Operation Dignity: General Haftar’s Latest Battle May Decide Libya’s Future

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 11

General Khalifa Haftar (Source: Maghrebia)

General Khalifa Haftar, the self-declared leader of the Libyan National Army, announced the launch of Operation Karama (Dignity) on May 16 with the aim of cleansing Libya of “terrorism and extremism” (al-Arabiya, May 24). Haftar’s latest battle may have far-reaching consequences, with its success or failure leading to one of four scenarios:

1. Libya continues on a course towards becoming a failed state;

2. Libya starts the process of building a national army that is able to unify the country and protect its elected institutions;

3. Libya descends into a long struggle, or even civil war, between competing groups, mainly Islamists and nationalists;

4. Libya becomes a military-led dictatorship.

There is also a possibility of the outcome resulting in some combination of all the above.

Haftar’s Military Record

Considering the importance of Operation Dignity, it is worth examining Haftar’s record in past battles, and how this may influence current operations.

Haftar’s military record is a mixed one and is open to different interpretation by supporters and opponents. The general, a member of the powerful Firjan tribe, first came to prominence through his role as one of the “Free Officers” who deposed King Idriss al-Sanusi and brought Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi to power in 1969. Haftar had been a Qaddafi loyalist since 1964, when they were brought together in a Free Officers cell in Benghazi. [1]

In 1973, Haftar was part of the Libyan contingent that fought alongside the Egyptian Army and participated in the successful crossing of the Suez Canal in the October (Ramadan) War. Haftar was decorated with the Egyptian Sinai medal for his role in the campaign whose initial stages, at least, were viewed as a military success in Egypt. [2]

These successes were followed by a series of failures in the 1980s and 1990s. Haftar’s closeness to Qaddafi led the latter to task him with an important mission: expanding Libya’s influence into neighboring Chad. The general was placed in command of the Libyan forces sent into Chad for this purpose and who scored some early success against weak Chadian forces.

However, Haftar’s victories were short-lived as his better-armed troops were out-manoeuvred by the highly mobile Chadians. On March 22, 1987, the Chadian troops of President Hissène Habré defeated the Libyans in the battle of Wadi al-Doum, killing more than 1,000 soldiers and taking 438, including Haftar, as prisoners of war. [3]

It was then that Haftar turned against his master, who denied that Libyan troops were present in Chad and even went so far as to suggest that his general may actually have been a camel herder who had lost his way in the desert. [4] Viewing this as a personal and professional betrayal, Haftar then offered to join forces with the Libyan leader’s opponents. Through his captors, he sent a message to the leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front of Libya (NSFL), offering to assist their efforts to topple Qaddafi. [5] It was an offer that could not be rejected – Haftar was bringing with him hundreds of soldiers who had fought under his command and were imprisoned with him in Chad.

Haftar joined the NSFL and became the leader of its armed wing, the Libyan National Army (coincidentally the same name as Libya’s reorganized post-Qaddafi army). However, hopes of marching through the desert from Chad towards Libya soon evaporated. In 1990, Idriss Déby toppled Habré in N’Djamena and Haftar and his men had to be spirited out of the country in case Déby intended to hand them over to Qaddafi. Haftar’s army was taken by the CIA to Zaïre (modern Democratic Republic of Congo) and then to the United States.

Haftar’s time in America is still an issue for some Libyans who still question whether he became a CIA operative during his long residence there. His opponents point to the fact that he ran a training camp for his forces in Virginia, claiming that this would not be allowed to happen if Haftar’s men were not part of a possible CIA plan to topple Qaddafi (al-Hayat, December 18, 1991). However, his supporters say it was an open secret that Haftar and the NSFL had contacts with the Americans and even cooperated with them to further their efforts to rid Libya of Qaddafi, but this does not mean that these Libyans were in any way “agents” for the Americans.

Whatever the intent behind the Virginia-based training camp, events in Libya soon overtook these efforts. In 1993, Qaddafi discovered a plot between a group of army officers in league with elements of the NSFL to overthrow him. The plotters, mostly from Bani Walid, were arrested and executed. The discovery of this plot led to recriminations within the NSFL, and Haftar eventually broke away from this opposition group.

Haftar remained in exile until the 2011 revolution, though his opponents claim that he did a deal with Qaddafi in 2005, when it appeared that the Libyan leader had consolidated his power by resolving his issues with the West, including ridding Libya of WMDs and paying compensation for Lockerbie and UTA airplane bombings. A March 18, 2005 audiotape of a conversation recorded in Egypt between Qaddafi and members of Haftar’s family features a member of Haftar’s family explaining to the Libyan leader that Haftar’s actions against his old master came about because he felt Qaddafi had abandoned him and his men in Chad. [6]

Haftar and the Revolution

In March 2011, Haftar arrived in Benghazi and joined the battle against Qaddafi. However, Haftar’s role during the revolution was not very impressive. His men operated in eastern Libya and were – at least on paper – part of the opposition’s Libyan government in exile, though Haftar does not seem to have had a good relationship with leaders of the armed opposition during the revolution such as Abdul-Fattah Younis and Omar al-Hariri.

After the revolution, Haftar hoped to become the chief-of-staff of the new Libyan armed forces and was endorsed for this post by dozens of officers. The new Libyan government gave the post instead to another general, Yusuf al-Mangoush, who was later blamed for building a parallel army of Islamist militiamen. Instead of going into exile, Haftar stayed on and obtained the support of some army units in central Libya, near Sirte, as well as in the east.

It is not entirely clear if Haftar was planning his next move during the two years he spent in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi. However, things in Libya were going from bad to worse. The Islamists were becoming the dominant force, despite a poor performance in the July 2012 General National Congress (GNC) elections. The Islamists managed to force Mahmoud Jabril, the leader of the Alliance of National Forces that won those elections, into a self-imposed exile. They were also suspected of involvement in the assassination of dozens of army officers. The Islamists’ “parallel army” (the Libya Shield militia) assumed many of the responsibilities of the still nascent national army and was the force used to crush any attempt to revolt against the new Islamist-dominated regime.

Haftar’s first move came about on February 14, 2014, as the 18-month mandate of the GNC was about to expire. However, his attempt was described as “no more than a television coup,” according to one of his critics, Abd al-Basit Haroun, a prominent militia commander now involved in Libyan intelligence activities (al-Jazeera, February 15; al-Hayat, February 15). Haftar appeared on a local television station to announce that the army was taking over and suspending the GNC. The next day, however, the then prime minister, Ali Zeidan, ridiculed him, saying that the age of coups in Libya is something belonging to the past, though Haftar denied he was leading a coup (Skynewsarabia.com, February 14).

The situation changed little until May, when Haftar announced Operation Karama in Benghazi. Although the operation took the country by surprise, it did not appear to have achieved its goals. The Islamist bases which were attacked in Benghazi managed to repulse their assailants, who were forced to withdraw and regroup.

This apparent failure was followed by a surprising avalanche of support. Dozens of regular army units, including Wanis Boukhmada’s respected Saiqa (Thunderbolt) Special Forces brigade in Benghazi (Alrseefa.net, May 19). [7] The army units’ quick support of Haftar can be viewed as the result of the wave of assassinations – blamed on Islamists – that have targeted military and security officers for the past three years. Haftar now claims that “around 70,000 soldiers have joined us, including the air force, the navy, the air defence force, and, of course, the army” (Elyoum7 [Giza], May 22). Irregular armed forces also gave their support, including the powerful Zintan-based al-Qaqa Brigade and the Tripoli-based ­al-Sawaiq Brigade (both units come officially under the direction of the Libyan Defense Ministry).

In addition to these army units and armed groups, Haftar’s move was also supported by various politicians and ordinary people who, despite threats of reprisals, arrived in their hundreds, or even thousands, into Tripoli and Benghazi. Some of the banners lifted during these demonstrations in support of Haftar carried slogans claiming that “The Muslim Brotherhood equals al-Qaeda.” [8]

Slogans such as this give the impression that Haftar’s supporters see him following the road taken by Egypt’s Field Marshal Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. Al-Sisi justified his actions against former president Muhammad Mursi by saying that he was given the people’s authority to go after the Muslim Brotherhood by the mass demonstrations against the movement in the streets of Egyptian cities in June and July 2013. Similarly, Haftar has said that the demonstrations in Tripoli and Benghazi have justified his pursuit of the Islamists in Operation Karama. While there is no comparison in terms of the sheer numbers that turned out in Egypt and Libya, it must be remembered that Libya’s population is only six million people, compared to Egypt’s estimated 86 million.

Haftar’s “fight against terrorism” can also be seen as a way of gathering external support by taking into account European and American concerns over the growing presence of militant groups following al-Qaeda’s ideology in Libya. The Europeans in particular seem to be extremely worried because of the proximity of Libya to their shores across the Mediterranean. However, the Americans and the Europeans were quick to deny that they were supporting Haftar’s operation.

Haftar may have also thought of gaining the support of Arab states wary of the Islamists. Al-Sisi, expected to be Egypt’s new president, may lend the Libyan general a helping hand in his efforts to curb the influence of Islamist militant groups that have been accused of harbouring Egyptian jihadists and even smuggling weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to Sinai-based jihadi groups. Haftar has given assurances that if his operation succeeds, Libya will hand over to Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled after the ouster of Mursi. [9]

It is also possible that Haftar may get help from the Gulf states, especially the UAE, which is reported to be ready to aid the Libyan general’s efforts (al-Araby, May 19). It is alleged that the UAE offered Haftar backing with 800 million dollars, which includes paying money to armed groups willing to join Operation Dignity. This aid is also alleged to include Egyptian backing. It is noteworthy that this alleged aid plan includes a requirement that forces loyal to Haftar will take control of oil exporting terminals along the Libyan coast and that the exported oil will be bought through the government backed by Haftar and not the one based in Tripoli and backed by the Islamists. [10] It was noticeable that al-Qaqa and al-Sawaiq, the two Zintan and Tripoli-based groups thought to be supported by the UAE, were quick to join Haftar’s Operation Kamara.

Does all this internal and external support indicate that Haftar’s way to power in Tripoli is now wide open? Of course not. His opponents are in no way lightweight. Misrata, which broke Qaddafi’s back during the revolution, may turn out to be a hurdle between Haftar and Tripoli. Misratan forces have already moved into the capital to protect the new government, which is now led by Ahmad Meitig, a fellow Misratan who was elected in disputed circumstances. In the east of Libya, the Islamists are well-entrenched in the major cities. Derna, in particular, could be a problem for Haftar’s troops, who have been flying military planes low over the city, as a message to the Islamists there that they could be bombed from the air. As for the external hurdles, it is expected that Qatar will not be happy with Haftar’s actions and view them as an undesired coup attempt.

Camille Tawil is an investigative journalist for al-Hayat newspaper in London where he has worked for the past seventeen years.


1. See former Libyan foreign minister Abd al-Rahman Shalgam’s piece on Haftar at: https://www.facebook.com/137240689650976/posts/664527176922322. For a profile of Khalifa Haftar, see Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2011.

2. See Annahar TV [Cairo], May 25, 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yMGZZk95Zo&app=desktop.

3. Shalgam describes this battle as Umm al-Ma’asi, or the “Mother of all Tragedies.” See www.facebook.com/137240689650976/posts/664527176922322.

4. Ibid.

5. See Camille Tawil: Al-Qaeda wa Akhawatuha, Saqi Books, 2007.

6. See: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=720365421338403&set=vb.563593777015569&type=2&theater.

7. A Facebook page supporting Haftar’s Operation Karama keeps a record of all the units that have sided with him: https://arar.facebook.com/pages/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%86-%D8%AE%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%81%D8%A9-%D8%AD%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%B1/180728631978737.

8. Ibid.

9. https://videoyoum7.com/2014/05/22/.

10. The allegations regarding the UAE’s backing of Haftar are widely circulated in the Arab world. Many of these reports seem to be based on a popular twitter account by someone who calls himself ‘tameh0’ whose allegations are then distributed by critics of the UAE government.