LIBYA ON THE BRINK OF CIVIL WAR?
20th May 2014
The Forces of Major General Khalifa Hafter appear to be gathering for an armed confrontation with Islamist militias in Benghazi, Libya’s second city and sometime capital of the old province of Cyrenaica. In the mean time the price of Brent crude has shot up at the likelihood of a civil war in Libya and the US has moved six hundred marines from Spain to a forward base in Sicily in order to protect and evacuate US diplomats and other citizens from Tripoli where Islamist militias range freely. They are threatened mainly by powerful forces from Zintan, a city on the edge of the Jebel Nefusa. The Libyan General National Congress, by now probably without legitimate mandate, has been attacked by Zintani militias and has been stood down. The ‘legitimate’ but so far ineffective, Libyan army, seems to be divided and has not shown its hand. The Libyan Air Force units in Tobruk and, I believe, Benina have declared their support for Hafter.
Hafter’s forces, now named the Libyan National Army, are based to the east of Benghazi and were said to number 6,000 on the 17th May, though the Special Service (Lightning) Brigade stationed within the city is reported today to have sided with Hafter who also has tribal support, though the extent of this is unknown to date. It is probable that Hafter has been joined by Ibrahim Jadhran’s Cyrenaica Defence Force which hails from Marsa Brega and controls the main oil terminals on the southern shores of the Gulf of Sirte. The Islamist Omar Mukhtar Brigade is said to have left Kufra to join the confrontation though I do not know where it is heading.
Haftar’s tribal militiamen seem to have set up a ring of road blocks around Benghazi in order to stop Islamist forces, from Derna in particular, from entering the city and coming to the aid of those within. The Islamist forces within Benghazi are made up of the Ansar Sharia Brigade, Libya Shield No. 1, Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade and 17th February Brigade.
At the time of writing the Libya Herald appears to be off line though its server may be unable to cope with the unprecedented number of calls on its service. The last news I have been able to access from that source was on 17th May 2014 and I take the liberty of copying parts of its despatches here.
‘A threat by General Khalifa Hafter made on Libya Awlan TV today to “cleanse and purify” Benghazi of Islamist militants took concrete form this evening when a massive explosion destroyed Ansar Al-Sharia’s radio station in the city’s Leithe district.
Earlier in the day, an imam, said to be a supporter of Ansar, was also reported killed at his home in Hay Salam. He was named as Mohamed Ashur.
Hafter launched his assault on Ansar as well as on 17 February Brigade and Libya Shield No. 1 Brigade, both widely viewed in the city as Islamist, from his Al-Rajma military compound in the east of the city yesterday morning. The operation which took everyone by surprise has so far left dozens dead and at least 250 wounded. Benghazi Medical Centre told the Libya that it had 35 bodies and dealt with 138 injury cases. Jalaa Hospital said it had two dead and 29 injured and Marj Hospital six dead and 81 injured.
Figures could not be obtained from Hawari and other hospitals.’
It seems that the action has been in the south west of the city – in Hawari and Sidi Ferej districts, in particular the area controlled by Ansar Al-Sharia between the south-western gate checkpoint and the cement factory – as well as in the port area where clashes were reported between Hafter’s forces and Libya Shield 1.
The Libya Herald continues:
‘……. Hijazi said that he did not recognize the legitimacy of the government or the GNC. He claimed that the GNC had long lost their legitimacy back on 7 February (the date he said they were supposed to end their term).
The government and GNC were out of touch, weak and ineffective, he added, saying that his own forces’ military actions were in response to demands of the people (in the face of terror attacks by extremists, criminals and extremist Islamists). He stressed that the “Dignity” operation would continue, but refused to disclose any further details.
Earlier in the day Hijazi had called on residents of three districts to evacuate, on the assumption of a planned military strike. However, Hijazi refused to elaborate.
This evening, there was an eerie calm in Benghazi as most of the city’s inhabitants waited nervously to see what happened next. There are conflicting reports as to how much support Hafter enjoys in Benghazi. Some inhabitants and commentators have expressed relief and joy on the fact that someone – anyone – was prepared to confront the extremist militias.
Others saw no difference between the illegitimate Hafter, who they saw as pursuing his own personal political agenda, and the extremist militias he was confronting.’
Some notes on Khalifa Hafter follow:-
The Libyan revolution began on 17th February 2011 in Benghazi. On Saturday 5th March 2011, the Libyan opposition movement in Benghazi nominated an Interim National Council to lay the foundations for a government. A Military Council of fifteen including, Omar Hariri, was also set up. The most interesting figure was Staff General Abdul Fatah Yunis, who had resigned as Gaddafi’s Interior Minister on 20th February. Yunis was a long standing colleague of Gaddafi and one of his companions in the 1969 coup. It seemed to some observers that he may have harboured ambitions to replace Gaddafi and some believed that he may have kept ‘back channels’ open to his erstwhile boss. He may even have attempted to negotiate a deal in which Gaddafi would stand down thus bring the rebellion to a relatively peaceful end. This would not have suited some of the hard line Islamist militias.
In protest over the Gaddafi brutality, Khalifa Hafter, a native of Benghazi who was a retired Libyan general made his way from the USA and joined the Military Council. He became the general commanding the rebel forces.
Hafter was one of Gaddafi’s senior officers during his long and abortive war with Chad. I understand he was left in Chad to fend for himself when Gaddafi withdrew his forces after a humiliating defeat. Hafter sought exile in the USA, living near the CIA Head Quarters in Langley and he may have been what is politely known as a CIA asset. It is this apparent connection with the CIA which has made Haftar unpopular in some quarters in Libya and allowed the suspicion to grow that he is still under its influence.
Early disagreements amongst members of the Military Council led to disquiet and Italy, France and Britain later sent teams of military advisers to get the staff work sorted out. After some infighting, Abdul Fatah Younis took overall command of the rebel forces with Hariri as his deputy and Hafter was deposed to third place. Abdul Fatah Younis was murdered on or around 29th July 2011 and his killers have yet to be brought to book. Hariri and Hafter remained in command at least until the attack on Tripoli. Harai’s whereabouts are not known at the moment but he, and Haftar, would have been precluded from military command by the Political Exclusion Law passed in February 2013 by the Libyan General National Council as he had held high office under Gaddafi.
I believe that Hafter has been touring the country and building support for the formation of a Libyan National Army with which he is about to confront the Islamist militias which are holding the reins of power in Benghazi and Tripoli. He appears to have won over the powerful Zintani militias and some Air Force units. It remains to be seen if he can win over the highly organised militias in Misurata which are known to have Islamist leanings and to oppose the Zintanis.
On 20th Febraray 2014 the ‘Middle East Online’ reported in part:
‘On….Feb 14, Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hafter announced a coup in Libya. “The national command of the Libyan Army is declaring a movement for a new road map” (to rescue the country), Hifter (sic) declared through a video post. Oddly enough, little followed by way of a major military deployment in any part of the country. The country’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan described the attempted coup as “ridiculous”.’
Ali Zeidan was deposed as Prime Minster and went into exile. Haftar roamed the country building a military following. He clearly reached the conclusion that the time was ripe to make his move when a number of protesters were killed in Benghazi. This report in the Libya Herald dated 10th May 2014 describes the event.
‘Three protestors were shot dead in Benghazi early this morning outside the headquarters of the 17 February Brigade. Another 20 were injured. Four were taken to the city’s Jalaa hospital, were one is in a critical condition, according to the hospital’s spokesperson. Sixteen were taken to the Benghazi Medical Centre………..The protestors had gone to the brigade’s headquarters after shots were fired yesterday afternoon at them while they were demonstrating outside the Tibesti Hotel over the security situation in the city. They were convinced that the gunmen were members of the brigade.
As with so many other similar incidents in Benghazi the exact circumstances of what happened are confusing and it is impossible to say who killed the demonstrators.
As they headed to the headquarters at the end of Venezia Street at about 7.30pm, ignoring warnings from the Benghazi Joint Security Room not to do so. Shortly afterwards, as dusk fell, the lights in the area were turned off.
For around two and a half hours they chanted slogans outside the gates of the brigade, which is headed by Ismail Salabi, such as “We don’t want you here”, “No to militias” and “All we need are the police and the army”. According to one of the protestors, there was then shooting of automatic rifles in the air from inside the headquarters, in “an attempt to scare us off”. Another report says that the shooting was proceeded by an explosion, possibly from anti aircraft missile fired from inside the base…..’
As I write Haftar may be regrouping to the east of Benghazi and awaiting further recruits to his banner. That the Special Forces ‘Lightening’ Brigade stationed in the city has declared for him he is commencing to look stronger.
22nd May 2014
According to Khalifa Hafter the pause in the progress of his forces in Benghazi is because the Islamist militias have taken refuge amongst the civilian population. This, he points out, requires a change in tactics in order to save innocent lives. He argues that the operation, code name Dignity, continues according to plan.
The commander-in-chief of Libya’s Air Force, Col. Gomaa Al-Abbani, has just backed Haftar’s offensive. Abbani said: “The Air Force’s Chief of Staff announces its full accession to Operation Dignity” and called on the Libyan people to “support the armed forces in their battle against terrorism and to restore security.”
In the meantime political support the operation appears to have grown. There are reports that the largest political bloc in the Libyan General National Congress, The National Forces Alliance, has voiced its support for Hafter.
Significantly, the powerful armed forces of Misurata assembled as though to move to Tripoli to oppose Hafter but stood down and returned to their bases. Their appearance in Tripoli would have caused some unrest in any case but their failure to act may have tipped the balance of power further in favour of Hafter. They are Islamist in outlook and will be a hard nut for Hafter’s forces to crack should it come to a showdown.
There are rumours that demonstrations in favour of Hafter’s Operation Dignity are planned in Tripoli and Benghazi tomorrow. We will see.
22nd May 2014
The Misurata militias did not abort their mission and have arrived, according to this AP report, in Tripoli. This will not help the planned? protests and Hafter will certainly face difficulties. See this:
‘Tripoli, AP—Islamist-led militias on Thursday streamed into the Libyan capital amid a standoff with fighters loyal to a renegade general whose offensive has won support from officials, diplomats and army units, but has also threatened to fragment the country further.
The militias, known as Libya Central Shield, are composed of groups from the western city of Misrata. They are under the command of the army’s chief of staff, who answers to parliament.
Witnesses in Tripoli said they saw Misrata militiamen take positions early on Thursday in army barracks in the city’s south, near the airport highway. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their own safety.’
This from the Libya Herald adds to the picture. The difference between the GNC and the government is becoming notable. ‘The Libyan Government has called on armed groups – namely Libya Central Shield, Qaaqaa and Sawaiq brigades – to leave Tripoli as the brigades squared up in the capital this evening.
Members of the Misratan-based Libya Central Shield arrived on the outskirts of Tripoli today, stationing themselves in the Salaheddin district, where clashes took place in the early hours of yesterday morning. It is not clear how many Shield troops have arrived in Tripoli……….It said it would hold the General National Congress (GNC) responsible for any of Libya Central Shield’s actions, because Congress head Nuri Abu Sahmain had called on them to protect the capital.’
The powerful Qaaqaa and Sawaiq brigades are from Zintan, the city in the Jebel Nefusa in which Saif al Islam Gaddafi is still held pending trial. They have been in Tripoli for some time.
There are useful and well informed sources which offer further information, in particular you will find Jason Pack here:
The best guide to the Libyan Militias is to be found here:
For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 20th May 2014
Is this significant? Has the balance of power shifted in favour of Hafter? The Misuratani forces have failed to move to Tripoli.
Update 22nd May 2014
A good piece on Hafter in the Washington Post