Haftar Returns to Libya: The revolution starts without Haftar
The Arab Spring movement had created popular uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Now the unrest spread to Benghazi.
On Feb. 15, 2011, internal discord erupted in eastern Libya. The Arab Spring movement had created popular uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Now the unrest spread to Benghazi, triggered by Qaddafi’s arrest of Fathi Terbil, a lawyer representing the families of an estimated 1,200 prisoners who had been gunned down in 1996 for protesting conditions in Tripoli‘s Abu Salim prison.
Three Libyan jihadis back from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan had started the prison riot. This new type of rebel would soon eclipse faux insurgents like former Army Col. Khalifa Belqassim Haftar.
By Feb. 17, protests over Terbil’s arrest had intensified into a “day of rage,” inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Demonstrators demanded that Qaddafi free political prisoners and resign. Security forces responded with water cannons and rubber bullets. But activists deployed what was ultimately a more effective weapon.
The internet had been introduced to major cities in Libya by early 1997. But even with just 18 percent penetration, social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had a powerful impact in what had been a state-controlled information landscape.
Now, the internet and social media ignited mass protests that turned into a defiant stand against the violence and intimidation of the Qaddafi regime. The fuse was lit, and the revolution began.
Qaddafi took to traditional media to promise the externally provoked and supported demonstrators would be met with real bullets. And they were. The government’s response was so violent that on Feb. 25, 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned Qaddafi’s “gross and systematic violations in Libya.”
Within 24 hours the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1970, which imposed an arms embargo on Gaddafi, members of his family and his government. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was also quick to get involved to pursue Gaddafi if he were captured alive.
Within 11 days of the first protests, rebels in Benghazi had created the National Transitional Council (11 months later it handed over power to the General National Congress in Tripoli, the national capital).
Back in northern Virginia, Haftar felt that he was the obvious choice to be official leader of the revolution. His moment in history had arrived, even though he had no mandate or backing from any outside source, including the CIA. “Haftar could have pulled it together,” one of Haftar’s agency handlers from Chad told me. “He was hardheaded, a wrecking ball.”
But Haftar had long since lost his base of Reagan-era support in Washington. Before leaving for Libya, he had met with the U.S. State Department and the CIA to demand a list of sophisticated weapons. He was ignored.
His arrival in Benghazi on March 12 was deliberate and staged. In his book, “The Burning Shores,” Federic Wehrys describes how Haftar and his entourage showed up at the front lines in Infiniti luxury cars. Two days later, when Haftar made his first public appearance, he looked nervous and bedraggled to the 130 or so officially invited foreign journalists at the Rixos Hotel.
The Washington Post noted that Haftar was not entirely convinced his presence in a violent, chaotic Benghazi was a good idea. While dining with supporter and businessman Fathallah Bin Ali, he asked, “Do you think I’m committing suicide?” This rare introspection does not match Haftar’s natural hubris.
Haftar insists that one of the first things he did in Libya was reach out to Qaddafi. “When I arrived . . . a week after the February 2011 uprising, [Qaddafi] called me,” Haftar said. “I told him to back off, to hand over the power to the people and to fade away. He hung up on me.”
Haftar was not well-known and had very little public background. He was portrayed by some in the media as a Libyan leader returning from exile. The young revolutionaries saw him very differently.
He was an archaic Qaddafist, a retired colonel, a prisoner of war from a forgotten conflict in Chad, the CIA’s man and an American citizen who had not been to Libya in two decades. Although he had connections to members of his tribe, he was a stranger in a strange land.
Jon Lee Anderson, in his New Yorker article, “Who Are the Rebels,” described the blue-haired Virginian as a man who “elicits widespread admiration in Benghazi, but he, too, has kept out of sight, evidently at a secret Army camp where he is preparing elite troops for battle.”
There were other reports of a secret training base in eastern Libya, where U.S. and Egyptian instructors were handing out weapons, but there were also amateur attempts to psyop Qaddafi’s troops. Most camps were ad hoc, simple attempts to keep young volunteers alive. Most barely provided two weeks of basic instruction.
A news account captures the reality of newly minted rebels preparing for a daylight ambush of Qaddafi’s seasoned troops. “We don’t know what we’re doing,” a weaponless, flip-flop–wearing plumber named Kamal Mohamed, 31, admitted. His strategy? “I’m waiting for someone to be killed, then I’ll take whatever he has and try to use it.”
The international community had become increasing outspoken in its support of overthrowing Qaddafi. On March 19, the U.S and its European allies began airstrikes in a purported effort to prevent a state-directed assault against peaceful protestors in Benghazi.
It was not clear who would actually run Libya if Qaddafi was deposed. Haftar had no doubt. As far as he was concerned, his biggest challenge to his dream of leading a coup was his former classmate and Qaddafi confidant, 67-year-old Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis.
A member of Obeidat tribe near Benghazi, Younis had been the head of Libya’s special forces for 41 years. He had quickly defected to the rebel side when Qaddafi began to use violence on protestors and brought with him other officers who created a cohesive military opposition.
Haftar tried to make Younis his subordinate by announcing the first of his soon-to-be-famous television coups. In early April the media spokesman for the National Transitional Council, Col. Ahmed Omar Bani of the Libyan Air Force, surprisingly announced that Haftar was in charge of the rebel campaign, and Younis was downgraded to chief of staff. The NTC had not approved the rash statement, which was ignored.
Haftar was living up to the rebels’ criticism that he “had arrived in Libya with a swaggering arrogance and an expectation that he would automatically be put in charge of the armed fight against Gaddafi,” according to The Guardian.
Younis had a couple of setbacks in the fight against Qaddafi, but Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, vice-president of the Interim National Council, rebuffed Haftar’s attempt to replace him. “We defined the military leadership before the arrival of Haftar from the United States,” said Ghoga [SOURCE?]. “We told Mr. Haftar that if he wants, he can work within the structure that we have laid out.”
Younis and two of his deputy commanders were kidnapped and murdered in July 2011, giving Haftar a higher profile but for the wrong reasons.
Seven month later, on October 20, Qaddafi was dead. Captured as his convoy tried to flee Sirte, the Libyan leader was hunted down in a drainage ditch, bayoneted, beaten and then summarily shot.
The dream was over. The West had finally supported Libyan dissidents who could topple Qaddafi. To celebrate the dictator’s death, President Obama bragged that “without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives.”
Haftar was quick to exploit the power vacuum. In November 2011, he canvassed about 200 officers and asked them to appoint him chief of general staff. Army officers in Benghazi blocked his efforts, but that didn’t stop Haftar from building a network of former Qaddafi officers and tribal militias as allies.
Continues in part 8