Khalifa Haftar (Khalifa Belqasim Haftar), a Field Marshal, born 7 November 1943 in Ajdabiya in eastern Libya, he was a key ally of Qaddafi when the ex-leader seized control from King Idris in a coup d’état in 1969. Qaddafi sent his trusted ally to neighboring Chad in the 1980s, where Libya intervened multiple times in the 1970s and 1980s. But the move backfired as Haftar was captured in 1987 and swiftly disowned by the Libyan leader—Libya had earlier promised to withdraw its troops from Chad and Haftar’s presence was a violation of this agreement.
Haftar ended up in the United States, having become aligned with anti-Qaddafi, U.S.-backed rebels in Libya, and lived in America for several decades, mostly in Virginia. The location of Haftar’s U.S. home is significant, being close to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia—the ex-Qaddafi ally has long been rumored to have received American training and support for plans to overthrow the late Libyan leader, although both parties have officially denied any substantive links.
Khalifa Belqasim Haftar Full Biography and Profile
Haftar rose to the rank of colonel under Muammar Gaddafi after he helped the ambitious young army man launch a bloodless coup against King Idris in 1969. While Haftar was chosen to take a leading role in one of Gaddafi’s many unsuccessful Chad campaigns, his capture by opposition forces in 1987 led Gaddafi to disavow Haftar and claim that the general was not part of the Libyan army.
Haftar was taken prisoner by the Chadians and had to be rescued by the CIA after having worked from Chad to overthrow Gaddafi. He lived for around 20 years in the U.S. state of Virginia before returning home in 2011 to join other rebels in the uprising that ousted Gaddafi. Three years later Haftar made his own move, launching the campaign in Benghazi. At the time he had gathered only around 200 soldiers and 13 helicopters under his LNA banner, said Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Clingendael Institute international relations think-tank in The Hague. However Haftar quickly attracted other soldiers such as the Saiqa (Lightning) elite unit as well as tribesmen.
In February 2014, Haftar reappeared on the scene when he declared that the Libyan government was suspended, a claim denied by the authorities. Yet his rallying cry may have gained support in the intervening months. Three months later, his “Libyan National Army” has launched the so-called “Operation Dignity” against Islamists in Benghazi. While Haftar’s forces are called the National Army, they are not to be confused with the official state military, and much controversy has surrounded the interplay and collusion between the two forces. Initial reports suggested that the army was backing his assault, although this was later denied by the army.
However, there were various signs that some militias and certain factions within the army may be siding with Haftar. Haftar is believed to have the backing of some militias in the Zintan area, which are located in western Libya and are regarded as well-trained and armed. These militias tend to clash with more Islamist-inspired forces.
An elite army commander in Benghazi Colonel Wanis Abu Khamada has also come out in support of Haftar and pledged all his men and weapons to the “dignity” cause. Haftar accused sections of the authorities of collusion with “criminal terrorism” but he has denied staging a coup or seeking power. Instead he has reiterated earlier assertions that he is responding “to the call of the people” to defend them against “terrorists”.
Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), declared his intent to take over the capital, Tripoli, with a military campaign. Haftar’s forces conducted multiple airstrikes, and more than 2,000 people have been displaced. Understanding this newest phase in Libya’s ongoing civil war requires an examination of Haftar’s motivations, as the most powerful military leader in the country, in choosing to attack Tripoli instead of capitalizing on recent political gains that could have allowed him to take control without firing a shot.
Before he escalated the conflict, Haftar was on the verge of being acclaimed as Libya’s dominant political force at a national conference initially scheduled, which was intended to establish a legal and electoral framework to end the conflict. His decision to launch an assault on the capital is not based on a rational strategy. It is rooted in his delusions of grandeur and megalomania. Haftar demonstrated that he doesn’t want to win the presidency through elections or negotiations; he wants to seize it through battle or guile.
Jonathan Winer, the former U.S. special envoy to Libya, recalled: “During a meeting with Haftar in 2016, the general told me Libya’s politicians were worthless and the country wasn’t ready for self-government.” The more they spoke, Winer said, “it became clear to me that his strategy was to do just enough military conquest to create a stampede where all alternatives to him and his Libyan National Army collapse.” A journalist who interviewed Haftar on multiple occasions recounted a similar anecdote: “In 2015, the general boasted to me while we were at his command headquarters in Marj that he would win the post-2014 civil war by killing all the Islamists in Libya, not by simply becoming president.”
These are not the words of someone who wants to preside over a peaceful transition. If Haftar had wanted that, he could have done it long ago. Since the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Haftar has gone from an ostracized rogue general to a major political contender feted in European capitals. But as of last week, he has thrown out that playbook in favor of a march on the capital, and it is not working out as planned.
Western diplomats sat down for three hours with Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar in his eastern stronghold to try to dissuade him from launching an offensive against the internationally recognised government in Tripoli. They urged him not to plunge the country into a civil war and told him he could become a successful civilian leader if he committed himself to pursuing a political settlement, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting outside Benghazi.
But Haftar, a military strongman who critics describe as the new Muammar Gaddafi, paid them little heed, said the sources who spoke on condition the ambassadors were not identified. He said he was prepared to negotiate with the prime minister, but if no power-sharing deal was reached, he could invade the capital. Two weeks later, on April 4, he sent troops from his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) streaming towards Tripoli – just at a time when U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in the city to prepare for a national reconciliation conference this month which Guterres’ aides thought Haftar supported.
For world powers including France, Italy and Britain, the general’s military campaign, the biggest in Libya since the 2011 uprising that deposed Gaddafi, represented a major setback. They had tried for years to co-opt Haftar, 75, into a political settlement that would stabilise the major oil and gas producer after almost a decade of conflict that had acted as a breeding ground for Islamist militancy.
Even the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which have backed Haftar and see him as a bulwark against Islamists in north Africa, appear to have been surprised by his rapid advance. A French diplomatic source said Paris, which has also aided the general, had no prior warning of the offensive. The diplomats’ calls for military restraint in the meeting last month had echoed those from other Western and U.N. envoys who had travelled to Haftar’s base outside the city of Benghazi in the preceding weeks, four separate diplomatic sources said.
In a sign of how far the situation in Libya – and Haftar – was beyond their control, U.N. and Western envoys in daily contact with his camp about the conference had no idea he was about to launch the offensive, the four diplomatic sources said. Some even thought the general was bluffing.
Haftar had recently deepened his traditional security relationships with France, Russia, Egypt, and the UAE while gradually bringing the primary supporters of the opposing United Nations-backed Government of National Accord—Italy, Britain, and the United States—partially onside. Many Libya experts suspect Russian help in both Haftar’s social media campaign, which employs dummy accounts to target both the domestic audience and international news outlets, and his diplomatic decision-making. Over the last three months, Haftar’s sophisticated local outreach and military progress through Libya’s southwest have been so well orchestrated that there has almost been an aura of inevitability to Haftar’s domination of all of Libya.
Haftar was hosted in Paris with U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj by French President Emmanuel Macron, who lauded the two Libyans for having displayed “historic courage” in striking a cease-fire and agreeing to elections early next year. And in September, Haftar was welcomed in Rome by Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti. She proved willing to overlook his history of making threats against Italian naval ships entering Libyan waters and joined Macron in ignoring ever-louder allegations of Haftar’s responsibility for war crimes during his battle for control of eastern Libya.
Khalifa Haftar Quick Facts
- Born in the Libyan city of Ajdabiya in 1943, Haftar joined Benghazi’s military academy in 1961. At the age of 26, he took part in Muammar Gaddafi’s coup d’etat on King Idris in 1969.
- In 1980, Gaddafi promoted Haftar to colonel and sent him to fight in Chad. Haftar was captured by the Chadians in 1987.
- Upon release, Haftar defected from the Libyan army. Backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he formed the military wing for he National Front for the Salvation of Libya (LFD) to overthrow Gaddafi.
- Haftar lived for a while in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from which he travelled to the US.
- In the US, Haftar settled in northern Virginia, close to the CIA’s headquartes in Langley.
- Haftar rejected the United Nations-backed transitional Government of National Accord (GNA) set up in – Tripoli in 2016, dismissing it as beholden to militias in the capital.
- Rivalries have also surfaced between Haftar’s armed units, local youths, and Salafist brigades.
- Rivals accuse Haftar of surrounding himself with relatives, including two of his sons, Saddam and Khaled, who were given military ranks and a brigade to command.
- Several of Haftar’s allies have defected, including a former spokesman and the GNA’s defence minister.
- Some are accused of supporting Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late leader’s most prominent son who is seen as a potential rival for Haftar.
- He returned to Libya in 2011 after Gaddafi’s death. In February 2014,he called in a televised statement on Libyans to overthrow the elected parliament and the General National Congress (GNC).
- Backed by UAE and Egypt, Haftar launched a military campaign against what he called “terrorists” in Benghazi and Tripoli.
- On June 4, 2014, Haftar survived an assassination attempt and disappeared from sight.
- In 2016, Haftar visited Russia who agreed to supply him with weapons and military equipment to fight ISIL’s branch in Libya.
- Since 2015, Haftar has been visiting the UAE and Egypt, and in 2017 Emmanuel Macron hosted him in Paris alongside GNA head Fayez Seraj.
Besides his perhaps over-exaggerated role in the fight against ISIS, Haftar has become well-known for his stubborn refusal to engage with the U.N.-backed GNA, recognized by the international community as the best prospect for stabilizing Libya. Haftar has accused the GNA of using militias, mostly Islamist, in the fight to retake Sirte from ISIS. “An army cannot unify with militias so they must be dismantled. It’s unthinkable to work with these armed factions,” Haftar said in an interview with French digital channel iTÉLÉ in May.
But the real reason that the military strongman is refusing to work with the GNA is that it might mean the end of his influence in eastern Libya, according to Alison Pargeter, Libya expert and senior research fellow at defense think-tank RUSI.
“Haftar remains unwilling to endorse the U.N.-backed government because doing so will inevitably mean an end to his power and dominance,” says Pargeter. “Given the power he wields in the east, Haftar is currently the biggest single obstacle to peace in Libya.”
- Khalifa Belqasim Haftar Biography and Profile