities of small arms and light weapons are held by the various armed actors? What threats do these actors represent? How are these armed groups evolving in light of armed conflict and reconstruction? What motivates these actors to maintain or increase their holdings of small arms? What capacity do they possess to prevent misuse and promote responsible small arms control? What are the prospects for the disarmament and demobilization of some of these armed actors?

We find that:

  • Armed groups remain a feature endemic to the region and continue to increase both their number and firepower in recent years. The conflicts initiated by ‘revolutionary’ armed groups in Libya, Syria and the Egyptian Sinai, and separatist movements in northern Mali, facilitated the rise of a multitude of armed actors with diverse motivations and operating throughout the region. They include religious-inspired groups (Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Mali), ‘tribal’ groups (Libya, Mali, Niger), and criminal groups or gangs (Libya, Tunisia).

  • There is migration and recruiting among the region’s armed actors, with experience gained in one ‘theatre’ transferred to others. For example fighters from Libya, Tunisia and Morocco were recruited for the conflict in Syria. Regional security has been affected when those experienced fighters returned to their countries of origin. The potential collapse of IS in Syria may exacerbate the problem.

  •  Despite the transnational character of many armed groups, there is a marked distinction between local or ‘native’ armed groups and those with transnational memberships. Even local groups can differ dramatically from city to city.

  • Outside interference is playing a significant role in prolonging and intensifying conflict in the region, particularly in Libya. Regional and international meddling can exacerbate local ‘fault lines’ or longstanding and unresolved grievances. Local actors can align themselves with national- or international-level factions to receive arms, logistics, and political support.

  • Armed groups are contending with weak governmental institutions for control of the region’s population and resources. Increases in the availability and quality of weapons and ammunition has made this competition more fierce, with armed groups maintaining the upper hand in many parts of North Africa, such as the Fezzan, Tripoli, and Northern Mali. This is particularly true outside the major population centers. The main threats to a lasting peace in Ubari and its surroundings are the absence of a unified Libyan government and neutral security institutions; ongoing battles for national and local power and territory; and a lack of investment in infrastructure, service delivery, and the local economy.

  • Moderate or secular armed actors face limitations in competing with extremists. In Syria, for example, Western financial support to ‘moderate’ opposition groups is stretched thin by military expenses, to the detriment of political development. The conditions required by donors – extensive vetting and strict limitations on recipients’ ability to form coalitions with other armed groups – also maintain the fragmentary make up of those opposed to the Assad regime. Restraints like these allow extremists groups to grow in influence.

  • Given the strength of many armed groups and their unique claims to legitimacy (especially in Libya), ‘hybrid’ security institutions have emerged and assumed responsibility for security and security-related tasks in some areas of North Africa. The blending of formal and informal elements allows competing interests and loyalties to flourish. The security sector has become a front for political power struggles, and in many cases is the premier arena for such struggles.

Project Publications

  • Diaspora in Despair: Darfurian Mobility at a Time of International Disengagement, by Jérôme Tubiana, Clotilde Warin, and Mahamat Saleh Mangare. HSBA-SANA Report, June 2020.

  • Who's Fighting Whom in Tripoli: How the 2019 Civil War is Transforming Libya's Military Landscape, by Wolfram Lacher. SANA Briefing Paper, August 2019 (also available in Arabic).

    Download (3.34 MB)
  • Lost in Trans-nation: Tubu and Other Armed Groups and Smugglers along Libya's Southern Border, by Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi. Report, December 2018. A joint publication of HSBA, the Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA), and Conflict Armament Research (also available in Arabic).

    Download (5.77 MB)
  • Capital of Militias: Tripoli's Armed Groups Capture the Libyan State, by Wolfram Lacher and Alaa al-Idrissi. SANA Briefing Paper, June 2018 (also available in Arabic)

    Download (5.99 MB)
  • Monitoring Illicit Arms Flows: The Role of UN Peacekeeping Operations, by Holger Anders. SANA Briefing Paper, June 2018 (also available in Arabic)

    Download (1.8 MB)
  • At the Crossroads of Sahelian Conflicts: Insecurity, Terrorism, and Arms Trafficking in Niger, by Savannah de Tessières. Small Arms Survey SANA Report, January 2018 (also available in French). 

    Download (4.06 MB)
  • A Challenging State: Emerging Armed Groups in Egypt, by Mokhtar Awad. SANA Briefing Paper, July 2017 (also available in Arabic).

    Download (2.68 MB)
  • Syria's Armed Opposition: A Spotlight on the 'Moderates', by Saskia Baas, January 2016. Security Assessment in North Africa Dispatch No. 5. (also available in Arabic)

    Download (1.66 MB)
  • There and Back: Trajectories of North African Foreign Fighters in Syria, July 2015. Security Assessment in North Africa Issue Brief No. 3 (also available in Arabic).

    Download (1.22 MB)
  • Missing Missiles: The Proliferation of Man-portable Air Defence Systems in North Africa, June 2015. Security Assessment in North Africa Issue Brief No. 2. (also available in Arabic).

    Download (781.18 KB)
  • Armed Groups and Guided Light Weapons: 2014 Update with MENA Focus, December 2014. Research Note No. 47, Armed Actors. (also available in Arabic)

    Download (300.07 KB)
  • Politics by Other Means: Conflicting Interests in Libya's Security Sector, by Wolfram Lacher and Peter Cole, October 2014. Working Paper No. 20 (also available in Turkish, Arabic)

    Download (1.63 MB)
  • Security and Justice in Post-Revolution Libya: Where to Turn? by Fiona Mangan and Christina Murtaugh with Ferdaouis Bagga, co-published with the United States Institute of Peace. September 2014.

    More information
  • Searching for Stability: Perceptions of Security, Justice, and Firearms in Libya, August 2014. Security Assessment in North Africa Issue Brief No. 1 (also available in Arabic).

    Download (318.61 KB)
  • Foreign Jihadism in Syria: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, by Laurent Vinatier, April 2014. Security Assessment in North Africa Dispatch No. 4 (also available in Arabic).

    Download (679.08 KB)
  • Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Instability, by Wolfram Lacher, February 2014. Security Assessment in North Africa Dispatch No. 3 (also available in Arabic and Turkish).

    Download (821.52 KB)
  • Rebel Forces in Northern Mali: Documented Weapons, Ammunition and Related Materiel. Co-published with Conflict Armament Research, April 2013.

    Download (1009.91 KB)
  • After the Fall: Libya's Evolving Armed Groups, by Brian McQuinn, October 2012. Working Paper No. 12 (also available in Arabic)

    Download (1.59 MB)
  • Armed Groups in Libya: Typology and Roles, June 2012. Research Note No. 18, Armed Actors (also available in Arabic).

    Download (802.08 KB)
  • Regulating Armed Groups from Within: A Typology, January 2012. Research Note No. 13, Armed Actors.

    Download (185.72 KB)
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    Other Publications

    • Ad Hoc Arsenals: PSSM Practices of Selected Non-state Actors, May 2013. Armed Actors Issue Brief No. 2.

      Download (804.19 KB)
    • Internal Control: Codes of Conducts within Insurgent Armed Groups, by Olivier Bangerter, November 2012. Occasional Paper No. 31 (see also Executive Summary)

      Download (646.32 KB)
    • Estimating Civilian Owned Firearms, September 2011. Research Note No. 9, Armed Actors (also available in Catalan and Spanish).

      Download (415.3 KB)
    • Armed and Aimless: Armed Groups, Guns, and Human Security in the ECOWAS Region, edited by Nicolas Florquin and Eric G. Berman, May 2005 (also available in French).

      More information
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