Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of eastern Libya, has placed his six sons in positions of political and military power. The deadly floods in Derna have seen his youngest, Saddam, rise to head of disaster relief management and the top of his succession charts. For Libyans, it spells more bad news.
Wearing camouflage fatigues and his customary scowl, Saddam Haftar pours over a map of Libya in an airy chamber identified as the “Libyan Emergency Room” in a post on X, formerly Twitter. At his side are three Russian officials, part of a Russian defence ministry team that arrived in eastern Libya days after dams collapsed in Derna, unleashing a disaster of biblical proportions.
“Brigadier General Saddam Haftar, Head of the Libyan Emergency Room, follows up on the latest developments of search and rescue operations,” notes the post by a Libyan local news site barely a week after the September 11 catastrophe, which has been dubbed “Libya’s 9/11”.
The youngest son of Khalifa Haftar, Saddam is often cited as the “possible successor” to the 79-year-old strongman who has controlled eastern Libya for nearly a decade.
As the head of Tareq Ben Zayed (TBZ) brigade in his father’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), the youngest Haftar is better known for seizing money from Libya’s Central Bank vaults, according to the UN, and “inflicting a catalogue of horrors” in eastern Libya, according to Amnesty International.
At 32, the Haftar scion has no experience in relief administration or management. But last week, he was appointed head of the Disaster Response Committee to handle a humanitarian crisis of shocking proportions.
As millions of dollars of humanitarian aid pours into eastern Libya, the international community will be forced to coordinate relief operations under a strongman’s son with a documented record of embezzlement and human rights violations. For the Libyan people, this is yet another source of despair heaped on the loss and trauma of the flooding, which was caused by decades of state neglect.
Gaddafi falls, Haftars rise
Saddam Haftar was born in 1991, a year after his father, a top commander in Muammar Gaddafi’s army, fled into exile in the US.
The youngest of Haftar’s six sons grew up in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi with his mother while his father was in the US, according to The Africa Report. “Little is known about his youth apart from the fact that he has no known secondary school qualifications,” noted The Africa Report.
He was 20 when the 2011 anti-Gaddafi uprising erupted, bringing his father back home from exile. The young man’s fortunes started to rise after 2014 when his father attacked rival armed groups, triggering the second Libyan civil war, which resulted in Khalifa Haftar’s LNA controlling the eastern Cyrenaica region.
In 2016, Saddam Haftar was appointed head of the TBZ brigade, one of the most powerful armed groups operating under the LNA. “Since then, TBZ fighters have been committing violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, some of which may constitute war crimes,” noted Amnesty International in “We Are Your Masters”, a chilling, 21-page report detailing rampant violations committed with impunity in LNA-controlled areas.
Saddam Haftar’s name also appeared in a 2018 report by a UN panel of experts on Libya, which accused him of seizing control of the Benghazi branch of the country’s Central Bank in 2017 and transferring “substantial amounts of cash and silver to an unknown destination”.
The contents of the bank safe included $159,700,000, €1,900,000 and 5,869 silver coins, noted the report. “Several bank managers indicated that LNA commanders had put them under serious pressure to grant them access to cash and letters of credit. Some had decided to move abroad for security reasons,” the UN report noted.
Avoiding the ire of the Haftar family is a fundamental survival strategy that residents of eastern Libya have adopted for nearly a decade, with good reason. On November 10, 2020, Hanan al-Barassi, a Libyan human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist, was shot dead in broad daylight in Benghazi a day after she posted a Facebook message promising that she would reveal alleged corruption by Saddam Haftar, according to Amnesty International.
Brothers compete but are loyal to patriarch
The young Haftar derives his power from his father, an indispensable Libyan player who has at various points engaged with the US, Russia, France, Italy, the EU, Egypt and the UAE, even as he dismays officials in global and regional capitals. But within the family, there are persistent rumours of competition between Haftar’s six sons.
Saddam was once commander of the LNA’s 106th Battalion, which functions as Khalifa Haftar’s personal guard. He was replaced as battalion commander by his elder brother, Khaled, who has a university degree and is considered more polished than his youngest sibling.
Loyalty to the patriarch is paramount among Haftar’s sons, who lack the military training and experience of their progenitor.
On September 11, when Derna’s dams burst, another son, Elseddik Haftar, was in Paris, where he declared he would be open to a Libyan presidential bid in the future.
The master of disaster relief takes a question from the press
In the aftermath of the Derna catastrophe, Libyans inside the country and the diaspora are on alert over the disbursement of aid that has poured in from across the world, wary of corruption and the “securitisation of aid”, according to Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The signs are worrying. “In the evening following Derna’s catastrophe, you could see the guilt and incompetence shake the ranks,” said Megerisi. “From the third day onwards, Derna was essentially turned into a military zone. The area was filled with armoured personnel carriers and multiple checkpoints.”
LNA-controlled parts of Libya have long been an “informational blackhole”, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), with foreign journalists denied access while local reporters are unable to criticise the Haftars or their cronies. “In the country’s east, reporters are under Haftar’s power, and no media can criticise the military,” notes RSF.
As news of the extent of the Derna disaster trickled out last week, a few international news teams managed to make it into the flood-hit city. They encountered scenes of utter devastation as well as surreal displays of Haftar power.
A Sky News team spotted Saddam Haftar touring Derna in a pickup truck packed with armed guards. But when the 32-year-old crisis management chief was asked a few questions, his face was “a picture of irritation with me”, noted correspondent Alex Crawford.
The rare, brief exchange with a journalist promptly went viral on X, with one commentator noting, “He seems annoyed he can’t murder her”.
By Tuesday, international news teams were ordered to leave Derna – a day after residents protested in front of the landmark gold-domed Sahaba mosque. Telephone and Internet links were also cut. A UN aid team was also refused access to Derna, according to a spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Eastern Libyan officials denied the communications and access cuts were linked to Monday’s protests.
But analysts had no doubt the developments were linked. “The city’s communications are shutdown with Libyan & international aid teams kicked out. Locals are now terrified of an impending military crackdown as collective punishment for yesterdays protest and demands,” noted Megerisi on X.
The Derna disaster saw Libyans from across the divided country come together to provide aid to the victims of the flood. But few believe the displays of unity will extend to Libya’s fractious political elites.
While the floods have washed away several city districts, killed thousands and displaced tens of thousands, Haftar and his sons appear firmly entrenched in eastern Libyan power circles.
On November 7, Khalifa Haftar will turn 80, a milestone that has seen the strongman of Cyrenaica place his sons in lucrative posts and top military ranks. Rumours of Haftar’s failing health have led analysts to question if any of his sons will be able to replace the father.
Likening the prospect to the TV series “Successor”, Megerisi predicts a fraught process. “Eastern Libyans, the tribes and community leaders have made it clear that they didn’t sign up for a new hereditary monarch. They don’t accept the idea of Haftar’s sons taking over. Haftar’s sons find it very hard to impose themselves on the military since they don’t have the educational or military training and they are engaged in considerable corruption,” said Megerisi.
While many Libyans have little love for Khalifa Haftar, they acknowledge that the prospect of his sons taking over their father’s networks could plunge the country into another round of instability.
“Libya must be in a more stable place before Khalifa Haftar dies,” said Megerisi. “The structures and institutions need to evolve before that. Over the past few years, different countries have been backing different son. Each son will try to be more feudal, protecting his interests and inflicting more corruption, death and destruction in Libya.”