Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s life has been a colorful one. It also raises questions about how deeply the U.S. intelligence community is involved in the Libyan civil war.
Born around 1943, Haftar was a revolutionary twice in his life. In 1969 he was part of the military junta that deposed Libya’s King Idris and secured the ascent of Muammar Gaddafi.
Under the eccentric dictator, Haftar rose to become chief of staff of the Libyan military and the commanding officer of Libya’s armed forces during the Chadian-Libyan conflict.
That war didn’t end well for Libya. The U.S. and France backed Chad, helping the Central African country defeat Libyan forces. The Chadians captured Haftar, briefly holding him as a prisoner of war.
Angry at the defeat—and perhaps wary of Haftar’s return to Libya as a war hero—Gaddafi disowned his former ally and the other Libyan prisoners of war.
Haftar joined the Libyan opposition in exile and later became head of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the opposition’s military wing.
During U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s administration, the NFSL received covert support from the CIA—and it therefore should not be surprising that Haftar moved to “rural Virginia” in the early 1990s. The CIA headquarters is in Langley, Virginia.
No official confirmation exists, but there are many indications that the Libyan general was, for some time, on the CIA’s payroll. Not least the fact that, according to an acquaintance quoted by Business Insider, Haftar was able to support his extended family without actually taking any work.
In 1996, the NFSL tried and failed to incite a rebellion in rural Libya. Haftar is said to have been in command of the operation—although again, details are scarce.
We do know that Haftar returned to Libya in 2011 to take part in the revolution against Gaddafi. He quickly rose through the rebels’ ranks, becoming one of their chief commanders. After Gaddafi’s fall, he was named commander of the Libyan army’s ground forces.
But this wasn’t enough for the ambitious general.
Currently Haftar is one of the main spoilers in the Libyan transitional process. He has formed an alliance between separate armed groups from the country’s east and the Zintan Brigades, a western faction that controls the international airport in Tripoli. In May, his allies shut down the government in an apparent attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the transitional government.
So-called Operation Dignity also saw Haftar’s forces attack Islamist militias in Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution.
Publicly, Haftar claims to fight against Islamist militias for a secular Libya, but his political ambitions are obvious. It’s especially telling that his moves against the fledgling government of Libya occurred just as the new regime was trying to enforce a law banning functionaries from the Gaddafi era from public office.
Haftar would be subject to this law, as would be many leaders of the armed groups he is allied with.
The fighting Haftar instigated meanwhile has spiraled out of control. Militias are battling for the international airport in Tripoli. An important fuel depot has caught fire after being hit by a rocket. Embassies in the city have evacuated. In Benghazi, Islamist and secular forces openly are fighting.
Haftar largely is responsible. His ambitions already have inflicted great damage on the transitional process in Libya. What remains unclear is how close his connection remains to U.S. intelligence services. In interviews he says that he is in “indirect contact” with the U.S. government.
But the world needs to know just how much influence the CIA still has over its alleged former employee, who lived for two decades on the outskirts of the American capital and still holds U.S. citizenship.
Peter Dörrie is a freelance journalist covering resource and security politics in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie. Medium has an app! Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.