By Sudarsan Raghavan
Ten months ago, Salah Badi was the curse of Libya’s capital.
His forces clashed with pro-government militias, killing scores of civilians and pulverizing neighborhoods. Ultimately, the Trump administration and the U.N. Security Council placed Badi on sanctions lists for trying to “undermine a political resolution in Libya.”
Today, Badi is one of Tripoli’s defenders. He fights for the very U.N.-installed government he tried to oust. That government, in turn, is backed by some of the Western powers that imposed sanctions on him. And the militias Badi once battled? They are now his allies.
“We take selfies now,” chuckled the stout, 61-year-old militia commander, silver-haired with a goatee.
Libya’s latest upheaval — with rebel forces trying to sweep into the capital — has brought together Badi’s fighters and scores of other rival militias with shifting loyalties and multiple agendas.
They now see an opportunity to gain power, influence and territory by joining forces against Khalifa Hifter, the eastern warlord whose offensive has triggered the worst violence in the capital since Libyan Gaddafi the dictator was ousted eight years ago.
Some of the pro-government militias are led by alleged human traffickers, ultraconservative Islamists and disrupters slapped with U.N. sanctions.
But the majority of the armed groups are from tribes and cities that led the overthrow of Gaddafi and were later politically marginalized.
Others have watched with disdain and jealousy as mafia-like militias in Tripoli have grown powerful and wealthy pillaging state funds and amassing petrodollars in this oil-producing North African country.
“They hadn’t seen a role for themselves in the struggles over money and power in Tripoli over the past years,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Now they’ve been resurrected by what they see as an existential conflict.”
But the U.N.-backed government’s dependence on these militias — with dubious human rights records and outsize ambitions — offers commanders such as Badi greater power and influence over the nation’s fate. And that threatens to further divide and destabilize the nation in the months and years ahead.
“They are already asking the government to provide more funding, weapons and equipment,” Lacher added. “Such demands may well lead to the emergence of new, more-powerful militias.”
In a nation where violence dictates the rhythms of life and politics, Badi is one of its main catalysts.
He has helped fuel Libya’s chaotic trajectory since Gaddafi’s downfall — determined to assert control and implement his vision of a new Libya at any cost.
In a rare interview at a military base, Badi denied the international allegations that he was seeking to destabilize Libya. He added that he did not care that he was hit with sanctions, with his assets frozen and a ban imposed on his travels.
Osama al-Juwaili, a senior commander who heads the military operations for the Tripoli government, said Badi was not recruited by the government to fight Hifter, who is backed by nations including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
Yet Juweli acknowledged that the Tripoli government needs Badi and other militias. “They are fighting for the same cause,” said Juweli.
Badi and other pro-government militias possess weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenals seized during his ouster. But they have also been backed in recent years by Turkey and Qatar.
“George Washington led a militia,” Badi said, peering through large black rectangular spectacles, his hands fiddling with a chain of worry beads. “I am the George Washington of Libya.”
Born in the western coastal city of Misurata, Badi graduated from the air force academy and flew Mirage jets during the Gaddafi regime. As a teacher in the academy, he tried to incite students against the regime, he said.
“I was against Gaddafi,” said Badi, dressed in an olive-green airman’s jumpsuit. “And I tried to reach out to people who were against Gaddafi.”
Badi, a father of seven, was prosecuted three times and handed a death sentence. He was later pardoned under a reconciliation program initiated by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Gaddafi.
Then, in 2011, the Arab Spring revolts erupted.
Badi led a contingent of rebels against Gaddafi’s troops. When other militias brutally killed Gaddafi and his son Mutassim, Badi said he was in charge of burying their corpses in a secret location. To this day, the location of Gaddafi’s body remains a mystery.
“I can’t tell you where he’s buried,” he said, smiling mischievously.
After the revolution, Badi served in an interim government and later won a parliamentary seat in elections.
In 2014, Hifter launched his first attempt to seize Tripoli. Badi and his Jabhat al-Somood militia, or the Steadfastness Front, joined a coalition to stop Hifter.
When the United Nations installed the current Government of National Accord in 2016, Badi was against it. That year he led militias “in repeated attempts to remove power from the GNA” and restore a separate government unrecognized by the international community, the U.N. Security Council said when it placed sanctions on Badi last year.
Badi again attacked the capital in 2017 with tanks and heavy artillery.
The GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, has relied heavily on militias for its security. Today, some of those armed factions control key ministries, banks and businesses.
Militia leaders have posted on social media pictures of themselves on luxurious vacations and driving high-priced cars, deepening anger and resentment among Libyans.
Last September, Badi’s militia and another militia attacked the capital again to “cleanse it” of the “corrupt” pro-GNA militias, Badi said.
At least 115 people were killed during a month of attacks, mostly civilians. The U.S. Treasury Department, in imposing sanctions on Badi, said his forces fired Grad rockets into heavily populated areas. Badi denied the allegations.
“I came to fight the militias and claim the city for the people,” he said.
Even as Badi is aligned with the GNA, he said the United Nations made a mistake by installing Serraj. “The problems started when the U.N. put Serraj in charge,” Badi said. “We didn’t choose our own president.”
Alliances of convenience
Badi calls Hifter “another dictator.” So when Hifter made a surprise push on Tripoli in early April, Badi mobilized his men and joined scores of other militias, including those he had just fought, to defend the capital.
To date, the conflict has killed more than 1,000 people, including 106 civilians, while wounding more than 5,500, including 289 civilians, according to the World Health Organization.
Hifter has been unable to push into central Tripoli, and now it appears to be a military stalemate.
“The best thing Hifter did was unify our lines,” Badi said.
While some of Tripoli’s abusive and corrupt militias are fighting Hifter, others have remained on the sidelines, unsure of which side to back.
GNA officials are quick to point out that Hifter’s side, too, has individuals under U.N. sanctions or wanted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Badi denies allegations that he is a hard-line Islamist. “We don’t want extremists to use Islam in ruling the country,” he said.
In Tripoli, however, perceptions of Badi are divided.
“Salah Badi doesn’t have a big force these days,” said Mohammed Eissa, a commander from Misurata, diminishing Badi’s role. “He’s more of an emotional icon.”
Other commanders and fighters said Badi was a hero of the Arab Spring.
“He is leading the war to protect Tripoli,” said Mohammed Drah, a fighter for Badi’s militia. “We consider him a friend, the father, and the leader to follow in and outside of war.”
The question for many Libyans is: What will Badi and other militias do after the war is over?
The war has brought old rifts back to the fore and created new ones, according to Lacher.
Anger over the corruption of the Tripoli militias runs deep. Hifter’s allies include western Libyan communities that were pro-Gaddafi and suffered defeat in 2011. And some western Libyan cities are divided between Hifter and the U.N.-backed government.
“We should not expect them all to just go home again when the war is over,” Lacher said. “Their mobilization will reawaken their leaders’ political ambitions and demands for material rewards.”
Indeed, Badi already plans to turn against his militia allies.
“After the war, whoever is a criminal, a thief, has to be prosecuted,” he said. “There must be justice. Anyone who kills or steals, we’ll be after them.”
Sudarsan Raghavan – Cairo bureau chief covering North Africa and Yemen.
The Washington Post