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”.
Expansion amid Ambiguity
To expand beyond the east, Haftar had to change strategies. In the east, Haftar had designated a clear enemy – the “terrorists” – and anyone who challenged him risked the accusation that he was colluding with that enemy.
The spectre of terrorism retained its power in the east long after the battle of Benghazi had been decided in Haftar’s favour: his opponents remained holed up in small pockets of central Benghazi, the last of which were only taken in December 2017.
Thereafter, commanders in the Saeqa, Tareq ben Ziyad and other LAAF battalions continued to wield accusations of “terrorism” against victims of their ongoing confiscations of homes and land in Benghazi.
But such all-out war against mortal enemies was unsuitable to gain footholds in the south and west of the country.
In western Libya, fighting had ended in summer 2015, in the south several months later. Most municipalities reported to the GNA in Tripoli, hoping to mobilize resources from it.
As an assemblage of rival factions, the GNA exerted no central authority, and local armed groups continued to operate largely independently, with rivalries over turf common in Tripoli.
But escalations of violence were localized and transitory; public opinion was relieved about the end of the war, and adverse to renewed conflict.
Moreover, with the campaigns against the Islamic State in Sirte and Sabratha, western Libyan armed groups in 2016 drew clearer lines between themselves and extremists.
In this context, starting a war would have been highly unpopular. Haftar had to appear as bringing stability, and liberation from abusive militias. His expansion into the oil crescent in September 2016 set the tone.
following a largely bloodless takeover, Haftar surprised local and foreign observers alike by handing control over the oil facilities back to the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC), allowing revenues to accrue to the Central Bank in Tripoli.
Prime Minister Serraj, who already saw himself as head of a unity government and was reluctant to antagonize Haftar, now had even more reason to avoid confrontations with him. By contrast, Haftar’s opponents increasingly acquired a reputation as spoilers.
With covert backing from GNA Defence Minister al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, the Benghazi Defence Battalions (BDB) allied with the widely reviled Jadhran and some individuals with extremist ties, attempting to capture the oil crescent from Haftar in December 2016, and again in March 2017.
In June 2018, some BDB members joined a third attempt led by Jadhran. Each time, the GNA and NOC condemned their actions, and production resumed once Haftar’s forces had taken back control (though in 2018, Haftar blocked exports for several weeks).
In May 2017, fighters affiliated with the BDB and a Misratan armed group, supported by Chadian mercenaries, executed dozens of prisoners they had taken after overrunning one of Haftar’s bases in southern Libya.
An outcry in the south followed that, along with a brief campaign of Egyptian airstrikes, led the Misratans and the BDB to vacate southern and central Libya. Haftar’s forces took over key airbases in those regions without encountering resistance.
In the oil crescent and central Libya, Haftar deployed his newly created core of loyalists: the 106th , 210th and 302nd Battalions, later also the Tareq ben Ziyad and 128th Battalions.
He thereby displayed his new ability to project power, and newfound independence from the Benghazi groups he had started out with.
Beyond central Libya, Haftar had to tread carefully. Western and southern Libya were fragmented along communal lines, with many communities also suffering internal divides.
Allying too closely with armed groups from one community risked provoking conflict with those groups’ local rivals, or alienating other communities.
Towns that had suffered exactions and marginalization at the hands of neighbouring revolutionary strongholds offered fertile terrain for Haftar, but his forces had to avoid threatening their neighbours or risk being taken out.
The collective struggle in 2011 had lastingly welded together revolutionary strongholds; in places like Misrata or the Amazigh towns, social cohesion and commitment to the revolutionary ideals prevented Haftar from gaining a foothold.
The necessity to maintain social peace amid a political rift in Zintan did much to slow down Haftar’s expansion in western Libya. Zintan was a community that had emerged united from its revolutionary struggle.
In 2014, the town’s forces allied with Haftar to defend themselves. But the following year, former revolutionaries under Osama Juwaili negotiated ceasefires with their adversaries.
Haftar’s man in Zintan – Idris Madi, who in 2011 had been a rare Zintani loyalist officer – was unable to continue the war without Juwaili’s forces.
In July 2017, Juwaili accepted the position of commander for the western region in the GNA, further weakening Haftar’s supporters in Zintan. Juwaili then proceeded to dislodge armed groups loyal to Haftar from the Warshafana area south of Tripoli.
But he never confronted Madi or other Zintani Haftar supporters. A Zintani Salafist group aligned with Haftar used the al-Wutiya airbase to supply Haftar loyalists in western Libya, causing internal tensions in Zintan.
But the dense social networks that linked both factions kept them from attacking each other, right up until Haftar’s April 2019 Tripoli offensive.
Ambiguity also marked the takeover of the western coastal city of Sabratha by local Haftar supporters, in autumn 2017.
Supplied by Haftar via al-Wutiya, they drove out rival armed groups in a battle that lasted several weeks. But they remained nominally loyal to the GNA, which welcomed their takeover.
Preserving uncertainty over their affiliation served to prevent mobilization from hostile groups in neighbouring towns.
Even weeks before Haftar’s eventually launched his offensive on Tripoli, they still remained evasive when asked about their links to Haftar.
Elsewhere, Haftar merely enticed local officers to nominally join the LAAF while keeping a low profile.
This applied to Bani Walid, a community in which regime loyalism remained strong and many saw Haftar as a traitor, due to his support for the revolution in 2011.
It also applied to Tarhuna, where the militia of the Kani brothers had exclusive control, including over the LAAF unit whose establishment they allowed to attract some salary payments from Haftar.
Similarly, in the southern town of Ubari, some Tuareg soldiers joined the LAAF to receive a second salary, in addition to what Tripoli paid them. But their primary loyalties continued to lie with their local friends and relatives whose allegiance to the GNA was equally nominal.
This approach also helped maintain the ambivalence that now marked Haftar’s relations with the Tripoli institutions. In the east, Haftar promoted open hostility towards the GNA and tried to prevent eastern municipalities from cooperating with it.
But an increasing range of informal ties bridged that political divide. The Central Bank governor in Tripoli, al-Siddiq al-Kabir, integrated politicians from the east – among them figures close to Haftar – in the clientelist networks he built to ensure his survival.
The Tripoli government continued paying salaries to public sector employees across the country, including many who were working in institutions reporting to the parallel government in the east.
From 2018 onwards, the GNA budget also included an additional 4bn Dinars worth of salaries for new employees of the eastern government.
Tripoli continued to pay members of Haftar’s forces who had been on the payrolls before the mid-2014 split; across the country, Haftar incentivized even nominal adherence to his forces by paying an additional salary on top of what soldiers received from Tripoli.
An attempt to take a more forceful approach in southern Libya proved unsuccessful.
In February 2018, Haftar tried to expand in the southern city of Sabha by extending the LAAF franchise to armed groups from the Awlad Suleiman – such as Massoud Jiddi’s militia, which became the LAAF’s 116th Battalion.
But the largest Awlad Suleiman militia, the 6th Brigade, split over its alignment with Haftar. Moreover, given that these groups had fought against the Tubu in preceding intercommunal conflicts, Haftar’s strategy alienated large parts of the Tubu community in Sabha.
In May 2018, Tubu armed groups wrested the fortress that overlooked the city from the LAAF-aligned 6th Brigade.
The Sabha failure of 2018 seemed to show that Haftar advanced so cautiously not only because he sought to appear as a stabilizing force, rather than an aggressor.
It suggested that he also lacked the necessary manpower to pursue a more forceful strategy. Many of his original allies in Benghazi were reluctant to venture beyond the east.
But over 2017 and 2018, the growth of units led by his sons and relatives or their close associates gradually strengthened Haftar’s room for manoeuvre.
The battle of Darna, which began in May 2018 and dragged on until February 2019, offered a showcase for these new units:
(a) The 106th and Tareq ben Ziyad Battalions;
(b) the 155th and 166th Battalions headed by Haftar’s cousin Basem al-Buaishi and his nephew Ayub Busaif;
(c) the Salafist-leaning 210th and 302nd Battalions; and
(d) Al-Zadma’s 128th Battalion, as well as a small group led by longtime Haftar loyalist Ali al-Qataani, who would go on to head another large unit, the 73rd Brigade.
As Benghazi, the Darna conflict was far from the clear-cut counter-terrorist operation as which Haftar portrayed it, and for which he gained French intelligence support.
Haftar had long punished Darna as a whole by imposing a crippling siege on the city, at times preventing all food and medicine from reaching the city for several months.
As in Benghazi, Haftar’s adversaries were a mixture of revolutionaries, hardened jihadists, and men who sought to protect their families and possessions against Haftar’s groups;
As in Benghazi, Haftar also mobilized local armed groups from Darna’s surroundings who looted and confiscated properties.
And as in Benghazi, the new, loyal units moved against some of the local armed groups Haftar had mobilized for the war.
When the battle of Darna drew to a close in early 2019, Haftar was able to send these new units first southwards, then westwards.
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.