The Field Marshal: Dreams of dictatorship
Haftar was someone Americans could believe in. After all, he was an American fighting terrorism in a place that echoed what was quickly becoming a one-word political insult aimed at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Benghazi.
The same week that Libyan President Aquila Saleh proposed Khalifa Haftar as the commander of the country’s armed forces, the double issue of The New Yorker for Feb. 23 and March 2, 2015, hit the newsstands. The magazine included a well-timed profile of Haftar, which was the first major U.S. media anointment of the naturalized American as potential leader of Libya.
Written by Jon Lee Anderson, the feature article portrayed Haftar as the strongman Libya needed, with the journalist claiming he had visited Haftar’s military base “earlier this winter.” The photographs by Gabriele Micalizzi showed a haphazardly uniformed group of Libyans with Haftar, glasses askew, giving his best stern general look.
The 7,400-word profile described Haftar as “a mild-looking man in his early seventies, [who] has fought with and against nearly every significant faction in the country’s conflicts, leading to a reputation for unrivalled military experience.”
There was no evidence to back up this statement, but it sounded good to an American audience. Haftar was someone Americans could believe in. After all, he was an American fighting terrorism in a place that echoed what was quickly becoming a one-word political insult aimed at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Benghazi.
On March 2, the Libyan House of Representatives officially named Haftar as the head of the Libyan National Army with the rank of lieutenant general. The Erik Prince–subsidized whirlwind shuttle diplomacy and deal making had worked. The next day, Prince’s aircraft returned to Malta, empty.
Haftar’s appointment did not make all Libyans happy. “Haftar has become one of the most divisive figures in post-revolution Libya,” Al Jazeera reported.
That certainly didn’t deter Prince, who wasted no time trying to drum up business with his new associate, who finally had an official position. He and Haftar promptly put forward an initiative titled “Libyan Sovereign Control Proposal” to stop the flow of migrants from eastern Libya to Europe.
The proposal called for five air bases staffed with a total of 1,100 Libyans trained by 50 foreign mercenaries. Prince’s Hong Kong–based logistics company, Frontier Services Group, would provide trainees; logistics; helicopters; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft; vehicles and a maritime interdiction fleet of fast boats. The plan was not well-received.
Its main flaw was that migrants set off for Europe from western Libya, where Haftar had no influence. And the idea of using military-level violence and militias against men, women and children seeking work or asylum in Europe did not resonate well. But as a Trojan Horse to insert mercenary forces that would quickly extend Haftar’s power base, it was a good idea.
The financing was also problematic. The idea was to unlock frozen Libyan Investment Authority funds. All Haftar needed was a bank account. To get one would require getting around EU and U.S. financial sanctions, ignoring the UN Arms Embargo and convincing Germany, Italy and other Western European countries that it was in their interest to back a private mercenary army using military force to stop migrants while they were still in North Africa.
It was a tall order and predictably failed. It also clearly showed that in 2015 Haftar did not have major backers.
The online news publication The Intercept detailed how Prince traveled to Macau to open a bank account for Haftar and even met with Chinese intelligence officials in Beijing to overcome the initial resistance he had encountered in the gambling capital. Ultimately, Prince did open an account at the Bank of China but denied that it had anything to do with Haftar.
All this banking activity was picked up by U.S. intelligence agencies that were justifiably concerned about what Prince was doing in Libya, China and other nations, given his federal charges and agreement to stay out of the mercenary business. (Undeterred, Prince continued to pitch his idea of mercantile migration control, writing an op-ed in the Financial Times on Jan. 2, 2017.)
Prince’s Malta-based FSG jet was dispatched on one last important trip, flying from Tobruk to Malta to Vienna on June 1 with just two passengers on the manifest.
This trip appeared to fulfill Haftar’s dream of attending the OPEC meeting in Austria, which began four days later, or at least of holding side meetings, even if he had not been invited as the head of the country.
The Cessna, which was piloted by “ANO” and “SDH,” returned to Malta on June 2, empty.
This undercover diplomatic jet-setting might explain the curious rise of Khalifa Haftar, but there is no public record of who paid for the flights and who was on them, or whether Haftar attended the OPEC event.
The Tobruk-based House of Representatives in the east had put Haftar in charge of the Libyan National Army, but the parallel government in Tripoli in the west and regional holdouts were frustrating his ambitions.
Islamist militias under the Operation Libyan Dawn banner were firmly in charge of the capital, while Haftar controlled the eastern militias under his Operation Karama (Dignity) campaign.
The government continued to pay large numbers of militia members and former regular Army soldiers on both sides. Haftar began building his military resources while other Libyans looked to find consensus. Twenty-two parliamentarians signed the Skhirat Agreement in Morocco on Dec. 22, 2015, to end the violence.
By January 2016, the UN announced an interim parliament, the Government of National Accord, had been formed in Tunisia, Libya’s neighbor to the west, but neither the Tripoli-based GNC nor the House of Representatives in Tobruk recognized it. In fact, opposing forces blocked Libyan airspace, forcing the new government led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj to arrive in Tripoli by boat, in late March.
Despite the chaotic political and security conditions, the Skhirat Agreement was enacted on April 6, effectively creating an official government and a peaceful path to elections.
It didn’t take long for outside actors to test the GNA. In June and July intelligence sources analyzing satellite photos determined that the UAE had deployed six IOMAX Archangels, a weaponized version of the Air Tractor AT-802 agricultural aircraft, and three Wing Loong drones, the Chinese knockoff of the Reaper, at Al Khadim Airport in Al Marj province. Al Marj was Haftar’s base, and al Khadim is about 100 miles east of Benghazi.
Prince and a team at one of his aviation companies had modified the crop-spraying Air Tractor in 2007, based on CIA concepts developed in Colombia. To operate the Wing Loongs, the UAE hired mercenaries linked to Prince associate, Michael Roumi, who fronted for Prince as the head of the private security firm Reflex Responses, or R2, which had a $529 million contract with the UAE to develop a foreign battalion. Roumi met with Prince in Tripoli on a visit during this period.
By late November 2016, the Air Tractors close-support bombers and Wing Loong drones were being used to attack civilians in Benghazi. In September 2017, the runway at Al Khadim was expanded to accommodate jet fighters. It was becoming clear that Haftar was receiving support from foreign actors, despite the UN arms embargo.
In addition to crimes in the air, there were crimes on the ground. Wanis Boukhmada, the commander of the Saiqa (Thunderbolt) Special Forces brigade in Benghazi, was an early and important Haftar supporter.
In May 2017, he promoted one of his officers, Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli, from captain to major, even though al-Werfalli had appeared on numerous execution videos. In one, the theme from “Pirates of the Caribbean” was played as al-Werfalli murdered two unarmed and bound prisoners.
Haftar took it further in July, promoting al-Werfalli to lieutenant colonel. A month later, after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for al-Werfalli for eight ISIS-style videotaped executions in Benghazi and Derna provinces. Haftar had him arrested, questioned and promptly released.
Haftar himself has been accused of war crimes and of ordering extrajudicial killings. He was videotaped telling his LNA troops to “take no prisoners.” His indiscriminate shelling and destruction of Derna to root out Islamists continues to be held up as an example of his brutality toward civilians and noncombatants.
Haftar was videotaped saying, “The blockade means choking. There is no medicine, there is no medical care . . . no petrol, no [cooking] oil. These issues, my brothers, we talk about them clearly.”
That summer of 2017, after three years of urban warfare, ISIS was finally ejected from Benghazi, and by December the fighting there was over. In July 2018, Haftar claimed the LNA was in full control of Derna, the last Islamist stronghold in eastern Libya.
Emboldened, Haftar announced in April 2019 that he was marching on Tripoli.
A Russian military analyst in Libya, “Ivan” filed an assessment that gave Haftar zero chance of taking the capital: “The Russian military command has repeatedly asked to be familiarized with the plan to take Tripoli but it has never been presented. Most likely it simply doesn’t exist.”