Confusion in Libya as Egyptian jets bomb Benghazi

It’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on in Libya right now, even for the people there…

First, a quick recap of the year to present before today’s big event:

Earlier this year, an anti-Islamist former Army general, Khalifa Hifter, attempted to seize power in western Libya unsuccessfully. That effort having failed, Hifter regrouped and launched a rogue “security operation” to try to unilaterally clear eastern Libya of pro-Islamist militias in the city of Benghazi. This appeared to work for a time, and he tried to seize power in western Libya again, also without much effect. That was probably the high point of his efforts, in hindsight.

In August, the newly elected anti-Islamist government fled to Tobruk (in the east, in the coastal district next to Egypt) from Tripoli (the capital, in the west) as the latter city fell to pro-Islamist militia forces who supported the previous government. I speculated that this geographical repositioning — to the safest possible area away from Islamist factions — might signal either an imminent coup or an impending request for intervention from the anti-Islamist military government of President Sisi next door in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, mysterious fighter jets appeared over Tripoli and bombed rebel positions. The United States government announced after several days that it believed the airstrikes had been from the United Arab Emirates Air Force with support from Egyptian air bases, a claim Egypt denied officially and loudly.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Instead of those airstrikes beating back the pro-Islamist militias in western Libya, the militias simply gathered themselves up and launched a concerted offensive on eastern Libya. They entered the city of Benghazi in recent weeks, leaving many Hifter sympathizers to flee to places like Tobruk (though he himself is reportedly still in Benghazi). Military barracks and other key sites of the anti-Islamist renegades and the official armed forces rapidly fell.

So what happened today?

Well, nobody is sure exactly, but we do know that mystery jets appeared again and bombed Islamist positions, this time in Benghazi (AP).

So who’s behind it?

The Associated Press got anonymous sources inside the Egyptian military to say that this was an Egyptian Air Force operation:

Egypt deepened its involvement in the fight against Islamist militias who have taken over key parts of Libya on Wednesday, with officials saying Egyptian warplanes have bombed their positions in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The two officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militiamen that will eventually involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces.

Publicly, and at the highest levels, Egypt again denied this had occurred.

The official line either way seems to be that the anti-Islamist government internally exiled to Tobruk, not far from the border with Egypt, authorized whatever happened:

The operation, they said, was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk.

A prominent Libyan legislator, whose father heads the Libyan Air Force, also denied that Egypt itself had bombed Benghazi, claiming to the AP instead that they were loaner planes:

Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed to the AP that Egyptian warplanes were taking part in the ongoing operation in Benghazi, but said that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. He says the planes were “rented” by the Libyan administration from Egypt. Al-Jorushi is awaiting confirmation of his appointment on the Tobruk-based parliament’s national security committee, which is responsible for such issues. He is also the son of the head of Libya’s air force, Gen. Saqr al-Jorushi. He said he learned that the planes are Egyptian from the new chief of staff

A Benghazi militia commander opposing the militarists and the Tobruk government offered this intelligence to the media:

Earlier on Wednesday, a top Islamic militia commander based in Benghazi said Egypt sent its warplanes to hit his group’s positions.

“We have photographs of the Egyptian warplanes and Egyptian naval forces stationed in eastern cities,” he told the AP. He said the planes were taking off from an airport in Libya’s eastern city of Bayda.

Bayda is a coastal city about halfway between Benghazi and Tobruk.
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Theoretical implications of moving the Libyan government to Tobruk

A few weeks back, the newly elected government made the decision to move the parliament and government functions temporarily to Tobruk in light of the very heavy fighting in Tripoli (the capital) between two major rival Western Libyan militias, the Zintan Brigade and the Misrata-based Dawn of Libya militia coalition.

Libya, of course, has long been split in many directions (partially by intentional policy of Col. Gaddafi), but has been particularly increasingly divided between its western and eastern halves as a result of the 2011 Civil War. That war saw eastern Libya become independent of the prior regime for almost half a year before the country was reunited. Tripoli is one of the major cities in western Libya and was one of the last to fall during the 2011 Civil War.

In contrast, Tobruk is so far east along the Libyan coast that it’s the district capital of the district bordering Egypt. It’s not the biggest center of power in eastern Libya — that would be Benghazi — but it’s still significant and is probably the runner-up. Tobruk was actually the former core of the post-World War II Libyan monarchy, prior to its overthrow by Gaddafi. It was also one of the earliest cities to rebel in 2011.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Overall the eastern part of the country (and especially Benghazi) is the part most strongly under the influence of the anti-Islamist and probably anti-democratic faction led by General Khalifa Hifter (see all our coverage of Hifter), which is attempting a slow-motion coup. Tripoli is the least under his influence and had been substantially more favorable toward Islamist-aligned militias, instead of the secular militias. Hifter’s prior attempts to seize control of the government in Tripoli were met with mockery in no small part because the members of parliament and the cabinet were out of his reach from Benghazi. And his relative strength in the capital has further declined as the Zintan Brigades, the Tripoli militia most closely aligned with Hifter’s agenda, are pushed out of their power position in the capital by the Islamist-aligned Misrata militia forces.

The people who moved the parliament and cabinet temporarily from Tripoli are, in addition to being the newly-elected administration, represent the parliamentary faction that is most friendly to General Hifter. Now the semi-official interim capital has suddenly moved all the way from western Libya to eastern Libya and stands between General Hifter’s Benghazi and (like-minded) General Sisi’s Egypt. (There have been much-denied rumors of Egyptian military involvement in some of the recent air operations against Hifter’s enemies and Sisi has ominously not ruled out military involvement in Libya against Islamist militias, given his own authoritarian secularism and anti-Islamist counterinsurgency campaign in Egypt. || Update 8/25/14: U.S. officials now say Egypt supported an attack in Tripoli by the pro-Zintan United Arab Emirates Air Force.)

No wonder the opposing faction was furious about the government being moved “temporarily” from Tripoli to Tobruk: It’s now sitting there for the taking by the secular-militarists following General Hifter, if they decide they want it. They just have to reach out and take control.

Of course, as always, that assumes one can really “seize power” in a country as fractious and decentralized as Libya.

Meanwhile in Libya…


The gains by ISIS in Iraq may be hogging the headlines, but let’s not forget about the situation in Libya. When we last left the story, in May, General Khalifa Hifter was attempting a second coup (again unsuccessfully) and rallying the anti-Islamist militias and secular-leaning non-loyal troops and aircraft to his side in Benghazi, the major eastern city. Benghazi is an ideal recruiting ground since many of the best organized militias started there at the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising against Gaddafi. He was having less success in the capital, Tripoli, in the West.

Since then, the internal fighting has continued to widen between the major blocs. Hifter was initially making more headway in his attacks on the Islamist militias in Benghazi and was rallying more forces to his cause. But loosely affiliated western forces under the Zintan Brigade had already held the main airport in Tripoli. Islamist militias struck back at the airport this weekend causing flight disruptions as well as consternation among outsiders (i.e. Westerners), who seem to vaguely prefer Zintan control of the facilities and runways — or perhaps just stability in who is controlling them.

There was also a national general election near the end of June, which although partially disputed and less than ideal is on track to be resolved relatively smoothly in the next couple weeks. The anti-Islamist bloc dominated the results this time, unlike last election, which means the side most sympathetic to Hifter’s position is expected to gain power, while the backers of the Islamist militia will be relegated to a minority. Could that position General Hifter for a “democratic”-coated rise to power in Libya?
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Renegade ex-general again attempts Libya coup

general-khalifa-haftarVirginia’s finest rogue foreign officer is at it again in Tripoli, Libya this week, as he tries a second time this year to seize power in the country from which he was exiled from 1987-2011. This time he actually remembered to bring troops.

About three months ago, Gen. Khalifa Hifter tried to overthrow the government of Libya without much success:

Former longtime Virginia resident and past/present Libyan military general Khalifa Hifter attempted to seize power in Libya on Friday, claiming he had suspended parliament and initiated a military takeover to put the country back on the right path. Then what happened?

What happened was that nobody showed up. So that coup went poorly. At least no one got killed in that effort.

But the ex-general (or current general, depending on whom you ask), who may have been a longtime CIA asset, bided his time and continued building up his personal army in the country’s major cities. In the last couple days, his forces stole military aircraft and launched a combined air-ground assault on an Islamist fighter base in Benghazi. Then, actual units of the Libyan military joined in for the hell of it, leaving the government in Tripoli to sputter in impotent rage about how he had not been authorized to conduct military actions (which is, of course, also true of every warlord’s personal army in the country at the moment, but that hasn’t stopped anyone). At least 70 people were killed in the unauthorized raid and 140 more were injured.

Finally today, after several recent weeks of unrelated internal upheaval in the transitional national government and a new prime minister (or three), this weekend former General Hifter has rolled back into town — literally — with a lot more mobile firepower and people. After some fighting near the largely empty buildings, he announced he was replacing the national parliament with his own emergency cabinet.

Gunfire rang out in streets surrounding the General National Congress complex in the capital, Tripoli, witnesses said, and the official LANA news agency said routes leading to it had been blocked by armed men with truck-mounted heavy weapons.

Frightened residents took to social media to report rocket fire in at least one area of the capital, and the road to the city’s international airport was closed. The Associated Press cited hospital officials saying the attack killed one person and wounded nine.

It was not clear whether any lawmakers were inside the parliament building at the time of the assault. LANA quoted one as saying most had left earlier after a session was adjourned, and other reports said the building had been nearly emptied after warnings of the coming attack. However, the website of the Libya Herald, an English-language newspaper, said seven lawmakers apparently had been captured by the assailants.

A spokesman for Khalifa Haftar, the former general, later appeared on television to say the assailants had assigned a 60-member constituent’s assembly to take over for parliament and that the current government would act on an emergency basis, the Associated Press reported.

It remains to be seen if the national parliament and cabinet will be able to fend off the armed insubordination — or if anyone even notices. Because as I noted in his last coup attempt, would anyone really even notice if he “seized power”?

In reality, it’s kind of absurd on its face that a general would try to stage a “coup” in Libya. Right now there barely is a Libya.

Summary of NYT’s Benghazi report

libya-flagThe huge New York Times investigation into the 9/11/12 Benghazi attack was released today. Here’s the super short version of the key findings:

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

The full article is rather long — though I do recommend reading it fully — so I’ve also provided a more detailed summary below.

While Susan Rice’s initial theory connecting the Benghazi raid to the anti-Muslim video was quickly discarded by people — mostly Congressional Republicans — eager to tie the attack to al Qaeda, it seems pretty likely now (based on many eyewitness accounts) that it was in fact the spark and the 9/11 anniversary was coincidental. Meanwhile, al Qaeda has never even internally claimed responsibility for the attack, and their documents as well as phone intercepts seem to indicate they had not been able to establish a foothold locally yet and were surprised when the attack unfolded.

Instead, the attack was haphazardly and quickly planned in the preceding days (and partly improvised that night) by local groups — not al Qaeda or any foreign group — and the impromptu signal to attack was the news coming over Egyptian satellite TV that Egyptian protesters (against the video) had gotten inside the Cairo compound by that evening.

In contrast to the heavily defended U.S. Embassy in Egypt, the Benghazi consulate (in Libya) was virtually unprotected that night. Angry gunmen from nominally pro-U.S. local groups quickly joined into the attack, after falsely hearing that U.S. guards had shot peaceful demonstrators protesting the video. The video seems to have been the straw the broke the tenuous back of U.S. relations with the many unpredictable and heavily armed local factions (or at least their foot soldiers). When the few remaining dedicated pro-American gunmen arrived to try to stage a rescue of U.S. personnel, they were heavily outnumbered and forced to turn away.

Certainly, it seems reasonable to say that the consulate and the nearby CIA office should have had much better protection than they did — given that they had almost none — but there was no coverup and there was no pre-planned international terrorist attack to mark the anniversary of 9/11. But I’m sure the New York Times won’t convince anyone who thought it was a vast conspiracy or whatever.