Khalifa Haftar: Fighting terrorism or pursuing political power?

Is Haftar’s ‘Operation Dignity’ really about countering militants and extreme groups in Libya?

In mid-May Haftar's forces stormed the Libyan parliament and called for suspending the ruling General National Congress [AP]

Editor’s note: The original text of this article wrongly claimed that two International Committee of the Red Cross personnel were killed and that the ICRC had departed from Libya. One ICRC official was killed and the ICRC is not departing Libya.

Libya’s democratic transition entered a new uneasy chapter on June 9 after Ahmed Mietig’s claim to be Libya’s legitimately elected prime minister was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. As a result, previous interim Prime Minister Abdallah Thinn is set to remain in power, with domestic opinion split over the future of the country as June 25 elections approach. 

These developments have taken place in the light of recent events which have shaken the country and propelled retired military general Khalifa Haftar and his “Operation Dignity” to national prominence. Central to his ascension are questions over a set of conflicting political and military objectives which Haftar has outlined – which could be seen either as a solution to Libya’s security woes or a setback to its democratic transition.

In actuality, the actions of Haftar’s self-proclaimed “Libyan National Army” (LNA) were quite disconcerting. In co-ordinated ground and air strikes on May 16 targeting two military bases in Benghazi, the LNA claimed it was getting rid of extremists in Benghazi. But within 48 hours, forces from Zintan allied to the LNA turned their attention to politics, and stormed the General National Congress (GNC) in their third attempt at ousting Libya’s legislature and government.

Both moves were believed to enjoy a large degree of popularity in Libya, with social media and Libyan satellite channels fuelling initial support for the operation in the first 72 hours. In the first few days of the operation, heads of the air force, individual army units and a police force in Tripoli defected to support Haftar. Members of tribes and cities across the country were said to be pledging their allegiance to the operation.

The events reveal the extent to which the operation sought to create a dangerous political narrative – closely resembling the revolutionary story of 2011 – which could further destabilise Libya.

Who is a terrorist?

The operation has since hastily attempted to project popular support through the media. Protests and counter-protests in Tripoli and Benghazi supported by several hundred people over the past two weeks were deemed to be representative of the population at large: Claims in the media were made that “the people” had spoken. Such rhetoric poses a threat to the future of the country’s democratic transition, if Haftar et al continue to justify all future actions through the lens of an imagined or real popularity.

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Actions in the name of the people that would otherwise be deemed illegal, and contrary to conventional human rights standards or detrimental to the democratic transition cannot be justified by claims of popular support, and are therefore dangerous.

However, Haftar’s rhetoric has certainly struck a chord in the country’s east. Residents of Benghazi and Derna have been crippled with fear from two years of daily assassinations and a series of politically motivated terrorist bombings. However, the sweep of Operation Dignity’s targets shows that it is not only about terrorism. Attempts to re-orientate the transition on a political level deviates from what should be a military operation. Haftar’s political wing, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has adopted the role of the new military broker for this transition. 

It can be a lethal development, if political power is brokered by a group of unelected and unaccountable army officers with a political voice, as was the case in 1952 and 1969  with former Egyptian and Libyan leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Gaddafi respectively. Setting aside precise military and strategic objectives, this divisive rhetoric reveals another objective: To obliterate, using military force, any number of individuals and political blocs SCAF deems terrorists.

Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, a Salafi-jihadist group and militiia, is the first military target on the list – a predictable one, given the group’s extremist leanings. The second, however, is the Muslim Brotherhood. Haftar declared he would “cleanse Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood” only days into the operation, thereby blurring the lines between terrorist and Islamist groups. While extremist groups recruit from disillusioned margins, Islamist groups do enjoy a degree of public support from sizable constituencies in Libya. 

If the Libyan Brotherhood is subjected to a crackdown similar to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where will these constituencies turn to during elections and how will they react?  As Libya is nearing parliamentary elections on June 25, “Operation Dignity” can pose a threat to candidates – Islamist or otherwise – who oppose Haftar’s moves.  

Beyond ‘Operation Dignity’

Dictated by realpolitik, armed groups and political stakeholders competing over Libya’s vast military and financial resources have been the motivating factor for this operation. Libya’s Political Isolation Law was passed under duress in 2013 resulting the exclusion of some groups. Militias believed to be supported by Libya’s Islamist factions, an important political demographic, have been excluded; and aside from the GNC’s lacklustre performance, this is a critical reason as to why it has become a target of the newly politically disenfranchised, 

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The National Forces alliance party and Zintani Qaa Qaa militias no longer enjoy the degree of control or access to political and financial resources they had before the law was passed, and were always going to react. Operation Dignity was the only way to shake up the political landscape, and regain access under the pretext of “saving Libya”.

There may not be strong institutions in Libya, but there is certainly a bloated bureaucracy used to rubber stamping projects, which ostensibly remain up for grabs by competing predatory forces.

The overt military objective – “war on terror” – can be expected to get worse. The US administration’s regional military experience is no reason to be optimistic. The focus on drone attacks and ground force operations targeting al-Qaeda while neglecting the wider contours and strands of jihadist thinking was always unwise. As a result of this violence, new, considerably more extermist groups have emerged. 

Salafi-jihadist groups, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) in the Sinai Peninsula have evolved and grown in reaction to violence and repression. In the long term, military force has not been sucessful in countering this threat. 

Libya certainly needs a counter-extremism strategy beyond Operation Dignity to alleviate the problem of radicalism. Only a carefully planned, long-term programme with wide-ranging security policies and precise socio-economic and religious policies that go beyond military means can yield positive results. At the national level, a pluralistic dialogue which includes religious factions to counter the growth of extremism is imperative to immunise future generations from this threat.

Simultaneously, Libya’s security apparatus requires a well-developed intelligence service with surveillance programmes that disrupt terrorist activities and work to counter other threats such as criminal networks and ethnic unrest. Haftar’s operation regretfully does not pursue any of these goals and therein lies the problem.

What is most troubling is that the rhetoric underlying Operation Dignity doesn’t necessarily have to be true to be dangerous – it just has to be believed. Striking a blow at political opponents and lauding the result as the “war on terror” to a crowd eager to see progress in countering extremism could quite easily exacerbate the situation, sowing the seeds of protracted civil war down the line. While the situation in Libya is certainly bad, it could still get much worse.

Anas El Gomati is the Founder and Director General of the Sadeq Institute, Libya’s first public policy think tank based in Tripoli.  

Follow him on Twitter: @agomati