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.


A Flawed Attack on Tripoli

Solidarity — or the illusion of it — amongst outlying communities against the capital deepened in May 2018, when the Kaniyat signed a peace deal with both Misrata and its old enemy, the mountain city of Zintan.

Three months later, feeling the pinch of their economic travails, the Kaniyat acted upon the temptation to attack. The resulting assault was dubbed “the letter-of-credit war” in reference to a banking embezzlement technique popular amongst central-Tripoli militias. The latter were so corrupt, the Kaniyat’s narrative went, that only violence could ameliorate the problem.

A successful incursion would have enabled the Kani family to dislodge militia leader Abd al-Ghani “Ghniwa” al-Kikli from his southern Tripoli turf and take ownership of his illicit money schemes. But the endeavor failed to elicit the anticipated support from Zintan or Misrata, other than the participation of hardliner Salah Badi and his Sumud Battalion. Several other more moderate militias from Misrata came near Tripoli’s eastern flank but stopped short from joining the attack.

The Misratans ended up converting their military threat into political influence: Fathi Bashagha became the new minister of the interior in October 2018. A Libyan air force pilot turned businessman, Bashagha portrayed himself as a rebel in 2011 by acting as a liaison with Western special operations forces during the siege of his home city Misrata.

Belying his reputation as a leading Misrata moderate, he was among the hawks who pushed for the Fajr war effort of July 2014, meant to expel Haftar’s Zintani allies from the capital. Bashagha then broke from his city’s more hardline elements. His critics allege this was simple political opportunism.

In late spring 2015, Bashagha helped bring about a withdrawal of Misrata’s brigades from the edges of a large air base in western Libya controlled by Haftar’s allies. The conciliatory gesture ushered in a long period during which Misrata’s moderates stuck to a more accommodating stance toward the U.N. peace process that led to the formation of the Government of National Accord in 2016.

In 2018, much to the chagrin of the Kaniyat, Bashagha and other Misrata moderates stayed out of the war. The four-week assault by the Kaniyat and Salah Badi on Tripoli’s militias, after causing more than 100 deaths, yielded a resounding defeat for the actors that initiated it. The Kani family lost its access to the coast and other valuable territories.

Unlike Misrata’s Badi, the brothers avoided international sanctions by signing the U.N.-backed ceasefire agreement. The Government of National Accord promised Tarhuna several dozen million dinars, which it never paid out. Calm returned, but no genuine peace emerged between the Kaniyat and Tripoli: This agreement couldn’t last long.

Haftar, who’d already sketched out a rapprochement with tribal leaders of Tarhuna, refrained from criticizing the Kaniyat during the month-long battle. The marshal recognized the potency of the Kaniyat’s “struggle against corruption” narrative.

This, along with the tactic of attacking Tripoli from the south via the International Airport, was a key source of inspiration for the Emirati-backed Haftar..

In January 2019, the Kaniyat moved on the International Airport again. The main forces that repelled them belonged to Usama al-Juwaili, an anti-Haftar leader from Zintan. Juwaili managed to convince Hamzah Ashwia, the head of a Zintani unit called Battalion 19 on Tarhuna’s side months earlier, to switch and join him. Ashwia’s inside knowledge of the Kaniyat’s tactics would later prove key.

Haftar Makes a Deal with the Kaniyat

The Tripoli militias blamed the latest airport attack on Bashagha, accusing the newly appointed interior minister of appeasing the Kaniyat. The internecine bickering encouraged the capital’s numerous enemies.

Tripoli was so divided, it appeared easy to conquer. For years, Haftar’s top goal has been to overthrow the Tripoli government and rule over Libya. As for Tarhuna’s Mohammed al-Kani, he was impatient for recognition and prestige, desperate for cash, bitter towards both Tripoli’s and Misrata’s forces, and determined to restore his honor.

Haftar turned the Kani brothers into a military ally by giving them money and weapons. The Kaniyat adopted a brand-new name — the 9th Brigade. Pro-Haftar media outlets would soon refer to the 9th Brigade as a regular component of the Libyan National Army, not a mere “Haftar proxy.”

Haftar struck a similar deal in the city of Gharyan, 40 miles southwest of Tarhuna. Using money and promises, he rallied Adel Da’ab, a militia leader known for his human-smuggling activities. In 2014, Da’ab was allied with Haftar’s foes, but by 2017 felt neglected by them.

The Libyan National Army now had access to two strategic territories: Gharyan and Tarhuna. Haftar’s men snuck into these territories and used them as a launchpad for their march into Tripoli’s southern outskirts on April 4, 2019.

Three days later, the Kaniyat joined Haftar’s war effort in southern Tripoli. As weeks went by, the Kaniyat’s contribution became more substantial. The overall lack of progress was worrisome: The takeover of the capital was not supposed to last more than a few days.

Using unguided rockets, Tarhuna’s militia participated in the Libyan National Army’s shelling of Mitiga Airport, Suq al-Jumaa and other suburbs, indiscriminate operations that killed hundreds of civilians.

When Haftar lost the city of Gharyan to the Government of National Accord in June 2019, Tarhuna became even more central to Haftar’s pursuit of his war against the Tripoli-based government. Amid the headlong rush, Mohammed al-Kani now began killing potential dissidents and their families at the slightest suspicion of disloyalty.

After all, few of his advisers, administrators, and right-hand men were true Haftar believers. Gharyan had fallen to the Tripoli government partly thanks to the activism of some of its own habitants. The Kanis dreaded a similar scenario in Tarhuna.

Mohammed al-Kani’s younger brother Mohsen, dedicated to military matters, tended to disregard Haftar’s day-to-day instructions, while receiving logistical support from the marshal.

Meanwhile, Misrata’s moderates offered large sums of money in return for a non-aggression pact, to no avail. On Sept. 13, 2019, Mohsen was killed along with other key armed leaders of Tarhuna. The pro-GNA militia the Radaa Force claimed responsibility for the slayings, but the Libyan National Army may have been behind them.

The Kaniyat and Haftar Lose Tarhuna

Mohammed and his brother Abd al-Rahman, both of whom had been sojourning abroad, returned home to guarantee their community’s continued participation in Haftar’s campaign. Haftar was now benefiting from the combat assistance of the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked mercenary group.

In response to Mohsen’s death, the Kanis executed dozens of prisoners. But inside and outside the municipality, the ranks of Tarhuna natives challenging the Kanis kept growing. That, combined with GNA’s support, gave rise to periodic ground incursion attempts on the town’s edges.

The attacks became significant in February 2020. By then, Turkey had begun bringing into Tripolitania a significant number of Syrian fighters as mercenaries to bolster the Government of National Accord’s forces. The subsequent month, the latter shuttered a key road from the littoral into Tarhuna.

Backed by a relentless campaign of Turkish drone strikes, which on a few occasions killed innocent civilians, the GNA coalition diminished Haftar’s ability to send supplies into Tarhuna, whether by land or by air.

During those months, the Kani brothers felt squeezed even more, a sentiment that intensified their hallmark tendency to eliminate anyone who looked like they could converse with the enemy.

Mohammed was hellbent on pursuing the war on Tripoli as long as possible, and so was the notoriously prideful Haftar.

In that regard, the Kanis’ habit of eliminating suspected dissidents along with their families, came in handy: Whatever measures they felt were necessary to conserve their territory and keep the offensive going, it made no difference to the Libyan National Army and its foreign benefactors.

Thousands of mercenaries and private military contractors from Russia, Sudan, and elsewhere assisting the Libyan National Army leaned on Tarhuna as their rear area. So did armed units loyal to Qadhafi’s ideology from Wershefana, a town to the west of the capital, and elsewhere.

On May 18, 2020, Haftar lost al-Wattiyah, a large air base near the Tunisian border. A momentary entente between Ankara and the Kremlin soon followed, during which Russian mercenaries withdrew from northwestern Libya. 

Hundreds of Wagner personnel left Tarhuna in broad daylight, dealing Haftar’s war effort a fatal blow. When, in the final days of May, overpowered Libyan National Army units began fleeing Tripolitania, the Kaniyat opened fire to prevent them from leaving the front line.

On June 5, when resistance against the Turkish-backed coalition’s attacks became a physical impossibility, the Kaniyat retreated from Tripoli and, along with their families, fled their hometown. Upon entering Tarhuna, Government of National Accord forces and the Tarhuna exiles aligned with them looted stores, burned buildings and carried out revenge killings against perceived Kaniyat accomplices.

These actions by the Government of National Accord and its allies also constitute potential war crimes, a fact which pro-Haftar diplomats and lobbyists are already using to deflect attention from the mass graves containing the victims of Haftar’s allies.

Members of the Kaniyat and their families are now scattered. Thousands are in Ajdabiya, Benghazi and other areas in Libya’s east. Some Kaniyat fighters have mobilized as backup as part of the Libyan National Army’s resistance effort against the Government of National Accord near Sirte.

Many in the Haftar camp now repudiate and reject the Kaniyat, but they will not investigate, let alone arrest them.

This brief history reveals a conflict that has little in common with mainstream depictions of Libya. It shows, for instance, that partition wouldn’t solve anything.

Yet it is always in the interest of both the foreign meddlers and the Libyan elites closely allied with them to portray the Libyan crisis as one simple binary antagonism or another: Cyrenaica versus Tripolitania; security versus Islamism; integrity versus corruption; neglected periphery versus urban privilege; etc.

None of these shortcuts are viable. Libya’s complex and ultra-local disputes warrant a far greater level of granularity.

The serial murdering of innocents by the Kaniyat since 2011 undermines yet another tenacious myth: that of a Libya made of monolithic city-states and tribes neatly united behind one political stance.

This was precisely the illusion Haftar wanted to promote by orchestrating February 19’s national conference in Tarhuna, less than four months before his coalition collapsed there.

The communications effort, which had necessitated logistical prowess amid the raging war, was meant to project the troubled town as the nerve center of Arab and tribal legitimacy in Libya.

The implicit message was that only Haftar’s coalition, headquartered in eastern Libya, is a safe, natural fit when it comes to governing the “true” population of Libya.

Last month’s discoveries belie all of this. For many years before 2019, it was the Libyan National Army’s designated enemies, the Islamists and revolutionaries, who aided and abetted the Kaniyat as they instituted their rule-by-murder model. But starting in early 2019, Haftar endorsed the same approach for the purposes of a larger war, which resulted in an acceleration of the abuses in Tarhuna.

Not only that, Haftar’s involvement also introduced a foreign dimension that didn’t exist in Tarhuna before 2019. Once the Libyan National Army embraced the Kaniyat, the crimes on the local population served a specific geopolitical utility, not a merely parochial one. Several foreign states backing Haftar’s war, such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, and France, now had an incentive to see the marshal and the Kaniyat hold it at any cost.

Civilian killings, which picked up after April 2019, just happened to be one of the tools to control a territory deemed vital to a wide military operation.

The United Arab Emirates, France, and Egypt often tout the Libyan National Army as a champion in the fight against extremism. Even the White House did in April 2019. But in Tarhuna, if not other places, those states — whether knowingly or unwittingly — invoked the war on terror as a way to conceal extremist practices and help perpetuate them for more than a year.

Libya’s tragedy is far from over and foreign meddlers, including Turkey and Egypt, may grow even more brazen.

The discovery of the mass graves in Tarhuna is an opportunity for Western and other publics to question the dangerous manner in which their governments play rhetorical games and obfuscate, only to allow outside interference to continue in Libya — even when that involves the routine murder of innocents less than 400 kilometers from the European Union.


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.



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