The Rise of Haftar’s Forces

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”.



How to Start a Civil War

From the very beginning, Haftar’s operation was far more than an attack on Islamist-leaning and jihadist groups in Benghazi. It was a transparent attempt at toppling the government in Tripoli and, failing that, at sparking a civil war. For an aging, retired military officer without a force of his own, this revealed a stunning boldness.

If it had been Haftar’s plan to provoke a nationwide conflict in the hope that this would allow him to win a leading role within a broad alliance, then his strategy turned out to be highly successful.

The conditions were ripe for Haftar to start a civil war. The fact that numerous politicians and armed groups across the country quickly declared their support for Haftar’s operation proved his skill in seizing the moment.

Libya’s power struggles had been escalating throughout 2013 and the first months of 2014. These struggles had increasingly polarized the public sphere, but on the ground, they remained fragmented into disparate conflicts in different locations.

Haftar’s operation linked these conflicts together and exacerbated polarization by announcing a merciless fight against all “Islamists” – a category that could be applied at will to political opponents. His declared intent to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood also resonated strongly in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, whose support was decisive in lifting Haftar out of the mass of Libyan militia leaders.

Had Haftar wanted to launch an operation to fight jihadist groups and hit squads suspected of being behind the assassinations in Benghazi, he could have focused his attacks on those groups and conduct arrests of specific individuals. But Operation Dignity opened hostilities against a wide range of groups.

The first, botched attack of his operation targeted the base of the Rafallah al-Sahati Battalion – an Islamist-leaning revolutionary armed group that had helped provide security for the 2012 elections in Benghazi. Hit-and-miss airstrikes on bases of the Rafallah al-Sahati and 17 February Battalions, as well as those of Ansar al-Sharia, accompanied the attack.

Subsequent clashes also pitted Haftar’s forces against other revolutionary armed groups, such as Battalion 319 and the first division of the Libya Shield.

This approach triggered two reactions that would play out in Haftar’s favour. First, because the threat from Haftar united them, several of Benghazi’s Islamist-leaning and revolutionary armed groups banded together with Ansar al-Sharia to form the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC).

Although many BRSC fighters were not Islamists and several revolutionary armed groups continued to fight outside the BRSC umbrella, this allowed Haftar and his allies to depict their adversaries as al-Qaeda terrorists.

It would also create an opening for returnees from Syria and former members of Ansar al-Sharia to establish an Islamic State affiliate in Benghazi, which emerged in late 2014 to fight against Haftar’s forces separately from the BRSC.

From that point onwards, it became common for Haftar’s supporters to refer to his enemies in Benghazi wholesale as Dawa’esh – members of the Islamic State. Instead of isolating the extremists, Haftar’s purported counterterrorist operation significantly boosted them, and encouraged radicalization. But as a means of demonizing a wide range of political opponents and mobilizing foreign support, it was highly effective.

Second, in response to Haftar’s haphazard offensive, his various adversaries began to attack armed groups, military officers and activists they suspected of supporting Haftar. During July and August 2014, the BRSC took control of much of Benghazi, and assassinations targeting known opponents of Ansar al-Sharia accelerated in September.

The component groups of Operation Dignity now had little choice but to stick to their alliance with Haftar to defend themselves, and the threat posed by the jihadists drove vast parts of eastern society into Haftar’s arms. Haftar also gained the support of a Salafist armed group led by

Ashraf al-Mayyar who designated Haftar’s adversaries as “apostates”. 46 This was the beginning of Haftar’s alliance with followers of an ultraconservative strand of Salafism led by the Saudi preacher Rabi’ al-Madkhali. The Madkhalis were radically opposed to everything from democracy to the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, and would become a key component of Haftar’s forces.

Operation Dignity polarized not only because it vowed a pitiless war against an openended range of opponents, but also because it was a thinly disguised power grab. Here was a retired military officer who was subject to an arrest warrant – and yet, he not only launched a military operation, but the following day issued a statement in the name of the “leadership of the Libyan National Army”, whose legitimacy stemmed from “the people”, and called on all soldiers to report to service.

Haftar’s branding of his forces as the “Libyan National Army” – which would gradually give way to the “Libyan Arab Armed Forces” – was a masterstroke. Since 2011, Libyan armed groups had adopted ever more pretentious names to pose as official security forces – the “Preventative Security Apparatus”, the “Libya Shield Force”, the “Supreme Security Committee”.

By its simplicity, Haftar’s choice trumped them all, and offered any armed group that joined his coalition the incentive to become part of “the” army. In addition, the name was also that of the NFSL’s military wing, which Haftar headed in the late 1980s, underlining that this army was very much Haftar’s own.

In reality, the vast majority of Haftar’s forces were made up of civilians, as his officers themselves admitted. This applied both to the armed groups led by civilians and to ostensibly regular units. Even army units that had survived the revolution, such as the Saeqa Special Forces, were by this point closer to militias than to regular forces.

The Saeqa had already integrated civilian fighters during the 2011 war, forming new subunits marked by strong personal loyalties, such as the Zawiya Martyrs Battalion. Thereafter, the post-revolutionary commanders of the Saeqa extensively recruited civilians to prevail in the struggles over the Benghazi security landscape.

Moreover, several prominent eastern army officers openly rejected Haftar’s operation due to its renegade character and Haftar’s transparent personal ambitions. And one of Benghazi’s largest army units, the 204 th Battalion of al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, only began openly siding with Haftar in October 2014.

Still, to some Libyan officers as well as to foreign patrons, Haftar’s branding conveyed an aspiration to rebuilding an army, and it fooled many foreign observers. Assessments that emphasized the role of army units as the backbone of Haftar’s operation, and downplayed or ignored the dominant role of armed groups in it, proved influential.

Haftar’s own military power in the early days of his operation was insignificant, which paradoxically helped to mobilize support for his ploy. His chances of emerging as the leading figure from the demise of the transitional institutions appeared slim.

Political and military actors across the country therefore looked at his rebellion against the Tripoli institutions as an opportunity rather than a threat. Many declared their support for the operation of the “Libyan army” without explicitly backing Haftar.

Two days after the launch of Haftar’s operation, the Zintani-led Qa’qa’ and Sawaeq Battalions attacked the seat of the GNC in Tripoli, killing two staffers and abducting several members. The same day, the Zintani army officer Mokhtar Fernana spoke in the name of the “leaders of the Libyan army” to declare the GNC dissolved and start a new transitional process.

Three days later, Haftar appeared again, this time speaking in the name of a “Supreme Council of the Libyan Armed Forces” that would “protect” a new transitional process of Haftar’s contrivance. That same day, on 21 May, Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance declared its support for “the Libyan army in its war against terrorism”, while presenting its own plan for a transition.

These different actors clearly competed for the helm of the rebellion. But as a result of their moves, the notion of a parallel army leadership opposed to the transitional institutions, and intent on seizing power in Tripoli, took root. This would lead to all-out civil war as well as the emergence of two separate parliaments and governments three months later.

From Renegade to General Commander

Haftar’s gamble for civil war was a success. After a brief respite for the elections to the GNC’s successor parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), war erupted in Tripoli. On 13 July 2014, a coalition of revolutionary and Islamist-leaning armed groups calling itself “Dawn of Libya” attacked the positions of the Zintani-led armed groups that had loosely allied with Haftar.

Dawn of Libya claimed to be a reaction to counter-revolutionary movements, by which the operation’s architects meant both Haftar’s power grab and the Zintaniled armed groups, which had not only tried to topple the GNC, but also included a number of former members of Qadhafi’s security brigades.

In early August, the HoR was due to meet for the first time in Benghazi, but fighting raged both in Benghazi and in Tripoli. The question where the parliament should convene became entangled with the escalating civil war.

A prominent Benghazi businessman whose TV channel strongly backed Haftar’s operation, Hassan Tatanaki, helped HoR members supportive of Haftar to engineer the parliament’s move to Tobruk, where army units had aligned with Haftar.

Thirty HoR members opposed to Haftar boycotted the Tobruk sessions. Although Western states and the UN recognized the Tobruk-based HoR as Libya’s legitimate parliament, they also emphasized the need for it to reunite. A rump GNC reconvened in Tripoli in late August, exploiting the controversy over the legality of the HoR’s Tobruk sessions, and formed its own government.

The war had led to a situation of split sovereignty. Although Haftar still had no official position, his operation now enjoyed the backing of the internationally recognized parliament and its government.

In late August 2014, after the Dawn of Libya coalition pushed Haftar’s Zintani allies out of Tripoli, the HoR designated both Dawn of Libya and Ansar al-Sharia as terrorist organisations, and declared the fight led by the “Libyan National Army” to be a war between the Libyan state and terrorists.

Haftar supporters in the HoR also succeeded in appointing a close associate of Haftar as Chief of Staff. Abderrazeq al-Nadhuri was a founding member of Operation Dignity, and an unremarkable figure on whom Haftar could rely not to challenge him.

Nadhuri and HoR speaker Agilah Saleh immediately visited Egypt and successfully mobilized support for the “army”. Only days earlier, Emirati warplanes, flying from bases in Egypt, had struck Dawn of Libya positions in Tripoli. In September, Egypt and the UAE began supplying Haftar with weapons and ammunition, including helicopters and fighter jets.

Over time, that support would prove crucial in establishing Haftar as the uncontested leader of his coalition. In the first year of the Benghazi operation, however, Haftar primarily harnessed the self-motivation of armed groups; he mobilized, rather than consolidated.

Key to mobilization in his coalition was agitation against “Misratans” – families of Misratan origin who had moved to Benghazi dozens or hundreds of years ago, and formed a sizeable part of the city’s commercial and educated elite. Members of such families were indeed among the leaders and rank-and-file of the BRSC, but so were many members of eastern tribes, and families of Misratan origin were far from broadly supportive of the BRSC.

Incitement against “Misratans”, “Westerners” or “Turks” – since some of these families were of mixed Ottoman-Libyan descent – exploited socioeconomic rancour among recruits for Haftar’s operation. The bulk of Dignity forces were armed groups recruited from the Awagir tribe, from Benghazi’s outskirts.

The leaders of these groups coveted the wealth, market shares, and administrative positions members of “Misratan” families held in the city. To gain a foothold in Benghazi, Haftar covertly armed cells of civilian fighters in the city that surfaced as the “neighbourhood youth” when Dignity forces moved into Benghazi’s eastern suburbs in October 2014.

As they took control, “neighbourhood youth” groups kidnapped and killed perceived opponents, and burned the homes of families who had members fighting with the BRSC – or in some cases simply because they were of Misratan origin.

Key leaders of armed groups in Haftar’s coalition, such as Khaled Bulghib or Ayad al-Fsay, openly vowed to kill or expel “Misratans” and “Turks”. Another leading commander, Faraj al-Barassi, publicly explained that to satisfy the victims of terrorism, it was justified that “anyone who was a suspect” had their houses razed.

Anyone whom Haftar’s armed groups accused of links to their enemies risked being disappeared, and bodies bearing torture marks became a common sight on Benghazi’s outskirts. Thousands of families fled Benghazi to Misrata, Tripoli and other cities in the west; groups fighting in Haftar’s operation seized many of their properties.

Some of the extrajudicial killings were suspected of being the work of cells formed specifically for that purpose by two close associates of Haftar: Aoun al-Firjani and Ezzedine al-Wakwak. Later, former allies of Haftar would accuse such cells of having perpetrated car bombings and assassinations before and after the launch of Operation Dignity.

Other groups Haftar mobilized in Benghazi appeared to be outside his direct control. But they did not challenge his authority, and their acts served his interests, while the absence of formal ties accorded Haftar deniability. They spread terror that intimidated Haftar’s po-litical opponents. They also socialized a new generation of young men from greater Benghazi to wield ruthless violence, without regard for commonly accepted moral codes or social cohesion.

And they implicated the groups that fought for Haftar in crimes for which they wanted to avoid accountability – making them interested in Haftar’s continued leadership and averse to any outreach towards his opponents, who had suffered at their hands.

Public discourse in eastern Libya and in media outlets sympathetic to Haftar remained silent on such crimes. The true nature of Haftar’s forces notwithstanding, Haftar’s narrative that he was restoring the army to its rightful place became dominant across eastern Libya.

Haftar and allied political entrepreneurs made substantial investments in TV channels, news websites and social media to promote this narrative. Undeniably, Haftar gained genuine popularity in much of eastern Libya, which he used to pressure those in his coalition

who sought to keep his power in check. Haftar himself, as well as his air force chief Jarushi and more than a hundred other officers, regained their capacity as active military officers through a decision by HoR President Agilah Saleh in January 2015.

When a particularly deadly bombing struck the eastern town of al-Qubba in February 2015, he exploited the groundswell in support for his counter-terrorist agenda to finally obtain the top position he had long coveted.

On 2 March 2015, the HoR established the post of “General Commander of the Armed Forces”, which was superior to the Chief of Staff and also included the competencies of the defence minister – and incidentally carried the same title Haftar had held as head of the NFSL’s military wing. The same day, Agilah Saleh, to whom Haftar nominally answered under that law, appointed Haftar to the post.


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.



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