Betrayed to his factional rivals by Saudi Arabia and left for dead, a Libyan militia commander got his chance at revenge.
Early in the afternoon of June 25, 2017, Saudi authorities at the immigration counter at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah pulled aside for questioning two young Libyan men who were flying back to Libya after performing the umrah pilgrimage.
At first, one of the men, who ran a religious tourism company, thought that the questioning would be related to an overstayed visa on a previous visit and therefore nothing to be overly alarmed about.
In fact, the Saudis had stopped them because Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s ally, had placed the Libyans on a terrorism list months before, for their alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood and their alleged earlier involvement in kidnapping Egyptian diplomats in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
After detaining the men for more than a month, the Saudis returned them to Libya, but not to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord or GNA — as they were required to do by international law.
Instead, they dispatched them to a rival and unrecognized administration in eastern Libya, aligned with the anti-Islamist militia commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who was backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
It was not a repatriation, then, but a rendition. And the Saudis likely knew full well what lay in store for the men at the hands of their bitter foe.
In the months ahead, the two Libyans, who hailed from the seaside town of Az Zawiyah west of Tripoli, were incarcerated in eastern Libya’s most notorious prisons, where they were allegedly tortured by pro-Haftar militias. But in the end, Riyadh’s transfer of these prisoners backfired spectacularly.
Released from captivity a year and half later after pledging support to Haftar, one of the men, a militia commander named Mahmud bin Rajab, reneged on his promise and played a role in thwarting Haftar’s plan in April 2019 to quickly seize Tripoli — a scheme that Saudi Arabia had promised to bankroll and that received military support from the UAE and Egypt, among other countries.
In the following year of war, bin Rajab’s fighters and other militias allied with the GNA, bolstered by Turkish drones and Syrian mercenaries, and pushed Haftar well out of western Libya, frustrating his plan to take power by force.
For bin Rajab, this battlefield victory was payback to the aspiring Libyan strongman and to the Persian Gulf monarchy that had backed him — and betrayed the two Libyans on their pilgrimage.
For the Saudis and their autocratic Arab allies, the saga of the Zawiyans’ captivity was but one blunder in their larger Libyan misadventure, which has handed their rival Turkey uncontested influence over much of western Libya.
More broadly, the episode illustrates in stark clarity how the Middle East’s proxy wars and ideological rivalries have spilled across borders, ensnaring both the innocent and not so innocent — and perpetuating Libya’s vicious cycles of retribution.
I first met bin Rajab in the summer of 2019, when Haftar’s assault on Tripoli had slowed to a stalemate. By this time, he was three months’ fresh from his prison ordeal and had taken command of GNA-aligned militia fighters from Az Zawiyah battling the forces of his former jailer.
Days before our meeting, I’d encountered some of these fighters at a swath of the Tripoli front called the Naqliya Camp, named for a nearby military logistics base.
A scrubby field furrowed by an empty vineyard, Naqliya was a place of desolation. Young men rested in dugouts carved into berms while others crouched by a tree trunk charred from a drone strike by Haftar’s regional backer, the UAE.
The Emiratis had been flying hundreds of drone sorties in support of Haftar since the start of his attack, and the resulting psychological impact on the GNA forces had been severe. The twisted remains of Toyota trucks at the Naqliya Camp were evidence of this.
Fearing the drones, none of the GNA fighters slept in their trucks anymore, and hardly anyone used them for movement on the battlefield.
Yet even with this formidable weapon, Haftar’s troops were unable to roll back the Tripoli defenders. It would be another three months before the arrival of Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group would shift the momentum in Haftar’s favor by improving the precision of his artillery, and then another two months before a larger Turkish intervention, including drones and Syrian mercenaries, would arrive to save the embattled GNA and turn the tables once again.
In the meantime, the fighting that summer was marked by long stretches of waiting, punctured by ferocious exchanges of artillery, mortar, and small arms fire.
I didn’t see bin Rajab on the front line with his men that day but rather several evenings later, at a gated apartment complex called Palm City on Tripoli’s western flank, where he was enjoying a break with his family.
His ensconcement in this luxury compound, normally home to foreign diplomats and oil executives, epitomized the vast privileges accrued by Libyan militia bosses since 2011. Fittingly, he met me in a BMW SUV.
In person, he was wiry and compact, wearing camouflage pants and running shoes. We sat around a table on a concrete patio lit by the glow from a glass-paned door. Inside, I could hear the murmuring of his small children. Artillery thudded in the distance to the south. He opened our meeting with a comment on the state of the war.
“We are no longer defending,” he said. “We are now attacking.” But, he qualified, “we are not advancing.”
“And what will break the stalemate?” I asked.
He meant recoilless rifles, short-range rockets that he said were ideal for the close-quarters combat in the suburbs. Once they pushed Haftar into the open areas, they needed more advanced, longer range, anti-tank missiles.
“Kornet, Konkurs, Metis,” he continued, rattling off the names of Russian-made weapons.
It was a breezy display of military jargon, one that I’d often encountered among Libya’s young militia commanders. Like many of them, bin Rajab’s military experience was gained through battles during and after the revolution. He rose through dint of charisma, patronage, and social ties rather than formal training.
He was born in 1984 in Az Zawiyah, a longtime fishing hub that is also home to an oil refinery. Since the 2011 revolution, Az Zawiyah has gained notoriety as a smugglers’ den, especially for the human traffickers who have ferried thousands of irregular migrants, many from sub-Saharan Africa, on perilous Mediterranean crossings.
Az Zawiyah is also known for its fierce and often dissenting religiosity; during the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, the town produced a number of dissident clerics and leading militants.
Unsurprisingly, Az Zawiyah was one of the first places in western Libya to erupt in anti-Gadhafi protests in early 2011, eliciting a brutal crackdown by the regime’s ultra-loyal military unit, the 32nd Reinforced Brigade, commanded by the dictator’s youngest son, Khamis al-Gadhafi.
Bin Rajab, at the time, had graduated from university with a degree in marine engineering and was working as a travel agent organizing pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, he said. He participated in the clashes.
When Az Zawiyah fell to Gadhafi’s forces, he fled across the border to Tunisia and then to the liberated eastern city of Benghazi and later Misuratah, where he coordinated weapons shipments to Az Zawiyah via rubber dinghy.
In the months and years after the dictator’s death at the hands of NATO-backed rebels in October 2011, bin Rajab assumed a mid-level role in the town’s militant milieu, following a prominent Islamist named Shaaban Hadiya, also from Az Zawiyah.
The two became leaders of a militia coalition, Libyan Revolutionaries Operations’ Room (or LROR), that pursued an uncompromising, exclusionary vision for Libya.
In 2013, LROR used strong-arm tactics to force the passage of a parliamentary bill that would bar a broad spectrum of Libyans who’d worked for the Gadhafi regime from future government employment.
Later that same year, the group kidnapped the Libyan prime minister, deepening the polarization in Libya between Islamists and their opponents.
Events in neighboring Egypt sharpened these fault lines.
That summer, Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted the elected president, Mohammed Morsi. Backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the coup had a seismic effect in Libya.
The massacre of up to a thousand Morsi supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood left Libyan Islamists fearing similar suppression in their own country. For their part, Libyan anti-Islamists were emboldened by the ascent of al-Sisi’s friendly regime next door.
In January 2014, the Egyptian security services detained Shaaban Hadiya during his visit to the Egyptian city of Alexandria, accusing him of being part of al Qaeda.
In response, Hadiya’s Islamist compatriots kidnapped five Egyptian diplomats, including the Egyptian ambassador, in Tripoli that same month.
In our conversation, bin Rajab denied any participation in the abduction, but one of his former militia comrades confirmed it to me in a separate meeting.
Regardless, the gambit succeeded, and the Egyptian government freed Hadiya. He would go on to play a major role in that summer’s outbreak of open civil war in Libya.
The civil war erupted in May 2014, when Haftar and his militia allies launched a military campaign called Operation Dignity in Benghazi, framed as an effort to eliminate the city’s Islamists, including radical jihadists, and restore security. In fact, the operation was the first step in Haftar’s bid for national power. His public threats to expand his military campaign to Tripoli triggered a countermove by anti-Haftar and Islamist armed groups in western Libya.
By late summer, these militias, which included those led by bin Rajab and Hadiya, had seized the capital. Libya was now split into two warring political camps:
(a) the anti-Haftar and Islamist factions in Tripoli, who called themselves “Libya Dawn,” and
(b) Haftar’s Operation Dignity based in the east.
Foreign powers quickly joined, sending arms and advisers and conducting airstrikes. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France backed Haftar’s side, while Turkey and Qatar backed his opponents.
Libyans residing or traveling abroad were increasingly at risk from this regional proxy war — as bin Rajab discovered during his visit to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2017.
After his arrest at the Jeddah airport immigration section that June afternoon, bin Rajab and the other Libyan prisoner from Az Zawiyah, a 33-year-old man named Muhammad al-Khadrawi, were transferred to Jeddah’s Dhahban prison.
Run by the Saudi secret police, Dhahban has long housed political prisoners and activists, many of whom have been subjected to torture and sexual harassment, according to rights groups.
During their stay, the Libyans endured days and nights of forced sleep deprivation and hours of interrogation. A white-robed officer asked bin Rajab about his relationship to Qatar, his contact with Al Jazeera, his views on Haftar, and his involvement in the kidnapping of the Egyptian ambassador to Libya. And most importantly, it seemed, the Saudis wanted to know about bin Rajab’s participation in the anti-Haftar “Libya Dawn” military operation.
A little over a week after their arrest, the two prisoners were joined by a third young Libyan, also from Az Zawiyah, who had briefly sought refuge in the Libyan consulate in Jeddah. Back home, their families and friends believed that the Tripoli government had been slow to act and had threatened to cut off fuel shipments from the Az Zawiyah refinery to the capital.
Finally, after repeated inquiries, the Libyan consul received assurances from the Saudi foreign ministry that the men would be repatriated to the recognized Libyan government in Tripoli.
Shortly after, a Saudi official walked into bin Rajab’s cell and announced ceremoniously: “You are not a danger to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and tomorrow you will be sent home.”
On the evening of their departure, an ambulance took the men to the runway at Jeddah’s international airport. During the drive, a Saudi doctor in a white coat asked bin Rajab questions about his health and took his blood pressure.
As he exited the vehicle, someone was filming him with a camera. The Libyan consul, whom bin Rajab was told would be present, was nowhere to be seen. Bin Rajab tried to stall, but a Saudi military officer muscled him onto a Libyan military cargo plane. Inside, the Libyan soldiers who bound his mouth with tape spoke in the dialect of eastern Libya, the territory controlled by Haftar.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.