The head of the United Nations has appealed for an immediate halt to fighting in Libya after Khalifa Haftar’s forces claimed responsibility for an airstrike on Tripoli’s only functioning airport.
Khalifa Haftar, the self-appointed leader of the eastern Libyan National Army, LNA, continues his attempt to take control of Tripoli.
Last week, Haftar and his forces launched a surprise assault that forced thousands to flee and killed dozens.
Haftar’s LNA has effectively been controlling the east of the country while the General National Congress, GNC, the internationally recognised government, has held the west.
Since the Libyan revolution in 2011 that saw longtime ruler Moamer Gaddafi ousted and then killed by one of the militias, an internal struggle for power has turned into a civil war between forces from the east and the west.
Haftar came to the scene soon after 2011 and has since been a fixed figure.
The man behind Haftar
Khalifa Belqasim Haftar was born in 1943 and grew up in Libya.
He comes from the Firjan tribe, which has large populations mainly in the east, especially around Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown.
He was one of the young military officers who supported Gaddafi in 1969 as Libya overthrew its monarchy. Haftar secured a role for the coming years under Moamer, according to Mary Fitzgerald, a Libya researcher.
Haftar remained a military man and went on to fight with the Libyan contingent in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Soon afterwards Gaddafi set in motion his ambitious plan involving Chad and the 1978 conflict erupted.
Haftar played a major role in this regional dispute that lasted until 1987.
It turned disastrous when he fell into a trap and was captured by Chadian forces.
Gaddafi saw these prisoners of war as an embarrassment and disavowed them.
While in prison, Haftar and the others formed a group called the National Front for the Salvation of Libya with the aim of bringing an end to Gaddafi’s rule.
Finally in 1990, he was released and moved to the United States where he later attained citizenship.
Living the American dream
For over 20 years, Haftar lived in the US, specifically in Virginia and not far from the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, notes Ashur Shamis, a former leader in the Salvation Front. In fact he questions what Haftar did to earn a living during those years.
By 2003, Shamis notes that the CIA had already taken its distance from Haftar.
When the Arab Spring of 2011 began to take hold across north Africa and the Middle East, Haftar saw a chance to come back to Libya to see through his initial plan.
“He asked me if I can help and I said yes, of course” says Mohammed Buiser, a former advisor to Haftar from 2014 to 2016.
Buiser was living in Dallas, Texas at the time and had also fled Libya due to problems with Gaddafi’s rule.
“We then arranged for a meeting at the State Department in Washington….I had a feeling that they did not trust him. And they always thought that he was motivated by self-interest,” explains Buiser.
Early weeks of 2011
Haftar arrived in Benghazi in the early weeks of the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, says Fitzgerald.
“I was actually in Benghazi when he arrived and it caused consternation amongst the national transitional council – which was the body set up to represent the opposition forces at the time – because many of them knew Hafter, his reputation preceded him. And it caused consternation because he immediately began demanding a key role within the rebel forces that were then just taking shape,” she adds.
Come 14 February 2014 Haftar publicly called for a presidential committee to be formed to govern until new elections could be held, in what he referred to as a road map for Libya.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan immediately accused Haftar of mounting a mini-coup against the GNC.
But that call did garner Haftar a lot of support from the people “because for the first time somebody [was] taking a military role and [did] not want to take the throne” says Buiser.
Military versus political leader
“Gaddafi was [an] armoured politician. Haftar is just a military ruler,” states Buiser.
“He talks about machine guns, guns, tanks, airplanes, like a kid who is having fun watching soccer,” he adds.
People who have spent time with Haftar say he is quick-tempered and hypersensitive.
And stubborn, adds Buiser, the former advisor who inevitably had a falling out with Haftar.
“He doesn’t have any depth, I would lose him if I would talk to him or relate to him any intellectual idea…He is obsessed by Gaddafi’s experience. The only political discourse he knows is Gaddafi’s of the coup d’état and then rule the country and give it to your sons and do whatever you want.”
In fact, his two sons were recently given military ranking and appointed as leaders by Haftar as commanders of units within his LNA.
Neither son, however, has any military background nor training, adds Fitzgerald.
But is there an overall plan to the actions of Haftar, given he hasn’t yet formally announced what the long-term plan is, apart from wanting to clear the country of terrorists?
Some analysts say he wants to see Libya return to the spirit of the 1969 revolution, avoiding the mistakes made by Gaddafi as he diverted it away from the initial vision.
Others, such as Buiser see it as nothing more than a ploy for Haftar to rule all of Libya.
“To create a dictatorship for him and his two sons,” he adds.