General Khalifa Haftar is a former Gathafi loyalist who in the past year became Libya’s most prominent “rogue general” and is now head of the internationally recognised national army. Mohamed Madi profiles the man who has fought himself to the centre of Libya’s fractured politics, who some see as Libya’s next strongman in the mould of neighbouring Egypt’s President Sisi.
General Khalifa Haftar, a small, mild-mannered man from Ajdabiya, has appointed himself the sole guarantor of Libya’s revolution. Despite possessing only a modest fighting force and ageing Soviet-era equipment, many Libyans, as well as a number of foreign powers, endorse this role.
To call him divisive is an understatement. His single-minded pursuit of “Islamists”, without differentiation, has alienated many Libyans. He has also pointedly refused to back a UN-sponsored dialogue process that most agree represents Libya’s best chance of ending the current civil war. Most recognise that Haftar must be brought to the table but opinion is divided over how to achieve this.
Haftar’s personal history is intertwined with that of the modern Libyan state. He was present when the Free Officers Movement, led by Muammar al-Gathafi, seized power from King Idris in a 1969 coup d’état. A Nasserist in his politics and a military man at heart, Haftar paid lip service to Gathafi’s Third International Theory ideology as outlined in The Green Book.
In the late 1980s, Haftar, as leader of the Libyan forces, became the scapegoat for military failure in Libya’s war with Chad. The Chadians not only beat the Libyan forces back over the border but also captured Haftar himself. Gathafi publicly disavowed his commander. It was a betrayal Haftar would never forget.
A year later, Haftar joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main opposition group. While there he was involved with several abortive attempts to unseat Gathafi, receiving financial and military support from the CIA. In the early 1990s, Haftar relocated to the US. He settled in Falls Church, Virginia, a few miles away from the CIA’s headquarters, where he resided in relative obscurity for around twenty years. Very little is known about how he supported himself – he rarely mixed with the Libyan community in the US and made no public appearances. Rumours abound of extensive collaboration with the CIA, but in reality Haftar achieved little and would have been largely forgotten, were it not for the uprising of 2011.
Weeks after the start of the uprising, Haftar was back in Benghazi for the first time in decades. Despite his fellow rebels’ suspicion of his background with both Gathafi and the Americans, he still managed to position himself as one of the commanders on the conflict’s eastern front. He fought alongside a collection of ad-hoc, Islamist-leaning militia, many of whom he would later turn against. Once the conflict ended, Haftar again disappeared from public life and returned to the US.
From America, he watched as the country, and Benghazi, in particular, descended into chaos. A spate of targeted killings, predominantly of Gathafi-era security personnel but also of human rights activists and journalists, spiralled out of control in 2013. The Tripoli-based government was unable to control the violence – indeed, Haftar was convinced that it was behind it. Against the backdrop of Tripoli’s failure in the east, Haftar emerged again, launching his “Operation Dignity” offensive in May 2014.
Haftar’s stated aim is to “purge” the country of terrorism and he draws little distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood variety of political Islam and militant radicals like Ansar al-Sharia. In launching his offensive, Haftar helped solidify the division of the Libya state into two discrete political camps – that of the internationally recognised government based in Baydah in the east, and the rump government of the former General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, supported by the Libya Dawn militia coalition.
The elected authorities in the east baulked at first at Haftar’s unauthorised military campaign, launched without their knowledge or consent. In March, however, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni officially appointed Haftar as army chief.
In reality, however, there is not much of a Libyan National Army. According to reports, Haftar has only a few thousand men under his direct control. The rest of the fighting forces aligned with the elected government are local militias organised along tribal and regional lines. Haftar’s forces are unique in Libya, however, in that they include a small but functioning air force. Because of the large numbers of trained ex-Gathafi air force personnel who joined his cause, Haftar has almost complete air superiority over Libya. He has used this to launch air raids on Tripoli, Misrata and the western mountains, as well as in close air-support missions in Benghazi and Derna. In doing so, Haftar’s forces have also caused large but unspecified numbers of civilian casualties. Jets have targeted civilian infrastructure, such as Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport, the capital’s only functioning air terminal since forces allied to Libya Dawn destroyed Tripoli international airport last year.
Haftar’s political power base in eastern Libya is relatively broad – from influential tribal leaders to an alliance of convenience with the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, who want autonomy for eastern Libya. His allies in western Libya, however, are few. They mainly consist of the tribal militias of Zintan and Warshafana, who have been fighting the Libya Dawn authorities in Tripoli and Misrata since early 2014. The town of Zintan remains the only outpost of the Operation Dignity alliance in the west of the country, and support in Tripoli is not apparent. Frequent air raids on western cities have done little to endear him to residents there.
Haftar’s rhetoric has alienated even some of those within the official government camp. Before he was officially appointed army chief, Haftar’s air strikes and courting of foreign intervention caused a split within the House of Representatives (HoR), many of whom opposed a formal role for him. The convoy of Libya’s recognised prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, was even stopped by Haftar’s men during a visit to Benghazi in February. Popular pressure and sufficient support within the HoR, however, led Thinni to formally appoint him head of Libya’s army.
The question for the UN and other parties is how to bring Haftar to the negotiating table. Haftar has refused to negotiate with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He continues to push for a military takeover of Tripoli. He also insists that the GNC and Libya Dawn are directly responsible for the growth of extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and the takeover of Derna by the group known as the Islamic State (IS).
While Libya Dawn certainly does contain extremist elements, the coalition is more diverse than Haftar suggests. The cabinet remains mainly drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party. But powerful merchant families from Misrata as well as local militias from Tripoli neighbourhoods also make up a large part of the group’s power structure. There are also deep divisions within the Dawn camp. The rump GNC’s prime minister, Omar al-Hassi, invited ridicule by denying the presence of Islamic State in western Libya, even after IS militants attacked the Corinthia, one of Tripoli’s top hotels in January. Later IS released a video showing the execution of dozens of Egyptian Copts on a beach near Sirte, which they now largely control. Hassi’s failure to acknowledge and confront the IS problem, as well as slow progress with UN negotiations, is one of the reasons he was ousted by the GNC in March.
The spread of IS in western Libya, as well as the horrifying numbers of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, almost exclusively departing from Libya Dawn-held territories, are seen by some as a vindication of Haftar’s position. He now talks of wanting to be the Libyan partner of the US-led anti-IS coalition.
The coalition is already active in Libya; Egyptian airstrikes targeted IS in Derna in February. Egypt’s fellow mild-mannered, soldier-turned-Islamist hunter Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi has pledged his unwavering support for Haftar’s campaign, sending weapons and organising airstrikes against Dawn targets. Also like Sisi, Haftar was initially coy about the prospects of a presidential bid. Now he says he would stand “if the Libyan people want me to”, and clearly a significant amount do.
To his detractors though, and there are also many, Haftar represents the worst excesses of Sisi’s anti-Brotherhood campaign. For now, however, a countrywide government remains a distant dream, with neither side having a decisive military advantage over the other and negotiations stalled. Even now, well past the age of 70, the most defining part of Haftar’s legacy is yet to come.