By Wolfram Lacher
This paper analyses Haftar’s rise and the concomitant transformation of his forces. The prevailing view sees the LAAF as a “core of regulars, many from the Qadhafi era, surrounded by an informal coalition of militias”.
The Origins of Haftar’s Alliance
At the core of Haftar’s forces, there are few constants other than his sons and close relatives. Many of those who started out with Haftar in 2014 proved expendable thereafter. Haftar’s personality and the cult surrounding it have been central to the rise of his faction, requiring
a brief biographical sketch before turning to the alliance he built.
After participating in Qadhafi’s coup in 1969 at the age of 26, Khalifa Haftar climbed the ranks of the army. In 1986, he became commander of the eastern flank in Libya’s forces in northern Chad.
When Chadian forces overran the Libyan base of Wadi Doum, in March 1987, they captured Haftar along with several hundred other Libyan soldiers.
Qadhafi denied that Libyan forces were in Chad, and therefore also that there could be Libyan prisoners of war; in a public appearance after the Wadi Doum disaster, he even pretended not knowing anyone by the name of Haftar.
How exactly Haftar then established contact with Chad’s president Hissene Habré is unclear, but Habré arranged a meeting between Haftar and Mohamed al-Magariaf – head of Libya’s main exiled opposition movement, the NFSL, which had moved its small military wing to Chad several months earlier.
Haftar then joined the NFSL as the General Commander (al-Qa’id al-‘Aam) of its military wing, which he renamed the Libyan National Army. In April 1988, the Chadian government released around 700 Libyan POWs who followed Haftar in joining the NFSL.
In Chad, the group received training by the CIA for operations inside Libya. But before they could enter into action, Habré was toppled by his French-backed former ally Idris Déby, who forced the NFSL to leave Chad. The US hurriedly airlifted around 700 NFSL members to Zaire, and ultimately to the US, where they became refugees.
Contrary to NFSL propaganda, its military force ceased to exist in the US. 15 Instead, Magariaf and Haftar cultivated contacts inside Libya, and eventually reached out to a group of military officers who were preparing a coup against Qadhafi.
According to Magariaf, Haftar also met with senior regime officials during the same period and plotted to break away from the NFSL together with several other members, to whom he also divulged details of the planned coup.
The Qadhafi regime foiled the plot in October 1993; a few months later, Haftar and other members left the NFSL in acrimony. Haftar continued to live in Virginia until 2011, but accepted a house in Egypt for his family as a gift from the Qadhafi regime.
In March 2011, two weeks after the uprising against Qadhafi had erupted, Haftar returned to Benghazi, then the seat of the newly formed rebel leadership, the National Transitional Council (NTC).
He refused to submit to the command of the NTC’s Chief of Staff Abdelfattah Younes, instead obtaining the title “commander of land forces” and formally reporting to the NTC’s Defence Minister, Jalal al-Dgheili.
In reality, none of these formal positions meant meaningful control over the armed groups that made up the bulk of rebel forces. Haftar’s role in the 2011 war was unremarkable. Contrary to other leaders in the revolutionary forces, he did not accumulate weapons and fighters under his command.
In the power struggles that followed the demise of the Qadhafi regime, Haftar unsuccessfully promoted himself as candidate for a leading military position. In November 2011, around two hundred officers met in the eastern city of al-Bayda to nominate Haftar as their candidate for Chief of Staff.
But Haftar’s obvious personal ambitions and his controversial past provoked distrust, and he went empty-handed. Over the following two years, Haftar sought unsuccessfully to mobilize supporters among army officers who were disgruntled over their marginalization by the revolutionary armed groups.
In TV interviews, he presented himself as a champion of a strong military institution, while interviewers questioned him on charges that he was seeking a top position and was not committed to the democratic process.
In April 2013, he was among the most prominent attendees of a “conference for the salvation of the Libyan army” that demanded the dismissal of Chief of Staff Youssef al-Mangoush.
In autumn 2013, there were persistent allegations that Haftar was plotting the overthrow of the parliament that succeeded the NTC, the General National Congress (GNC), and he was retired along with hundreds other officers.
In late 2013 and early 2014, Haftar was one among an increasing range of actors who were using or threatening force increasingly brazenly, thereby pushing Libya’s transitional process to the edge.
Two camps gradually emerged: one camp saw itself as defending the 2011 revolution against counter-revolutionary plots, and used its dominance over the GNC to empower itself further; the opposing coalition sought to bring about the GNC’s downfall.
The latter camp included proponents of eastern autonomy; the biggest political party in the GNC, Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA); as well as armed groups from Zintan that were allied with the NFA. 23 Haftar’s attempts at building alliances contributed to the
formation of this camp, but contrary to others, he still lacked a military force of his own.
On 14 February 2014, Haftar appeared on TV declaring Libya’s transitional institutions dissolved in the name of a “general command of the Libyan army”.
Haftar apparently counted on two Zintani-led armed groups in Tripoli, the Qa’qa’ and Sawaeq Battalions, to act. But no forces moved in support of his declared coup; even close associates were caught by surprise, and Haftar had to flee Tripoli to Benghazi via desert tracks as the government issued an arrest warrant for him.
Four days later, the Qa’qa’ and Sawaeq Battalions issued a separate demand that the GNC dissolve itself, as if to make clear that they and not Haftar were in a position to topple the government.
Until February 2014, therefore, Haftar had no organization or even alliance he could rely on. But after the debacle of his coup declaration, he focused on mobilizing support in Benghazi and eastern Libya, where three constituencies offered fertile ground for his efforts.
First, military officers and their relatives were not only angry at their marginalization by armed groups, but even more so over a spate of assassinations that targeted former and active officers in Benghazi and Darna.
The Tripoli government proved unable to track down the perpetrators, who remained unknown – though jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia were widely suspected of being responsible for many of the killings
Second, the eastern autonomy movement and its armed proponents were challenging the legitimacy of the transitional institutions increasingly openly. One militia leader who had appointed himself head of a “Cyrenaica Political Bureau”, Ibrahim al-Jadhran, was even trying to export oil from ports he controlled.
Third, an escalating conflict opposed revolutionary and Islamist-leaning armed groups from Benghazi to armed groups recruited from the Awagir and other eastern tribes in the Benghazi periphery, as well as to the Saeqa Special Forces in Benghazi, many of whose members by that point were civilians.
From March to early May 2014, Haftar received leaders of armed groups in the house of Ali al-Qatrani, a local politician from the Awagir tribe, on Benghazi’s outskirts. He also toured eastern Libya to meet with army officers.
Following his prodding, officers at eastern Libya’s air force bases issued statements demanding that the government take action against the assassinations. Some politicians declared their backing for him in the name of their tribes, although such statements hardly reflected a collective position of these constituencies.
A number of army officers from the wider Benghazi area joined Haftar to plan an offensive against revolutionary and jihadist groups in Benghazi, among them Abderrazeq al-Nadhuri, who headed a battalion in al-Marj, and the head of Benina air base, Saad al-Warfalli.
Air force officers at Benina and Tobruk put themselves and their ageing aircraft at Haftar’s disposal. Several officers who joined Haftar had very personal reasons to do so: his air force chief Saqr al-Jarushi, for example, had been dismissed as air force Chief of Staff in January 2013.
Like Jarushi and Haftar himself, hundreds of other officers were angry about having been retired or dismissed from military service in 2013 due to allegations of corruption, their role under Qadhafi, or simply the government’s intention to rejuvenate the army’s ranks.
Most importantly, however, Haftar obtained support for such an offensive from local militia leaders. Among them was Col. Hamid al-Hassi, a leader in the self-declared “Cyrenaica Military Council” that championed eastern autonomy. Another, Ezzedine al-Wakwak, was a close associate of Hassi’s in that council and led an armed group that controlled Benina airport.
In addition to al-Wakwak, other Awagir militia leaders who joined Haftar included Salah and Khaled Bulghib, who headed an “intelligence support force” on Benghazi’s northern outskirts; Faraj Ga’im, whose group controlled the Barsis area north of Benghazi and had suffered a suicide attack in December 2013; Ali al-Amruni, a businessman and militia leader from al-Abyar; and Ayad al-Fsay, an associate of Jadhran in the militant wing of the eastern autonomy movement.
Al-Fsay had lost a son in the June 2013 clashes at the base of a revolutionary armed group, the first division of the Libya Shield, and he led an armed group that would later call itself Awliya’ al-Damm, the closest of kin – a reference to the right to take revenge.
Finally, Haftar’s initial coalition included an armed group led by Salem al-Naili that was part of the Saeqa Special Forces, but consisted primarily of civilians. These groups all had in common that they were locked into a pre-existing conflict with revolutionary and Islamist-leaning armed groups in Benghazi, as well as with Ansar al-Sharia.
As he launched his “Operation Dignity” in Benghazi on 16 May 2014, Haftar was at the head of a loose alliance of armed groups, each of which had their own leadership, weapons and interests. Some saw in him a saviour from jihadist groups, whom they suspected behind the assassinations of military officers.
But the bulk of the groups involved had a more opportunistic relationship with Haftar. The Benghazi militias sought to use his operation to prevail over their local rivals.
The eastern autonomy movement wanted to advance its own agenda, in which Haftar could feature only in an interim capacity. Haftar had grown up in the eastern town of Ajdabiya and had a house in Benghazi. But as a member of the Firjan tribe, he was not considered an easterner.
Moreover, his political outlook remained firmly wedded to the Arab nationalist conceptions of a centralist, militarist state that had marked his socialization in the 1960s and 1970s.
Haftar had an even more tenuous relationship with prospective allies in western Libya. He had proven that he harboured boundless personal ambitions and a propensity for betrayal, which should have deterred many from trusting him.
When asked about his past and future aspirations in TV interviews, his dishonesty was palpable. How Haftar managed to hold this loose coalition together, let alone consolidate authority over it, is a puzzle worth analysing.
Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP.
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs.