Haftar Leads A Coup: A General's Odd War on the Muslim Brotherhood
04 June 2014
By Ramzy Baroud
On 16 May, Libya's rogue general Khalifa Haftar staged
several bloody attacks against other Libyan militias
in the name of eradicating terrorism by leading a
paramilitary force evasively named the Libyan National
Army. His well-equipped brigades were rapidly joined
by officers from national army bases in the eastern
parts of the country.
Units from the air force also joined in, along with
tribal gunmen and other militias, particularly the
strong and notorious Zintan militia. The
well-coordinated attacks, named Operation Karama, or
Dignity, resulted in heavy casualties.
When Karama is Not Dignity
Then, with unprecedented audacity, on Thursday he
struck the parliament, sending Libyan lawmakers from
the General National Council (GNC) fleeing for their
lives. Among his demands: the dismissal of the
parliament and the judiciary to take control of the
country's affairs until the next elections scheduled
for 25 June. The man is supposedly a proponent for a
democratically elected civilian government, a
contradiction that is becoming quite common in
post-‘Arab Spring' Middle East.
During the attack on the parliament and the seizure of
government buildings, Haftar's forces were backed by
warplanes and helicopters. The show of force was
massive, even for post-rebellion and NATO-led war
Libya where guns are available in abundance. Needless
to say, Haftar is not a rogue general acting alone. He
is supported by former Libyan Prime Minister Ali
Zeidan, and has strong, rich Libyan and Arab backers.
His long history of relations with the CIA is neither
"misleading" or "old news" as suggested by a recent
article in the UK's Guardian newspaper. But what is
his story? And will he succeed in becoming the Libyan
equivalent of Egypt's General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi?
The February ‘Coup'
Haftar has been actively pursuing a similar media
discourse to that of Egypt's Sisi, who seized power
after overthrowing the democratically elected
government of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Sisi had
masked his action in a lexicon that is predicated on a
very simple logic: associating the Muslim Brotherhood
with terrorism, and vowing to crush the "terrorists"
who are supposedly threatening Egypt's national
security. In a series of interviews, including one
with US network Fox News, Sisi warned of the danger of
Islamic terrorism coming from eastern Libya, and
called for US military support. The "national
security" argument is helping Sisi shift the focus
from urban centres where Egyptian youth has staged
daily and nightly protests demanding the restoration
of democracy to the periphery - as in Hamas in Gaza,
militants in Sinai, terrorists in Libya, and even
Haftar is also out to crush the Islamists, but the
problem is that Libya's Muslim Brotherhood is hardly
the dominant political force in that country. Haftar
knows well that Islamic-leaning parties in Libya are
not all one and the same. Yet, he seemed keen on
emphasising the Brotherhood as a target behind his
ongoing war. He told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in an
interview published in May that he intends to "purge"
Libya of Muslim Brotherhood members. They are a
"malignant disease that is seeking to spread
throughout the bones of the Arab world". He even
formed a Libyan counterpart of Egypt's Supreme Council
of the Armed Forces.
The Libyans are certainly not Haftar's target
audience. Their contention is with the security chaos
that has afflicted their country due to warring
militias following the NATO-backed victory over
Muammar Gaddafi. In fact, Haftar is himself leading
some of these militias, and his "army" has contributed
to the political uncertainty and violence in Libya.
The former Libyan general is clearly attempting to
exploit Egypt's woes to his advantage, but is also
vying for attention from various western governments -
especially Washington that until now seems rather
reluctant to criticise Haftar's attempted coup.
In fact, Washington's indecision is similar to its
silence when Haftar had attempted to stage the first
coup last February, but failed. Afterwards, in a
televised speech, Haftar denounced the government, and
announced his own "initiative", a roadmap of sorts
that saw the disbanding of parliament. Few took him
serious and top government officials mocked his coup
attempt. One described it as "ridiculous". But
consequently, many discovered the name Haftar, and
some became keenly interested to learn more.
Did the Americans Know?
Ashour Shamis is a former partner of Haftar. Both were
members of the US-funded Libyan National Army in the
1980s. In a recent interview with the Guardian he
remarked, "I don't think something like this can
happen in Libya and the Americans would not know about
it." According to Shamis, the Americans "want to see
how much momentum Haftar has and how far he goes."
Indeed, Haftar is doing a great deal to get
Washington's attention, which has somewhat divested
from Libya since the killing of its ambassador there
and three others in September 2012.
To win favour with Washington, Haftar's list of
enemies also includes Ansar al-Sharia, which along
with other militias in Benghazi was accused of
plotting the attack against the US embassy. But it
shouldn't be too difficult for Haftar to gain
Washington's trust. In fact, he already has. It is no
secret that Haftar has had strong backing from the US
Central Intelligence Agency for nearly three decades.
The man has been branded and rebranded throughout his
colourful and sometimes mysterious history. He fought
as an officer in the Chadian-Libyan conflict, and was
captured alongside his entire unit of 600 men. During
his time in prison, Chad experienced a regime change
(both regimes were backed by French and US
intelligence) and Haftar and his men were released per
US request as he was moved to another African country.
While some chose to return home, others knew well what
would await them in Libya, for reasons explained by
the New York Times on 17 May, 1991.
"For two years, United States officials have been
shopping around for a home for about 350 Libyan
soldiers who cannot return to their country because
American intelligence officials had mobilised them
into a commando force to overthrow Col. Muammar
el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader," NYT reported. "Now,
the Administration has given up trying to find another
country that will accept the Libyans and has decided
to bring them to the United States."
Haftar was then relocated to a Virginia suburb in the
early 1990s, where he settled very close to the CIA
headquarters in Langley. The news is murky about his
exact activities living near Washington DC, except for
his ties to Libyan opposition forces, which of course
operated according to US diktats.
In his thorough report, published in the Business
Insider, Russ Baker traced much of Haftar's activities
since his split from Gaddafi and adoption by the CIA.
"A Congressional Research Service report of December
1996 named Haftar as the head of the (National Front
For The Salvation of Libya) NFSL's military wing, the
Libyan National Army. After he joined the exile group,
the CRS report added, Haftar began "preparing an army
to march on Libya". The NFSL, the CSR said, is in
exile "with many of its members in the United States".
It took nearly 15 years for Haftar to march on Libya.
It also took a massive war that was purported to
support a popular uprising. Although he clearly
attempts to brand himself as a potential Sisi, Haftar,
per Baker's description, is the Libyan equivalent of
Iraq's Ahmed Chalabi, a discredited figure with strong
allies in Washington DC, Chalabi was sent to
post-Saddam Iraq to lead the "democratization"
process. Instead, he helped set the stage for the
calamity under way there.
It is no wonder why Haftar's return was a major source
of controversy. Since the news of his CIA affiliation
was no big secret, his return to Libya to join the
rebels in March 2011 caused much confusion. Almost
immediately, he was announced by a military spokesman
as the rebels' new commander, only for the
announcement to be dismissed by the National
Transitional Council as false. The NTC was largely a
composition of equally enigmatic characters that had
little presence within Libya's national consciousness.
Haftar found himself as the third man on the military
ladder, which he grudgingly accepted.
The Right Man for Libya?
Haftar's legacy has been linked to military coups as
early as 1969, when he, along with a few soldiers,
helped Gaddafi overthrow King Idris. Between then and
the last two coups, he was, and perhaps still is,
affiliated with the CIA. But Libya is gripped by
extreme violence and is hostage to the whims of
militias, some tribal, others affiliated with small
towns and large cities - Misrata, Zintan and so on -
and others are loosely affiliated with government
ministries. In times of such befuddling strife, some
people might be ready to accept feeble alternatives.
Despite his dubious legacy, Haftar might oddly enough
appear to some as Libya's strong man.
As expected, many are not convinced. Powerful militias
are also lining up against Haftar. Misrata's 235
militia brigades are ready to fight. They have already
deployed near Tripoli. If this showdown is allowed to
carry on, a bloody civil war will be awaiting Libya,
one that might prove even bloodier and lengthier than
the NATO-led war against Gaddafi. This time around,
however, neither NATO nor the US seem willing to get
involved again, at least not until one warring camp
proves worthy of their support. In all cases, Libya's
suffering is likely to linger.
- Ramzy Baroud is the Managing Editor of Middle
East Eye. He is an internationally-syndicated
columnist, a media consultant, an author and the
founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is
My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story
(Pluto Press, London).