Since denouncing Libya’s anemic central government in February, rogue ex-general Khalifa Haftar has mounted a daring offensive to root out the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist militias from Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi in what he calls “Operation Dignity.”
A former CIA asset who has boasted of his U.S.-backed plot to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the former Gaddafi loyalist turned rebel was once described as Libya's Ahmed Chalabi — a widely discredited player legitimized mainly by his ties to Washington. But this time around, Haftar says he is going it alone. His anti-Islamist campaign seems to be a confluence of interests held by the Middle East’s powerful stakeholders in Cairo, Riyadh and even Washington, but Haftar insists says his loyal forces are merely answering the call of violence-weary Libyans to drive out the country’s powerful extremist militias.
“If I’m an agent, I’m an agent for the Libyan people only," he told the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm when asked whether he still served his former masters in Washington.
Since Gaddafi was dethroned and then publicly executed in 2011, oil-rich Libya has been ruled by the writ of militias, some in support of the newly established National Congress and others opposed. Intertwined rivalries have bred surging violence that increasingly threatens to spill over into neighboring Egypt, while the rise of Islamist groups like the Brotherhood has many Arab governments on edge. Ansar Al-Sharia, a transnational extremist group that has gained a foothold amid Libya’s chaos, has meanwhile waged terror attacks in the eastern city of Benghazi — not to mention the 2012 raid that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
After being ridiculed for a failed coup attempt in February, Haftar launched his current offensive in May. With this he has somehow managed to gain the support of Libya’s air force and regular military forces, as well as the partnership of various militias in the nation's west that oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions.
Many say only foreign sponsorship could explain Haftar's unlikely resurgence. After all, he has a well-documented history of affiliation with the CIA and even lived in Virginia for 21 years while exiled from the Gaddafi government.
Analysts say there is little chance the U.S. is involved with Haftar this time around, even if the rogue general has positioned himself as a partner in the war on terror. For one, Washington is suspicious of Haftar’s long-term intentions. But Washington is also aware that its last meddling in Libya — the 2011 NATO airstrikes on Gaddafi — bred the current chaos.
But his anti-extremist rhetoric does seem to be aimed as much at potential foreign backers as at Libyans. In the same May interview, he advertised his counter-extremist services to the entire world by saying that one of the pillars of Operation Dignity was to “prevent the export of terrorism to our neighboring countries.”
He later elaborated to Egypt’s Al-Ahram: “Terrorism is a common enemy to all of us in the Arab region and the entire world ... These countries should assess whether securing their borders requires providing [us] support or not. We won’t demand it from them.”
Many suspect Egypt already has Haftar’s back. Cairo, after all, is faced with the immediate threat of violence and extremism spilling across the border from Libya's Islamist-controlled eastern provinces. Egypt's strongman president, Abdel Fatteh El Sisi, is waging his own brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood's branch in Egypt, and there have already been reports that anti-Sisi Islamist groups have been armed and trained in Libya.
Haftar has sought to connect the dots between his own anti-Brotherhood offensive and that of Sisi's, but many believe Haftar actually sees himself in the Egyptian president's mold. Sisi assumed power in Cairo on the back of a military coup against the country's Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, last July. Many suspect Haftar would like to do the same after stamping out the Brotherhood in Libya, despite his repeated insistences to the contrary.
“Claiming he has no political intentions, posing as the savior of the country — it’s the same narrative Sisi used,” said Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “The problem — and this is different from Sisi — is that Libyans don’t like him. Journalists who interview him don’t like him. Even allied militias don’t like him. The man is not popular.”
Mezran added that Egypt and allied militias in western Libya “all just want him to do the dirty job. It’s an instrumental arrangement.”
Whether or not Haftar is being armed or financed by another government, he would have to deny it. A government like Cairo or even Riyadh, which is also rumored to have an eye on Haftar, would not want its hands detectable in a conflict many fear is sliding toward civil war.
But as is often the case in a fractured strategic landscape like Libya, “it’s quite possible even Haftar himself doesn’t know who’s supporting him,” said Chris Chivvis, a Libya specialist at the global policy think tank RAND Corporation. Chivvis noted that Russia and even nonstate actors like energy firms, which invest in Libyan oil, would also like to see the country's turbulent oil production stabilize. “It could well be a combination of different groups that have an interest in seeing Haftar’s view prevail,” he said.
With no group powerful enough to change the equation on the ground in Libya, many see a stalemate that has the potential to devolve into civil war. Fighting over control of Tripoli’s international airport this week killed 47 people in some of the worst violence in months.
But media reports on the almost daily clashes increasingly neglect to identify the maze of militia groups by anything more than their home city, or their vague “anti-government” or “Islamist” affiliations. Despite, or perhaps because of, his notoriety, Haftar is often the only player in Libya's chaos mentioned by name. If Libya's rogue general can match his rhetoric with decisive victories, analysts say, he might draw the attention of any number of regional powers that are dead set on wiping out the Brotherhood or extremist groups like Ansar Al-Sharia.
Ashour Shamis, a former partner of Haftar’s in the U.S.-backed Libya National Army of the 1980s, told The Guardian last month that Haftar was still very much a candidate for U.S. support once again if his offensive can get off the ground. The Americans, Shamis said, “want to see how much momentum Haftar has and how far he goes.”
According to Ramzy Baroud of the Middle East Eye, “In times of such befuddling strife, some people might be ready to accept feeble alternatives. Despite his dubious legacy, Haftar might oddly enough appear to some as Libya’s strongman.”