Betrayed to his factional rivals by Saudi Arabia and left for dead, a Libyan militia commander got his chance at revenge.
After a seemingly interminable flight — “we prayed that the plane would crash,” one of the prisoners from Az Zawiyah told me, half-jokingly — the aircraft landed in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, at a sprawling, dual-use, civilian-military airport. Pickup trucks took the prisoners to the nearby base of a powerful militia called the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, unofficially commanded by Haftar’s son Saddam and part of Haftar’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).
Here, the men were confined to a single, windowless cell, measuring 1 meter by 1.5 meters (3 feet by 5 feet), with no mattress, bathroom, or light. The stench was overpowering.
A meal of watery pasta was delivered at midnight and was accompanied by beatings. Their captors often appeared inebriated or high. Fungal growth infested their feet, and infections blistered their skin. They showered twice in six months. And then the torture started.
Bin Rajab had electrical shocks applied to his genitals. Al-Khadrawi had his arms bound to a Landcruiser and his feet tied to a metal door, while burning plastic from a water bottle was dripped onto his naked torso and thighs.
Personnel from the LAAF’s media department and a pro-Haftar TV station were reportedly filming the torture, demanding that he admit to committing abuses in some previous round of factional fighting. He agreed to all of it, of course; anything to stop the pain.
The Zawiyans witnessed other prisoners who were made to sit on 23 mm anti-aircraft artillery shells or were burned on a stove.
The horrors continued for nearly a year until they suddenly stopped, and the prisoners’ treatment improved due to a fortuitous personal encounter years before.
In late 2017, Saddam Haftar handed operational leadership of the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade to a career Libyan army officer named Omar Mraja’ al-Meqarhi.
During the Gadhafi era, al-Meqarhi had served in the elite 32nd Brigade and then, after losing in the 2011 revolution, had fought for Haftar’s side.
In 2014, bin Rajab’s Zawiyan militia had captured him during clashes in Libya’s western region and kept him in a prison in Az Zawiyah before releasing him in the summer of 2015.
Now, as the new commander of the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, al-Meqarhi appeared to reciprocate the goodwill. He ordered better prison conditions for bin Rajab and the other prisoners from Az Zawiyah: a larger cell, an end to torture and beatings, and three meals a day.
For over a year, Haftar had denied holding the three prisoners, causing GNA officials to suspect they were still in Saudi Arabia. It was not until Haftar’s LAAF swapped a prisoner with the GNA that an eyewitness, a fellow detainee in Benghazi, provided the first confirmation of their incarceration in eastern Libya.
Then, in the spring of 2019, a delegation of elders from Az Zawiyah visited Haftar at his base outside Benghazi, who agreed to release the prisoners, reportedly under pressure from the Saudis.
Bin Rajab told me that protests by the men’s friends and families in front of Saudi diplomatic facilities in Istanbul, Geneva, and London played a role, as did growing international scrutiny on the Kingdom in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi killing.
Human rights organizations and foreign diplomats were also raising the Libyans’ case with the Saudi government. “I told the Saudis, ‘You delivered them to the wrong address,’” a United Nations official told me in a telephone conversation in June.
Emails were sent in May and July to spokespersons for the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the LAAF, respectively, who did not respond to a request for comment on the arrest of the Libyans, their transfer to Haftar’s custody, their torture, or their release.
Beyond this change of Saudi heart, however, the release may have been related to a bargain that Haftar had tried to strike with the visiting delegation.
Bin Rajab got the first hint of it when Saddam Haftar called him into his office for a remarkable meeting two days before his release from prison on March 15, 2019.
By this time, Haftar’s plan to seize national power was well underway. He had moved his forces out of eastern Libya, across the expansive southern region, and, by early March 2019, was encroaching on Tripoli.
His propaganda outlets framed the advance as a counterterrorism operation, to “liberate” the capital from militias aligned with the GNA. But at its core, it was a brazen bid to sabotage an ongoing, U.N.-brokered dialogue and rule the country. And it was being backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Egypt, and Russia.
Much of his battle plan relied on secretly flipping militia groups in and around Tripoli to his side, with inducements of money in some cases and promises that they would maintain their privileges. Az Zawiyah was a particular focus for Haftar because it controlled the western approach to Tripoli via a strategic military base called Camp 27.
In February 2019, Haftar succeeded in securing tacit cooperation for his assault — or at least non-opposition — from some armed groups based in Az Zawiyah, guaranteeing, he believed, an easy capture of Tripoli from the west.
It was this supposed swell of support in Az Zawiyah that a confident Saddam Haftar presented to bin Rajab during the meeting in early March, in an attempt to lure him to his side.
“All of western Libya will be with us,” Saddam Haftar announced in his office, ticking off the names of militias in Az Zawiyah and around the capital who’d aligned themselves with Haftar’s imminent invasion.“We don’t want fighting. Will you join us?” Bin Rajab offered his assurance. “Of course,” he replied.
Coming from the Zawiyan militia commander, the pledge probably sounded unconvincing, given his long history of opposition to Haftar. But it didn’t matter to Saddam Haftar, bin Rajab believed.
“He had no choice,” he told me. “He thought he can control the Zawiyan militias.” This calculation proved to be disastrously wrong.
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli began in early April with the entry of his forces into the towns of Gharyan and Tarhuna south of the capital, abetted by local militia commanders, according to plan.
It was in Az Zawiyah, however, that things fell apart and the LAAF was stopped in its tracks.
On April 4, the armed group leaders in Az Zawiyah whom Haftar had secretly recruited allowed his fighters to take Camp 27, all but clearing the way to the capital. But then that evening anti-Haftar militias in Az Zawiyah counterattacked from the south. Among the leaders taking the initiative was none other than bin Rajab.
Since returning to Az Zawiyah, he’d quickly reconstituted fragments of his old allies and aligned himself with the GNA. Now, with his nighttime blitz on Camp 27, he had helped deal a staggering blow to Haftar’s ambitions.
The Zawiyans’ capture of 120 LAAF soldiers at the camp sent shockwaves across Tripoli, spurring many militia factions to reconsider or renege on their promises of support to Haftar.
Militarily, the setback deprived Haftar of the only realistic ingress into the capital and channeled the bulk of his fighters onto the environs south of Tripoli, where topography and the numerical superiority of the GNA militias conspired to grind the LAAF advance to a halt.
This was the stalemate that I witnessed when I visited the front in June 2019, and later interviewed bin Rajab at his apartment suite. However, within days of my departure from Libya that month, the Zawiyan commander said goodbye to his family and was back in action, participating in a surprise GNA attack on the LAAF forward base in Gharyan, in tandem with an uprising inside the town.
It was yet another embarrassing defeat for Haftar.
Aided by drones from Turkey, the assault on Gharyan was, in retrospect, a prelude to the larger Turkish intervention that would come at the end of 2019, when the panicked GNA faced the possibility of a rout by Haftar and the Russian Wagner troops.
By mid-2020, Turkish-backed GNA fighters had forced Haftar’s LAAF out of western Libya and compelled him to accept a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
I have not seen bin Rajab since our conversation in 2019, but I suspect any triumphalism might be tempered by the trauma of his incarceration. Already on that hot night at Palm City, he hinted that his imprisonment had changed him.
“I’ve been so tired after my release,” he told me. His companion al-Khadrawi underwent rounds of surgery in Turkey after his release to repair the torn ligaments in his shoulders and his wrists from the torture.
On a video call, he lifted his robe to show me the splotches of dark red scars on his thighs and abdomen from the hot melted plastic. The wounds, he said, ran much deeper than the scars suggested — a property of the water bottle plastic is that it keeps on burning long after it has first touched the skin.
The Middle East’s proxy rivalries that entrapped bin Rajab and the other men from Az Zawiyah have played out in other conflict-wracked states, causing untold personal ruin.
In Libya alone, countless citizens have lost their lives to the direct actions of foreign states like Emirati drone strikes, or indirect interference like the continued foreign backing of Libyan militias who murder and torture with impunity.
Recently, there are signs of a softening of these harmful regional enmities, such as the end of the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar and Ankara’s quiet engagement with Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. But the damage caused by years of foreign interventions has yet to fully mend.
The twists of bin Rajab’s journey underscore a parallel truth: Libyans still have agency to derail the best-laid plans of foreign capitals
Libyans have often told me that their fates are being decided abroad and that Libyan elites have all but surrendered their country’s sovereignty to their foreign patrons.
No doubt this is true to a certain extent, as shown by the entrenchment of the Turkish and Russian militaries, including mercenaries, in parts of the country. And yet, the twists of bin Rajab’s journey underscore a parallel truth: Libyans still have agency to derail the best-laid plans of foreign capitals.
With his counterattack on Haftar’s forces at Camp 27 on that fateful April night, bin Rajab and the Zawiyan fighters thwarted the designs of the richest and most powerful of Libya’s outside meddlers.
Bin Rajab’s ordeal also highlights the urgent need for the rule of law and legitimate justice in Libya. The Zawiyan militia leaders whom Saudi Arabia transferred to Haftar’s prison were probably implicated in their share of crimes, including the alleged kidnapping of foreign diplomats.
And some Libyans might certainly applaud their hardships in Benghazi as a well-deserved comeuppance. But a determination of their guilt or innocence — and the meting out of punishment — was not for a militia rival to decide, rather an independent civilian court.
In the absence of such formal accountability, however, Libyans are correct in expecting that a bitter culture of vengeance will dominate their future.
Bin Rajab admitted as much to me at the end of our meeting, describing his prerelease encounter with Saddam Haftar.
“I suffered so much at his hand,” he told me. “It made me hate him more and more.”
Muath Mustapha provided reporting assistance.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.