By Ramzy Baroud
7 May 2014
Opportunistic is a fitting term to describe Libya’s rogue general, Khalifa Hiftar, who for the second time in less than four months mounted a coup against Tripoli. Hiftar’s opportunism has accompanied the man for the last 45 years, and at 71, he is determined to harness the security chaos in Libya to his advantage.
On May 16, Hiftar staged several bloody attacks against other Libyan militias in the name of eradicating terrorism by leading a paramilitary force evasively named the Libyan National Army. His well-equipped brigades were rapidly joined by officers from national army bases in the eastern parts of the country. Units from the air force also joined in, along with tribal gunmen and other militias, particularly the strong and notorious Zintan militia. The well-coordinated attacks, named Operation Karama, or Dignity, resulted in heavy casualties.
Then with unprecedented audacity, he struck the Parliament, sending Libyan lawmakers from the General National Council (GNC) fleeing for their lives. Among his demands: The dismissal of the Parliament and for the judiciary to take control of the country’s affairs until the next elections scheduled for June 25. The man is supposedly a proponent for a democratically elected civilian government, a contradiction that is becoming quite common in post-Arab Spring Middle East.
During the attack on the Parliament and the seizure of government buildings, Hiftar’s forces were backed by warplanes and helicopters. The show of force was massive, even for post-rebellion and NATO-led war Libya where guns are available in abundance. Needless to say, Hiftar is not a rogue general acting alone. He is supported by former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, and has strong, rich Libyan backers. His long history of relations with the CIA is neither “misleading” nor “old news” as suggested by a recent article in the British Guardian.
Hiftar is supposedly out to crush the Islamists, but the problem is that Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood is hardly the dominant political force in that country. Hiftar knows well that Islamic-leaning parties in Libya are not all one and the same. Yet, he seemed keen on emphasizing the Brotherhood as a target behind his ongoing war. He told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in an interview published in May that he intends to “purge” Libya of Muslim Brotherhood members. They are a “malignant disease that is seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world.” He even formed a Libyan counterpart of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The Libyans are not always Hifter’s target audience, looking at the chosen use of language as their contention is with the security chaos that has afflicted their country due to warring militias following the NATO-backed victory over Muammar Qaddafi. In fact, Hiftar is himself leading some of these militias.
Washington is yet to condemn Hiftar’s actions. Its indecision is similar to its silence when Hiftar had attempted to stage the first coup last February, but failed. Then, in a televised speech, Hiftar denounced the government, and announced his own “initiative,” a roadmap of sorts that saw the disbanding of Parliament. Few took him serious and top government officials mocked his coup attempt. One described it as “ridiculous.” But consequently, many discovered the name Hiftar and some became keenly interested to learn more.
Ashour Shamis is a former partner of Hiftar. Both were members of the US-funded Libyan National Army in the 1980s. In a recent interview with the Guardian he remarked, “I don’t think something like this can happen in Libya and the Americans would not know about it”. According to Shamis, the Americans “want to see how much momentum Hiftar has and how far he goes.” Indeed, Hiftar is doing a great deal to get Washington’s attention, which has somewhat divested from Libya since the killing of its ambassador there and three others in September 2012.
To win favor with Washington, Hiftar’s list of enemies also includes Ansar Al-Shariah, which along with other militias in Benghazi was accused of plotting the attack against the US Embassy. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for Hiftar to gain Washington’s trust. In fact, he already has. It is no secret that Hiftar has had strong backing from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for nearly three decades.
The man has been branded and rebranded throughout his colorful and sometimes mysterious history. He fought as an officer in the Chadian-Libyan conflict and was captured alongside his entire unit of 600 men. During his time in prison, Chad experienced a regime change (both regimes were backed by French and US intelligence) and Hiftar and his men were released per US request as he was moved to another African country. While some chose to return home, others knew well what would await them in Libya, for reasons explained by the New York Times on May 17, 1991.
“For two years, United States officials have been shopping around for a home for about 350 Libyan soldiers who cannot return to their country because American intelligence officials had mobilized them into a commando force to overthrow Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader,” NYT reported. “Now, the Administration has given up trying to find another country that will accept the Libyans and has decided to bring them to the United States.”
Hiftar was then relocated to a Virginia suburb in the early 1990s, where he settled very close to the CIA headquarters in Langley. The news is murky about his exact activities living near Washington D.C., except for his ties to Libyan opposition forces, which of course operated according to US diktats.
It took nearly 15 years for Hiftar to march on Libya. It also took a massive war that was purported to support a popular uprising. It is no wonder why Hiftar’s return to Libya in March 2011 was a major source of controversy. Almost immediately, he was announced by a military spokesman as the rebels’ new commander, only for the announcement to be dismissed by the National Transitional Council as false. The NTC was largely a composition of equally enigmatic characters that had little presence within Libya’s national consciousness. Hiftar found himself as the third man on the military ladder, which he grudgingly accepted.
Libya is now gripped by punishing violence and is hostage to the whims of militias, some tribal, others affiliated with small towns and large cities — Misrata, Zintan and so on — and others are loosely affiliated with government ministries. In times of such befuddling strife, some people might be ready to accept feeble alternatives. Despite his dubious legacy, Hiftar might appear to some as Libya’s “strong man.”
As expected, many are not convinced. Powerful militias are also lining up against Hiftar. Misrata’s 235 militia brigades are ready to fight. They have already deployed near Tripoli. If this showdown is allowed to carry on, another bloody civil war will be awaiting Libya. This time around, however, neither NATO nor the US seem willing to get involved again, at least not until one warring camp proves worthy of their support. In all cases, Libya’s suffering is likely to linger.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com.