Who is General Khalifa Haftar?

Khalifa Haftar is a Libyan military officer currently involved in the war to conquer Tripoli and, in turn, the entire country. With his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), he now controls large swathes of Cyrenaica and Fezzan and, since 4th April, has been engaged in the battle to capture Tripoli.

Khalifa Haftar was born on 9th November 1943, in the city of Agedabia, in Cyrenaica but not far from Sirte. He, therefore, shared an almost identical military path with the future Rais Muammar Gaddafi and knew the areas where the colonel spent his early years.

The two met when Gaddafi was already in power following the 1969 coup, when King Idris was overthrown and the Libyan republic was inaugurated. According to various sources in Tripoli, Haftar and Gaddafi became friends and the Rais gave the impression of being a real political “mentor” of Haftar himself, who began to share his ideas around pan-Arabism, the Arab path to socialism, state secularism and emancipation from the colonial era.

Haftar had a military education and that is why, with Gaddafi in power, he began his career in the Libyan army. Thanks also to its proximity to the Rais, Haftar received several promotions eventually becoming one of the highest-ranked generals in the army.

In addition to his military training, and his political and personal proximity to the Rais, his membership in the Madkhalists, a branch of the Salafists, had a positive influence on Haftar’s career within the Libyan army, exploited by Gaddafi to counter the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the end of the seventies, Gaddafi spearheaded the conflict in Chad intending to control the so-called “Aouzou strip”, a desert area largely inhabited by Arab populations. The Rais announced the desire to annex those very populations, with the real purpose of the conflict being to obtain the many resources present in the region’s subsoil.

Khalifa Haftar was one of the main generals called to lead the Libyan army in Chad. It was in this period that Haftar became popular, and his name remains inextricably linked to this conflict and the events of the war that went on throughout the 1980s.

However, the situation changed in 1987, when the war in Chad took a bad turn for Libya, one of the main culprits being general Haftar himself.

Libyan forces endured a series of defeats by Chad, fueling discontent, and by the late eighties, it was no longer enough to just blame France’s ongoing support simply to appease certain people.

The main event in this sense was the Ouadi Doum conflict, which not only caused one of Libya’s biggest defeats but also created a deep political and personal rift between Gaddafi and Haftar.

For General Haftar, the Ouadi Doum conflict became a complete nightmare, as he was captured and taken prisoner. Imprisoned in Chad for at least three years, he was eventually freed in 1990 thanks, according to various reports from Tripoli, to US political intervention.

This led to Gaddafi accusing Haftar of treason and conspiracy against his government and, from then on, relations between the two completely broke down.

Regardless of Gaddafi and Haftar ending their political and personal relationship, the general had already gone to live in the US in 1991 after being freed from the Chad prison, notably residing in the Virginia town of Vienna.

The general lived there for at least two decades, becoming an American citizen and moving his family, including sons Saddam and Belgacem.

In 1993, a court in Tripoli sentenced him to death in absentia on charges of having carried out crimes against the Libyan Jamāhīriyya and conspiracies against Gaddafi.

Because of these charges, and his time as a general, Haftar was now perceived as one of Gaddafi’s main opponents, both at home and abroad.

In February 2011, riots began in Libya in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”: uprisings involving a large number of Arab countries against the government at that time. In Gaddafi-ruled Libya, initial protests took place in Cyrenaica in the same month. In neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, Hosni Mubarack and Ben Ali’s decades of rule ended following street demonstrations.

In Libya, however, the situation degenerated more than anticipated, with demonstrations becoming veritable tribal wars. With this in mind, the West were pressing increasingly for a no-fly zone.

When in March 2011 the Qatar TV Al Jazeera talked about alleged mass graves and alleged bombings against civilians, later proved to be false, France and Great Britain were pushing more and more for a military intervention. On 23rd March, 2011, NATO’s operation was launched aimed at targeting Gaddafi’s aviation radar equipment and avoiding new air raids by the Rais. The reality was an all-out war made easier by the intervention of so-called “rebels”: a coalition of tribes and acronyms opposing the Rais, who conquered Tripoli in August.

And, during the summer of 2011, Khalifa Haftar decided to return to Libya, to help the insurgents. He was also reported to be one of the main military advisers of the NTC, or National Transitional Council, a circumstance that was never encountered, however. Haftar was certainly still one of the post-Gaddafi era’s most prominent personalities, particularly when the Rais was found and killed in October 2011 in his hometown of Sirte.

Post-Gaddafi Libya appears to be a veritable failed state, a nation that is no longer able to entertain a unitary government or restore order to all of its regions.

Due to the kind of situation it was, Khalifa Haftar’s popularity grew in the east of the country, announcing the intention to expel terrorists from Libya, starting with Cyrenaica. In February 2014, Haftar proclaimed the dissolution of the Libyan government holding office at that time, attempting a coup that would remove those who, according to the general, appeared to be the country’s main destabilisers; namely the members of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the government remained in office and, in May of that year, Haftar moved into his region of origin, launching “Operation Dignity”.

The general was, in fact, able to put together some militias and groups, even recruiting from the old Gaddafi army, and went on to found what later became known as the Libyan National Army. The goal was to free the key cities in eastern Libya from its Islamic presence. At the time, fundamentalist groups did control Benghazi, Derna and other important centres of Cyrenaica.

With the launch of the Operation Dignity, Haftar managed to advance into most of the eastern region with the support of some international sponsors, namely Egypt with its new president Al Sisi and the United Arab Emirates. Haftar also called for support from some European countries, albeit indirectly from the likes of France.

Control of key areas in Cyrenaica by his army meant the general came into close contact with authorities established in the region at that time. Tobruk was notably established as the parliament seat following the 2014 election and is due to be installed in the city of Benghazi, controlled by the Islamists.

In fact, what is called “Chamber of Representatives” became a veritable parliament of Cyrenaica, in contrast with the government of the Fajr Libya militia stationed in Tripoli and close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Within a few months of Operation Dignity’s launch, Haftar became the de facto military arm of the Tobruk parliament and Cyrenaica government.

December 2015’s Skhirat Agreement established a new executive in Tripoli in early 2016: a government led by Fayez Al Sarraj. However, the House of Representatives itself issued a vote of no confidence in the new structure, with Haftar becoming even more of a protagonist pitted against Tripoli on the Libyan chessboard.

Two distinct entities were formed in the country: Tripoli with its ties to the Al Sarraj government, and Cyrenaica with general Haftar as its key figure.

In the meantime, LNA’s Operation Dignity continued. In 2017, the city of Benghazi was definitively seized back, becoming the headquarters for Haftar’s forces and he, in turn, officially became “Marshal of Libya”. In the summer of 2018 Derna also fell and Cyrenaica was decisively gained back. A well-demonstrated statement of intent following the Palermo conference on Libya, demanded by the Italian government and led by Giuseppe Conte. On that occasion, Haftar became the absolute protagonist, using his considerable knowledge derived from controlling a vast region like Cyrenaica.

In January 2019, Operation Dignity was then also launched in Fezzan, the Libyan desert and hinterland. Within a few weeks, Sebha and other important localities fell into the hands of Haftar, with little resistance from LNA men. In March 2019, therefore, on the eve of a new summit in Abu Dhabi on this occasion, Haftar claimed to control two of Libya’s three historical regions.

At the beginning of April, therefore, Khalifa Haftar appeared in a position of strength compared to Al Sarraj. They did, however, sign a pact in Abu Dhabi where a political role was established for the current prime minister and a military one for the general.

On 4th April, however, Haftar decided to break the tie, bringing Operation Dignity into the heart of Tripolitania with the intent to conquer Tripoli. The initial objective seemed to be within the reach LNA’s men, however the situation later entered a phase of stalemate from which neither Libya nor its capital seem able to leave.