From Rebel to Refugee: Haftar becomes an American
Abandoned and insulted by Qaddafi, Haftar and his fellow prisoners of war languished for three years in a Chadian prison until sprung by the CIA and flown to America.
As a young Egyptian-born military officer, Khalifa Haftar rose steadily in Muammar Qaddafi’s post-revolution Libyan military to the rank of colonel. In the spring of 1987, he was assigned to a remote, high-profile Libyan base in northern Chad called Wadi Doum and, within weeks, was defeated and captured as his superior forces were overwhelmed by foreign-backed Chadians.
Abandoned and insulted by his mentor Qaddafi, Haftar found a new CIA career as the leader of a fictional rebel army based in Chad. The Libyan National Army (LNA) was just one of a number of opposition groups supported and often created by the U.S. around the world during the Reagan era.
History does not reveal any major public successes by rebel leader Haftar. His 700 Libyan POWs-turned-mercenaries were more of a psychological threat to Qaddafi than a military one. The CIA went on to use Haftar’s proclamations and saber-rattling primarily as a way to manipulate and undermine the Libyan leader.
The LNA, or the Libyan Contras, as Reagan’s team called them, were under the protection of Chadian President Hissène Habré’s military, which was led by Gen. Idriss Déby. Déby thought he could convince Haftar and his Libyan rebels to help him overthrow Habré. The plot was discovered, and Déby fled to neighboring Sudan, where he ended up under the protection of Qaddafi.
Then, on April 1, 1989, with French help, Déby returned to Chad and quickly deposed Habré. On Dec. 2, 1990, the general took control of N’Djamena, the capital, and soon after, the rest of the country.
After less than a week in power, Déby formally asked Qaddafi to come and get Haftar and his CIA-supported group, which had been held in the Am Sinéné prison in suburban N’Djamena since their capture at Wadi Doum. Qaddafi arranged to send an aircraft to collect his former enemies. Col. Masoud Abdel Hafeez, nicknamed “Mr. Chad,” was tasked with disarming and repatriating Haftar’s rebels.
There was a flurry of internal memos in Virginia and Washington, D.C., on how to deal with this looming Haftar disaster as the administration of President George H.W. Bush scrambled to clean up yet another Reagan Doctrine mess. Bush rebranded the Libyan rebels as the Haftar Group to give them an innocuous, less Reaganesque name.
The CIA under William Webster had to move quickly. The mercenaries feared being sent back to Libya, but some were more terrified of staying with Haftar. During his three-year tenure as a rebel leader, Haftar was accused of organizing firing squads to execute those he accused of crimes or disloyalty.
Haftar managed to delay a meeting with Hafeez, who was on his way with special forces and a cargo aircraft to bring all the prisoners home. That provided just enough time for the Americans to airlift the rebels out of Chad over the course of two days on multiple flights, using a single Hercules 145, starting on Dec. 7.
This hair-raising escape triggered a series of secret but urgent negotiations with African leaders as the U.S. desperately tried to find some country to take in the Haftar Group.
First stop: northern Nigeria. The layover lasted only 24 hours, as Qaddafi successfully pressured Nigeria into expelling the former POWs. Haftar and his men soon were on their way to an abandoned air base in southern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), which at the time was ruled by an old CIA asset, President Joseph Mobutu.
The Haftar Group was allowed in the country with the understanding that in exchange for their protection, Mobutu would receive $4 million in U.S. military aid. To pressure the U.S. and cover his options, the wily Mobutu also negotiated with Libya to sell the prisoners back to Qaddafi.
To sweeten the deal, Mobutu gave Libyan diplomats, intelligence agents and even family members access to the former POWs. The pressure and money from Qaddafi worked again, as 250 of Haftar’s men agreed to return home.
That left 350 prisoners who were trapped in hostile haggling between Mobutu and the Qaddafi delegation, while Mobutu used the Libyans to pressure the Bush administration into paying protection money.
Accounts from the trapped POWs showed them to be as terrified of the locals as they were of Qaddafi’s revenge. Some Libyans armed themselves with rudimentary weapons and booby-trapped their housing. The Red Cross visited, along with representatives of Morocco and Egypt, who offered to find a place to resettle the prisoners in their respective countries.
The prisoners quite rightly feared a Libyan trap behind all these offers of asylum and refused to leave. Gaddafi then sent an aircraft from Libya with passengers posing as family members. When inspected by the Red Cross, the passengers turned out to be Libyan soldiers in civilian clothing carrying guns and grenades.
Finally, the United Nations High Command for Refugees intervened, threatening to take the Haftar Group’s plight and backstory to the U.N. Security Council. The Bush administration was again desperate to keep this disaster quiet.
Fearing that Qaddafi would use it to his advantage, the State Department wrote the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, noting that “it would be extremely desirable to do everything that is necessary to avoid complications around this issue.”
When Congress refused to approve $4 million in military funds for Mobutu, and after almost two months as pawns, Haftar and his men saw their positive prospects dwindle. Mobutu kicked them out of the country at 2 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1990, the night of a lunar eclipse.
The next flight in the Haftar Group’s long, strange journey was in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter to Kenya, where President Arap Moi agreed to let the Libyans stay as long as the U.S. paid $5 million in military funds.
Congress considered Moi in the same light as Mobutu, a corrupt, human rights abuser and not someone the U.S. was thrilled about supporting militarily.
Eventually, the Bush team gave up trying to bribe African leaders to take in Haftar and his remaining men. The rebel group would find sanctuary in America. While immigration officials processed the paperwork, the U.S. constructed a secret tent camp in Kenya to hide the rebels from Qaddafi, who called the evacuation of the Libyan citizens “an act of piracy.”
“We compromised our human rights policy in Kenya somewhat,” a senior State Department official told The New York Times in March 1991, “but we felt we had little choice.”
The rebels’ transition to the United States as refugees wasn’t cheap: The U.S. agreed to pay $5 million in military aid to Moi in exchange for temporarily sheltering the rebels.
Finally, on May 16, 1991, Haftar and his weary men made the long flight from Nairobi to New York. Other than a mention in The New York Times, they received no fanfare or welcome. Processed and parceled off to 24 states, the rebels were rewarded with $2,000, food stamps, free health care and an American passport.
Haftar’s career as a rebel, like his military career, had come to an inglorious end. Despite all the covert funding, training and support, Haftar’s men never launched a single military offensive. As one State Department official summed it up, “We waited beyond their period of usefulness. We handed Qaddafi a propaganda victory.”
Continues in part 5