A few months after his April 4 surprise assault on Tripoli to unseat the UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Khalifa Haftar, leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), lost control of Gharyan on June 26. The LNA has since been steadily losing ground in heavy fighting in Tripoli’s suburbs against a variety of GNA backed armed groups. Yet, on July 1, after “exhausting all traditional means” to capture Tripoli, Haftar rebranded the assault as a new counterterrorism effort, Operation “End of Treachery.”
Haftar has a history of repackaging failed military coups as “wars on terror” to justify excessive use of force whilst gaining international legitimacy and political support in the process. As the campaign stalled in its first week, Haftar spoke to the U.S. President by phone. The call was initially viewed as controversial due to the breaking of diplomatic norms, as Haftar holds no official state post. Though it should be viewed in terms of how Haftar reframed his failed power grab. Haftar and Trump have discussed the “ongoing counterterrorism efforts and building democratic stability” within Libya. The U.S. has since threatened to veto calls for a ceasefire at the U.N. Security Council, hinting an endorsement of Haftar’s counterterrorism narrative. Likewise, France, a supporter of Haftar largely because of his anti-terrorism narrative, blocked a European Union statement opposing Haftar’s offensive. France did so citing the need for its own reassurances regarding the alleged “involvement of terrorist groups” fighting Haftar in Tripoli.
Central to the international support is the belief that Haftar seeks to “save” Libya from terrorism and return it to long-term stability and security. However, recent history shows that Haftar’s counterterrorism narratives are not only poorly disguised authoritarian power grabs, but mask a precarious game of tribal divide-and-conquer. Far from fighting terrorism and delivering security, this approach exacerbates conflict and engenders long-term instability.
An often-repeated myth in Libya is that Haftar first emerged after Libya’s second elections, to fight against and save the country from Islamists who sought to “cancel the June 25th 2014 elections”. However, Haftar’s first coup took place well before Libya’s second elections—to which his rise is widely linked—on February 14, 2014. Haftar announced the establishment of his own self-styled Libyan army, in the hopes that Libya’s plethora of militias would join him and remove Libya’s first democratically elected parliament from power. The coup was so badly orchestrated that Haftar’s only success that day was to become the first person in history to launch a coup via YouTube. Yet, he captured the attention of the UAE government which had supported a military coup months earlier in Egypt. On May 14 2014, Haftar reemerged with Emirati support in the form of airstrikes, and a rebranding of his coup as a war on terror in Operation Dignity.
Operation Dignity began with air strikes against Ansar Al Sharia, a self-identifying Jihadist group in Benghazi, eastern Libya. However, Haftar simultaneously struck revolutionary armed groups loyal to the elected government. Supporters of Haftar’s move believed all these targeted groups were behind two years of assassinations against activists and former military personnel in Benghazi. Critics point to the fact that these groups had previously fought Ansar Al Sharia, and tried to rescue the U.S. ambassador the night he was killed in Benghazi in 2012. The debate was short lived as 48 hours later Operation Dignity allied groups stormed Libya’s parliament in Tripoli, confirming suspicions of a power grab. Haftar declared these disparate political targets and military opponents to all be the same terrorist group.
Haftar’s counterterrorism narrative not only masks his intention to seize power by force, but his role in exacerbating the complex ethno-tribal power struggles between armed groups that emerged after the revolution. Qaddafi held a tight grip on Libya’s regions and cities through a complex authoritarian tribal-patronage system—integrating a select number of tribes into the regime security apparatus and army, leaving neighboring tribal competitors out. This tribal monopoly on power was the backbone of Qaddafi’s regime maintenance strategy but created rifts, and fell apart as protestors took up arms, forming new revolutionary armed groups that challenged the traditional power structures.
Behind Haftar’s military operations and counterterrorism narrative is an attempt to create his own authoritarian tribal-patronage system. Haftar co-opts loyalist tribes and their armed groups into the LNA making them the army whilst labeling their local tribal competitors terrorists. The LNA operations in Benghazi and Darnah are examples of this. Benghazi was largely divided between two feuding ethno-tribal camps, Bedouin tribes who lost patronage to the Qaddafi regime during the revolution, and civic tribes that had formed new revolutionary armed groups.
Haftar launched Operation Dignity in Benghazi by co-opting predominantly Bedouin armed groups into the LNA, and launching simultaneous attacks against revolutionary armed groups (from predominantly civic tribes) and Ansar Al Sharia. Ideological nuance between Haftar’s targets was lost as they formed a military coalition – The Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC) – to defend themselves. Critics of Haftar claimed these groups only shared the same military frontline and opposition to Haftar, not necessarily the same Salafi Jihadist worldview as Ansar Al Sharia or Islamic State. Islamic State referred to the BRSC as apostates for their belief and participation in democracy. Nevertheless Haftar insisted to international media they were all Islamic State, terrorist groups and foreign fighters, whilst masking a dangerous local narrative. LNA leadership often described it in Arabic as a war to ethnically cleanse Libya from Turkish and Jewish tribes, a slur used by Bedouin tribes at the perceived lineage of Benghazi’s civic tribes. Haftar’s forces face investigations for war crimes for refusing safe passage for women and children in BRSC territory. Haftar’s spokesman pledged to “kill anyone (including non-combatants) above the age of 14 or extradite them to Erdoğan (Turkey’s president)”. The UN estimates Benghazi's displaced to be at least 100,000 civilians, who the LNA have brushed off as families of terrorists.
In Darnah, Haftar’s second operation, the approach was almost identical. Darnah’s local population are predominantly civic tribes, with Bedouin tribes living in nearby towns. A military coalition formed by Islamist groups and Libyan army officers successfully defeated the Islamic State in 2015. Yet, pro-LNA sources labeled them Al Qaeda to legitimize the war despite their complex make up, their defeat of the Islamic State, and securing Darnah’s first democratic elections in 2012. Haftar repeated the Benghazi playbook, co-opting Bedouin tribes from the neighboring town of Ain Mara into the LNA to lead a “counterterrorism” operation and humanitarian siege Haftar claimed would “choke” Darnah. By the end of the campaign, a quarter of Darnah’s population were believed dead, injured, or displaced. Upon leaving Darnah, Haftar’s army defaced road signs leading to the city, replacing Darnah with the name ‘New Ain Mara’.
Strong parallels are apparent in Haftar’s current campaign in Tripoli. The LNA has described GNA forces in Tripoli as terrorists, despite the presence of armed groups who fought the Islamic State in a U.S. backed operation in 2016. Since Haftar’s loss of Gharyan, the last LNA stronghold in the Tripoli offensive is the neighboring town of Tarhuna. Tribal dynamics between Tarhuna and Tripoli are complex. An estimated third of Tripoli’s population are from Tarhuna. Forces in Tarhuna aligned to Haftar include external forces who fought in Tripoli last September, but also armed groups displaced from Tripoli in a power struggle in 2016, eager to return for “revenge”.
Haftar will continue to exacerbate these tribal rifts and support one group over another in these complex power struggles. The danger in Tripoli is not only that the international community increasing believes Haftar’s counterterrorism narrative but concludes it will be a short war that will result in long-term stability. If the assault on Tripoli ends in the same way Benghazi and Darnah did, the resulting scars of war, appetite for revenge, tribal hatred and social polarization would make enduring peace unrealistic and stability almost unimaginable.
Anas El Gomati is the founder and director of the Sadeq Institute, Libya’s first independent public policy think tank, established in Tripoli 2011.