War in Libya and its Futures: State of Play – Nationalist Forces (2)

The civil war in Libya recently became more complex and dangerous, as the jihadist group Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (the Islamic Youth Shura Council) announced that the Eastern Libyan city of Derna is now part of the Islamic State (Zelin, October 10, 2014). An Islamic State (IS) foothold in Eastern Libya could pose concerns for international governments already combatting IS in Syria and Iraq. With its border less than 200 miles from Derna, Egypt is particularly concerned as they are already fighting Islamists, notably in the Sinai. Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand all the actors on the Libyan battlefield, as we are doing here, if one wants to make sense of the civil war and its international ramifications.

The Dawn of Libya (Islamist/Misratan Coalition) supports the General National Congress in Tripoli and is battling General Haftar and the Nationalist Coalition, which supports the Council of Representatives in Tobruk. With this in mind, we shall continue the present state of play of the Nationalist Coalition (see here for the first part and for a mapping of the nationalist forces). In this post, we shall specifically evaluate Haftar’s Libyan National Army, the Zintan Brigades, and the regional governments that support the Nationalist Coalition.

The Dawn of Libya, Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, and Islamic State-affiliated groups shall be presented in the next post, as we evaluate the Islamist and Misratan forces.

Khalifa Haftar and the Nationalist Forces

Nationalist Forces, Libya civil war, Haftar
Former General Khalifa Haftar

Khalifa Haftar is a former Libyan general who commands the paramilitary Libyan National Army and leads the Nationalist Coalition. After several military commands earlier in Haftar’s career, Gaddafi tasked Haftar with leading a military contingent into neighboring Chad – where he and his soldiers were eventually captured (Tawil, May 30, 2014; Barfi, August 2014). Gaddafi disavowed Haftar and the Libyan military presence in Chad, which led Haftar to defect from the Libyan armed forces and to create an opposition group with support from the Central Intelligence Agency (Tawil, May 30, 2014; Barfi, August 2014; Wehrey, September 2014).

Upon returning to Libya to fight against the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Haftar was twice passed over for important military positions, as he “clashed with the entire senior military leadership” and was considered arrogant (Barfi, August 2014; Tawil, May 30, 2014). But Haftar’s televised opposition speeches in February of this year made him a symbol of opposition to the Islamic-dominated General National Congress and a political “power player, stakeholder, and deal maker” (Libya Analysis, May 23, 2014).

Nationalist Forces, Libya civil war, Operation Dignity
Operation Dignity soldier, posted by Operation Dignity in Benghazi on its Facebook page on 17 May 2014.

In May 2014, his Libyan National Army attacked Islamist militias in Benghazi as the beginning of a strategy to “take full political control in Libya” and rid Libya of Islamic extremist groups – codenamed Operation Dignity (Background to Libya’s Leading Militia Groups, TRAC). The Libyan military and Zintani militias (see below) joined Operation Dignity soon after its initial defeat in Benghazi during the May 2014 offensive (Tawil, May 30, 2014). These groups united under Haftar’s leadership in opposition to the armed Islamic groups and political ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Fitzgerald, BBC News, June 7, 2014; Wehrey, September 2014). The possible reason for Haftar’s ability to unite anti-Islamist forces is best summarized by Libya expert George Joffe, “Heftar’s initiative is responding to a deeply felt need. Even if he is not the man of the moment he might appeal to a popular mood that will allow him to carry on” (Libya Analysis, May 23, 2014).

Frederic Wehrey interviewed General Haftar in June 2014 regarding Operation Dignity:

“There are three options for Islamists…death, imprisonment, and expulsion from the country. Libya will be the graveyard of terrorism… I am fighting the scourge of the world and the world needs to support me,” said Haftar (Wehrey, September 2014).

Using similar language in an interview with the Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Haftar called the Muslim Brotherhood a “malignant disease that is seeking to spread throughout the bones of the Arab world” (Mahmoud, May 22, 2014). With a history of abandonment and being passed over for vital leadership positions, it appears that Haftar may be trying to appeal to both Western governments and regional Arab governments for support to destroy Islamist forces, and in so doing, possibly gain recognition as a strong leader in chaotic Libya. Dr. Theodore Karasik notes “General Haftar’s actions curry favor with those who support a future Libyan state with a stronger hand much like Egypt today” (Karasik, June 2, 2014). Sometimes called the “Libyan Al-Sisi,” Haftar appears to emulate Egyptian President El-Sisi with his hardline war on the Muslim Brotherhood (Mahjar-Barducci, June 13, 2014). Although many fighters in the Nationalist Coalition are more inexperienced, Haftar appears to have significant assets with the support of the Libyan military and air, intelligence, financial, and training support from regional allies.

As a result of a recent Council of Representatives decision, Khalifa Haftar and 16 retired military officers will reportedly be allowed to “return to military service,” (Middle East Monitor, November 24, 2014). The timing of this action is worth analyzing. The U.S. and UN are looking to implement sanctions on certain Libyan actors, with sanctions already levied against Ansar al-Sharia (Middle East Monitor, November 25, 2014). As a rogue general and “leader of a unilateral bombing campaign”, Haftar could be a candidate for international sanctions (Ibid.). However, being reintegrated into the official armed forces would make sanctions against Haftar “much more complex” (Ibid.). Also, if given an official leadership role over the military and Nationalist Coalition, Haftar might be in a prime position to better his status as a power player. Regardless, we shall soon see how this decision might change the leadership or structural organization of the Nationalist Coalition.

Evaluating Nationalist Forces

Libyan National Army

General Haftar’s militia, the Libyan National Army, is a paramilitary group that makes up the core of the Nationalist Coalition (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014). Although it is called the Libyan National Army, it is not part of Libya’s official military (but both are allies and part of the Nationalist Coalition) (Ibid.). The group’s original members were exiles “trained in Chad by the US to fight against Gaddafi in the 1980s,” and returned to Libya as part of the rebel forces to topple Gaddafi in 2011 (Ibid.). The Libyan National Army has a reported number of 6,000 fighters (less-experienced and probably an overestimated number, according to Barfi, 2014), including “non-Islamist fighters and former soldiers” (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014).

The National Army’s primary goals are to 1) remove the Islamist-dominated GNC from power. It was successful until the GNC reinstated itself as the rival government at the end of August 2014, 2) eliminate Islamist factions – particularly terrorist groups like Ansar al-Sharia (Barfi, 2014; Background to Libya’s Leading Militia Groups, TRAC), and 3) take “full political control” and bring about “law and order” in Libya (Background to Libya’s Leading Militia Groups, TRAC). Although not as experienced as Libya’s Special Forces units or the Zintan brigades, the Libyan National Army is personally loyal to Haftar as he is the leader of both their group and the Nationalist Coalition.

Al-Zintan Brigades

The Al-Zintan Brigades originate from Zintan in Western Libya – an Arab town “renowned for its fighters” (considering its historical background of excellent fighters won during Italy’s 20th century occupation of Libya then during the 2011 civil war) with a population between 35,000-50,000 (Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council (ZMC), TRAC; Finucci, 2013). During the 2011 revolution, Zintan was a primary location for rebel forces and the town with the “strongest Arab non-Islamist aligned militias in all of Libya” (Pack, et al. May 2014). It was during the revolution against Gaddafi that the Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council became head of the Zintani brigades umbrella group, comprised of 23 militias from Zintan and the Nafusa mountains (Ibid.; Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council (ZMC), TRAC). Notably, the Zintani militias captured Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, in November 2011 and still had him detained as of May 2014 (Ibid.). Led by Mukhtar Khalifah Shahub, the Zintan Military Council has an effective military-style hierarchy – based on its former military members – and only brings in new members who “can demonstrate they aren’t related to Qaddafi’s regime in any way” (Ibid.; Finucci, 2013). With anti-Islamist and anti-Gaddafi ideology, strong organization, and a history of experienced fighters, the Zintan brigades appear to have a cohesive organization and strategy in Western Libya.

During Osama Juwaili’s time as Defense Minister in the interim government (November 2011-November 2012), the Zintani militias had considerable influence and control over the Defense Ministry, due to Juwaili’s Zintani heritage and former position as leader of a Zintani brigade (Pack, et al. May 2014; Wehrey, September 2014; CNN, November 23, 2011). With Juwaili’s “preferential treatment” to the Zintan brigades, al-Qaqa, al-Sawaiq, and other Zintani militia groups had better access to military equipment and training (Pack, et al. May 2014). However, the Zintan brigades sometimes defied the government to “maintain their power”; in one instance, Zintani militiamen lost their oil-facilities security contract and in response, “attacked the headquarters of the Defence Ministry’s Petroleum Guard” (Pack, et al. May 2014; Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council (ZMC), TRAC). It is important to note that the militia groups in post-Gaddafi Libya had acquired some form of power (territorial, political, security, etc.) and were not willing to relinquish their gains – particularly considering the history of rivalry existing in West Libya between the Zintanis and Misratans (see below). But with the removal of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in March 2014, the Zintan brigades lost their influence and control in the government (Pack, et al. May 2014; Al Jazeera, March 11, 2014).

The Zintani militias remain, however, some of the most dominant groups in Western Libya and Haftar’s primary allies in the west, as they are profoundly anti-Islamist and oppose the GNC (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014; Wehrey, September 2014).

They are made up of five brigades, of which the Martyr Muhammad al-Madani Brigade is the most well-known and numbers around 4,000 militiamen (Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council (ZMC), TRAC). Other Zintani groups, such as al-Qaqa and al-Sawaiq, are under the Zintani umbrella group as well (as noted in Part I). Donning military-style uniforms, Zintani militias are “often indistinguishable from regular forces” (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014). Outfitted with artillery and armored vehicles, the Zintani brigades are a formidable force in the Nationalist Coalition (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014).

It is important to note the rivalry between Zintan and Misrata in Western Libya. Zintan lies Southwest of Tripoli with Misrata located East/Southeast of the major city. The Zintani-Misratan rivalry vies for “economic power and political leverage in Tripoli…” (Wehrey, September 2014). After the fall of Gaddafi, Misrata and Zintan were given significant political influence in the Defense and Interior Ministries, “subsidies,” and “transfer payments,” in exchange for their cooperation with the interim government (Pack, et al. May 2014). Both the Zintani and Misratan brigades had control over government ministries and “strategic sites like airports.” The Zintanis controlled Tripoli International Airport and used it to import arms (Wehrey, September 2014). The tense rivalry was somewhat stable, marked by periods of sporadic violence and subsequent peace, until the Zintan brigades allied with Haftar and the Nationalist Coalition – creating a completely unstable rivalry. (Ibid.). In July and August 2014, Dawn of Libya forces, including the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR) and Misratan militias, began to attack Tripoli International Airport (Ibid.). Zintan lost the strategic site on August 23, 2014, after controlling it since 2011 (The Economist, August 30, 2014). The strategic loss was a blow to the Zintanis and anti-Islamist forces, with one militia leader emphasizing the importance of the airport as “worth a thousand ministries” (Ibid.).

Regional Supporters

The political and security chaos in Libya has led various regional governments to lend financial, arms, and military support to their favored groups in a proxy war – with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia backing the Nationalist Coalition and the Council of Representatives, while Qatar and possibly Turkey back the Dawn of Libya and the General National Congress (Wehrey and Lacher, October 6, 2014; Dean, September 4, 2014). We shall focus here on the supporters to the nationalist forces.

Nationalist Forces, Libya civil war, Libyan actors
Libyan Actors Main Positions and Regional Supporters. Google Maps, map data: Basarsoft, Google, GeoBasis-DE/BKG, ORION-ME 2014. Blue Circle: General National Congress. Blue Balloons: Dawn of Libya (Islamist/Misrata Coalition). Blue Diamonds: Regional Supporters of Operation Dawn. Red Balloons: Ansar al-Sharia. Orange Balloon: Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. Green Circle: Council of Representatives. Green Balloons: General Haftar and Nationalist Coalition. Green Diamonds: Regional Supporters of Operation Dignity. Black Balloon: Mujahideen Shura Council. Black Star: Islamic State.

Egypt

Nationalist Forces, Libya civil war, EgyptBordering Eastern Libya, Egypt has a significant political and security stake in Libya’s civil war (Wehrey, September 2014; Kirkpatrick, August 4, 2014). Politically, Egypt is concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood presence in Libya and would like to prevent a Muslim Brotherhood-influenced government from taking control there (Wehrey, September 2014). Meanwhile there are several major concerns in the area of security, as highlighted by Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation (September 5, 2014),

  • Arms deals between Islamist jihadists in Libya and the Sinai
  • Libya’s inability to secure its “borders, seaports and airports”
  • Arms smuggling over Libya’s unsecured border with Egypt
  • Libya possibly becoming a base for Egyptian-jihadist opposition groups

Libya’s civil war is an increasing concern for Egyptian security and stability, as voiced by the Egyptian government. In an August 2014 statement, a senior Egyptian government official stated, “Egypt may have to exercise the right to self-defense” (Kirkpatrick, August 4, 2014). Exploiting these strategic concerns, Haftar has tried to bolster his relations with the Egyptians – even promising to “hand over to Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled after the ouster of Mursi,” should Operation Dignity succeed (Tawil, May 30, 2014; Wehrey, September 2014). Egypt is reportedly involved in intelligence gathering and conducting airstrikes against Islamic forces in Libya (McGregor, September 5, 2014; Fritsche, August 27, 2014). Recently, the Egyptian government signed a five-year renewable military agreement with the Council of Representatives (Tobruk) and the Nationalist Coalition that allows “mutual use of each other’s airspace for military purposes” and the “exchange of ground military support” in the face of threats or acts of aggression (Middle East Monitor, September 15, 2014). Additionally, Egypt has offered military training and intelligence assistance to pro-government (Tobruk) forces – particularly to eliminate Islamist forces in Derna who are now affiliated with the Islamic State (The Jordan Times, October 1, 2014Reuters, October 8, 2014).

UAE

Nationalist Forces, Libya civil war, UAEThe United Arab Emirates (UAE), as Egypt, is concerned with the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Libya (Wehrey, September 2014). The former ambassador to the UAE, David Mack, iterates the UAE position on Libya:

“The UAE looks, with a number of other Arab countries, with considerable dismay upon the evolution of politics in Libya…The UAE is a big backer of the regime in Egypt that brought an end to the political role of the Muslim Brothers, and they certainly have been unsympathetic to the more Islamist parties and militias in the Libyan struggle for power.” (Fritsche, August 27, 2014)

Allegedly, the UAE has pledged $800 million to Haftar and his allies, with the stipulation that the Nationalist Coalition will “take control of oil exporting terminals…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” (Tawil, May 30, 2014). According to U.S. officials, the UAE is also involved in airstrikes against Islamic forces in Libya – but UAE government officials had “no reaction” regarding their alleged involvement. (Tharoor and Taylor, August 27, 2014). The UAE is the fourth largest arms importer whose air force includes 138 fighter jets (U.S.-made F-16s/French-made Mirage 2000s) and mid-air refueling tankers for long-range missions (McGregor, September 5, 2014; Donaghy, August 28, 2014). The fighter jets involved in the airstrikes were French-made Mirage 2000s – the same model fighters that the UAE employs in its air force (Donaghy, August 28, 2014). UAE airstrikes in Libya represent a significant shift in UAE foreign policy, as noted by Christopher Davidson, “This is incredibly significant, as it is the first hard evidence of the UAE shifting from proxy to engaging in a hot conflict for the first time in its history” (Ibid.).

Saudi Arabia

Nationalist Forces, Libya civil war, Saudi ArabiaIn November 2014, Saudi Arabia “renewed its full support for the legitimacy in Libya and for the measures taken to support security and stability in the country,” according to an Al-Monitor report (Ghallab, Al-Monitor, November 17, 2014). Concerned with escalating terrorist attacks and regional stability, Saudi Arabia officially supports the Tobruk government along with the UAE and Egypt’s stance on Libya’s civil war (Ibid.). According to Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi, Libyan soldiers and officers will eventually be sent to Saudi Arabia for further military training (Ibid.).

Territorial Shifts & Conclusion

In October 2014, the Nationalist Coalition began an offensive to retake Benghazi from Islamist militias. Although they announced on October 25 that Benghazi had been retaken, Islamist militias still control some territory in the area and continue to clash with anti-Islamist forces (Libya Today, October 26, 2014). The offensive on Benghazi has resulted in over 350 casualties, according to an Al Jazeera report (Al Jazeera, November 19, 2014). In late November 2014, Zintani militias, allied tribes, and military units defeated Dawn of Libya militias in fierce fighting for control of Kikla (Global Post, November 24, 2014), where a reported 38,640 people have been displaced, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR, November 14, 2014). Lastly, regional supporters of Haftar and the Nationalist Coalition are increasing their support and methods of involvement in Libya’s civil war – particularly Egypt, which has serious strategic concerns in Libya.

The liberation of Benghazi is a strategic victory for the Nationalist Coalition and the Council of Representatives in Tobruk. Having lost control of Benghazi, Islamist forces now only retain control of Tripoli and other territory in Western Libya – with the exception of some Eastern Libyan towns, such as Derna, controlled by smaller Islamic-jihadist groups. With increased Egyptian military involvement in Eastern Libya, Haftar and the Nationalist Coalition may be in a better position to overpower these jihadist groups.

———–

Bibliography & Resources

Featured Image: A Libyan T-72 with a Browning M2HB. 02 June 2014, by K. Aksoy (Libya T-72 w/ Browning M2HB) [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s First Colony in Libya,” Policywatch 2325, The Washington Institute, October 10, 2014

“A Sober Evaluation of Hiftar’s Movement (If we can call it that),” Libya Analysis, May 23, 2014

Agence France-Presse, “Pro-government forces retake west Libya town,” GlobalPost, November 24, 2014

Ahmad Ghallab, “Saudi Arabia reiterates full support for Libya,” Al Monitor, November 17, 2014

Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council (ZMC), Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium

“Anarchy looms,” The Economist, August 30, 2014

Andrew McGregor, “Egypt, the UAE and Arab Military Intervention in Libya,” Terrorism Monitor 12, Iss. 17, The Jamestown Foundation, September 5, 2014

Anna Mahjar-Barducci, “Liberating Libya: General Vows to Crush Terrorists,” Gatestone Institute, June 13, 2014

Background to Libya’s Leading Militia Groups, Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium

Barak Barfi, “Khalifa Haftar: Rebuilding Libya from the Top Down,” Research Notes 22, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 2014

Camille Tawil, “Operation Dignity: General Haftar’s Latest Battle May Decide Libya’s Future,” Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 12, Iss. 11, May 30, 2014

David D. Kirkpatrick, “In Libya, Parliament Convenes Amid Battles,” New York Times, August 4, 2014

Dr. Theodore Karasik, “General Haftar’s plans and Libya’s Future,” Al Arabiya, June 2, 2014

“Egypt, Libya announce deeper security cooperation to ‘fight terrorism’,” Reuters, October 8, 2014

“Egypt offers military training to Libya, cites Islamic State threat,” The Jordan Times, October 1, 2014

Francesco Finucci, “Libya: military actors and militias,” 2013

Frederic Wehrey, “Ending Libya’s Civil War: Reconciling Politics, Rebuilding Security,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2014

Frederic Wehrey and Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Legitimacy Crisis: The Danger of Picking Sides in the Post-Qaddafi Chaos,” Foreign Affairs, October 6, 2014

“Haftar sign cooperation agreement with Egypt,” Middle East Monitor, September 15, 2014

Ishaan Tharoor and Adam Taylor, “Here are the key players fighting the war for Libya, all over again,” Washington Post, August 27, 2014

Jan Fritsche, “An unpleasant surprise for the US in Libya,” DW, August 27, 2014

Karim Mezran, Jason Pack, and Mohamed Eljarh, “Libya’s Faustian Bargains: Breaking the Appeasement Cycle,” Atlantic Council, May 5, 2014

Khalid Mahmoud, “Khalifa Haftar: My forces will reach Tripoli soon,” Asharq Al-Awsat, May 22, 2014

Laura Dean, “Can Libya still be saved?” Global Post, September 4, 2014

“Libyan government lauds ‘liberation of Benghazi’,” Libya Today, October 26, 2014

“Libyan parliament to allow Generals Haftar and Jeroshi to return to military service,” Middle East Monitor, November 24, 2014

“Libyan prime minister ousted by parliament,” Al Jazeera, March 11, 2014

“Libya’s GNC announces rival government list,” Middle East Eye, September 2, 2014

“Mapping Libya’s armed groups,” Al Jazeera, June 2, 2014

Mary Atkinson, “Libya’s ‘renegade general’ welcomed back into army’s fold,” Middle East Monitor, November 25, 2014

Mary Fitzgerald, “General Haftar’s anti-Islamist campaign divides Libyans,” BBC News, June 7, 2014

“More than 100,000 Libyans flee fighting over past month,” UNHCR, November 14, 2014

Raja Razek and Jomana Karadsheh, “Transitional Cabinet named in Libya,” CNN, November 23, 2011

Rori Donaghy, “Abu Dhabi in a ‘state of confusion’ after US reveal Libya bombing raids,” Middle East Eye, August 28, 2014

“Temporary truce declared in Libya’s Benghazi,” Al Jazeera, November 19, 2014