Khalifa Hifter is a poison tearing Libya apart from within

general-khalifa-haftarGeneral Khalifa Hifter (all stories➚) is a poison in Libya. In the first half of last year, the former “Virginia resident” tried to lead two failed coups against the elected, Islamist-led government in Tripoli (see our coverage here and here), and he unilaterally launched a bloody, unprovoked, and unauthorized military assault — called “Operation Dignity” — against Islamist-aligned militias in Benghazi.

Not only did the operation essentially fail to achieve any sort of purge of purported Islamic terrorism from eastern Libya, but I believe that it was a major factor in the uprising that followed the election of the new secularist government later in 2014. Unlike in Tunisia, which saw a smooth transfer of power from Islamists to secularists and had not seen security forces crack down on Islamists before the elections, Libyan Islamists had good reason to fear that a government aligned with Hifter (yes, elected, but under disputed circumstances and for possibly the last time) would pose an existential threat to them. It is quite possible that without Hifter’s ill-advised and ill-conceived unilateral coup attempts in western Libya and counterterrorism offensives in eastern Libya, Islamist militias would not have seized power in Tripoli and Benghazi in the second half of the year and proclaimed a rival government composed of the remainder of the previous government, which he had tried to overthrow.

General Hifter is not even well-liked among many secularists and members of the more recently elected (and internationally-recognized) legislature and cabinet now stationed in Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. He doesn’t respect them either, as far as anyone can tell, despite their international recognition and democratically elected status. He is as deeply anti-democratic as he is anti-Islamist (which, again, I would argue is one reason the Islamist uprising occurred: fear of his illiberalism and targeted hatred of political Islam). Nevertheless, the elected officials have been unable to to get rid of him, even under heavy pressure from Egypt’s military government — which supports his anti-Islamist aims but not his incompetence.

And that last word — “incompetence” — is the other thing it’s important to remember when considering how he poisons Libya: General Khalifa Hifter is not even good at his self-appointed job. It might be another matter — perhaps — if he actually achieved results or had decisively ended the threat of civil war in Libya. Instead, he stirred war up in the first place and then repeatedly botched things. Simply put, he doesn’t win offensives.
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Gen. Hifter claims “imminent” invasion of Libya capital for at least the 3rd time in 2014

Supposedly, here is the situation, according to Bel Trew, reporting from Cairo for Foreign Policy magazine:

“A ground invasion of the capital is imminent,” [General Khalifa] Haftar told me from his sprawling military base in the countryside outside Merj, a town that lies roughly an hour-long helicopter ride west of Tobruk [where the “House of Representatives” government is temporarily based].

general-khalifa-haftarOk, well that’s got to be about the third time (see first, see second) that he’s said something like that this year, so I’m not sure why we should now believe it has any more chance of succeeding.

The reason given is that General Hifter purportedly now has operational control of western-based pro-“House of Representatives” militias in Kikla, which he means to turn on Tripoli (even though he is in the east himself along with the “House of Representatives” government):

Haftar, 71, has seen his fortunes improve dramatically in recent months. He was declared an outlaw by the authorities after unsuccessfully attempting to overthrow the previous Islamist-dominated parliament in February, and was only recently reinstated by the House of Representatives, which lacked a military force of its own to wrest control back from the militias. Haftar quickly changed that: He absorbed pro-government Western militias into his army, and is currently encircling the capital and fighting Libya Dawn militiamen in Kikla.

I’m not sure why, but Trew is giving his interview statements way more credence and credibility than I would. Hifter’s been pretty disastrously bad at everything he’s tried to do so far this year. Apart from acknowledging that he has a lot of enemies within his own “side” (recall that as recently as October he’d been sidelined and had announced his own retirement) and may not have as much support as some of his titles imply, she seems to be taking a lot of his claims of progress at face value, despite the claims contradicting essentially everything else I’ve read (and his history of making stuff up).

For example, he claims in the interview to have retaken 95% of Benghazi from pro-Islamist militias backing the rival GNC government. She does refer to this as a “claim” — but also suggests he has “gained serious ground” and has “momentum,” based on this claim. Just over a month ago, I noted, based on neutral observers’ accounting and AFP reporting that things were going very, very poorly in Benghazi for Hifter’s forces:

On the military side, the three biggest cities in Libya as a whole — Tripoli, Benghazi, and Misrata respectively — are under full or partial control of the pro-GNC faction and their various aligned Islamist-leaning militias. And the pro-HOR/Hifter forces in Benghazi are reportedly being utterly wrecked by the pro-GNC forces, even while armed with fighter jets and supported by the Egyptian military: In the past month, eighty percent of all deaths (military, Islamist, and civilians) in Benghazi have been from the military or Hifterite militias, according to Agence France Presse, based on Red Crescent and hospital accounts.

Seems hard to reconcile that with suddenly having 95% control and being back on the offensive all over the country. One wonders how much authority he actually has over the Kikla militas at all, given how far away he is from it all, and his apparent lack of leadership ability.
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Derna: “Islamic State” proclaims 2nd “province” … in Libya

Up to 300 Libyan ISIS combat veterans from the Mosul campaign with 500 backing fighters and official recognition from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, officially just captured the Libyan city of Derna. This final action apparently followed a two-month stealth maneuver inside the city to pave the way — targeting various rival Islamist leaders and anti-Islamist authorities — which was led by a senior Iraqi ISIS officer. The #Barqa tag on Twitter has a flood of photos showing the ISIS-led troops parading into the city in a large convoy of pickup trucks that have become so synonymous with both Libyan militias and the ISIS brigades in Iraq.

The group is proclaiming Derna the new local capital of the “Barqa Province” of the Islamic State, in emulation of the so-called “Forat Province” in eastern Syria and western Iraq. (As I noted in an earlier post on anti-Islamist secessionists in the same region, Barqa is the Arabic name for the eastern Libyan region usually known in Europe and America as “Cyrenaica.”) The city of Derna was a notorious contributor of foreign Islamic fighters to the Middle East during the Qaddafi years, so these ISIS fighters are mostly all locals coming back home.

Strategically, ISIS-Libya believes that control of Derna will cut off or reduce major highway access between the Tobruk government and the Islamist-besieged city of Benghazi, Cyrenaica’s largest city.

Road map showing ISIS-Libya positions (in Derna) relative to Tobruk and Benghazi within the greater Cyrenaica (Barqa) region of eastern Libya.

Road map showing ISIS-Libya positions (in Derna) relative to Tobruk and Benghazi within the greater Cyrenaica (Barqa) region of eastern Libya.

A statement issued by ISIS-Libya (not central command in Syria) indicates this intent and a wider intent to vigorously counter the anti-Islamist Operation Dignity forces of General Hifter. From analyst Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s translation of the statement:

The sons of the Islamic State in Derna resolved to take revenge on all who participated with, supported or aided Heftar in his war on our mujahideen brothers in Benghazi […] In support of our mujahideen brothers in Benghazi, a great convoy of the lions of the Caliphate came out to cut off the path and resist a great convoy coming out from Tobruq with 15 tanks headed towards Benghazi. On the arrival of the Dawla’s vanguards to cut off the reinforcements, the apostates heard of the arrival of the Islamic State’s convoy, so they sent in their aircraft and returned to Tobruq. And the Islamic State’s convoy returned safely, having accomplished its mission.

Hifter’s personal army and the Libyan military, as I noted in my earlier post, are being more or less crushed in Benghazi, representing eighty percent of all deaths (military, Islamist, and civilians) in Benghazi from mid-October to mid-November alone.

A third putative “Islamic State province” is also emerging in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, as Ansar Beit al-Maqdiss — Egypt’s most prolific terrorist organization since the fall of Mubarak in early 2011 — joins the ISIS fold (France24 video news report), but they are (to my knowledge) all local Egyptians and not veterans of the ISIS campaigns in Syria and Iraq. For the moment, I would not consider them to be fully integrated with the so-called “Islamic State.”

Libya: Will Cyrenaica (or what’s left of it) secede?

If the world switches its recognition from the newly-unconstitutional but 2014-elected and eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR) government to the rump, western-based, Islamist-aligned, 2012-elected transitional “General National Congress” (the GNC, which should have ended already), tribal authorities in the vast, eastern Cyrenaica territory say they will secede from Libya.

I doubt the international community at large is likely to make such a switch, but if things keep deteriorating that might not be needed to trigger the threatened separation…

A council representing the tribes of the eastern coastal region of Barqa [the Arabic name for Cyrenaica] said that it would be obliged to declare the independence of the region in case the international community and the residents of the Libyan capital Tripoli had recognised the congress, instead of the recently-elected House of Representatives.

“We will have to return to the 1949 constitution,” the council added in a statement. Before 1949, Libya was divided into three autonomous regions, including the eastern region of Barqa [Cyrenaica].

Although Tobruk, the current refuge of the “House of Representatives” government, was previously outfitted (decades ago) the royal capital of Libya and could probably stand in again in a pinch if necessary, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine an independent Cyrenaica that doesn’t include Benghazi, its biggest city.

On the military side, the three biggest cities in Libya as a whole — Tripoli, Benghazi, and Misrata respectively — are under full or partial control of the pro-GNC faction and their various aligned Islamist-leaning militias. And the pro-HOR/Hifter forces in Benghazi are reportedly being utterly wrecked by the pro-GNC forces, even while armed with fighter jets and supported by the Egyptian military: In the past month, eighty percent of all deaths (military, Islamist, and civilians) in Benghazi have been from the military or Hifterite militias, according to Agence France Presse, based on Red Crescent and hospital accounts.

Even Tobruk’s calm has been punctured by bombing attacks on temporary government facilities, which began on October 29. (And nearby Derna has reportedly officially fallen this week to a newly recognized ISIS affiliate led by several hundred Libyan combat veterans of ISIS’s Syria/Iraq war.) Perhaps they want to secede, but the pro-HOR tribal authorities of Cyrenaica might not have much territorial control left soon, without a full-scale foreign intervention. And nobody really has the energy or time for that at the moment, including the governments strongly opposed to the GNC backers.

Map of the three pre-1963 Libyan provinces approximated over a map of present-day subdivisions. (Credit: Spesh531 - Wikimedia)

Map of the three pre-1963 Libyan provinces approximated over a map of present-day subdivisions. (Credit: Spesh531 – Wikimedia)

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.

July 30, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 94


Topics: Big Ideas in U.S. Reform – Measuring government performance; Arms control; Libya crisis. People: Bill and Persephone. Produced: July 27, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– Big Idea: Can government programs’ performance be measured objectively — or is it inherently political?
– Should the U.S. and its NATO allies completely stop selling and giving weapons to other governments, especially repressive ones?
– Is a general from Virginia about to become the next dictator of Libya? Should the U.S. pick a side?

Part 1 – Measurement:
Part 1 – Measurement – AFD 94
Part 2 – Arms Sales:
Part 2 – Arms Sales – AFD 94
Part 3 – Libya Crisis:
Part 3 – Libya Crisis – AFD 94

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links
Segment 1

– AFD: Should government programs be funded Moneyball-style?
– NYT: The Quiet Movement to Make Government Fail Less Often
– AFD: In Mass., Goldman wants in on prison profit stream
– AFD: United State of Unemployment

Segment 2

– AFD: UK has a real arms sales problem on its hands
– Middle East Monitor: Kerry says US will deliver Apache helicopters to Egypt soon

Segment 3

– AFD: US embassy staff moved out of Libya
– AFD: Meanwhile in Libya
– Previously on the show: July 2013 debate on types of U.S. involvement in Syria


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