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”.
Making Or Breaking Haftar’s Hold over the East
As General Commander, Haftar now formally towered above the armed groups who were fighting for him in the grinding Benghazi war. But his own forces were still insignificant compared to these largely independent groups.
To strengthen his authority over the forces in his alliance, he used the military supplies he received from his foreign backers, privileging loyalists and penalizing commanders he considered unreliable. This generated serious tensions.
Key commanders became increasingly vocal in their criticism of Haftar.
The first of such disputes opposed Haftar to Col. Faraj al-Barassi, who coordinated with other commanders to agree on a mechanism for the distribution of ammunition, and the acting Defence Minister Massoud Arhuma, who sought to exert influence over the supplies coming from abroad.
Arhuma was from the western town of Rujban and without protection in eastern Libya; to intimidate him, Haftar had Arhuma briefly kidnapped in January 2015. Haftar then tried to remove Barassi, but failed because the latter had the backing of forces under his own command, fellow commanders, as well as politicians from the eastern Barassa tribe.
When commanders met with Prime Minister Abdallah Thinni to voice their anger, Haftar declared such meetings banned. The tensions in Haftar’s coalition continued to mount. In May 2015, a video circulated on Libyan social media showing the Awagir militia leader Khaled Bulghib fulminating against Haftar in a meeting with commanders and tribal politicians:
“Col. Mahdi al-Barghathi and Col. Jamal al-Zahawi are suffering from a lack of ammunition. The ammunition and the fighter jets are going to the west, and we in Benghazi are suffering from shortages. As if there is a foreign agenda, as if the man wants to rule! But we’re fighting for our homeland, we’re not fighting so someone can rule us with steel and fire! Haftar and his sons are sitting there in al-Marj, and we’re dying here!”
Haftar eventually succeeded in removing one of these unruly commanders, Faraj al-Barassi, in June 2015. But others posed a growing challenge to him. In western Libya, his allies entered into local ceasefire agreements with their enemies, with remaining Haftar loyalists in the region too weak to continue the war.
As UN-led negotiations over the re-establishment of a unified government progressed during autumn 2015, Haftar faced increasing difficulties in holding his alliance together. Politicians who had been loosely aligned with him were now negotiating independently of him.
While the UN tried to include Haftar in the negotiations, Haftar’s opponents insisted that the agreement should lead to his removal.
Several of the unruly eastern commanders in Haftar’s coalition threw their support behind the UN-led negotiations, raising the prospect that the agreement would allow Haftar’s former eastern allies to sideline him.
They could count on the support of Ibrahim al-Jadhran, a commander who controlled most of the oil export terminals in eastern Libya. Jadhran, a proponent of eastern autonomy, had aligned himself with the HoR in Tobruk against Haftar’s opponents, though he had never accepted Haftar’s authority.
In September 2015, Haftar’s acrimonious relationship with Jadhran turned into open enmity when Haftar unsuccessfully tried to have him arrested, and then bombed his forces.
With Jadhran, an eastern militia leader with the power to unlock much of Libya’s oil exports was due to side with the new government against Haftar.
When the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) was signed in December 2015, Haftar appointed a close ally since 2014, Ali al-Qatrani, as his representative in the top executive body of the newly created Government of National Accord (GNA), the nine-member Presidency Council.
On Haftar’s behalf, Qatrani immediately began sabotaging the GNA from the inside, while HoR President Agilah Saleh colluded with Haftar to ensure that the HoR neither ratified the LPA nor endorsed a GNA cabinet.
Throughout the first half of 2016, Haftar’s hold over eastern Libya appeared increasingly fragile. Defectors from his coalition tried to leverage the weight of the new, internationally recognized government against him.
In January 2016, the Presidency Council designated one of the disgruntled Benghazi commanders, al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, as GNA Defense Minister.
Two days after Barghathi’s designation, Haftar’s spokesman and close companion since 2014 Mohamed al-Hejazi announced his defection, citing corruption by Haftar’s sons and relatives and Haftar’s marginalization of his erstwhile allies in pursuit of his personal power.
Throughout spring and summer 2016, Barghathi and Jadhran competed with Haftar in staging displays of support by notables in their tribes, the Awagir and Magharba.
Barghathi’s ally, the Awagir militia leader Faraj Ga’im, accused Haftar of responsibility for assassinations and bombings in Benghazi. The challenge to Haftar’s authority was unprecedented.
Haftar, however, succeeded in transforming this precarious situation into an opportunity to sideline his challengers and consolidate control.
Central to his success was the growing foreign backing he enjoyed. In January 2016, French special forces began covertly supporting Haftar’s operation in Benghazi.
French assistance not only helped Haftar’s coalition break a long stalemate and make significant advances in Benghazi in February 2016.
Since information about the French role spread rapidly, it also signalled that Haftar’s backers had not abandoned him, contrary to what their declarations of support to the unity government suggested.
In spring 2016, Emirati backing made a qualitative leap with the installation of a covert UAE airbase in eastern Libya from which combat drones and so-called air tractors would later support Haftar’s campaign in Benghazi.
At the same time, the rival east-based Central Bank secured Russian support to print its own dinar banknotes, which it used over the following years to underwrite dozens of billions of dinars in debt to commercial banks in the east.
Around a third of eastern expenditure financed in this manner went straight to Haftar’s forces, beyond the oversight of the eastern government or its audit bureau.
Such foreign support helped Haftar to expand his coalition in ways that reduced his dependence on unruly eastern commanders and increased his ability to clamp down on challengers. He promoted three groups in particular: first, he encouraged former regime loyalists to return from exile or reinstated them in military and intelligence positions.
These regime loyalists often sat uneasily with Haftar allies who were at least rhetorically committed to the 2011 revolution, such as Zintani armed groups and several of the Benghazi commanders.
But they were more dependent on Haftar’s support, since they had been politically marginalized and unable to establish their own armed groups after 2011.
Many saw Haftar’s forces as an opportunity to regain political and military influence, and take their revenge on the constituencies that had supported the revolution – particularly Misrata.
A former senior military and intelligence officer under Qadhafi and fellow tribesman of Haftar’s, Aoun al-Firjani, became Haftar’s right hand early on, and established his security apparatus in eastern Libya following the Qadhafi regime’s model.
In southern Libya, a former intelligence officer from the Magarha tribe, Mohamed ben Nayel, was released from detention in Misrata in April 2016 and immediately resumed his efforts to enrol former regime loyalists for Haftar.
Around the same time, Haftar mobilized former members from Qadhafi’s security brigades from the Qadhadhfa and Firjan tribes for an effort to capture Sirte that ultimately failed to materialize.
Later, two senior officers who played leading roles in Qadhafi’s counter insurgency effort in 2011 would fulfil important functions in Haftar’s forces, and attract others from ex-regime constituencies into their ranks: al-Mabruk Sahban, whom Haftar first appointed to a top position in March 2017, and Belgasem al-Ab’aj, who had been imprisoned for years after 2011 and received a leading function in March 2018.
Second, Haftar strengthened the hardline Salafists who had begun joining his alliance as early as June 2014.
Armed groups with a pronounced Salafist tendency and a doctrine that emphasized political obedience were more willing to carry out arrests that were bound to provoke negative reactions from members of extended families.
In early 2016, Haftar transferred members of the Salafist al-Tawhid battalion to Battalions 210 and 302. He thereby camouflaged these groups as formal units – Battalion 302 later became part of the Saeqa Special Forces – but allowed them to retain their ideological esprit de corps, and boosted their firepower with foreign support.
Third, in late 2015 Haftar began recruiting mercenary fighters from Darfur for the Benghazi war. Over the next years, he would come to deploy thousands of such mercenaries to remote areas of central and southern Libya, thereby projecting force in ways he could not if he had to depend on his original allies in Benghazi.
The process of strengthening more docile elements over the unruly components of Haftar’s coalition was slow, but it progressively granted Haftar a measure of autonomy from the constituencies that had supported him since 2014.
Haftar used that autonomy to progressively ratchet up repression against disobedient erstwhile allies, and signs of dissent in the east more broadly.
In September 2015, he attacked an army unit in al-Bayda that had declared its opposition to Haftar and had joined local Islamists in Darna in their fight against the Islamic State.
In December 2015, he had former Deputy Defence Minister al-Siddiq al-Mabrouk al-Ghaithi abducted in Susa; an ally of Ibrahim al-Jadhran, al-Ghaithi had been mediating between the Darna Islamists and neighbouring towns.
In spring 2016, kidnappings targeted proponents of regional autonomy and supporters of the unity government in Tobruk and al-Marj. The victims were held incommunicado – a practice that Haftar’s forces were using extensively against suspected enemy sympathizers in Benghazi, but that they now expanded to critics across the east.
In Benghazi itself, the bodies of victims of extrajudicial executions by Haftar’s forces now began turning up by the dozens on rubbish dumps. He also signalled that he expected unconditional obedience by televising meetings at which tribal politicians declared their loyalty to him, in spectacles that closely resembled those staged by Qadhafi.
If Haftar increasingly revealed his authoritarian tendencies, he could do so not least because his popularity in much of the east was unbroken. It rose to new heights after he overcame Jadhran and seized control of the oil crescent.
In June 2016, Jadhran allowed the Benghazi Defence Battalions (BDB), a newly formed group of Haftar opponents, to move through his territory towards the outskirts of Benghazi, where airstrikes eventually stopped their advance.
Haftar responded by mobilizing Jadhran’s local opponents to attack Jadhran’s forces, who were already embroiled in a confrontation with the Islamic State in the oil crescent.
In September 2016, Haftar eventually succeeded in pushing Jadhran’s forces out of the oil crescent without major fighting. He savoured his success by having himself promoted to the rank of field marshal.
With the takeover of the oil crescent, Haftar had expanded his control across eastern Libya, with the exception of Darna and remaining pockets of resistance in Benghazi. With Jadhran, he had ejected a key eastern ally of the unity government.
The prospect that eastern GNA supporters could sideline Haftar vanished. GNA Defence Minister al-Mahdi al-Barghathi fled Benghazi, and in November, Haftar’s forces captured Barghathi’s base.
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.