Khalifa Haftar

Khalifa Haftar
General Haftar.jpg
Haftar in 2011
Birth nameKhalifa Belqasim Haftar
Born (1943-11-07) 7 November 1943 (age 76)
Ajdabiya, Italian Libya
AllegianceLibya; Libyan House of Representatives
Service/branch Libyan Ground Forces
Years of service1966-87; 2011-present
RankField Marshal[1]
Commands heldLibyan National Army
Battles/wars
AwardsRed diploma (high honours) – M.V. Frunze Military Academy

Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar (Arabic: خليفة بلقاسم حفتر‎; born November 7, 1943) is a dual Libyan-American citizen[2] who is a military officer and the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which, under Haftar's leadership, replaced nine elected municipal councils by military administrators,[3] and as of May 2019, was engaged in the Second Libyan Civil War. On 2 March 2015, he was appointed commander of the armed forces loyal to the elected legislative body, the Libyan House of Representatives.[4]

Haftar was born in the Libyan city of Ajdabiya. He served in the Libyan army under Muammar Gaddafi, and took part in the coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969. He took part in the Libyan contingent against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.[5] In 1987, he became a prisoner of war during the war against Chad after being lulled into a trap and captured, then a major embarrassment for Gaddafi and represented a major blow to Gaddafi's ambitions in Chad. While held prisoner, he and his fellow officers formed a group hoping to overthrow Gaddafi. He was released around 1990 in a deal with the United States government and spent nearly two decades in Langley, Virginia, in the US, gaining U.S. citizenship.[6] In 1993, while living in the United States, he was convicted in absentia of crimes against the Jamahiriya and sentenced to death.

Haftar held a senior position in the forces which overthrew Gaddafi in the 2011 Libyan Civil War. In 2014 he was commander of the Libyan Army when the General National Congress (GNC) refused to give up power in accordance with its term of office. Haftar launched a campaign against the GNC and its Islamic fundamentalist allies. His campaign allowed elections to take place to replace the GNC but then developed into a civil war. In 2017, Ramzi al-Shaeri, Vice-President of the Derna city council and lawyers Ryan Goodman and Alex Whiting accused Haftar of the war crime of ordering the killing of prisoners of war during the recapture of Derna.[7][8]

Haftar has been described as "Libya's most potent warlord", having fought "with and against nearly every significant faction" in Libya's conflicts, as having a "reputation for unrivalled military experience"[9][10] and as governing "with an iron fist".[11]

Early life and education

Haftar was born in Ajdabiya around 1943,[12][13] and is a member of the al-Farjani tribe.[14] He studied at al-Huda School in Ajdabiya in 1957 and then moved to Derna to obtain his secondary education between 1961 and 1964.[15] He joined the Benghazi Military University Academy (also known as Benghazi Royal Military College) on 16 September 1964 and graduated from there in 1966.[16] In the late 1970s, he went on to receive military training in the Soviet Union, completing a special three-year degree for foreign officers sent to study in the USSR, at the M.V. Frunze Military Academy. Haftar later pursued further military training in Egypt.[5][17] He was also stationed with the artillery corps in a mosque.[18]

Early years in the Gaddafi government

As a young army officer, Haftar took part in the coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, assisting Gaddafi in the overthrow of Libya's King Idris. Shortly thereafter, Haftar became a top military officer for Gaddafi.[19] He commanded Libyan troops supporting Egyptian troops entering Israeli-occupied Sinai in 1973.[5]

Like other members of the Free Unionist Officers (the junta that toppled the monarchy), Haftar was a secularist and a Nasserist.[17][20] He was a member of the Revolutionary Command Council which governed Libya in the immediate aftermath of the coup.[17] Haftar later became Gaddafi's military chief of staff.[21] In the late 1980s, Haftar commanded Libyan forces during the Chadian–Libyan conflict, which ended in defeat for Libya.[22]

War with Chad

By 1986, Haftar had attained the rank of colonel, and was then the chief officer in command of Gaddafi's military forces in Chad in the Chadian–Libyan conflict. During the war, in which the Libyan forces were either captured or driven back across the border, Haftar and 600–700 of his men were captured as prisoners of war, and incarcerated in 1987 after their defeat in the Ouadi Doum air raid.[23] Shortly after this disastrous battle, Gaddafi disavowed Haftar and the other Libyan prisoners of war who were captured by Chad. One possible contributing factor to Gaddafi's repudiation of Haftar and of other captured prisoners of war may have been the fact that Gaddafi had earlier signed an agreement to withdraw all Libyan forces from Chad, and Haftar's operations inside of Chad had been in violation of this agreement.[24][25] Another possible reason given for Gaddafi's abandonment of Haftar was the potential that Haftar might return to Libya as a hero and thus pose a threat to Gaddafi's rule itself.[17] In any event, Gaddafi's repudiation clearly served to embitter Haftar towards Gaddafi.

In 1986 and 1987 the Government of Chad accused Libya of using toxic gas and napalm against central government forces and against rebel forces. Libya may have used mustard gas delivered in bombs by AN-26 aircraft in final phases of the war against Chad in September 1987. The wind blew the agent back onto the Libyan forces.[26]

Opposition from the United States

Gaddafi demanded Haftar's soldiers be returned to Libya, but the Americans arranged for them to fly to Zaire instead. There, half of his soldiers decided to return to Libya. In late 1987, Haftar and a group of officers aligned themselves with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), a U.S. supported opposition group.[9][18] On 21 June 1988, he declared the establishment of the military wing of NFSL, named Libyan National Army under his leadership.[18] When U.S. financial aid to Zaire was not forthcoming, Zaire expelled the remainder to Kenya.[25] Kenya only provided temporary residence, and the American CIA negotiated a settlement around 1990, enabling Haftar and 300 of his soldiers to move to the United States under the U.S. refugee programme.[19][25] In fact, the end of the Cold War diminished Libya's geo-strategic relevance and the CIA funding program to Haftar's brigade was suspended.[27]

In March 1996, Haftar took part in a failed uprising against Gaddafi in the mountains of eastern Libya, before returning to the U.S.[25]

Haftar moved to suburban Virginia outside Washington, D.C., living in Falls Church until 2007. He then moved to Vienna, Virginia.[25][28] From there, and mostly through his close contacts within the DIA / CIA, he consistently supported several attempts to topple and assassinate Gaddafi.[29]

Early role in the First Libyan Civil War

In 2011, he returned to Libya to support the Libyan Revolution. In March, a military spokesperson announced that Haftar had been appointed commander of the military, but the National Transitional Council denied this.[30] By April, Abdul Fatah Younis held the role of commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Omar El-Hariri was serving as Younis's Chief of Staff, and Haftar had assumed the third most senior position as the commander of ground forces with the rank of lieutenant general.[31][32] Younis was assassinated later that summer.[33]

Haftar did not find a settled position in Libya's new political structures, and returned to the U.S. for a while.[9]

Launch of Operation Dignity

In February 2014, Haftar appeared in a televised announcement to reveal that the General National Congress (GNC), the elected parliament which had recently unilaterally extended its mandate, had been dissolved.[29] Haftar called for a caretaker government to oversee new elections, and urged Libyans to revolt against the GNC, the mandate of which was still in force at the time. Ultimately, his appeal did not lead to a general uprising due to the substantial lack of resources and local support for his initiative.[27][29] His announcement was soon dismissed with great skepticism by the then acting Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Haftar's actions were condemned as a "coup attempt" and "ridiculous".[34][35]

Haftar's strategy was to embark on a series of "town hall" meetings around Libya and, with the support of fellow ex-officers from the military, to secretly build an army.[9] Three months later on 16 May in Operation Dignity, Haftar began a combined air and ground assault against the pro-Islamic militias of Benghazi, as well as a sustained heavy weapons attack against the Libyan parliament.[36] At the time of the Benghazi assault, Haftar, who had already been the target of assassination attempts,[37] reportedly explained to a friend that he was fully aware of the personal safety risks involved in his actions.[38] On 20 May 2014, four days after the Benghazi assault, the GNC announced that it had finally scheduled the long postponed national elections that were to replace the then-interim legislature (the Tripoli-based GNC) with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. These elections were scheduled for 25 June 2014.[39]

Later in May, after having been ousted from office by the GNC, Ali Zeidan endorsed Operation Dignity,[40] as did 40 members of parliament,[41] the heads of the navy[42] and the air-force, and much of the army. On 4 June 2014, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle at Haftar's residence at Ghut al-Sultan near Abayar, east of Benghazi, killing 4 people and injuring at least 3 others. Haftar was not injured in the attack.[18][43]

In eastern Libya, Haftar's air and ground forces remained in place and seemed to be gaining general support. Over the course of May and June, numerous pro–Operation Dignity marches were held throughout Libya,[44] and in the 25 June parliamentary elections the secularists gained a clear mandate over and against the Islamist agenda.[45] Meanwhile, despite its initial denouncement of Operation Dignity in May,[46] Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani's administration subsequently refrained from further official endorsement or denouncement of Haftar's Operation Dignity. However, the newly elected parliament branded Haftar's enemies "terrorists".[47]

On 24 November 2014 and the following day, warplanes affiliated with Operation Dignity forces attacked Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli, temporarily shutting down the airport, but also damaging nearby houses.[48][49] In response to the attack on Mitiga, a court in Tripoli issued an arrest warrant for Khalifa Haftar.[50]

Leading role in the Second Libyan Civil War

Haftar was officially made commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) by the internationally recognized Council of Deputies on 2 March 2015.[51] The Libyan armed forces split up later in the year into the LNA under Haftar's control and the Libyan Army controlled by the Government of National Accord (GNA).[citation needed]

After three years of military campaigns, in early July 2017 Haftar announced in a televised speech that his forces had finally taken full control of Benghazi, the second largest Libyan city. Haftar's military victory has been regarded by many as the expression of his growing military and political ambitions, and especially of his intention to secure military control over critical areas in eastern Libya. Some of his critics claimed that he deliberately dragged his militias through years of fighting against diverse groups which he framed as Islamist enemies in order to consolidate a future political role through his military leadership.[52][53]

Similarly, while some have celebrated Haftar's role in unifying and successfully leading the fight against the Islamic State, several sources have claimed that Haftar's role in the fighting of ISIS has been largely overstated or motivated by self-serving calculus. For instance, as of early 2016 Haftar's forces were reported to have bombed an Islamist group known as the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council who was behind the successful ouster of IS from Derna.[54][55]

Furthermore, experts have questioned whether the LNA could establish its control over the entire national territory, or whether Haftar would allow any military or elected political leader other than himself to guide a national army or government should that opportunity materialize in the future through a new general election.[55]

Haftar remains resolute that one of the aims of Operation Dignity is to completely dismantle the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as what he considers to be any other Islamist terrorist organizations within Libya.[56] However, in recent years journalists and critics have observed that, in spite of his formal anti-Islamism mission, Haftar has continuously cooperated with Salafi organizations based in eastern Libya. His ties to these groups have produced a mutually beneficial partnership in the administration of the areas controlled by Haftar's forces as well as in the military fight against their Islamist counterpart, especially against the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Sharia.[57][58] Some of the Salafi groups allied with Haftar were part of the militias based in Barqa that have fought under his leadership and eventually spread in Benghazi, Jabal al-Akhdar, and Ajdabiya.[57] As Ahmed Salah Ali emphasized in his June 2017 report published by the Atlantic Council, Haftar needs the Salafi support due to his lack of troops and resources on the ground, while his Salafi allies have greatly benefited from their control over religious discourse and their growing military strength in eastern Libya, which have led to an increase in their appeal to unemployed youth.[57]

In July 2017 a video posted online featured the execution of 20 suspected ISIS fighters by Haftar's forces, and this led the United Nations to call for the LNA to investigate summary executions of prisoners.[59] In general, in many areas under his control several sources have denounced the abuses perpetrated by his militias and the several repressive actions undertaken to limit civil liberties.[55][60]

As of August 2016, Haftar had refused to support the new United Nations Security Council endorsed Government of National Accord, which led the United States and allies to believe that he was jeopardizing the stability of Libya. Libya specialist and RUSI Senior Research Fellow Alison Pargeter pointed out that Haftar may plausibly be regarded as the "biggest single obstacle to peace in Libya" in that he allegedly fears that cooperating with the GNA may lead to the end of his influence in eastern Libya.[54]

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt continue to support Haftar.[61] Middle East Eye has reported that British, French, U.S. and United Arab Emirates air forces have assisted Haftar's forces, after analysing leaked air traffic control recordings.[62][63]

On November 2016, Haftar made a second trip to Russia to meet with the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. It was reported that while he was seeking weapons and Russia's backing, Russia was holding off pending the new Trump Administration.[64][65] On 26 December, it was reported that Russia had thrown its weight behind Haftar, saying he must have a role in the leadership of Libya.[66]

Military situation in the Libyan Civil War in 2019.
  Under the control of the Tobruk-led Government and Libyan National Army

Russia has since then treated wounded LNA soldiers, printed Libyan dinars for the Tobruk-based government, and signed exclusive agreements that will allow the Russian government to establish two additional military bases in eastern Libya.[67][68][69] Global risk experts Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner recently observed that "Moscow appears to view Haftar – not the weak UN/Western-backed government – as the only realistic bulwark against extremism in post-Gaddafi Libya."[69]

In 2017, Ramzi al-Shaeri, Vice-President of the Derna city council and lawyers Ryan Goodman and Alex Whiting accused Haftar of war crimes in the recapture of Derna. They alleged that Haftar had been complicit in calling for extrajudicial killings, arguing that Haftar had called on LNA fighters to take no prisoners, and saying in a speech, "Never mind consideration of bringing a prisoner here. There is no prison here. The field is the field, end of the story".[7][8]

In 5 November 2017, a former commander in the ranks of Operation Dignity and its former spokesperson, Mohammed Hijazi, described Khalifa Haftar as being "the main cause of the crisis that is crippling the country."[70] Having left Operation Dignity in January 2016 citing corrupt leadership, Hijazi has since spoken out against Haftar, calling him a "tyrant" and describing "his killings, kidnappings, destruction, and forced disappearances."[71] As a former commander and spokesman for the Operation, Mohammed Hijazi claims to have knowledge that Haftar is deliberately delaying the war, specifically in Benghazi. Hijazi concluded the recent interview by stating that his life is in great danger "especially as he is in possession of formal documents that could damage Dignity Operation forces and their leaders."[70]

On 4 April 2019, Haftar called on his military forces to advance on Tripoli, the capital of the internationally-recognized government of Libya, in the 2019 Western Libya offensive[72] This was met with reproach from Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the United Nations Security Council.[73][74]

On April 7, eastern Libyan forces launched an airstrike on the southern part of Tripoli, the Bab al-Azizia military compound.[75]

On April 21, Haftar launched several airstrikes and explosions were launched over Tripoli. The GNA and eyewitnesses alleged about the use of drones. They said that a plane circled around for over 10 minutes, before finally opening fire.[76]

In May 2019, Amnesty International accused Haftar of participating in actions that amounted to war crimes during his battle for control of Tripoli.[77][78]

Following the huge military setbacks in June 2019, when his forces failed to seize Tripoli, Haftar ordered the LNA to target Turkish ships and companies, ban flights and arrest Turkish nationals in the country.[79] After making these threats against Turkey, six Turkish civilians were kidnapped on a ship in Libya by the Libyan National Army on the 1st of July. The Turkish foreign ministry commented on the kidnappings saying “We expect our citizens to be released immediately. Otherwise, Hifter elements will become legitimate targets.” [80]

Haftar government

Haftar was the effective head of the de facto "Tobruk" system of government of much of the east and some of the south and west parts of Libya during the Second Libyan Civil War. The 2019 Libyan local elections were prevented from taking place on 27 April 2019, during his leadership, in Sabratha and Sorman.[81] The head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Ghassan Salamé, described Haftar in April 2019 as "not a great democrat" (ce n'est pas un grand démocrate) and his methods of governance as "using an iron fist" (il gouverne avec une main de fer).[11] During Haftar's Tobruk government, nine municipal councils out of 27 in total under the LNA's control were replaced by military administrators.[3]

The Government National Accord in June 2019 captured weapon systems in Libya’s rebel compound, which included Javelin anti-tank missiles made by the US and labelled for the "armed forces of the United Arab Emirates" inside a wooden crate packaging. The four Javelin anti-tank missiles hold a value of more than $170,000 each, were found in a rebel base, reinforcing the army of Gen. Hafter.[82]

Personal life

Haftar mother is Egyptian, Haftar has at least five sons and a daughter. Captain Saddam Haftar and Captain Khalid Haftar are officers in the Libyan National Army, while Al-Sadiq Haftar is also in Libya. Two other sons, Uqba Haftar, who works in real estate, and Al-Muntasir Haftar as well as his daughter Asma Haftar live in Virginia in the United States.[83] Haftar is a dual Libyan-US citizen.[7]

On 12 April 2018, it was reported that Haftar was in a coma after suffering a stroke and was hospitalized under intensive care in Paris.[84][85] A spokesman for the LNA initially denied the reports.[86] Local media later reported he was dead, however sources close to him insisted he was alive.[87] On 25 April, it was confirmed that Haftar was alive and had been returned to Benghazi following treatment in Paris.[88][89]

Besides his native Arabic, Haftar also speaks English, Italian, and Russian, and is conversational in French.[90]

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Further reading