From Young Man to Officer: The Early days
How did a long-retired, former prisoner of war, CIA asset, Qaddafist-turned-warlord and now field marshal rise to become the head of an eastern Libyan military coup?
In September 2016 the House of Representatives in Tobruk appointed an American-Libyan citizen, Khalifa Belqassim Haftar, as head of the Libyan National Army with the rank of field marshal. Haftar’s decision to attack the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the country’s capital, is one of the most contentious events in the recent conflict in Libya.
Haftar himself and his rise to prominence are also controversial. How did a long-retired, former prisoner of war, CIA asset, Qaddafist-turned-warlord and now field marshal rise to become the head of an eastern Libyan military coup against the United Nations–endorsed GNA?
The answer lies in Haftar’s past and in his motivations. Background information on Haftar’s life is sparse, and a number of statements are repeated without fact-checking. The research used in this series of articles is based on interviews with those who grew up with him, served with him and worked with him.
It was done in order to provide clarity and accuracy to his biography. Doing so also revealed Haftar’s often hidden connections to a host of foreign players and a résumé that differs greatly from the many official accounts.
According to three Libyan sources who have worked with or for Haftar since his youth, the child of Belgassem Haftar, a Libyan Army officer from Ajdabiya, was born on Nov. 7, 1943, in Egypt. Specifically, in Al Rawash, a suburb of Cairo that was popular with Libyans. A large piece of land there is owned by the Senussi family and to this day remains a place to be buried for Libyans who grew up as expatriates during World War II.
Haftar is also a unique name with no Arabic meaning or history. In Western media accounts and books, he has been called Haftar, Hifter, and Hiftar. Two of his sons involved in Libyan affairs, Khalid and Saddam, have adopted their grandfather’s name of Omer, which confuses the situation further.
From various accounts we learn that after the war, young Haftar and his family returned to Libya, where he attended the al-Huda School in Ajdabiya beginning in 1957. He then was educated in Derna from 1961 to 1964.
A tall, good-looking young man, he enrolled in the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi (now the Benghazi Military University Academy) on Sept. 16, 1964, and graduated in 1966. All this occurred during Libya’s rapid transition from one of the poorest nations on Earth to one of the richest.
In the early 1950s Libya had a per capita gross domestic product of $40; by 1967, it was $1,018. In 1968 Libya had a population of 1.8 million, but most of its people were unskilled and illiterate. Many survived in this land without rivers as nomadic pastoralists and sellers of scrap metal from World War II.
The creation of the oil industry in the late 1950s and the resultant income dramatically transformed Libya. But prior to the introduction of the energy industry, joining the military was an equalizer, both for Haftar, the son of a Libyan military officer from a well-known tribe, and more so for the less fortunate like young Muammar Qaddafi, who was born in a shepherd’s tent south of Sirte on June 7, 1942.
Haftar met Qaddafi at the Royal Military Academy, which Qaddafi had joined the previous year, in late 1963. Qaddafi was bright and graduated as a signals officer in August 1965. The following April he went to the U.K. to learn English and train in the Army Air Corps. Not chosen for overseas training, Haftar remained a hard-partying and unremarkable junior member of the officer school. He was assigned to artillery.
Qaddafi and Haftar were very different. Qaddafi was intellectually scrappy, a rough and tumble child of the al-Qadadfa tribe. His father had been wounded fighting against the Italians; more remarkably, he had kidnapped his mother, who converted from Judaism.
Haftar and Qaddafi were children of World War II, growing up in a dirt-poor Libya ruled by Western-aligned royalty under King Idris. An associate from the military academy describes Haftar as big and a brawler — “he liked to use his fists” — and Qaddafi as slight and wiry. They became friends.
While young Qaddafi was in school in the southern city of Sebha, he began to admire the pan-Arab socialist vision of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952.
Haftar was from a respected family and a well-known tribe in Adjabiya. Classmates described him as a gruff young man lacking in political or philosophical ideals but definitely someone who liked to have a good time.
While at the Benghazi military academy, 27-year-old Capt. Qaddafi gathered a small group of Signal Corps students around him, including his trusted friend and classmate Abdul Fatah Younis, to create a 12-man Revolutionary Command Council and a larger Free Officers Movement. On Sept. 1, 1969, while King Idris was in Turkey, they took control of the government. The rule of the Senussi Muslim Sufi order and the Senussi tribe were over.
Haftar was not part of that inner revolutionary circle. An original member of the Free Officers Movement described the planning that went into the coup. “We knew Haftar and did not trust him.” When asked why, he replied, “He was a drunk.”
Nevertheless, Qaddafi and Haftar remained close. After the revolution, Haftar was promoted to captain and went to Egypt for further training at age 26. He was stationed in the Sinai as part of a reserve armored brigade along with two squadrons of Mirage V jets.
Despite a number of false claims in many myth-making Haftar biographies — Haftar himself makes no such claims — he neither took part in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War nor did he cross the Suez, according to associates. Although Egypt and its Arab allies lost and Haftar fought in no battles, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat presented him with a medal.
In 1974, Haftar returned to Tripoli to run a headquarters artillery brigade; he claims he tried to resign his commission twice. The following year he was put in charge of the military defenses in Tobruk, an important oil port in eastern Libya.
Once again dissatisfied with his command, Haftar tried to resign in 1976 but was put in charge of the Libyan air defense network in Tobruk.
There he stayed, on and off, for much of his career, being rewarded with a couple of trips to Moscow for training, first at the Vesterel Military Academy in 1977 and again in 1983, when he took general staff courses at the M.V. Frunze Military Academy (alumni include Hosni Mubarak and Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aideed).
When asked what skills Haftar learned in the Soviet Union, Haftar’s former political adviser told me, “The Russians didn’t take Libyan officers seriously. It was a gift from Qaddafi. A place [for Haftar] to drink vodka, chase women and bribe the teacher so he could sleep in and slide into the last class of the day.”
Haftar did learn, however, how to organize and run a modern army, an expertise that was becoming more important as Qaddafi embroiled Libya in a war in Chad, Libya’s southern neighbor.
In a rambling TV interview in 1978, Qaddafi accurately predicted revolution in the Middle East. While Qaddafi opined from his desert tent, it was left to Haftar to tend to the mundane details of keeping Qaddafi in power. He was soon promoted to colonel.
In January 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president of the United States and within a year tensions with Libya ramped up significantly. The first military encounter between the two nations was on Aug. 19, 1981, when U.S. warships challenged Qaddafi’s claim of sovereignty over the entire Gulf of Sidra along the Libyan coast.
When Libya dispatched SU-22 fighter jets to defend its territorial claim, U.S. F-14 Tomcats promptly shot two of them down. This triggered Qaddafi’s long campaign of support for terrorist groups, which undermined U.S. and European interests worldwide.
On March 10, 1982, the U.S. prohibited imports of Libyan crude oil. Even with declining oil prices, the Libyan sweet crude allowed Qaddafi to purchase significant amounts of Soviet and European weaponry and hire the perquisite military expertise to operate it. Despite not having a fully functioning First-World military force, he was still inclined to be bellicose and promoted a pan-African agenda.
He was justifiably nervous of plots and coup attempts. It wasn’t all paranoia. For example, the U.S. government laid a trap in 1983 to trigger Egypt into invading Libya.
Reagan developed a fixation on Qaddafi, and attempts to undermine and overthrow him eventually pushed Haftar into the spotlight.
The most famous event was the April 1, 1986, U.S. bombing of Qaddafi while at his Bab al-Azizia headquarters in a southern suburb of Tripoli. Haftar says he was one of the first on the scene to help Qaddafi. He was soon promoted to head of the country’s Eastern Region.
The war between Libya and Chad had begun under King Idris in 1968 due to tribal allegiances. It expanded rapidly in 1978 when Qaddafi tried to overthrow the Chadian government, which prompted covert responses from Western nations fearful that Qaddafi had even greater territorial ambitions.
The conflict centered on a 200-mile-wide colonial border region called the Aouzou Strip, which both countries had claimed since 1935. Gaddafi began to solidify his control over the region by creating a network of remote desert fortresses in northern Chad.
As a Soviet-trained staff officer, Haftar was sent to the front lines in 1987. He said in interviews at the time that he was hesitant to take on this new assignment. There were other generals in charge of the war, and Haftar was never in full command. The war in Chad was miserable and unpopular, and the command of Qaddafi’s dirty war could be viewed as more of a punishment than a promotion.
The main fortress for this effort was Wadi Doum, an air base that could handle heavy cargo planes and bombers. Journalistic reports described it as Libya’s Death Star after the 1977 George Lucas space fantasy — a massive undertaking in the Chadian desert.
Haftar called it his Khe Sanh, a reference to the heavily fortified U.S. combat base in Vietnam. Haftar had 5,000 Libyan and mercenary troops, tanks, air power, artillery, rockets and extensive minefields. He would never lose against what he thought were badly armed and poorly trained desert rebels.
Although the Libyan army had plenty of hardware, it was actually Haftar’s soldiers who were poorly trained, mostly by a Soviet bloc cadre and supported by large numbers of Islamic Legionnaires — hired African troops attempting to operate and support the Soviet equipment Qaddafi had purchased. Haftar’s first brush with destiny coincided with his first combat command in Chad’s northern deserts.
Continues in part 2