How a U.S. citizen is attempting to overthrow the Libyan government

A powerful local militia attempted to challenge the government in Libya early this month.  Libya is officially ruled by the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli and headed by Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj.  Forces supporting the GNA were able to capture 145 members of the opposing militia, the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and led by Khalifa Haftar.  Since the initial attack on Tripoli last week, much of the country has dissolved into violence and chaos. The United States was the first of several countries to quickly remove troops from Libya as the nation deteriorates.  However, a small group of American forces have remained in Libya over the past several years to aid Libyan forces in the fight against militants representing ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, recently visited Libya to organize a national reconciliation conference for later this month, an event that is intended to prevent this kind of conflict.  After conflict erupted, Guterres hurried to the eastern half of the country to meet with Haftar in Benghazi and members of the House of Representatives (which is loyal to Haftar).  Guterres and the United Nations have been attempting to broker peace both publicly and privately, emphasizing that unrest in Libya must be solved politically and not militarily.

Who is Haftar? Where did he come from?

Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan military officer, has a long and colorful history in Libyan politics.  Haftar served in the military coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, soon becoming a top military officer in Gaddafi’s regime before the general disavowed Haftar.  The reason for this falling-out is not entirely clear, but Haftar’s capture in Chad during the Chadian-Libyan conflict may have been the cause.

Abandoned by Gaddafi and no longer finding a home in Libya, Haftar took a CIA deal to move to the US under a refugee program.  Haftar lived in the Virginia for over ten years from the late 1990s to 2007, even becoming a United States citizen.  He returned to Libya in 2011 to lead the overthrow of Gaddafi as a key commander of the rebel forces in the east.  Haftar remained mostly quiet until 2014, the same year that the city of Benghazi and many other eastern towns were occupied by Islamic militants from Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda affiliate.  Haftar called upon the Libyan people in a televised address, encouraging them to rise up against parliament (at the time called the General National Congress) and denounce the government for their refusal to confront the militants.  Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” in May of 2014, which eventually pushed the militants out of Benghazi by 2016.  

Since becoming the head of the LNA in 2015, Haftar runs somewhat of a parallel government in eastern Libya.  Haftar distributes his own currency, supplied by Russia, that he has used to buy the support of local groups.  Control of the eastern, and now the southern, oil fields is a central aspect of Haftar’s pseudo-government, as it is a valuable bargaining chip that affords him some economic control in Libya.  Now, Haftar is attempting to use his power from Operation Dignity and his control over oil fields to undermine and overthrow yet another government. There were two ways to power for Haftar: striking a formal, political deal with the Government of National Accord or taking power by force.  Haftar has counted on his militia’s strength, his power from oil, and the frustrations of Libyans with the GNA, to help him seize power through military force.

Who is supporting Haftar?

One would think that a leader of a militia that is attempting to overthrow a U.N.-backed government would struggle to garner widespread support.  However, this is not the case for Khalifa Haftar. Haftar has backing from a wide array of international players as well as from factions within Libya.

In Libya, much of the eastern half of the country is loyal to Haftar thanks to his efforts to drive Islamic militants out of local cities and towns.  In eastern regions near the oil fields, Haftar has created many jobs for the local men in guarding the oil fields.  The promise of a uniform and a salary is deeply alluring to a population far from Tripoli that often seems to suffer the worst of the strife in Libya.  Haftar has recognized this suffering and alienation and has provided money, gas, and petroleum to the poverty-stricken local population.  To many in the east, Haftar is a savior who has provided things that the GNA in Tripoli never has.

Internationally, France, Egypt, the UAE, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have all expressed some measure of support for Haftar. Countries such as France and the UAE have argued that Haftar is the strongman that is needed to stabilize Libya, a country that has been rocked by multiple civil wars and is constantly plagued with social, political, and economic unrest.  Most importantly, nations like France are drawn to Haftar’s success in fighting Islamic militants.

There is another kind of international support for Haftar: that of autocratic rulers.  Egypt’s President el-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and Russia’s President Putin all support Haftar, whether it be explicitly or quietly behind closed doors.  All three leaders are known to have dictatorial tendencies and head oppressive regimes.  Just before his coup attempt, Haftar very publicly met with King Salman in Saudi Arabia and has been courted extensively by Moscow.  Russia, as do other nations, denies official involvement in the attempted overthrow. However, it is the unofficial support – supplies, arms, funding – by these autocratic regimes that is buoying Haftar.

Is Haftar likely to succeed?

Despite his blustering, at this stage Haftar is unlikely to succeed in the near future in overthrowing the GNA.  Strategically, an invasion of Tripoli and western Libya would be extraordinarily difficult. Haftar’s militias are already spread thinly across the east and south, and resources are running low.  Given that his initial assault of Tripoli failed, Haftar’s supporters may be less confident that he has what it takes to unseat President al Sarraj. Libya is also a puzzle of tribal groups and different ethnic identities. It would be nearly impossible for Haftar to create enough unity across these groups to precipitate a united movement.  Many of the tribes stay loyal to the LNA thanks to bribes and for it would be unsustainable for Haftar to continually bribe groups across the country to support his cause..  Tribal groups are a consistent source of conflict, which makes it even more challenging for Haftar to create a united front against the GNA.

Despite support from regional superpowers, the international community as a whole is still not entirely open to overthrowing the GNA.  Haftar himself remains too unpredictable for widespread backing, having proven that he will turn on his allies, such as Gaddafi,when it is expedient.  Particularly when it comes to oil – of which Libya has a great deal – the international community is hesitant to officially sanction the leader of a dissident militia to have control over oil reserves.  In June 2018, Haftar’s bid to sell oil independently was struck down internationally, signaling an unwillingness to allow Haftar total control.

It will also not be long until Haftar’s supporters realize he is not as far from Islamic terrorism as he claims to be.  Right now, Haftar’s main selling point to nations like France is that he against extremism and has proven his ability to eradicate terrorist militias.  However, Haftar remains close with Saudi Arabia – a known sponsor of terrorism – and he is proven to support Salafist armed groups.  Haftar also does not seem to intend to install a democracy, given his statement that Libya is “not ripe for democracy.” Once these issues become more apparent, it will become more difficult for other countries to support him under a guise of being anti-terror.  Furthermore, the LNA does not have a strong central fighting force and is thus reliant on militias, some of which have committed war crimes.  This leaves Haftar’s forces open to conflict and vision, which will be deadly in the face of a more unified government backed by the United Nations.

What’s next?

Although Haftar’s initial assault on Tripoli was repelled, conflict still rages across the country.  The international airport is now a battleground. Schools are closed, resources are scarce, and millions of people are at risk.  The U.N. Mission to Libya has begged for a ceasefire to evacuate civilians and the wounded – of whom there are said to be over 50 – in Tripoli.  Libya is in the early stages of a civil war, it is almost certain that the conflict will continue to escalate.

Right now, the fate of Libya depends on who, Haftar or President al Sarraj, can more effectively appeal to the Libyan people.  Beyond the LNA and GNA, the outcome of the conflict will likely be determined by where international players throw their weight.  Haftar’s failure or success would be strongly linked to which countries support which side and who chooses to get involved. Many European countries, especially Italy, have condemned the coup but have yet to act.  The United States has officially backed the GNA but a stronger statement is needed.  Given President Trump’s affinity for the many dictators who have already been backed, it is frightening to consider the possibility that Trump may make a statement of support for the LNA.  Trump may easily be drawn to Haftar’s control of Libya’s vast oil reserves and to Haftar’s claims that he is anti-terrorism.  Haftar has already curried favor with the CIA, after he allowed them to build a base in Benghazi.  If major world powers such as the United States begin to support Haftar, even behind the scenes, then there is little hope for the GNA.  However, at the moment it does seem unlikely that many nations would come out and directly oppose a U.N.-supported government.

While Haftar may not be the answer to Libya’s woes, his attempts to overthrow the government speak to more than just a desire for power.  The GNA is not perfect and Haftar has gained supporters because so many Libyans are frustrated with the GNA’s shortcomings. The international community must come together and follow the United Nations’ lead by facilitating peace talks between the opposing governments before the conflict becomes a full-blown war.  Yet another civil war will only serve to worsen Libya’s struggles with accountable government, stable infrastructure, and persistent tribal conflict. The world has always been very interested in Libya at war, but hasn’t been so enthusiastic about addressing the aftermath and solving issues during peacetime. It is time for the international community to come to Libya’s aid and address Libyan suffering in peacetime and in war.


Author: Julia Broomer

Julia Broomer is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and minoring in Arabic and Sociocultural Anthropology.  Her interests include counter-terrorism, social and political conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, and comparative cultures in the region.