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”.
Haftar’s propaganda machine openly cultivated a desire for revenge against the former revolutionary strongholds in general, and Misrata in particular. Such revanchist sentiment was rampant across the LAAF. Moreover, members of core LAAF units on the Tripoli front disseminated videos of themselves desecrating corpses, or shooting artillery while on drugs.
Even many members of supposed elite units such as the 106th Brigade, when taken prisoner, turned out to have barely reached adulthood. The disciplined army Haftar’s propaganda apparatus never tired to portray was nowhere to be seen.
Initial expectations of Haftar’s rapid victory having been disappointed, the war settled into a near-stalemate. This still appeared to play to Haftar’s advantage, since he enjoyed major military backing from the UAE and political support from the Trump administration and France; in addition, from September 2019 onwards, he deployed Russian mercenaries who granted him a significant tactical advantage.
The GNA, by contrast, received only limited support from Turkey in the first months of the war, and during the autumn this support stopped, making the situation of Haftar’s opponents increasingly desperate. Turkey only resumed its support in December 2019, after forcing the GNA into signing an agreement on maritime boundaries. The fact that Haftar had multiple foreign backers granted him substantial room for manoeuvre.
French and Egyptian officials claimed that they had warned Haftar against an offensive on Tripoli – but even if this was true, they saw little alternative to supporting his war once it had started. In January 2020, Russia and Turkey tried to coax their respective clients into a ceasefire. Serraj, entirely dependent on immediate Turkish support to ensure the GNA’s survival, had no choice but to sign, and travelled to Moscow without even knowing the terms he would have to commit to.
But Haftar, encouraged by his Emirati backers, refused. Still, Russian military support to Haftar increased over the following months. At the Berlin conference in January 2020, Haftar clearly savoured having Western leaders beg him – yet again in vain – for a commitment to a ceasefire. In Libya, pictures of Chancellor Merkel meeting with Haftar along with his cousin Basem al-Buaishi and son-in-law Ayub Busaif al-Firjani spawned jokes about the German government receiving the Firjan tribe.
With foreign intervention in the war heavily tilted in his favour, Haftar could have been expected to replicate the successful consolidation of power over his alliance that he had previously achieved in Benghazi.
In addition to his core loyalists, Haftar’s forces in Tripoli relied heavily on more opportunistic allies. By far the most important were the Kaniyat of Tarhuna, but others included criminal gangs from Zawiya, Bani Walid and Ajeilat, as well as various groups of former regime loyalists.
As in Benghazi, many of these allies hoped to use Haftar to win the war, then defend their independence from his authority or even turn on him. But as in Benghazi, his allies had little choice but to stick with him once the war had started, and they grew dependent on the foreign support Haftar alone was able to mobilize.
And as in Benghazi, Haftar gradually strengthened his authority over opportunistic allies as the war ground on. For Haftar, the more unruly elements, motivated by loot or rapid victory, were expendable, and many were killed in the war. So were several commanders of local armed groups, which allowed Haftar to integrate their foot soldiers into tighter command structures.
The most prominent were two of the Kani brothers, who were killed in Tripoli alongside a third commander from Tarhuna in September 2019. (After the defeat in Tripoli and the Kaniyat’s flight to the east, Haftar had the Kani brothers sidelined entirely and their fighters distributed across several LAAF units).
Other independently-minded commanders in Haftar’s forces were killed under dubious circumstances, leading to suspicions that Haftar had them eliminated – suspicions that also existed with regard to several assassinations that had targeted officers in Haftar’s Benghazi operation. Had Haftar kept advancing and eventually captured the capital, he would likely have been able to consolidate his power over this coalition, contrary to what some of his allies expected.
But his consolidation machine could only work in the event of continued progress towards victory. In the end, direct Turkish intervention suddenly upturned the balance of forces during spring 2020, and Haftar’s forces were routed from western Libya.
Defeat posed a grave threat to Haftar, given that his coalition was built on the assumption that he would prevail. Predictably, some of the more opportunistic supporters of his war on Tripoli – and particularly those outside eastern Libya – were quick to distance themselves from Haftar. Foreign support that prevented Haftar’s enemies from advancing towards eastern Libya was crucial in stabilizing Haftar’s authority after his defeat in Tripoli.
Russian mercenaries and fighter jets in Sirte and Jufra, as well as the threat of Egyptian intervention against any advances of GNA-aligned forces, held the line. However, foreign backing alone could not explain the fact that Haftar’s rule over the east survived intact. The core of the LAAF proved cohesive, held together by a web of personal loyalties, economic interests, and partnerships in crime. Economic predation by Haftar’s inner circle and their LAAF units increased further during and after the Tripoli war.
A stunning illustration came in May 2020 with the grand opening of a big shopping mall in Benghazi on land LAAF commanders had seized from a forcibly displaced family. Extortion and seizures of land in Benghazi became ever more blatant, backed by abductions, arbitrary arrests and killings. Haftar’s sons provoked growing popular resentment with conspicuous displays of wealth and propaganda aimed at their glorification. But Haftar’s power structure made up for his declining popularity with intensified repression.
Haftar’s ability to survive what could have been a fatal blow underlined how successfully he had transformed an initially loose alliance in eastern Libya into a centralized, authoritarian power structure.
Most armed groups in post-revolutionary Libya were profoundly local in their recruiting base and scope of operation. For Haftar, consolidation meant using such local groups as raw material while building forces that enjoyed autonomy from local loyalties and interests. Haftar achieved this by building a broad alliance in which individual local armed groups of doubtful loyalty became increasingly dispensable. He used patronage – in the form of foreign support – and repression to gradually turn this alliance into a centralized power structure.
As a by-product, his consolidation machine spewed out disgruntled individuals who had hoped to use Haftar’s alliance to advance their own aims, only to find themselves outmanoeuvred by an increasingly powerful Haftar. Consolidation required a combination of strategies. In wartime, Haftar gradually imposed his authority over his allies by granting or withholding the support he obtained from his foreign backers.
But once he had established forces of his own, he also punished disloyal member of his coalition by arresting, killing or expelling them, pour encourager les autres. Ultimately, he wielded crude force to cow his erstwhile allies and their social support base into submission. In the ambivalent circumstances that prevailed in western and southern Libya between 2016 and 2018, however, he quietly sought to build loyalist groups, while avoiding confrontations that could have provoked a backlash from local society.
Consolidation also required taking considerable risks. In early 2016, Haftar faced a serious challenge to his authority in the east. Had he displayed lenience towards his challengers and the government in Tripoli, his nascent power structure may well have foundered. The reward for his boldness was the elimination of his rivals, and the consolidation of power in the east.
In 2019, Haftar gambled that he could form another broad coalition with elements whose loyalty was at best dubious, then consolidate authority either during the war or after victory. This time, his gamble failed. Haftar had undoubtedly overestimated the opportunism of armed groups in western Libya, just as he underestimated the social base and cohesion of the forces that mobilized to resist his advance. And he could not foresee the Turkish intervention that would eventually cause his consolidation machine to grind to a halt.
By gradually disembedding his core forces from pre-existing local militias, Haftar turned the LAAF into the only military faction that transcended the localism prevailing among Libya’s armed groups, and could project force across the country. However, at no point could the LAAF’s pretence of being a truly national force be taken at face value. At every stage of its expansion, the mobilization of LAAF units was driven by motivations that ranged from local or inter-communal rivalries, predatory economic activities or the thirst of revenge to Salafist ideology.
Haftar’s adversaries were acutely aware of such agendas within LAAF units, which were often the primary reason for their opposition to the LAAF. As remarkable as the LAAF’s cohesion in the face of defeat has been, it is doubtful that Haftar’s power structure could survive him. At the core of the LAAF is not an impersonal institution but a web of family ties, personal loyalties, economic interests, and shared responsibility for crimes.
The core LAAF units are not regular forces; they are inextricably tied to this web of interests. Even for the core stakeholders within that network, the question of who might succeed Haftar would be hard enough to resolve. It would be even more difficult for a succession process to safeguard alliances with the various entrepreneurs operating under the LAAF franchise: hardline Salafists, militias associated with particular tribal constituencies, ex-regime elements, and criminal gangs.
Haftar, the personality cult that surrounds him, and the terror that is wielded in his name have kept this alliance together. A handover to a successor would probably cause this power structure to fracture. It could also provide an opportunity for all those who fought Haftar from the beginning, suffered because of his violent rise, or fell out with him along the way to seek their due.
For much the same reason, the LAAF cannot form a building block for a future, united Libyan army. Local armed groups that operate under the LAAF franchise do not differ much from their adversaries in the challenges they pose for efforts to build national security institutions.
The core LAAF units, however, are so closely tied to Haftar’s rapacious, family-based power structure that they cannot but act on behalf of that power structure, and cannot survive without it. Building a truly national Libyan army will in all likelihood have to wait until the post-Haftar era.
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.