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”.
Consolidation in the East
Once Haftar had warded off the challenge from within his former coalition, the path was clear for him to consolidate control over the east.
During autumn 2016, he replaced elected mayors with his appointees in eight eastern cities, including Benghazi. Beginning in January 2017, a Haftar protégé in the Saeqa Special Forces, Mahmoud al-Warfalli, spread terror across the east with a series of videos that showed him executing captives in Benghazi.
Warfalli and his civilian associates in the Saeqa also worked closely with neighbourhood vigilante groups that abducted suspects and seized the property of displaced families, enriching himself in the process.
In February 2017, Salafist fighters loyal to Haftar twice shot their way into the home of Faraj al-Barassi, one of the officers who had dared to defy Haftar’s authority.
This showed that Haftar now had unprecedented autonomy from his erstwhile allies, as well as from local society more broadly. It was a blatant violation of moral codes in eastern Libya, and targeted an officer who had not only played a key role in Haftar’s Benghazi operation, but also belonged to one of eastern Libya’s biggest tribes.
In May 2017, a car bomb that killed a tribal politician who had supported al-Mahdi al-Barghathi against Haftar reinforced that message.
Haftar’s forces again demonstrated that they enjoyed total impunity in October, when 36 bodies of executed prisoners were found near al-Abyar, on Benghazi’s outskirts. Haftar’s takeover of the oil crescent also raised his stature internationally.
It no longer appeared realistic to weaken him by promoting alternative figures in the east, as Western governments had sought to do by supporting the GNA in Tripoli. Instead, Western states began courting Haftar, ostensibly to integrate him into a unified government.
Such courtship only increased after Haftar took control over the airbases of al-Jufra and Tamanhant in June 2017, thereby expanding towards central and southern Libya. In July 2017, France elevated Haftar by inviting him to a summit meeting with President Emmanuel Macron and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
An official visit to Italy followed soon after. International courtship of Haftar meant that Western governments would shy away from criticizing Haftar for crimes committed by his forces, and would not exert pressure on Haftar’s foreign supporters to respect the UN arms embargo.
The weapons flows to Haftar continued unabated, while the GNA in Tripoli was unable to procure arms from abroad. Haftar now used foreign support not only to promote loyalists among the existing armed groups in his coalition, but he established new units over which he exerted complete control through his sons, relatives, or close confidants.
Haftar’s sons and in-laws suddenly appeared as officers and rapidly climbed rankings without undergoing any meaningful officer training.
The first of these units to emerge, in late 2016, was Battalion 106, which was led by Haftar’s son Saddam, whose brother Khaled later succeeded him as the informal head of the battalion.
(Saddam, who in 2011 had suffered an injury after he started a shootout at a bank in Tripoli, acquired further notoriety in December 2017, when his Battalion 106 removed cash worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the Central Bank building in Benghazi that the LAAF had captured. Much of the cash vanished subsequently.)
Over 2017 and 2018, other units led by Haftar’s nephews, in-laws, and close associates of his sons followed.
They included Battalion 166, headed by Haftar’s son-in-law, nephew and assistant Ayub Busaif al-Firjani; Battalion 155 and the Ajdabiya Deterrence Force, headed by his cousins Basem and Mohamed al-Bu’aishi, respectively; as well as the Tareq ben Ziyad Battalion, initially led by Saddam and later handed to Saddam’s close associate Omar Mraje’.
Also part of this circle of young commanders considered as unquestionably loyal to Haftar was a close friend of Omar Mraje’, Hassan Ma’tuq al-Zadma, for whom Haftar created Battalion. These units received the most advanced equipment Haftar obtained from his foreign backers.
Hassan al-Zadma’s wealthy and well-connected UAE-based brother Salem even mobilized Emirati support in addition to what Haftar received. The 106th , 128th and Tareq ben Ziyad Battalions were later upgraded to Brigades and absorbed a number of smaller units.
In addition to the close personal ties that assured these units’ direct loyalty to Haftar, the 106th , 128th and Tareq ben Ziyad Battalions included subgroups impregnated with Salafist ideology.
More broadly, the 106 th and Tareq ben Ziyad Battalions recruited strongly from the milieu of the armed groups in Haftar’s Benghazi coalition – among them factions associated with Saeqa commanders such as Mahmoud al-Warfalli, hardline Salafists, and criminal gangs that specialized in extortion and property confiscation in Benghazi neighbourhoods.
Moreover, the 128 th and Tareq ben Ziyad Battalion were closely associated with local constituencies that harboured resentments against the former revolutionary strongholds.
Omar Mraje’ and Hassan al-Zadma had both fought for Qadhafi in 2011 and came from communities that had experienced the 2011 war as a defeat: the Magarha tribe and the town of Harawa, home to the Lahiwat branch of the Awlad Suleiman.
Zadma’s family included several former regime officials, among them his uncle Abdesselam al-Zadma, who had held top intelligence functions under Qadhafi.
The 128 th Battalion recruited heavily among the Awlad Suleiman of Harawa, as well as among other southern constituencies, such as the Zwayya and Mahamid, and among former members of Qadhafi’s security brigades.
Omar Mraje’ had spent four years in detention in Zawiya after the 2011 war. In addition to its contingents from Benghazi, his Tareq ben Ziyad Battalion also recruited strongly among the Magarha and the Firjan – Haftar’s tribe.
These units were hardly “regular”. In their combination of personal, tribal and ideological loyalties, as well as in the leading role of Haftar’s sons and close relatives, they were clearly modelled on Qadhafi’s security brigades – regime protection units recruited from particular tribal constituencies, rather than regular forces.
In addition, the new core LAAF units were also inextricably intertwined with economic interests. A network of economic and financial ties emerged around Haftar’s sons and relatives, as well as a handful of close associates.
These included Chief of Staff al-Nadhuri, who since 2015 came to own vast plots of land and real estate in the al-Marj area;
- Haftar’s right hand Aoun al-Firjani, who worked closely with Saddam, Khaled and Omar Mraje’ in both predation and the targeting of political adversaries;
- Mohamed al-Madani al-Fakhri, until December 2019 head of the LAAF’s military investment authority, who was not only Saddam’s business associate, but in November 2020 also became his father-in-law;
- Hassan al-Zadma’s UAE-based brother Salem, who did business with Saddam as well as with the military investment authority; as well as a number of Benghazi militia leaders from the Saeqa and the hardline Salafist factions.
In alternating partnerships, this narrow circle made large profits through predation, seizing public and private land and other property, or monopolizing markets such as subsidized fuel or the export of scrap metal.
The control of close relatives and their associates over the LAAF’s core units was closely linked to their control over predatory and illicit economic activities. In short, the core of the LAAF emerged as a family enterprise.
Along with these developments came an even stronger promotion of a personality cult surrounding Haftar. Supportive media had stylized Haftar as a saviour from the very beginning of his operation.
But once he had warded off challenges from within his coalition, his portrait became ubiquitous on streets and in public buildings in eastern Libya, his name and title were religiously recited in public speeches, tribal politicians made regular displays of adulation, and even pop songs were produced to sing Haftar’s praises.
While Haftar’s ostensible effort to rebuild an army was widely popular in eastern Libya, his political ambitions were less so. His propaganda machine left no doubt over the type of regime Haftar had in mind for Libya.
It also made clear that the structure Haftar had built was entirely dependent on him. No other figure had a credible chance to keep the alliance structured around Haftar and his unpopular sons together.
The promotion of Haftar’s cronies and the increasing centralization of power within a narrow circle of relatives disappointed those LAAF officers who had harboured hopes that they were helping rebuild a national army.
It also fuelled resentment among Haftar’s eastern allies, who often saw themselves as the real owners of a project that Haftar had usurped. But it made mobilization against Haftar increasingly difficult.
In August 2017, the Awagir militia leader Faraj Ga’im made one last attempt. He had himself appointed Deputy Interior Minister in the GNA, then returned to Benghazi in that capacity, thereby openly challenging Haftar’s authority.
After several months during which both sides avoided confrontation, two attempts targeted Ga’im in November 2017. Ga’im publicly accused Haftar, and called on Saeqa commander Wanis Bukhamada to “save the Libyan army” and sideline Haftar.
In response, Haftar’s sons Saddam and Khaled attacked Ga’im’s force and family home and captured him. If anyone in eastern Libya still needed proof that Haftar could dispose of his original allies at will, this incident provided it.
Haftar only released Ga’im in August 2018, in a gesture of generosity towards continued petitioning from Ga’im’s tribesmen. A year later, he eventually allowed a much-reduced Ga’im to regain a role at the head of a small force in Benghazi.
Haftar’s suppression of the last remaining challenge to his authority in the east, combined with his increasingly obvious cronyism, left a number of his former allies out in the cold.
Several of the politicians and commanders who had supported his Benghazi war found refuge in Tripoli or abroad, where they allied with their former enemies.
Even formerly close Haftar associates, if deemed unreliable, now risked being abducted and held incommunicado – among them the deputy head of military intelligence Ahmad al-Areibi and a founding member of Operation Dignity, Col. Fathi al-Drissi.
Most striking was the slow transformation of vocal Haftar supporters in the Libyan media into his outspoken opponents. One example was the businessman Mohamed Buisir, a proponent of eastern autonomy who was close to Haftar in his first year, and his prominent advocate in the media.
Later, Buisir tried to mediate between Haftar and his Awagir opponents, then eventually turned against him and became his virulent critic.
Another example for those who had joined Haftar from the beginning, only to find themselves sidelined as Haftar’s power grew, was his former spokesman Mohamed al-Hejazi. After defecting in early 2016, Hejazi clearly held a grudge against Haftar.
Nevertheless, it is worth considering Hejazi’s explanation for why, in 2019, almost none of Haftar’s original companions remained in his inner circle:
Haftar’s consolidation machine had turned an alliance of convenience into a centralized structure that could wield repression even against its former support base. The input for the machine was foreign support; its by-product disgruntled but powerless former allies.
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.