Libya’s Rogue ‘War on Terror’

Is retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar finally reining in out-of-control Islamist militias, or is he dealing a body blow to this country's hope for democracy?


TRIPOLI, LibyaThe boy was only a teenager when the Libyan revolution erupted. As hundreds of youths began streaming to the front lines, he quit his university studies in pharmacology to join them. The experience, however, changed him.

"He came back a different person," says his aunt, an activist from the eastern city of Benghazi now living in the United States. "He later joined Ansar al-Sharia, and they brainwashed him."

She now vocally supports retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s rogue campaign against Islamist militias — including Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line group whose members are accused of involvement in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, and which the U.S. State Department designated as a terrorist organization in January — even though it puts her own nephew in the cross-hairs.

"Haftar’s actions are the only way out of this," she says. "Most of these extremists are crazy. You cannot have a dialogue with them."

It’s a frequently heard refrain in Libya, as Haftar’s campaign gathers endorsements from a motley range of figures, from disgruntled current and former army and police officers to tribal militiamen and armed federalists seeking autonomy for the country’s eastern region. Former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan — a fierce critic of the Muslim Brotherhood — and the country’s ambassador to the United Nations have also expressed support. This unlikely alliance has been brought together by a perceived common enemy: Libya’s powerful Islamist militias and their alleged political backers, whom Haftar accuses of taking over the country’s nascent democratic institutions.

In interviews with Western media, Haftar has divulged few details on the goals of his campaign. The septuagenarian general refers to his effort as a "war on terrorism" and speaks vaguely about how this battle is "on behalf of the whole world."

When Haftar speaks to Arab media, however, it is evident he is targeting Islamists more generally. "The main enemy," he told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, "is the Muslim Brotherhood," whose affiliated political party holds the second-largest number of seats in Libya’s elected national congress. Haftar vowed to purge the Islamist movement from Libya, referring to it as "this malignant disease that is seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world." He insisted he does not want to seize power, but would run for president if "the people demand it."

According to one Libyan who has known him for decades, Haftar developed an intense animosity for Islamists of all hues when he served under Muammar al-Qaddafi, before defecting in the 1980s. "Haftar’s hatred for the Islamists is almost visceral, and he doesn’t distinguish between the extremists and those who engage in politics," this Libyan says. "He believes they must all be tackled in the same way — through force."

Haftar’s offensive, which opened with air and ground assaults on Benghazi bases belonging to several Islamist militias, has not only triggered deadly violence, but it has also led to some of Libya’s largest demonstrations since the fall of Qaddafi. Thousands have taken to streets of Tripoli, Benghazi, and other cities inspired by Haftar’s push against the Islamist militias.

While some at the protests insist they support the campaign and not the man — Haftar’s dubious background, including alleged collaboration with the CIA, makes many Libyans wary of him — others hail the renegade general a hero. "Go, go, Haftar. Show Ansar al-Sharia what you can do," chanted protesters on Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square last Friday, May 30, as they smashed up a mock coffin scrawled with the militia’s name.

Haftar’s slogan for his campaign, "Operation Dignity," has resonated with a public grown weary by lawlessness and the grip of militias, both Islamist and not. Over the past year, militiamen have briefly kidnapped the prime minister, blackmailed the head of parliament, repeatedly assaulted the assembly itself, abducted foreign diplomats, and blockaded eastern oil ports, slashing the country’s main source of revenue.

Benghazi, which has been plagued by assassinations and bombings that many blame on Islamist militias, has so far borne the brunt of Haftar’s campaign. More than 75 people have already lost their lives in the violence. The population of Benghazi, meanwhile, appears divided. A week after Haftar’s offensive began, one protest in the city supported his operation, while another demonstration opposed it. At the anti-Haftar rally, hundreds packed the seafront square (made famous for its huge protests in the early days of the 2011 uprising) to listen to speakers, including militia commanders, denounce the retired general’s moves as a coup or counterrevolution.

Haftar appears to have set his sights on a dense patchwork of Islamist-leaning militias rooted in the dynamics of the 2011 uprising. "Once we clean Benghazi, we will go to Derna next," said one of his aides, referring to the troubled eastern city where a number of extremist groups hold sway.

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Eastern Libya was known for its religiously tinged resistance against Qaddafi, and it is now struggling with a new generation of fighters radicalized in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. More than 50 men from Derna went to Iraq with the aim of becoming suicide bombers — the largest number from any city outside Iraq — according to a 2007 study by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Those who returned have since made the detention of fellow Libyan jihadists in countries including Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen a cause célèbre and have pressured the post-Qaddafi authorities to lobby for their release. In April, Jordan’s ambassador to Libya was seized by militants in Tripoli and used as a bargaining chip to successfully secure the release of one such prisoner, a Benghazi native sentenced to life for plotting to blow up the airport in Amman.

After Qaddafi’s fall, many of eastern Libya’s Islamist-leaning revolutionary factions splintered or were folded into new, often quasi-official outfits. A number of prominent figures lost influence, in some cases to individuals with a more rigid ideological outlook. However, some of the most radical groups — such as Ansar al-Sharia, which was formed after the revolution — remain separate from state-affiliated security structures. These groups draw support from diffuse networks of former inmates of Tripoli’s infamous Abu Salim prison, where dissidents, a large number of them Islamists, were incarcerated under Qaddafi. Their orbit also includes Libyans who joined Salafi-jihadi networks abroad, including in Syria, Mali, Algeria, and the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then returned home.

Ansar al-Sharia represents a parti
cular challenge. The group, which began as an armed unit of a few hundred fighters, has transformed itself through charitable and missionary works into a broader movement, woven into the fabric of the fledgling post-Qaddafi state. The movement’s ranks contain men from across the socioeconomic spectrum, among them doctors, teachers, and other professionals. In Benghazi alone, mediators estimate its support base runs to at least 4,000.

Libyan authorities face the dilemma of determining where Ansar al-Sharia’s armed core ends and the wider social movement begins. Some have advocated a "force-only" approach to it and similar factions, insisting they should be designated as terrorists, while others argue that this will only drive such groups into the shadows and exacerbate the problem.

Haftar’s actions brought the debate over all this to a head. Ansar al-Sharia reacted fiercely to the anti-Islamist campaign, condemning it as a "war on Islam" backed by the West. Its leader, Mohamed Zahawi, gave a fiery televised address warning the United States not to interfere, or it would face worse than the conflicts in Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Zahawi’s words revealed the divisions within Libya’s diverse Islamist milieu, as Muslim Brotherhood figures, former leaders of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and prominent clerics all rushed to criticize him. Significantly, it was the first time such a wide range of Islamists had publicly denounced Ansar al-Sharia.

"Zahawi and Haftar represent two extremes that will block Libya’s progress," says Derna congressman Mansour al-Hisadi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who has been threatened by extremists in his hometown. "What they have in common is they are both against the democratic process — one in the name of religion and the other in the name of the military."

With Haftar’s offensive continuing — his forces carried out further airstrikes in Benghazi, which were followed by heavy fighting that left at least nine dead — and Ansar al-Sharia and its supporters growing more belligerent, the stage is set for a long, bloody war of attrition.

The Libyan activist acknowledges this, but isn’t wavering from her staunch support for Haftar. "It might get worse before it gets better," she says. "But no one else is offering another solution. That’s the problem."

<p> Mary Fitzgerald is the Irish Times foreign affairs correspondent. She is currently researching Libya's Islamist landscape for a forthcoming book. </p>