A Warlord in Libya but a Puppet of Foreign Powers

Since Khalifa Haftar, a dual Libyan-American national whose military adventures started under the reign of late dictator Moammar Gaddafi, started his Operation Dignity in May 2014, he has never been the man calling the shots on his own land; the shot callers have been the external powers that are keeping him alive so far.

Driven by military ambitions that date back to tyranny and dictatorship ages – ones that the Libyan people have suffered enough to eradicate in the February Revolution of 2011, when they ousted a long-time tyrant and a friend of the new tyrant-to-be – Haftar saw an opportunity since 2014 and adopted the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” to lead a counter-revolution and a coup on democracy as well as the civil state ambitions of Libyans with the help of countries that had been very active in dismantling every inch of the Arab Spring aspirations for their own purposes. 

UAE: Airbase and Airpower to Haftar

The UAE has emerged as a political and military supporter of Haftar in Libya since early 2015, despite the fact that it welcomed the peace agreement that the Libyan parties reached and that led to the formation of the Government of National Accord. 

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan posing for a photograph with Khalifa Haftar

Haftar, just like Mohammed bin Zayed, is known for his antagonism to political Islam. He is also known for his extensive history in coups, including the coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in Libya in 1969.

The assistance of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which violates a UN arms embargo in Libya, has significantly boosted air power for Haftar’s militias, according to a UN investigators’ report.

Air power has helped Haftar’s eastern-based militias gain the upper hand since 2014 and through to 2018 in Benghazi and Derna against the revolutionary fighters who were accused of terrorism because of their opposition to Haftar’s military rule ambitions and his aspiration for a foreign-backed dictatorship. 

The panel of experts which reports on violations of UN sanctions across Libya said Haftar’s forces had been receiving aircraft as well as military vehicles from the United Arab Emirates, which had built up an air base at Al Khadim.

UAE’s Al Khadim airbase in eastern Libya (Photo: 2016-2017)

The airbase, south of Al-Marj in eastern Libya, can accommodate General Dynamics F16 jets and Dassault Mirage 2000 as well as Dassault Rafale fighters.

Al-Khadim airbase has been Haftar’s winning card over the years and since 2019, when Haftar launched an offensive against Tripoli in April, the UAE has been offering him with not only airpower, pilots, Wing Loong drones to bomb Tripoli infrastructure and kill both forces of the Libyan Army under the command of the Government of National Accord and civilians, but also with foreign mercenaries from Chad and Sudan.

Mercenaries brought by the UAE

Now as never before, Haftar has grown more dependent on mercenaries from the Sudan’s Janjaweed or from Chadian rebel parties as they have joined the fighting alongside Haftar’s militias over the last months, many international reports, including the UN and the Guardian, have revealed over the last few months. 

Up to the beginning of this year, there have been at least 3000 Sudanese mercenaries in Libya; a number significantly larger than previous estimates, according to reports by The Guardian 

Footage showing Sudanese fighters from Janjaweed faction outside Sirte located by Haftar’s militias. (Ajilat Ahrar Facebook Page)

Reporting Sudanese leaders fighting in Libya, The Guardian said the new wave of the mercenaries included hundreds of recruits, some of who fought against Omar Al-Bashir regime in Sudan, adding that such a development deepens concerns that the conflict in Libya has descended into an intractable international war that could destabilize much of the region.

The recent UN panel of experts’ report has disclosed that mercenaries fighting for Haftar’s forces included 500 from the Sudan Liberation armed group and 600 from the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces.

The UN report also documented that 700 mercenaries were from Chadian Tanawib and Wifaq Front, let alone the 1000 mercenaries who were sent by the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces of the Sovereignty Council led by Mohammed Daglo (Hamitti).

Meanwhile, more recent reports pointed out that Sudanese mercenaries, who are fighting for Haftar’s militias in their offensive against Tripoli, have been trained for military combat in the UAE – Ghayathi area – for three months before joining Haftar’s militias, according to Anadolu Agency. 

The Turkish news agency added, in a report that included surveys of thousands of photos and satellite imagery, that the Sudanese mercenaries have been transferred after training to Benghazi, Sirte, Ras Lanuf and Jufra aribase before being sent in groups to different frontlines to fight against the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) forces.

The report says the data analysis showed that Haftar had used the Sudanese mercenaries, after giving them false promises, in his offensive against GNA forces in southern Tripoli. 

Military Support to win Tripoli 

Besides providing Haftar with logistics in Al-Khadim airbase and elsewhere, manpower by paying Sudanese mercenaries and Chadian rebels to fight in Libya, the UAE-based companies shipped nearly 11,000 tonnes of jet fuel to eastern Libya, the stronghold of Haftar’s militias in a suspected violation of the Security Council’s arms embargo in Libya. 

The Emirates sent a total of 37 planes of cargo in 12 days, just after the announcement of the ceasefire in January 2020.

Ilyushin military cargo plane in Benina Airport, Benghazi

The Financial Times said in a report that the shipment of the UAE was under investigation by a UN panel of experts, adding that it had a market value of nearly $5m at the time it was loaded in the UAE and was delivered last month to the city of Benghazi.

Stephanie Williams, the acting UN envoy to Libya, told the newspaper that in the UN’s judgment, the jet fuel was considered to be “combat supplies” and the shipment to eastern Libya could constitute a violation of the embargo.

Financial Times documents state the supplier of the fuel was Afrifin Logistics FZE, based in Sharjah, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE.

UN officials confirmed the companies involved are registered in the UAE and the fuel was supplied in UAE territory but declined to confirm the names of the firms.

“The jet fuel was offloaded in Benghazi on March 16 as Gen Haftar’s forces increased air strikes and missile attacks on Tripoli.” The Financial Times added. 

Wing Loong – Chinese drones for Haftar

Since the start of Haftar’s aggression on Tripoli, the UAE put all cards on deck and weighed in very hard in an attempt to help Haftar storm Tripoli and oust the UN-backed GNA, hence; providing him with all needed military might to win, including drones – Chinese-made Wing Loong. 

Wing Loong drones, made by China, provided by the UAE to Haftar

The Washington Post said in late 2019 that the UAE’s drones were killing civilians in Libya and were increasingly fueling the conflict, adding that Chinese-made Wing Loong drones deployed by the UAE were playing a pivotal role in the offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s militias. 

A drone provided by the UAE to Haftar’s militias strikes Tripoli Military College and kills over 33 cadets in January 2020.

Many Wing Loong drones had been downed by Libyan GNA forces over southern Tripoli and near Misrata.

But the UAE didn’t act alone to boost Haftar’s chances of becoming the new puppet of Foreign powers in Libya, it was well-backed by other Gulf, Arab and Western powers; most importantly: France.

France has been in it from the start 

Since Haftar’s false war on “terrorism” started in eastern Libya, France was the one to rush to his aid, for a myriad of reasons, but for sure, oil and natural resources were the most prominent target. 

The French kept their support for Haftar’s militias under the table, but not for long as in July 2016, the then President Francois Hollande amditted that three French soldiers were killed in a helicopter accident during what he described as an intelligence-gathering mission in Libya – Benghazi. 

Libyans gather around the remains of a helicopter that crashed near Benghazi, Libya July 20, 2016. REUTER

Paris has been quietly involved at least since 2015 in building up Haftar’s militias in Benghazi, wishing that Haftar can impose order on the vast, thinly populated North African oil producer.

France ostensibly supports the UN-mediated peace process. It has never officially acknowledged providing weaponry, training, intelligence and special forces assistance to Haftar. The death of three undercover French soldiers in a helicopter accident in Libya in 2016 provided a rare recognition of its secret presence in operations against Islamist fighters at the time.

However, in the war on Tripoli, France had to come out of the closet again and admit to providing modern and advanced weapons to Haftar’s militias so they can have the upper hand over the GNA.

The incident came in Gharyan city in July 2019, when the GNA forces liberated the city from Haftar’s militias, pushing them out toward Tarhouna and other towns in a lightning attack in 24 hours, thus inflicting on Haftar’s militias a very heavy loss in the beginning of his supposed war on Tripoli. 

During the takeover of Haftar’s Operations Room in Gharyan, GNA forces found advanced Javelin missiles from France, in a clear revelation that Paris was ramping up military support to Haftar’s militias in order to defeat GNA and topple the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement. 

France has denied breaching the UN arms embargo after four of its anti-tank missiles were found in Gharyan. 

The French defence ministry said the “unusable” US-made Javelin missiles were never intended to be passed to any group, and were due to be destroyed – another excuse to help Haftar advance on Tripoli. 

French political coverup for Haftar 

France has always been pushing for a political settlement that has Haftar in it. Paris hosted Haftar and the Head of the Libyan Presidential Council of the GNA Fayez Al-Sarraj and tried somehow to convince them both to share power and open up the country for elections eventually. 

Emmanuel Macron with Al-Sarraj, and Haftar as they shake hands after talks aimed at easing tensions in 2017. AFP/Getty Images

However, every time France covers up Haftar with a nince political aura, the latter goes back to Libya and uses other foreign perspectives to renew military operations whether in the south, where his militias wreacked havoc until they controlled Sabha and Murzuq or in the Oil Crescent region, where he pushed forces of Ibrahim Jadran first and then the GNA forces to seize control of oil ports and fields. He eventually shut down Libya’s oil production and exports in January 2020.

Even when Haftar was lodged in a French hospital for heart problems, Paris covered up the whole period and abstained from giving any information on his health conditions in an attempt to cover up for him so that it can keep it’s own interests in a post-Haftat situation in Libya. 

Egypt: The greedy neighbor of Libya 

Haftar saw Abdel Fattah El Sisi as the dictator he aspires to be and he liked the way El Sisi was playing; simple and by the book of tyranny: “All opponents are terrorists and linked to ISIS, Al-Qaida and other radical groups.” Haftar used this doctrine from his early military operations in Benghazi in 2014 and Egypt has been there to guide him, facilitate UAE and other support for him through neighboring borders and even send fighters and warplanes to carry out attacks on his opponents.

Haftar’s endorsement by wealthy Gulf states, his military background and ability to rein in armed groups in eastern Libya’s sparsely populated desert region have also earned him the support of El Sisi. 

Haftar visits El Sisi regularly in Cairo

Egypt has used its vast border with Libya to funnel weapons and provide logistical support to Haftar, according to Libyan officials and Egyptian foreign ministry documents.

During a recent trip to Cairo, Haftar – who received part of his military training in Egypt – said he would take over Tripoli “within hours” if Egypt were to send troops to assist his forces, which happened over the years, starting from helping Haftar seize control on Derna, where Egyptian fighters were filmed killing and humiliating bodies and captives of local fighters in the eastern city – a city Egypt helped Haftar in besieging for almost two years. 

Reports have always shown that Egypt’s El Sisi favored a military dictator in Libya in order to be able to benefit from the country’s resources, especially fuel. 

To that end, An Egyptian C-130 military cargo plane was also discovered to have undertaken regular trips to military bases in eastern Libya. The trips have always used satellite jammers to avoid detection as they crossed into Libya territory and provide Haftar’s militias with weapons and even with mercenaries, all paid by the UAE and blessed by France. 

Satellite images obtained by Al-Jazeera’s Point Blank Investigation, taken in mid-April, showed a large mobilisation of military vehicles in a camp near Salloum, Egypt, the main entry point into Libya. A new road was also discovered, linking Othman military base in western Egypt to Tobruk, Libya. 

Yet, while Cairo was playing the role of a facilitator of assistance going to Haftar’s militias in eastern Libya, other countries like the UAE, and Saudi Arabia were paying the price for it.

Saudi Arabia: Hiding behind religion 

Madkhalism – a form of Salafism – has been on the rise in Libya especially in the areas under Khalifa Haftar’s control as many of the sect’s followers had joined the armed groups in there, let alone the violence-harboring fatwas made by sheiks of the sect in Libya and Saudi Arabia against Haftar’s opposition.

Saudi radical cleric, Osama Ataya Al-Otaibi, and warlord Haftar

Earlier, the east-based Awqaf Authority was involved in controversy and exchange of accusations with many parties in Libya; the latest was the eastern Interim Government, due to extremist fatwas made by imams and religious clerics calling social and religious figures across Libya infidels.

Salafi Madkhalism—named after the Saudi Sheikh Rabi al-Madkhali—was present under Qaddafi, who tolerated because it forbids elections and democracy and calls for absolute obedience to authority.

The Madkhalists role in the current fighting became evident once Haftar launched Operation Dignity (Karama) and Sheikh Rabi al-Madkhali issued a fatwa on the need for Salafists to join Haftar as Libya’s legal guardian and fight with him against the Muslim Brotherhood. In this context, Haftar dissolved the Madkhali Salafist brigade known as the Tawhid Brigade and incorporated it into his army, spreading it throughout various brigades and important military divisions such as the 210th Infantry Regiment and the 302nd Saiqa Special Forces. This allowed Madkhalism to spread further and gain control over military positions in Benghazi, Ajdabiya, and Jabal al-Akhdar.

And through such a religious disguise, Riyadh has been able to have a say in what Haftar is doing in both political and military fields.

When the April offensive on Tripoli came, Saudi Arabia played its role to the fullest. Days before Haftar launched an offensive to seize the capital under his rule, Saudi Arabia promised tens of millions of dollars to help pay for the operation, according to senior advisers to the Saudi government.

The offer came during a visit to Saudi Arabia that was just one of several meetings Haftar had with foreign dignitaries in the weeks and days before he began the military campaign on April 4, 2019.

Haftar accepted the Saudi offer of funds, according to the senior Saudi advisers reported by Wall Street Journal as saying that the money was intended for buying the loyalty of tribal leaders, recruiting and paying fighters, and other military purposes.

And the Saudi money helped recruit a whole lot of mercenaries. 

The French newspaper, Le Monde, revealed that Saudi Arabia had funded the mercenary operations of Russian Wagner Group in support of Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

The French paper added in a report made by correspondents from Russia and Turkey that between 300 and 2000 Russian mercenaries had played a pivotal role in the attacks waged by Haftar’s militias on Tripoli in late 2019, adding that 30 of them were killed.

Le Monde indicated that Haftar resorted to Moscow since 2015 promising Russia with oil and railway projects in Libya, yet he received the Russian support in 2017, before Moscow had decided to send Wagner Group mercenaries to help Haftar in his war on Tripoli.

“The support for Haftar comes from the Russian Defense Ministry, which denies cooperation with Wagner.” Le Monde added.

Russia: Ambitions in Libya 

Russia is all but new on the bench of Haftar’s supporters. Haftar was given a tour of a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean in January 2017, which was a show of Kremlin support for Haftar’s militias against the GNA, despite claiming otherwise.

Haftar with Russian defense officials on a Russian destroyer in 2017

Russia’s courting of Haftar has prompted some to draw parallels with Syria, where the Kremlin stepped into a chaotic civil war to prop up President Bashar Al-Assad, and many speculated that soon enough Russian troops will be leading the battle of Haftar’s militias against the UN-backed GNA so Haftat can seize power and Putin can get all the leverage and influence he wants in the eastern Mediterranean.

Russia offers Wagner mercenaries for oil leverage in Libya 

Haftar and Russia are linked together in dubious off-the-books relations in the oil sector in Libya, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

The report said in last October, dozens of armed Russian mercenaries fanned out across two Libyan oil ports, adding that they were brought by Haftar in order to help his rebel forces wrest control of the oil-rich region from the Libyan GNA.

It added that after the fighting ended, a delegation of mining and oil executives from former Soviet states arrived seeking business with Haftar’s forces who controlled the ports, according to Libyan immigration records.

“The Libya foray could give Russia a foothold in a failed state that is a significant energy exporter and a main route for illegal trafficking in people, drugs and weapons to Europe. European officials are concerned about the precarious state of Libyan security, in part because regions to its south are war zones and terrorist breeding grounds.” The report indicated.

The report indicated that in the middle of last year, Haftar’s militias brought Russian military contractors into two ports to train commandos and launch strikes, according to Libyan oil and security officials. While, in December 2019, Haftar’s militias allowed a group of Russian and Belarusian businessmen to visit Haftar’s eastern stronghold of Benghazi, according to an arrivals’ list at the city’s airport.

“The visitors included a Russian fuel-trading executive and managers at a Russian contractor specializing in mining and gas projects for state companies.” The Wall Street Journal added.

US dismayed by growing Russian presence in Libya 

A report by the inspectors general of the US Department of State and the Pentagon on the situation in North and West Africa for the period from October to the end of December 2019 said the Russian presence in Libya was growing and was a challenge to the United States” counter-terrorism operations.

“Russian mercenaries, better known as PMCs Wagner, increased their presence by an additional 600-1200 people in Libya.” The report reveals. 

According to US officials, as early as September 2019, there were only about 200 fighters of Russian Wagner Group in Libya.

The report said that Russian forces allegedly could have been involved in the disappearance at the end of November 2019 of an American drone in the sky above Tripoli.

US defense and US Africa Command (AFRICOM) officials revealed in a separate report that they believe that Russia inserted a paramilitary group in Libya to support Haftar and position itself on the southern flank of NATO.

“They’re acting out on US strategic interests in North Africa, but at the same time, doing it at a low cost, and if they mess up, then the Kremlin has plausible deniability,” a defense official told the Washington Examiner.

The official said it is really about access in Libya for Russia and about having access to the ports, to the oil, as well as having a reason to be in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

“When we talk about Russia, we have to be specific that it’s really the military contractors from Russia, the Wagner Group are there, and it’s really not the Russian government or the Russian military, that is in Libya,” the official clarified.

He explained that when Russia is pressed by the United Nations on their influence and impact in Libya, they would be quick to say that they are not really present there.

There have been reports that Wagner mercenaries are people who are sharpshooters and that they have really been the pointy end of the stick, making a big difference in what Haftar is able to do in Libya.

Another defense official told the Washington Examiner that the Russian private military contractor has been in Libya and other parts of the African continent since early 2018.

Russia in Libya more dangerous than ISIS 

A senior US defense official even said that Russia’s presence in Libya is even more dangerous than the threat posed by ISIS remnants operating in the south of the country.

“What worries me the most is that these paramilitary groupsare becoming deployed closer and closer to where the US military does have interests,” the US official said, adding that with Russia supporting Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya and the US supporting the UN recognized government in Tripoli, a military conflict between the US and a thinly veiled Russian force depends on one man – Putin.

The Levant: Jordan, Syria, Israel

Jordan, a friend country to the UAE, has been not only facilitating the Emirati support to Haftar’s militias, but also involved itself in providing Haftar with military and paramilitary support, according to different international reports, including the UN panel of experts. 

In December 2019, the UN panel of experts’ report said Jordan, along with the UAE, was the main military supporter for Haftar, especially in his war on Tripoli.

French news website, Intelligence Online, has reported its own sources as saying that Haftar’s militias signed a contract to acquire six Chinese CH-4 drones from the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF).

Intelligence Online said in a report in last February that the Royal Jordanian Air Force had been looking to offload its drones for months and after examining several options, a number of contracts were signed with eastern Libyan authorities over few weeks.

“Jordanian engineers dislike the drones because of their heavy maintenance requirements and limited capacity. These issues apparently do not concern the Libyans, who have a lot of assistance from Russian technicians.” The report added.

KADDB Al-Mared 8×8 armoured vehicle

Jordan has stepped up its support for Haftar’s militias since the start of the ongoing fighting on the outskirts of Tripoli, providing an unknown number of its indigenous KADDB Al-Mared 8×8 armored vehicle to Khalifa Haftar’s forces. 

Syria, on the other hand, has little to provide Haftar with, but it has the only thing Haftar cares about: manpower, which can be easily gotten knowing that the Russians became the defacto ruler of Syria and the main player in Haftar’s game in Libya.

The Syrian regime and the Libyan Interim Government – eastern parallel government of Abdullah Al-Thini backed by Haftar – have regained diplomatic ties to form a new axis out of the shared rejection to Turkey, according to Le Monde. 

The French journal said in last March, reporting an independent military expert, that the flights between Syria and Benghazi had jumped from one a month on average to two flights a week, adding that the two lines are between Latakia and Damascus in Syria and Benghazi in eastern Libya. 

Le Monde reported a close source to Russian Wagner Group as saying that recruiting Syrian mercenaries by Haftar started in 2018, as 1500 well trained fighters from Syrian commandos arrived in Benghazi in coordination with Syrian Security Chief, Ali Mamlouk.

“Most Syrian fighters fighting for Haftar come from Ghouta province in Damascus suburbs and from As Suwayda, which is mainly a Druze city.” Le Monde added. 

According to the sources of the French journal, the Syrian fighters are getting paid by Haftar’s militias between 800 and 1500 US dollars.

Meanwhile, the German newspaper “Bild” also revealed that Russia started an unprecedented campaign to recruit Syrian fighters by Wagner Group to support Haftar.

The newspaper said in a report in last April that Russian Wagner Group had been luring Syrian young men in Quneitra and Deir ez-Zur into going to Libya to fight for Haftar, adding that they were promised a great sum of money in return as well as exemption from mandatory military service in Syria. 

The German newspaper indicated that Wagner Group’s contracts with the Syrian recruits will be for three months at the beginning with promised salaries of $1000 a month.

Bild added that the Russian Wagner Group also promised that if the Syrian fighters got injured or killed in Libya, their families will receive from $25.000 to $50.000 in compensation.

Haftar’s top officials said once that they would enlist help from whomever they can find, even the devil; and they did.

The connection between Haftar and Israel is hardly well known, but in fact; the role played by Haftar is a result of the axis created in recent years, consisting of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Al-Araby television reported that the UAE financed and provided the LNA with advanced air defence systems, which were manufactured by an Israeli firm and transferred via Egypt, reported the Middle East Eye.

According to the report, the Libyan crisis is held by Israeli Mossad, which coordinates its operations and policies regarding Haftar with the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

Between 2017 and 2019, Mossad envoys met on numerous occasions with Haftar in Cairo and have facilitated the training of some of his key officers in war tactics, intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as control and command measures.

In addition, the report says, Israeli Mossad also helped Haftar’s militias purchase night-vision equipment and sniper rifles.

Haftar is going rogue 

Despite all the support Haftar has been gathering since he announced coup on legitimacy and February revolution in 2014, he seems to be acting on the spur of the moment and his supporters are sometimes dismayed with his actions, which are ambivalent and ill-advised.

His latest show in eastern Libya saw him mandate himself, claiming the people have chosen him, as the ruler of Libya, cynically announcing toppling over the UN-backed and internationally recognized Libyan Political Agreement that was signed in Skhirat, Morocco in December 2015.

This deceleration was rejected by all of his supporters, and the Russians who are operating with him on the ground said Haftar caught them by surprise, so they rushed to back up the legitimate and politically accepted House of Representatives by giving Aqila Saleh, as he claimed in a video, a political initiative to save what Haftar has ruined.

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