Old CIA links return to haunt Libya’s Haftar

General Haftar is mounting a military campaign against Islamist militants and the Islamist-led authorities in Tripoli

Mustapha Ajbaili
Mustapha Ajbaili - Al Arabiya News
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Libya’s renegade General Khalifa Haftar is leading a military campaign against the country’s Islamist-led government and militants; however, his past life in America and old ties to the CIA are likely to be a stumbling block on his road to power.

Following his botched February coup attempt –when he appeared on television announcing the dissolution of the government only to be scoffed at by the-then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan as “ridiculous” – launched this week “Operation Dignity” to rid Libya of “terrorists” and “corrupt” officials.

He was able to bring together Qaddafi-era officers and rebel militias from the east and the west of the country to build his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, which launched attacks on Islamist militias in Benghazi last week and stormed the Islamist-dominated parliament in the capital Tripoli.

Adel al-Dabashi, a former member of Tripoli interim security committee, told Al Arabiya News that Haftar was leading an “officers’ movement” that seeks to put an end to the lawlessness gripping the country since Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011.

Dabashi dismissed speculations that Haftar has links to foreign intelligence services. “Anyone who tries to do good for the country they describe him as an agent,” he said.

Haftar’s march to power began decades ago when he joined a clandestine group of “Free Officers” drawn by Muammar Qaddafi from Benghazi's military academy in 1964.

Following the overthrow of King Idris in 1969, Haftar was named by coup leader Qaddafi as the chief of the so-called “Revolutionary Command Council.”

Libya’s former Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam wrote in a recent article that Qaddafi picked the command council members based on their absolute “loyalty and obedience” and based on their tribal affiliation.

Haftar is said to belong to the al-Furjan tribe, one of the biggest tribes in central Libya, which has a strong presence in Sirte, the last stronghold of Qaddafi, where he was captured and killed in 2011.

Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar
Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar

Haftar enjoyed the full support of Qaddafi, who gave him special powers and privileges among the “Free Officers,” wrote Shalqam, who served for decades in Qaddafi’s regime, before defecting in 2011.

“He was among the officers who used to leave their camps and without taking off their uniforms and he participated in many of military training workshops inside and outside Libya,” according to Shalqam.

He had a “strong character and self-esteem to the extent of narcissism,” Shalqam added.

After cementing his grip on Libya, Qaddafi sought during the 1980s to expand his “Jamahiriya” political system beyond the borders. He thrust massive forces and military hardware into his southern neighbor, Chad. Haftar was then appointed as chief commander of the Libyan forces to lead the Toyota War against Chad.

On March 22, 1987, Chadian forces, reportedly aided by French and American intelligence, carried a surprise attack on a heavily fortified Libyan airbase, killing more than 1,200 soldiers and capturing over 400 others, including Haftar. Libya’s defeat essentially brought Qaddafi’s expansionist project to an end.

Chadian forces in a Toyota pick-up truck. The final stage of the confl ict was known as the Toyota War.
Chadian forces in a Toyota pick-up truck. The final stage of the confl ict was known as the Toyota War.

After the war Qaddafi disowned Haftar and many other officers who were held captive in Chad. The reason why he did so remains unclear.

When asked once after the war about Haftar, Qaddafi reportedly commented laughing: “He could be one of the shepherds who lost their ways looking for their camels or sheep” and ended up in Chad, according to Shalqam.

In a 1992 interview with the Washington Post, Qaddafi refused to answer a question about Haftar. “Please don't ask me such questions. It’s meaningless,” he said. But after a pause, he said: “Especially that one you mentioned because he was my son and I was like his spiritual father. I don’t want to say anything about him.”

Qaddafi’s betrayal angered Haftar and prompted him to join a foreign-based armed brigade seeking to overthrow Qaddafi. The brigade was reportedly named the Libyan National Army, the same name Haftar now gives his newly-formed anti-government military alliance.

“Haftar was an experienced soldier and it was a very big deal for us when he came over,” Ashour Shamis, a former member of the anti-Qaddafi opposition, told the Guardian.

Haftar was also seen by the CIA as a valuable recruit for America’s fight against Qaddafi, who was seen by Ronald Reagan’s administration as sponsoring international terrorism, especially following the bombing of a Berlin nightclub on April 5, 1986. The attack, reportedly carried out by Libyan agents, killed two U.S. soldiers, prompting Reagan to order the bombing of Tripoli 10 days later on April 15, 1986.

Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi.

A 1996 Washington Post article says: “The Americans have tried for several years to forge a credible alternative to Qaddafi. Haftar, as a prominent army officer younger than the Libyan leader, has long been an attractive option, according to Libyan circles in London.”

When Qaddafi’s ally Idriss Déby assumed power in Chad in 1990, Haftar had to be evacuated by the CIA or else risk being handed over to Qaddafi. He was reportedly flown to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then to the United States.

Haftar was reportedly stationed in a suburban area of Virginia, near the CIA headquarters in Langley, from where he maintained contact with anti-Qaddafi militias.

In an article published on March 26, 2011, McClatchy DC quoted a man who said to have known Haftar “all his life” as saying that the Libyan officer had “intense anti-Qaddafi feeling.”

“Khalifa has a personal grudge against Qaddafi... That was his purpose in life,” said the man identified as Abdel Salam Badr of Richmond, Virginia.

Despite his close ties with Haftar, Badr said he was unsure what Haftar did for a living but that he was focused “primarily…on helping his large family.”

McClatchy DC’s report quoted Salem al-Hasi, a Libyan activist said to be based in Georgia, as saying that Haftar once was his superior in the anti-Qaddafi army. He described him as “the most experienced person in the whole Libyan army” and has a sense of “national responsibility.”

Qaddafi’s rapprochement with the West, which culminated in a meeting between him and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a desert camp in 2004, appeared to have dropped him in the U.S.’s priority hit list and made his rival Haftar no longer valuable to the CIA.

Qaddafi’s dramatic policy shift encouraged Haftar to open contacts with his regime through the then Libyan ambassador to the United Nations Abuzed Dorda, foreign minister Shalqam wrote in his article.

Haftar, however, remained distrustful of Qaddafi and didn’t return to Libya. He stayed in America until 2011 to return and participate in the rebellion that ousted the former Libyan strongman.

Video of Haftar arriving in Benghazi

The Guardian quoted unnamed former CIA officials as saying that Haftar had unlikely kept links with the U.S. intelligence after his return to Libya. “He is kind of a ‘fumpy’ guy,” one official said. “They tend to underestimate him. He's a pretty tough old guy and he could win, whatever winning in Libya means,” he added.

In Libya, Haftar took the third most senior position in the rebel army formed by the National Transitional Council. Abdul Fatah Younis occupied the role of commander-in-chief and Omar al-Hariri served as Younis’ Chief of Staff.

Haftar reportedly saw himself as more important than his superiors Younis and Hariri. He reportedly refused to deal with Hariri, who once was his comrade at Qaddafi’s Free Officers movement in the 1960s.

Younis was assassinated in July 2011 in mysterious circumstances and his body was dumped in an area outside of Benghazi.

Abdel Fatah Younis, (Reuters)
Abdel Fatah Younis, (Reuters)
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