Attempt to Expel Khalifa Haftar from Benghazi is Just Latest Challenge for Libya’s “Field Marshal”

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, November 14, 2017

The leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is suddenly finding his presumed path to becoming Libya’s latest strongman ruler blocked by various hurdles in the form of war crimes accusations, tribal conflict, internal dissent and allegations of corruption and nepotism. While Haftar’s LNA (actually a coalition of militias rather than a “national army”) remains Libyan’s most potent military force, it is not as strong nor does it control as much territory as the Field Marshal and his supporters would have the international community believe.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Libyan Express)

Haftar is the leader of the military arm of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) parliament, which claims to be the legitimate government of Libya rather than the rival Tripoli-based Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which is recognized by the United Nations as Libya’s legitimate government. In reality, both factions are different arms of a tripartite national government formed by the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). In Libya’s political confusion, even this rivalry is not set in stone; some members of the PC/GNA support the HoR and some members of the PC/GNA support the HoR. A political resolution of Libya’s civil conflict is impossible without the different arms of government uniting in a common purpose. Khalifa Haftar, however, shows every sign of intending to become a new Qaddafi-style strongman while giving lip-service to the provisions of the LPA.

Opposition from the Awaqir

Friction between Haftar’s camp (supported by members of his Furjan tribe) and the Awaqir Arabs of eastern Libya dates back to the January 2016 appointment of Awaqir member al-Mahdi al-Barghathi as the GNA’s Minister of Defense. Up to that point, al-Barghathi had served under Haftar as commander of the LNA’s 204th Tank Brigade. His defection to the rival GNA government in Tripoli was roundly denounced by Haftar and his lieutenants. Haftar soon distanced himself from two Awaqir armed groups formerly under his command, Faraj Egaim’s “Special Tasks Forces” and Salah Bulghaib’s “Military Intelligence” militia.

Awaqir Tribal Leader Braik al-Lwati

The dispute reached the point of no return when Awaqir tribal leader Braik al-Lwati and five other tribesmen were killed by a car bomber while leaving a mosque in Suluq (southeast of Benghazi) in May 2017.[1] Haftar was widely suspected of ordering this and other assassinations of Awaqir figures as the tribe began shifting its loyalties from Haftar to the PC/GNA. This was an intolerable situation for Haftar, who regards Benghazi as LNA turf. The PC/GNA Defense Minister al-Barghathi survived a Benghazi car-bomb attack in July 2016.

The conflict intensified when the Presidency Council appointed Awaqir tribesman Faraj Egaim the new Deputy Minister of the Interior on August 31. Haftar quickly denounced the move, calling it a “threat to national security,” while blaming “the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups” of being behind the appointment.[2] Egaim was targeted by a car-bomb in Benghazi days later but survived.

Faraj Egaim and Members of the Interior Ministry (Marsad Libya)

A second unsuccessful car-bomb attack on Egaim occurred on November 5, 2017 after he opened an investigation into LNA involvement in a massacre of prisoners outside Benghazi. Five days later, Egaim told the Jordan-based 218 News TV on that he blamed Haftar for orchestrating the latest car-bomb attempt on his life and for ordering a mortar attack earlier that day (November 10) on the Interior Ministry base in Benghazi’s Budzira district that killed three members of his command. With audible anger, Egaim gave the “troublemaker” Haftar, his sons and followers 48 hours to quit Benghazi and turn the city over to the Sa’iqa Special Forces Brigade commander Wanis al-Bukhamada, adding “We declare war on the traitor [Haftar] and his camp…”[3] Egaim also accused Haftar’s followers of committing all the abductions and murders in Benghazi since 2014 during a second November 10 interview on the Libya 218 TV channel.[4]

The next morning (November 11), LNA troops stormed Egaim’s Benghazi headquarters. There were no deaths in the attack and no report of prisoners, though the assailants reported seizing all the Interior Ministry vehicles.[5]

Other LNA units, including the 106th Brigade commanded by Haftar’s son Saddam, moved on the predominantly Awaqir town of Bersis, 60 km east of Benghazi, where Egaim kept a second headquarters.[6] Egaim’s HQ there was taken on the 12th and his home destroyed by heavy artillery.[7]

Initial reports that Egaim had been taken prisoner in Marj shortly after the assault on his Bersis HQ proved false.[8] Haftar issued an arrest warrant for Egaim and ordered all security checkpoints in eastern Libya to watch for the fugitive commander.[9] The Field Marshal then left the search to his subordinates, taking an unscheduled trip to Dubai, purportedly to watch an Air Show.[10] Meanwhile, members of the Awaqir tribe took to social media to issue threats to Haftar’s Furjan tribe.[11] With Egaib on the run, the LNA ordered the absorption of Salah Bulghaib’s largely Awaqir “Military Intelligence” unit into the LNA’s main intelligence group.

Accusations from Haftar’s Former Spokesman

Colonel Muhammad al-Hijazi, a former officer in Qaddafi’s army, quit as spokesman of Haftar’s Operation Dignity (the name for Haftar’s anti-Islamist offensive) in January 2016, accusing him of war crimes in Benghazi and a desire to become a new Qaddafi: “We cannot be silent anymore about his killings, kidnappings, destruction and forced disappearances.” He also accused Haftar of illegally transferring military funds to his sons in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan.[12]

Colonel Muhammad al-Hijazi (Libya Observer)

Al-Hijazi returned to the attack on November 4, accusing Haftar of destroying Libya’s social fabric and authorizing a wave of assassinations in eastern Libya: “We were deceived when he said he did not want any position of power, then he raised his own status and gave his sons, who are civilians, military ranks and now he is seeking a mandate to rule all of Libya.” Al-Hijazi claimed many officers wanted to quit Haftar’s LNA, but feared torture and assassination at the hands of Haftar loyalists.[13]

The former LNA commander alleged that the “assassinations, political killings [and] secret prisons” were the work of the Salafist fighters under Haftar’s command. These fighters are influenced by Saudi cleric Osama al-‘Utaibi and the anti-Sufi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood Madkhalist ideology, which has gained traction in the LNA leadership.[14] Al-‘Utaibi was invited by Haftar to conduct a speaking tour of eastern Libya in January and February 2017.[15] Unprecedented restrictions imposed soon after ‘Utaibi’s visit by LNA chief-of-staff Major General Abd al-Razzaq al-Nazhuri on women travelling without male companions were viewed as an example of the cleric’s growing influence.[16]

Al-Hijazi also singled out certain Haftar loyalists as responsible for the “massacre” of civilians by airstrikes on the Islamist stronghold of Derna, namely LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad al-Mismari, LNA chief of staff al-Nazhuri and LNA air force chief Saqr al-Jarushi.[17] Al-Jarushi is known for his May 2015 televised threats to Libyan troops who had failed to join Haftar’s forces, saying that if they failed to join by the end of the month, they were “traitors who have to be slaughtered and their wives must be raped before their eyes.”[18] 

War Crimes Allegations

Haftar ignored demands last week from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to turn over a commander in the LNA’s Sa’iqa Special Forces Brigade who is wanted for personally executing 33 prisoners in a series of seven videotaped killings. An ICC arrest warrant was issued in August for the commander, Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Warfali. Al-Warfali submitted his resignation last May, but it was refused by Sa’iqa chief Wanis al-Bukhamada. In June, al-Warfali was accused by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya of running a number of secret and illegal prisons.[19] Haftar’s response to the ICC’s extradition demand was to ask: “There are crimes being committed in Libya every day, so why are you focusing only on Warfali?”[20]

  1. Commander Mahmoud al-Warfali

As if to answer the Field Marshal’s question, the ICC may be about to expand their focus to Haftar himself. New allegations of LNA war crimes emerged with the October discovery of 36 bodies found in a quarry in al-Abyar, southeast of Benghazi. The bodies were bound and blindfolded and showed signs of torture and bullets fired into their heads at short-range. According to local witnesses, the victims had been arrested by the LNA months ago and included not only political opponents but LNA members who disagreed with Haftar’s methods. Some security sources implicated Mahmoud al-Warfali and Saddam Haftar.[21]

In Europe, a group of civil rights lawyers is pressing the ICC to prosecute Khalifa Haftar, insisting that he must take ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops: “Hundreds of civilians have been deliberately targeted by those forces resulting in their murder, torture, and displacement.”[22]

The Field Marshal is also under attack on a new and unexpected front – Washington. Libyan human rights activist Emadeddin Zahri Muntasser has met with US government officials in Washington and requested an investigation into war crimes and financial malfeasance allegedly committed by Khalifa Haftar and his sons Saddam, Khalid and al-Saddiq, all US citizens. Muntasser’s 300 page complaint claims the Haftars have violated the US Neutrality Act by enlisting in foreign service as officers as well as other acts prohibiting war crimes, genocide and torture.[23]

Several other Libyan groups are reported to be preparing lawsuits against Haftar timed to be introduced during Haftar’s upcoming visit to the US to attend the wedding of his son Uqba Haftar.[24] The multiple complaints and lawsuits may prove embarrassing in the US, where Haftar was closely associated with American intelligence services for two decades.

In an effort to ward off the mounting complaints against him, Haftar authorized his son Khalid to retain the Washington lobbying firm Grassroots Political Consulting (GPC). The firm will advocate on Haftar’s behalf in Congress and provide political and strategic advice. The six-month contract is for $120,000.[25] Though this effort may bear some fruit with poorly informed politicians, other elements of the international community will be sure to note the continuing resistance within Libya to acceptance of the Field Marshal as Libya’s new strongman.

NOTES

[1] Libya Observer, May 19, 2017

[2] Libya Observer, September 2, 2017.

[3] Libya Observer, November 10, 2017.

[4] Libyan Express, November 10, 2017.

[5] Xinhua, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 11, 2017.

[6] Libya Herald, November 11, 2017.  Bersis is the site of an Interior Ministry prison where detainees are held without charge and allegedly tortured by prison personnel. See Libya: Widespread Torture in Detention: Government Should End Arbitrary Detentions, Ill-Treatment in Eastern Libya, Human Rights Watch, June 15, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/17/libya-widespread-torture-detention

[7] Xinhua, November 12, 2017.

[8] Libyan Express, November 11, 2017.

[9] Asharq al-Awsat, November 13, 2017.

[10] Libya Herald, November 13, 2017.

[11] Libya Herald, November 10, 2017.

[12] Libya Observer, January 22, 2017.

[13] Libya Observer, November 5, 2017.

[14] For the Madkhalists in Libya, see: Andrew McGregor, “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali,”January 19, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3840

[15] Libya Observer, November 5, 2017; Libya Herald, February 7, 2017.

[16] Libya Herald, February 19, 2017.

[17] Libya Observer, November 5, 2017.

[18] Awalan TV, May 19, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgWbYsEX5dI

[19] Libyan Express, November 8, 2017.

[20] Asharq al-Aswat, November 8, 2017.

[21] Al-Jazeera, October 29, 2017; AP, October 29, 2017; Libyan Express, October 28, 2017.

[22] Libya Herald, November 13, 2017.

[23] Libya Observer, October 17, 2017.

[24] Middle East Monitor, November 6, 2017.

[25] Odwyerpr.com, November 7, 2017, http://www.odwyerpr.com/story/public/9698/2017-11-07/rogue-libyan-general-retains-dc-lobbyists.html