Assault on Libyan National Army Commanders Convoy Reveals Rifts between Militias

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2011

As the murder of General Abd al-Fatah Yunis and two of his aides on July 28 showed, Libya’s new government is still subject to the whims of the diverse armed factions that overthrew Mu’ammar Qaddafi. [1]The uneasy relationship between the various self-styled “Brigades” that emerged victorious in the revolution was demonstrated once again on December 10 when members of the Zintan militia became involved in a firefight with a convoy carrying Major General Khalifa Haftar, a CIA-supported anti-Qaddafi dissident who has taken command of the nascent Libyan National Army in a process that has been poorly received by many of the militia leaders.

General Khalifa Haftar

The clash just outside of Tripoli International Airport came the same day as a national reconciliation conference opened in Tripoli (al-Jazeera, December 11). A military spokesman, Sergeant Abd al-Razik al-Shibahy, characterized the attack as an “assassination attempt,” saying two vehicles had awaited the arrival of the convoy under a bridge before opening fire (al-Jazeera, December 11). 

The commander of the Zintan militia, Colonel Mukhtar Fernana, gave a very different account, saying Haftar’s heavily-armed convoy refused to stop at a checkpoint 3km from the airport and opened fire on the militiamen, wounding two. The Zintan fighters pursued Haftar’s convoy to a nearby military camp where a second gun-battle broke out (AFP, December 11; Reuters, December 12).  Two Zintani fighters were reported killed and two others wounded, with no casualties in General Haftar’s convoy (AFP, December 11). A spokesman for the Zintan Brigade, Khalid al-Zintani, suggested the incident was more of a misunderstanding, saying the army had failed to notify the militia that the general was coming to the airport (AP, December 11). Al-Zintani also expressed some of the militias’ doubts about the so-called National Army led by Haftar: “Until now, we don’t know anything about the Libyan national army. Who is in charge, where are the military bases, what is its chain of command or even how can rebels join it? On the ground, the so-called national army is nothing yet” (SAPA-AP, December 11).

It was unclear if the incident was related to other reports that members of “the national army” had tried to confiscate weapons and take over an airport checkpoint from the Zintan militia that controls the airport, leading to a firefight in which at least two were wounded (AFP, December 10). The militia from Zintan, about 160 km southwest of Tripoli, is thought by many residents of Tripoli to have overstayed their welcome in that city after playing a major role in the battle to expel the Qaddafi regime. The Zintan Brigade is still holding Qaddafi’s son, Sa’if al-Islam, after his capture in the deserts of southwestern Libya. Clashes in the town of Zintan with members of a neighboring tribe have also been reported in the last few days (al-Arabiya, December 14).

Haftar was unanimously approved as commander-in-chief of the yet to be formed Libyan national army on November 17 by a group of 150 ex-rebel officers, though many leading commanders (including Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, the powerful Islamist commander in Tripoli) had no say in the appointment. Many militia commanders have since come out in opposition to the move (AFP, November 19; al-Jazeera, December 11). Haftar has since said he hopes to have an operational army and police force running by the end of March, 2012, but estimates that it will still take three to five years to build an army strong enough to protect Libya’s borders (AP, December 12).

The Soviet-trained Haftar was an original member of the Revolutionary Command Council that overthrew King Idris in 1969. Considered a traitor by Qaddafi after he was captured by Chadian forces during the 1980s struggle over northern Chad, Haftar agreed to defect and create the “Libyan National Army,” a CIA-supported anti-Qaddafi insurgent group formed from captured Libyan troops. After a new Chadian regime expelled the LNA in 1991, the group failed to find permanent refuge elsewhere in Africa and Haftar and several hundred LNA members were resettled in the United States to await deployment against Qaddafi. Two decades later the call finally came, and Haftar and a number of LNA members returned to Libya in March to join the anti-Qaddafi revolt. [2]

The troubles at Tripoli International Airport did not end when the gunfire stopped; on December 13 air traffic controllers walked off the job in an unannounced strike that played havoc with local air schedules (Reuters, December 13). In late November, protesters from the Suq al-Jama’a district of Tripoli demanding an investigation into the deaths of several members of the Suq al-Jama’a militia in Bani Walid blocked a Tunisair Airbus full of passengers from taking off at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, a major target during the NATO air campaign (Reuters, November 27).

Despite protests by local policemen against the continued presence of armed gunmen in the streets of Tripoli, the militias claim they are the only ones capable of protecting the capital against unnamed threats. The military council representing the militias has said the gunmen will only withdraw once a new Libyan national army is created (AFP, December 11). Without a centralized security structure, militias in Tripoli continue to man checkpoints, patrol streets and provide security at Tripoli’s military and commercial airports (Gulf News, December 10). With the cessation of hostilities, the militias are essentially guarding areas of Tripoli from other militias.

Libya faces a number of challenges in developing a modern professional army; its best units supported Qaddafi and are now largely dissolved. Much of the army’s best armor and artillery was destroyed in NATO air attacks and will have to be replaced. The composition of the army will also be a subject of debate. Will former supporters of the regime be allowed to join? Will tribal representation play a role in forming a new national army? Will the military leadership be based on connections or competency? What outside powers will be called upon for training and arms supplies?

In the meantime Libya is in danger of descending into warlordism. The militias are amply armed courtesy of the uncontrolled looting of the government armories and are unlikely to participate in any disarmament effort that does not involve a lucrative role in government and the simultaneous disarmament of all rival groups. Strangely enough, reconciliation with the losers in this conflict must take a back seat to reconciliation between the victors if Libya is to move forward.


1. For the murder of al-Yunis, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 4.

2. For a profile of Haftar, see Derek Henry Flood, “Taking Charge of Libya’s Rebels: An In-Depth Portrait of Colonel Khalifa Haftar, Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2011.

This article first appeared in the December 15, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.