A major military operation against the Islamist militia groups began in Benghazi and spread across the east of Libya Friday, led by retired Libyan Major General Khalifah Haftar. Reports suggest that “Operation Libyan Dignity” involved an initial force of about 8,000 ground troops from the Libyan Army, along with air support; dozens of people were killed. Haftar acted unilaterally, without any official government sanction, and his actions have prompted loud — but largely impotent — condemnations from the Tripoli government.
The acting prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, appeared on television denouncing Haftar’s offensive as an attack on the government's legitimacy. Other officials, including chief of the general military staff Abdul Salam Jadallah, have called on the irregular Islamist militias in Benghazi to fight Haftar’s forces, referring to the militias as the national army. That, to many, reveals the true allegiances and priorities of the Tripoli government at a time when the country is descending into chaotic violence largely instigated by those very same Islamist militias.
Despite significant public support for Haftar’s actions, many in the Tripoli government fear his intentions, comparing him to former Egyptian field marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo last summer and is now assured of winning the country's presidential election later this month. Indeed, many in Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) are referring to Friday’s events as nothing short of a military coup.
Haftar is certainly not without… ambition. A video address earlier this year appeared to show him declaring his intention to suspend the Libyan parliament. But to many ordinary Libyans who have tired with the country's violent instability, Haftar’s actions appear to be welcome relief.
As of now there’s no evidence that Haftar will deviate from his stated intention of dismantling the Islamist militias that the GNC so resoundingly failed to confront. He appears to be acting now because the Islamists have been conducting a campaign of assassination against members of the Army, intelligence services, and judiciary. Haftar has been vocal in the past about the weakness and inaction of the GNC in the face of militia violence, and has alluded to the need for decisive action to bring order to the country. It seems that militias and the Tripoli government alike will now have to take him seriously.
Al-Senussi’s claims might have been dismissed had he not been killed the following day, and his death may have been overlooked had it not followed the revelations in his interview. But the two together are hard to ignore.
Haftar served as a high-ranking military officer under Muammar Qaddafi and was a prominent commander during Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980s. Following his capture by Chadian forces, he went into exile in the US in 1987, where he joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a group of Libyan exiles who spent much of the 1980s and 1990s trying to kill Qaddafi. Haftar returned to Libya in 2011 in support of the revolution, and was appointed chief of staff to Colonel Abdul Fatah Younis, the National Transitional Council’s commander of revolutionary forces.
The Libya to which Haftar returned had seen the rise and fall of armed Islamist opposition to Qaddafi in the form of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) during the 1990s, and yesterday's fighting was the latest chapter of a power struggle between Islamist and secularist strands of the 2011 revolution that has been playing itself out since the early days of the uprising against Qaddafi.
Islamist militias began consolidating their power over eastern Libya through targeted assassinations before the revolution was even over — and Younis was arguably their first victim. He was a former close Qaddafi ally, seen by some as Qaddafi’s second in command. He had taken part in the coup that brought Qaddafi to power in 1969, but he defected to the fledgling revolutionary government in February 2011 after he was sent to crush the rebellion in his native Benghazi. Unlike many of Qaddafi’s close circle, Younis was not known for ostentatious living or sadistic violence.
He had, however, coordinated counterinsurgency operations in eastern Libya against the LIFG in the 1990s.
One unique aspect of the LIFG is that it combined figures from a wide swathe of the Islamist spectrum. Some, like Abu Anas al Libi, who was captured in Tripoli by US Special Forces last year, gravitated toward al Qaeda. Others, like Abdelhakim Belhadj, a key military commander during the Libyan revolution and now a politician with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked al-Watan party, maintained a view of armed Islamism that opposes the targeting of civilians per se, but legitimizes military and government targets. The upshot is that the remnants of the LIFG in Libya represent a rare nexus of Muslim Brotherhood and more violent Islamist tendencies.
The legacy of the battle against the LIFG came home to roost at the height of the revolution in July 2011, when Younis was abducted by members of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade — one of the Islamist militias now under attack by Haftar’s forces — and was then reportedly shot dead for his role in the suppression of the LIFG 15 years earlier. His burned body, along with those of two of his officers, was later dumped on the outskirts of Benghazi.
After the revolution, attacks against military personnel continued, though they were initially dismissed as either the settling of old scores dating back to the conflict in the 1990s, or the work of Qaddafi loyalists seeking revenge on colleagues who had defected to the revolutionary forces. From 2012 onward, however, the attacks in eastern Libya seamlessly transitioned from targeting foreigners and Libyans connected to the old regime, to targeting anyone from the Army, police, or judiciary who challenged the dominance of Islamist militias.
Significantly, Operation Libyan Dignity comes just days after the latest high-profile casualty. Ibrahim al-Senussi, the head of Libyan Military Intelligence, was shot dead in broad daylight on a busy Benghazi road by masked men last week. Al-Senussi’s predecessor, Colonel Fethallah al-Gaziri, was murdered in Benghazi in December 2013, as was another intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Giuma Misrati, in June 2013. Those three men were part of an array of military and public officials assassinated in Benghazi over the past three years. Al-Senussi’s murder could therefore have been dismissed as just one more killing in an increasingly chaotic, violent Benghazi, had it not been for the live television interview he gave the previous day.
Video reportedly showing the assassination of al-Senussi
An emotional al-Senussi revealed live on air what he claimed to be a massive Islamist conspiracy involving not just Libyan militia groups, but individuals in the Libyan government, military, police, and foreign intelligence services. As the interview ended, al-Senussi, apparently in tears, warned that the only solution was for Libyans to unite against the Islamists and drive them out of Benghazi. Whether deliberate or not, Haftar’s actions are a timely response to al-Senussi’s warnings and subsequent death.
Al-Senussi alluded to increasingly organized alliances between Islamist militias across Libya and the wider region, including plans to use Libyan territory to train a “Free Egyptian Army" consisting of Egyptian, Syrian, and Tunisian Islamist fighters. Al-Senussi claimed that this plan was being hatched in cooperation with intelligence services from Qatar and Turkey, key supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.
The regional Islamist links reported by al-Senussi also extend to Syria, with bombing attacks in Libya allegedly conducted by Libyans who had recently returned from fighting in Syria — the current home of the ultra-violent Jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Al-Senussi claimed that young men returning from Syria were being used to conduct suicide missions against Libyan forces. Their families were then being told that the attackers had died in Syria in order to disguise responsibility for the bombings.
Al-Senussi’s claims might have been dismissed had he not been killed the following day, and his death may have been overlooked had it not directly followed the revelations in his interview. But the two together are hard to ignore. His claim of an ambitious armed alliance between militias allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and those who practice al Qaeda–style jihad would appear unlikely. But in Libya, there is a clear precedent for such an alliance — the LIFG.
Given al-Senussi’s revelations, as well as his warning that the Libyan government and security services are riddled with informants who feed military intelligence to Islamist militias using it to carry out assassinations and kidnappings, it’s not surprising that Haftar decided to act unilaterally. But the weakness of the Libyan parliament and the current disarray of the country certainly leave open the possibility that Haftar’s ambitions might not stop at dismantling the Islamist militias.
Follow Alaa al-Ameri on Twitter: @AlaaAmeris