By Ibrahim Sowan
Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, launched in April 2019, has been a setback. But the retired field Marshall is not finished.
Due to the continuous financial and military backing of his campaign by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Russia, peace will remain a remote prospect for Libya.
Turkey’s intervention in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) has helped push Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) beyond Gharyan.
Further reports point to Haftar’s lack of human resources, evidenced by the transfer of 600 police officers from Benghazi to the front lines on September 10. In the east, his authority is fragile, with reports of factional bickering between LNA units.
His forces are alleged to have violently kidnapped female Libyan MP Serham Sergawi, further casting him as a repressive figure.
Meanwhile, the behaviour of his troops in the south has inflamed ethnic tensions, with the Tebu militias forcing the Haftar-aligned Ahali to abandon Murzuq.
This localised conflict has led to the displacement of 60% of the town’s civilians and their families. UAE-sponsored mediation between the Tebu and Haftar’s forces are reported to have collapsed, with the UAE refusing to admit responsibility for a deadly drone strike that killed Tebu civilians.
Despite these recent setbacks, Haftar still has the means to recover. In his fight against the GNA, Haftar’s strength stems from the largesse of his Gulf patrons and the ideological cover that comes with it.
Salafism has played a role in Haftar’s military success and domestic appeal. In particular, Madakhali, a branch of Salafi Islam named after Saudi theologian Rabee Al-Madkhali, is cited as a critical ideology for Haftar, ensuring the loyalty of several armed militias fighting within the framework of the LNA.
This stream of Salafist thought rejects democratic ideals, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other forms of Islamism while stressing the importance of obeying existing authorities.
In April of this year, Rabee Al-Madkhali, who is considered one of the most prominent court-sheikhs of the Saudi monarchy, released a voice recording calling upon Salafists in Libya to coalesce around Khalifa Haftar in his fight against the GNA and the Islamist militias that prop it up.
Such intervention by a Saudi religious scholar is not unprecedented in the Arab world, where Saudi Arabia has long used religion as a soft power tool to accomplish its foreign policy objectives, currently focused on fighting the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, the irony of a Saudi Salafist Sheikh throwing his weight behind an anti-fundamentalist, secular military leader has not been lost on observers.
Madakhali Salafism was first cultivated by the Gaddafi regime to counter-act jihadist currents in Libya, and the administration sought its support in the early phase of the 2011 revolution.
Not all adherents of Madakhali Salafism ascribe to the call of Rabee Al-Madkhali, as Libyan Islamist groups fall into different shades of the ideological spectrum and are subject to various endogenous factors that determine their actions.
To maintain order in the capital, the GNA also relies on Salafist militias, whose loyalty has been rewarded with vast security powers.
Controlling the entrances to Tripoli and Mitiga International Airport, the Special Deterrence Force, headed by Abdul-Rauf Kara, operates as a militarised version of the late Saudi religious police, focused primarily on enforcing religious customs and morality.
However, it has been accused, alongside several other Tripoli-based militias, of turning into “criminal networks straddling business, politics, and administration.”
Haitham Al-Tajouri’s Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades (TRB) come to mind, with reports of extortion of central bank employees, kidnap of government ministers, and abuses at private prisons controlled by its forces.
Haftar’s forces have been no better than their adversaries in the GNA, with a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime (GIATC) detailing a strategy of economic predation by the LNA to finance its war effort.
This involved the take over of lucrative local economies for the benefit of LNA-affiliated businessmen, extortion of bank employees and public servants, and sponsorship of militias engaged in the smuggling of migrants and oil products.
Khalifa Haftar has made the right statements to placate international actors concerned with the possibility of a rival National Oil Company (NOC), set up by the House of Representatives (HoR) government in Benghazi, usurping the legitimate NOC in Tripoli.
Yet the GIATC report points to systemic smuggling of refined oil products by LNA-affiliated militias and political figures in east Libya.
As recently as early July, the head of the legitimate NOC Mustafa Sanalla has warned of the threat of “parallel institutions” attempting to export Libya’s oil and has called on international actors to implement
Even though his forces were defeated and forced to retreat from Tripoli, Haftar has accumulated enough power for action when it comes to Libya’s oil, by controlling significant installations in the south and east.
Also, he enjoys reliable connections in the United States, where his son Uqba is reported to manage his public relations and financial affairs, as well as liaise with UAE ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba.
His alliance with prominent Libyan businessmen, who are eyeing the oil and energy sector of Libya, and his personal connections in the United States and France, have all laid the necessary groundwork should the HoR’s NOC seek to control the production and distribution of Libya’s oil.
But it is still unlikely that he would go down that route in the short term.
Haftar’s problems are more of workforce issues rather than funds, and incurring the wrath of global opinion would put more significant pressure on his backers.
Furthermore, taking control of oil production in the El-Sharara and El-Fil oil fields in the south would further alienate the Tebu and drive them to embrace the GNA.
However, should the economic largesse of his gulf patrons disappear, his options will become limited.
Ibrahim Sowan is an investigative researcher and a published translator, with experiences that span education, economics, and political science. Currently, Ibrahim is a Research Manager at Exiger, a recognized leader in the compliance field.