By Jalel Harchaoui
Last month, forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognized government made a gruesome discovery within the vicinity of Tarhuna, some 50 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli.
As many as 230 corpses were dug up from unmarked sites or found buried in bulldozed pits behind villas. A handful had been thrown in a well. Several dozen more piled up in a hospital morgue. Many of these bodies were bound and showed evidence of torture. Not all of them were captured fighters: Some of them were civilians, including women and children as young as three.
While much international commentary has rightly focused on the human-rights implications of the Tarhuna atrocities and calls for accountability, the mass graves are illustrative of some of Libya’s least-discussed factional dynamics.
The town had long been under the control of the Kaniyat, a brutal militia that aligned with eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar in April 2019 amid his high-profile attack on the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli. For more than a year, thanks to the Kaniyat’s iron fist, Tarhuna served as Haftar’s bridgehead in western Libya.
The Government of National Accord’s takeover of the town on June 5 was a devastating blow to the rebel commander’s ambitions. But the Kaniyat’s barbaric style of governance has implications much broader than mere battlefield intrigues.
The situation in Tarhuna reveals the dangerous absurdity and consequences of imposing a simplistic narrative on Libya’s complex local politics.
I began researching this issue while in Tripoli, Misrata, and other localities nearby last summer. At the time, roads from the littoral into Tarhuna were still open, but the war made it too hazardous to try and visit. I still managed to discuss the town’s politics and recent past with an array of Libyans, pro- and anti-Haftar alike, both from Tarhuna and otherwise.
The sinuous and violent rise of the Kaniyat over the last decade has received little attention. Now that their legacy is in the news, their story must be faced. Its forbidding complexity embodies an important truth about Libya’s nine-year conflict: It cannot and should not be summarized. The country’s violence has no overall thrust. It is mercurial and often obeys ultra-local dynamics.
Tarhuna, a modest rural municipality with a population of 40,000, was known during the Muammar Qadhafi era for producing military officers for the government’s security apparatus. For that reason, a large proportion of its inhabitants came out the political losers of the 2011 uprising that toppled Qadhafi.
Tarhuna hosts more than 60 tribes, though allegiances are not wholly determined by tribal lineation, but also by political beliefs, money, and opportunism. Cohesion is felt more strongly within a family or a small clan. In some cases, even that has its limits.
Haftar has roots in Tarhuna through his father’s side. After he returned from exile to Benghazi in mid-March 2011 and helped topple his old boss, Tarhuna was one of the few places in western Libya where Haftar found support.
That hospitality faded in June 2012, when Tarhuna’s security chief Col. Abu Ajila al-Habshi, a friend of Haftar’s, was abducted. Several of the Tarhuna natives I interviewed, suspect that a combination of Tripoli and Misrata militias disappeared him.
Civilian revolutionaries saw Habshi, like many other army officers who had fought Qadhafi in 2011, as a threat.
Kani Brothers Give Rise to the ‘Kaniyat’
Habshi’s kidnapping also rendered Tarhuna more susceptible to the rise of informal armed groups of militiamen with no professional training. The first such groups to assert themselves in Tarhuna were the Na’aaja clan, the town’s most fervent proponents of the 2011 revolution. A group dominated by Na’aaja individuals assassinated a young Tarhuni called Ali al-Kani in a grisly manner.
This was revenge: Amidst the anarchy of 2011, Ali al-Kani and his brothers had killed a dozen members of the Na’aaja clan. They simply took advantage of the greater conflict to settle old scores, a Tarhuna native told me. Of the seven Kani brothers, only Ali had revolted against Qadhafi in 2011, albeit belatedly.
Following the regime’s fall, the Kani family became renowned for its criminal activities, not its military strength. But after Ali’s 2012 murder, his surviving brothers responded by exterminating entire Na’aaja families, demolishing their homes, and chasing many others out of town. The massive reprisals kicked off the slow transformation of the “Kaniyat” into the local power to be reckoned with.
In those years, the main fault-line tearing Libyans apart was between those who sought to preserve chunks of the old order and those committed to upturning every bit of it. In contrast to the large cities of Tripolitania, a majority of Tarhuna’s population remained loyal to Qadhafi’s memory.
That characteristic made the community a danger to Tripolitania’s new elites. Yet, driven by calculation, not ideological sympathy, the Kaniyat cultivated a rapport with the most virulently anti-Qadhafi actors, including tough political Islamists and Misrata’s hardline revolutionaries. Misrata is a powerful merchant city of 350,000 located east of Tripoli.
The Kaniyat attracted the support of those revisionist currents by marketing themselves as the only brigade ruthless enough to “contain” their town and its surroundings.
As a new civil war erupted in May 2014, the Kani brothers threw their lot against Haftar’s Operation Karama, which sought to defeat all Islamists in Benghazi and overthrow the rump government in Tripoli. The Kanis instead pledged allegiance to the Fajr Libya coalition forged by Misratan and Islamist factions.
Within that context, the Kani brothers intensified their ferocious war on the Na’aaja clan. In March 2015, they murdered several members of Habshi’s family, including the former security chief’s daughter, blaming them for favoring Haftar’s camp.
Other than such moves, designed to entrench their supremacy locally, the brigade did little in the way of fighting alongside the Misratans in Tripoli. The Fajr-versus-Karama conflict cooled off in the spring of 2015.
By year’s end, the Kaniyat had absorbed the local military and police, morphing into a mini-army of about 4,000 men in control of the Tarhuna area. Although ambivalent and Machiavellian, the militia remained close to anti-Haftar elements.
For instance, in May 2017, when militias native to Tripoli expelled anti-Haftar figure and former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander Khaled al-Sharif, his affinity with the Kani brothers enabled him to find refuge in Tarhuna before escaping to Turkey via Misrata.
The Militia’s Moneymakers
Their fearsome reputation, along with the occasional execution of entire families, enabled the Kani brothers to impose security and quiet. That turned them into social leaders of sorts, with almost a sense of economic accountability toward the populous Tarhuna area’s communities at large.
The Kaniyat generated revenue streams independently from the state and declared their own local “ministries.” In territories they controlled — which briefly even included Garabulli (a segment of the shoreline between Misrata and Tripoli) — they collected taxes from factories, catering companies, and cleaning services.
The militia was involved in garbage collection and owned several clinics and businesses in the Nawahi al-Arbae area between Tarhuna and southern Tripoli. They also raised funds by collecting traffic fines. But the Kani empire’s core income was derived by levying a tax on all human and fuel smuggling traversing its territories.
Yet Mohammed al-Kani, the leader of the family, deemed these revenues insufficient. Moreover, from 2015 to 2019, all revolutionary factions across Tripolitania became weaker, sidelined by more centrist and pragmatic currents.
In 2017, the Kani family funded and ran a counter-smuggling unit, using the Central Security Forces of the GNA’s Interior Ministry as a front. Although paradoxical coming from an armed group profiting from smuggling, many such actors in northwest Libya, including the Kaniyat, adopted an anti-crime narrative specifically to gain socio-political legitimacy. The Kaniyat even invoked religious rhetoric borrowed from purist Salafism.
Notwithstanding that change of tactic, Tarhuna grew more isolated politically and its economic prospects deteriorated. The Tripoli government saw no upside in favoring the pastoral town other than conceding a few meaningless pleasantries to it, such as the hollow promise to build an international airport there.
During that same period, Tripoli’s own militias such as the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion and the Radaa Force acquired more sway and wealth. The ever-widening economic chasm between the capital and several cities in its vicinity (including Tarhuna) caused armed groups from the periphery to contemplate attacking the capital.
Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow in the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute based in The Hague. His work focuses on Libya — in particular, the country’s security landscape and political economy.