Quiet Times in Virgina: Two decades in exile

From his home in northern Virginia, Haftar continued to bluster, presenting himself in Arab publications as a dissident commander training Libyan rebels, although he served in no army and held no rank.

Haftar and 350 of his former rebels were shuttled out of prison in Chad to Nigeria, then to Zaire and then to a camp in Kenya. Finally, in May 1991, they were safe in America. Haftar and the other Libyans spoke little if any English.

According to some of the former soldiers, which the Reagan administration had dubbed the Libyan Contras, they were given $2,000, food stamps and an American passport on arrival. As officially designated refugees, they were also eligible for English language instruction, vocational training, medical assistance and other benefits.

They met the international definition of having a well-founded fear of persecution,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

Scattered accounts indicate that between 1991 and 1996 Haftar dutifully maintained the image of a rebel in exile. A 1987 CIA research paper, titled “Libyan Opposition Groups: Much Sound, Little Fury,” claims there were around 50,000 Libyan expats globally, with only 10 percent active in 20 or so dissident groups.

The basic problem was that Libyans were incapable doing much more than make Qaddafi increase his security.

From his home in northern Virginia, Haftar continued to bluster, presenting himself in Arab publications as a dissident commander training Libyan rebels, although he served in no army and held no rank. He did maintain his association with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), however, as the head of a now-fictitious Libyan National Army.

Someone seemed to be underwriting his personal finances, but his expatriate friends didn’t fare as well. Those who had been in Chad with Haftar drifted into driving cabs and otherwise getting on with their lives as newly landed immigrants.

There is one elusive piece of evidence that apparently shows Haftar was still a rebel with a cause — an obscure video interview that has yet to be found but is referenced in numerous biographies.

In the autumn of 1991, Haftar was reportedly filmed promoting a rebel training camp to Arab media. He and a group of men were allegedly interviewed in an undefined wooded location described as “four hours from CIA headquarters,” which are in Langley, Va.

Haftar brags on camera that this was where his 400 fedayeen, or commandos, who are spread across 24 American states have congregated for a one-week classroom and field training courses.

Haftar boasts that this is just one of three camps in the U.S. set up to train rebels to overthrow Gaddafi. He assures the reporter that this was proof that the Libyan National Army was still a fighting force. They were just waiting “for the right time to return.”

While in the U.S., Haftar also began to embellish his closeness to Qaddafi, insisting to a number of media outlets that he was part of Qaddafi’s inner circle during the 1969 coup that toppled Libya’s ruling royal family.

On Dec. 19, 1991, the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat published an interview with Haftar, who was using the name Abdul Gassim Khalifa Hifter. In the article, the former Libyan commander takes a journalist around his training camp. The article describes three large buildings and trainees located on a classic military training base.

It is not clear exactly what Haftar was doing. The CIA did keep exiles from Iran, Iraq and other hostile places in its pocket. In the post-Reagan era, more erudite firebrands like Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress attracted funding.

There were rumors that some Reagan-era rebels were kept afloat and in training. Some of the better students were selected to train at a Rocky Mountain facility in Colorado alongside the fighters of Angolan strongman Jonas Savimbi, the Nicaraguan contras and the Jesh al Inkadh (Army of Liberation).

This information comes from the fortnightly newsletter Africa Confidential (Volume 32, 1991), which also mentions Haftar traveling to Saudi Arabia. But a CIA training camp in the mountains made no sense for insurgents trying to stage an urban coup in the burning sands of Libya.

In the U.S., Haftar went by the name Khalifa A. Hifter. Plug it in with a Sept. 1, 1948, date of birth, and a number of addresses pop up between 1993 and 1996:

1020 Moorefield Hill Place SW, Vienna, Va., 22180-6248
5505 Seminary Road, Apt. 1605, Falls Church, Va., 22041-2951
5505 Seminary Road, Apt. 2511, Falls Church, Va., 22041-3546

6101 Edsall Road, Apt. 1211, Alexandria, Va., 22304-6007
9451 Lee Highway, Apt. 903, Fairfax, Va., 22031-1821
RR 3, POB 138, Keysville, Va., 23947

It is intriguing that in addition to the low-key family homes and apartments in suburban Virginia, Haftar kept a post office box in Keysville. It’s a rural town almost three hours south of Washington, D.C.

It is logical to assume that a man who chose to live less than 20 minutes from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and who had been guided, trained, paid and protected by the agency since shortly after his defeat in 1987 at Wadi Doum, would be a CIA asset. But not according to Haftar.

His answer to being called a tool of the CIA is consistent: “All this is misinformation.” Which is exactly why Haftar and his contras were originally invented, all based on a three-page memo written by National Security Advisor John M. Poindexter to President Reagan on Aug. 14, 1986.

Haftar has admitted in interviews conducted while imprisoned in Chad following the Wadi Doum defeat that he received some “political help,” but he insists he was not and is not beholden to U.S. intelligence.

Although the Saudis and the U.S. were linked in their support of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), with its Haftar-led military wing, the Libyan National Army, the media saw the group as just one of many useless Beltway governments in exile. In a Nov. 16, 1987, article in The Washington Post, one insider described them as “nobodies, klutzes and incompetents.”

So who was investing in Haftar?

Mohamed Buisir, one of Haftar’s former political advisers, insists the Libyan commander was simply living off money that wealthy Libyan expats provided, and the training camp was just a way to show the money was being put to good use.

There was also a very real coup attempt in Libya in an area of influence with Haftar’s tribal connections. Military officers and tribes in Bani Walid and Tarhuna were involved in fomenting a failed army uprising from Oct. 11 to 14, 1993.

There were no Libyan media reports, but the NFSL insisted there were multiple uprisings led by a 2,000-man group based in Misrata, including an attempt on Qaddafi on Oct. 13.

In reality, the plot by the 42 officers, all of whom had tribal links to the Wurfala, was uncovered by Qaddafi’s intelligence services, and the men were executed. An estimated 280 civilians died. Qaddafi went on the air to warn Libyans of heretics, CIA elements and other stray dogs.

It was becoming clear that Haftar’s time was slipping away. Now in his mid-40s, Haftar resigned from the NFSL on Feb. 13, 1994. A month later, he created the Libyan Change and Reform Movement (LCRM). He chose his timing wisely. In 1995 the NFSL held a conference in Atlanta, but the exiled opposition group was becoming increasingly irrelevant and ineffective.

Military putschs were old-fashioned. Violent Salafism was now the tool being used to dislodge and disrupt nations. When the U.S. and Saudi Arabia pumped billions into their covert war to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, they created a new monster — violent Islamic groups with global reach.

In 1996 Islamic extremists under the name Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi-Libya, began attacking government targets in Libya.

Expat Beltway intellectuals in expensive suits trying to defeat dictators with newsletters and cassette tapes fell out of vogue. By 1999 the NFSL was described as “ineffectual” in an Economist Intelligence Unit report.

The group held its last meeting in 2007. Some members did go on to take part in the Arab Spring revolution in Libya, in 2011, but Haftar was done. There is no official or media mention of him until he returns to the U.S. after the revolution in Libya.

He simply disappears between 2000 and 2011.

Continues in part 6


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