Haftar, Tribal Power, and the Battle for Libya

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On April 25, 2020, Khalifa Haftar, the eastern-based head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) declared on television that he had been granted a popular mandate to rule. This announcement came on the back of a string of embarrassing military defeats for the LNA in the west of the country, where, for the past year and more, Haftar has been waging a war for the capital.

Derided by the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and rejected by the US and other international powers, this overblown declaration was not exactly surprising. Since launching his Operation Dignity campaign in Benghazi in 2014, Haftar has proven himself to be the master of grand gestures and overblown statements. Like those before it, this latest pronouncement was aimed primarily at rallying his supporters in the face of what is turning out to be an increasingly unpalatable and unwinnable conflict in the west of the country.

Yet while Haftar’s methods may cause consternation both inside and outside of Libya, he has succeeded in building a power base whose loyalty is not shaken by such aggrandizing gestures. This includes Libya’s tribes, upon whom Haftar has predicated much of his support. Although once believed to have been relegated to the dustbin of history by modernization and urbanization, tribes have continued to represent an important force in Libya. With the collapse of the centralized state in 2011, tribes have come to the fore, and tribal dynamics are arguably more important today than they were during the final years of Qadhafi’s rule. Haftar’s skill has been to harness and instrumentalize them to his advantage in a way that has so far eluded his opponents.

Although tribes are by no means the only force in Libya’s knotty conflict, and while tribes do not act as uniform bodies, they have become crucial to Haftar’s survival. Indeed, the relationship between Haftar and the tribes, particularly those in the east, will have a significant impact on how this conflict pans out.

A Marriage of Convenience

The marriage of convenience between Haftar and Libya’s eastern tribes began with the battle for Benghazi in 2014. Although the center of Libya’s second city is urban, Greater Benghazi comprises a tribal arc stretching from Tocra in the east to Suluq and Qaminis in the south. These areas are dominated by particular tribes that have long formed part of the region’s social fabric, but that were also woven into the political structures of both the monarchy and the Qadhafi regime.

Following the 2011 revolution, Benghazi came under the control of an assortment of armed groups and militias that had led the fight against the former regime. These forces were urbanized and mainly Islamist in orientation, some of them moderate and others more hard line. The overturning of the old order by these ideologically driven revolutionary forces did not sit well with the tribes, which tend, by their nature, to be prudent and adverse to change. Many elders and elites felt decidedly uncomfortable about the direction in which the revolution was headed.

This discomfort increased as Benghazi grew more violent, and militant groups unleashed a deadly assassination campaign against current and former members of the army and security services, as well as members of the judiciary. Many eastern tribes started to feel side-lined and disempowered, with some of their representatives whom I interviewed in Tunis in 2019 describing the 2011 revolution as an “act of revenge” by the urbanized elite against the tribal sections of society that had been cosseted by the former regime. According to one tribal representative I spoke to, as early as 2012, members of the Al-Awaqir tribe, the largest tribal grouping in the Greater Benghazi area, vowed to clear the city of Islamist and revolutionary elements, and take it by force.

Thus, when Haftar launched his Operation Dignity campaign to rid Benghazi of Islamist forces in May 2014, the tribes were quick to rally. Despite the fact that Haftar roots are in the west of Libya, many eastern tribes saw  as an acceptable alternative to Qadhafi, representing tradition and continuity, and being in tune with their solid notions of identity rooted in Arabism and Islam. More importantly, his campaign provided them with the opportunity to assert themselves and take back what they believed was rightfully theirs.

Tribes rushed to join the ranks of the Operation Dignity forces. The Al-Awaqir made up the bulk of early recruits to the LNA, forming their own brigades and taking on key leadership roles within its command structure. Tribes from other eastern towns, including the Baraassa and Al-Obeidat, also joined in, hoping to put their hands on key strategic sites in Benghazi. These tribal forces formed a critical component of Haftar’s military machine, scourging neighborhoods and hunting down Islamist opponents. As one Libyan commentator I interviewed in Tunis in 2019 noted, “Haftar encouraged the Bedouin to attack the urban classes in Benghazi.”

For many of these tribes, therefore, Haftar provided a vehicle through which their interests were met, while they de facto enabled him to become the strongman of the east. Not that there haven’t been differences between Haftar and some components of these tribes, when certain individuals have broken away. One such example is former LNA commander Mehdi Barghathi, who comes from a lesser tribe within the Al-Awaqir grouping, and who in 2016 became the GNA’s defense minister. However, in the main, these eastern tribes have continued to back Haftar, and have  been willing to supply him with a stream of recruits for his military operations, their social media pages crammed full of tributes to their fallen ‘martyrs’.

Expanding control

Tribes have also facilitated Haftar’s expansion into other areas. Given the limitations of the LNA’s military capacity, winning over tribal sheikhs and notables soon became a core component of Haftar’s strategy to extend his reach. It was through the tribes that Haftar took control of the strategically important oil crescent ports in September 2016. These export hubs are located in areas dominated by the Magharba tribe. For years they were controlled by notorious Oil Facilities Guard commander, Ibrahim Jedhran, a member of the Magharba who, after falling out with Haftar, allied himself to the GNA.

While Jedhran was supported by a group of youth from the Magharba, other parts of the tribe including its head, Sheikh Saleh Latioush, considered him a liability and believed the tribes’ interests were better served by supporting the LNA. Haftar capitalized on this split within the tribe’s ranks and convinced the sheikhs and elders to disown Jedhran and facilitate the LNA takeover of the ports. Latioush described the situation thusly:

We got the sheikhs of the Magharba to persuade their sons to distance themselves from Jedhran and to return to the bosom of the tribe… When Haftar attacked, there wasn’t much resistance. They [Jedhran’s supporters] abandoned their weapons because they implemented the instructions of their fathers.

Haftar has employed similar tactics in the south, negotiating with tribal sheikhs to extend his reach across the Fezzan. Particularly challenging in this respect has been those Arab tribes that have remained loyal to Qadhafi, such as the Miqarha, the Hasawna, and Qadhafi’s own tribe, the Qadhadhfa. While Haftar has been able to win over some influential figures from these tribes, such as Mohamed Bin Nayal from the Miqarha, he has struggled to gain their full support. These tribes have stated repeatedly that they will only rally behind him fully if he renounces his support for the revolution. Other southern tribes have been less difficult to lure in, and although the LNA’s hold over the south remains somewhat tenuous, Haftar’s success in courting the large Zwiya and Awlad Suleiman tribes, albeit at the expense of losing the backing of their Tebu opponents, has enabled him to claim large swathes of the south as his own.

It is this ability to engage the tribes that has enabled Haftar to elevate himself from the dominant power in Benghazi to the main powerbroker across whole swathes of Libya, making him indispensable to any potential peace deal that may or may not be brokered by the international community.

The Battle for Western Libya

Although western Libya is considerably less tribal than the east and the south, when Haftar launched his campaign to take control of the capital in April 2019, he was banking on employing similar tactics. Too weak to take Tripoli by force, he had hoped to negotiate his takeover of certain towns and areas, enabling him to make the final push into the capital.

While this strategy backfired spectacularly, locking the LNA into a year-long battle in which it is still embroiled, it did not fail altogether. Haftar has succeeded in bringing some towns and areas on side, most notably, those that have a strong tribal presence. This includes Tarhouna, situated 65 km southeast of Tripoli, where more than 60 tribes come together under the umbrella of the Tarhouna tribes.

Tarhouna was a stronghold of the former regime, well-known for supplying recruits to Qadhafi’s Republican Guard. Despite initially rejecting Haftar’s Operation Dignity campaign on the grounds of his having ‘violated their sanctity’ through his participation in the 2011 revolution, and despite some forces in the town opportunistically allying with the GNA for a time, by 2019, the Tarhouna tribes were ready to reach out to Haftar.

After failed incursions into the capital in August 2018 and January 2019, which were led by the Kaniat, a notorious Tarhouna militia that had been running roughshod over the town and spearheading clashes with militias in Tripoli, tribal figures in Tarhouna decided to act. A tribal source in Tarhouna told me in 2019 that tribal representatives urged the Kaniat to throw in their lot with Haftar, and after the militia succumbed to pressure, it was agreed at a large tribal gathering to open the town’s gates to the LNA. A tribal delegation was dispatched to Benghazi where they agreed with Haftar that the Kaniat would merge with the LNA’s 20th Brigade under the command of Abdelwahab al-Magri. In other words, the Kaniat was subsumed by the LNA to provide a veneer of professionalism and respectability.

This relationship proved critical to Haftar’s early successes in his Tripoli campaign, as Tarhouna facilitated the LNA’s penetration of the area southeast of the capital. With residents of the nearby areas of Ain Zara, Wadi Rabea and Qasr Bin Ghashir representing tribal extensions of Tarhouna, the LNA was able to advance even further.

GNA Failings

That Tarhouna, along with other tribal areas in the west of Libya should have sided with Haftar is unsurprising. Many western tribes felt abandoned and marginalized by the revolution in 2011. They also felt scapegoated; following Qadhafi’s fall, revolutionary forces from Misrata and elsewhere unleashed attacks  against areas associated with the former regime — including Wershefana, Mashashiya, Tawergha, and Bani Walid ­— in the name of routing out Qadhafi loyalists. Although these were largely acts of revenge, they were perceived by some tribes as a deliberate attempt by the country’s new revolutionary powers to destroy the country’s tribal fabric. The sentiment was compounded by the exclusion of some of the country’s most important tribes, such as the Werfella, Miqarha, Qadhadhfa and Wershefana (all known for their loyalty to Qadhafi regime, from the country’s new political structures and their control over the country’s wealth.

Although not all of these tribes have gone so far as to throw their weight behind Haftar — many of the larger tribes refusing to be drawn into the current conflict — others have rallied behind him and turned their backs on the GNA, which has done little to try to reach out to these constituencies. Indeed, the GNA has been unable to extend into more tribal areas of western Libya, such as Wershefana, Aujailat, Bani Walid, Ragdaleen and Tawergha, as well as some parts of Zintan. As one sheikh from the Awlad Bu Saif tribe counselled, the GNA should employ someone like Khalifa Hneish, who was entrusted with running tribal affairs in the early years of Qadhafi’s rule.

Part of the problem is that the GNA, already viewed as an imposition by the international community, has become pigeonholed with urbanized, largely ideologically driven forces, such as those from Tripoli and Misrata. Although it has had little choice in this, being reliant on these forces for its own survival, this association has not helped its already tarnished image where the tribes are concerned. The GNA’s decision to appeal to Turkey for military support, and to use Turkish-supplied Syrian mercenaries in its fight against the LNA, has only discredited it further. While there are many external actors meddling in Libya, the Turkish intervention was a flashpoint  for many Libyans, but particularly for the tribes, who prize their Arab lineage, and for whom Turkey conjures up memories of resistance against Ottoman invaders.

By binding itself more tightly to the Islamist and revolutionary camps through its alliance with Ankara, the GNA may have regained some military clout, but it also handed Haftar an instant propaganda victory that he has used to his advantage. It was the Turkish intervention that served as justification for the mass shutdown of the country’s oil infrastructure carried out by LNA-allied tribes in January 2020 that has brought the economy to its knees. Haftar had long been angry with the fact that the majority of the country’s energy infrastructure was in his hands, yet he did not have control over the dollar proceeds of oil sales which are routed through the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and the Central Bank in Tripoli. This anger dovetailed with the resentment felt by tribes living in impoverished and underdeveloped areas around the oil sites who are not seeing the benefits of these resources either. These tribes have remained resolute and are refusing to lift the blockade until the GNA agrees to a more equitable wealth-sharing formula, enabling Haftar to cut off the GNA’s revenue stream, while presenting what is an instrument of war as an expression of the will of the people.

Whither the conflict?

While the GNA, with Turkish support, may have struck a series of military victories in April 2020, seizing several small towns in western Libya, actually imposing its authority over these areas could be challenging. Areas like Ragdaleen, Surman, and Jamil are unlikely to open themselves easily to GNA forces. Similarly, if the GNA manages to defeat Tarhouna, which is in itself questionable, it is going to face an uphill struggle to maintain control and subjugate Tarhouna’s tribes. As far as these tribes are concerned, the GNA is a foreign body, controlled by militias backed by Turkey. Indeed, these tribal areas will always have more commonality with a figure like Haftar than with a colorless body like the GNA. Hence, the GNA is unlikely to ever to impose itself over all of the west of Libya, let alone the rest of the country.

As for Haftar, although he is no Qadhafi, and while tribal support is never unconditional, his hold over the east will remain reliant on his continued ability to cultivate and manipulate the tribes effectively. Not that one should inflate their importance. Tribes are just one part of the complex jigsaw of the Libyan crisis, and there are many other factors and forces at play. However, tribes remain an important component of Libyan society, and while some city dwellers may look upon them with disdain, associating them with backwardness and colonial plots to divide and rule, they have proved able not only to survive, but to adapt and modernize, too. Indeed, tribes still represent an important force in the country both socially and in the political and security realms, and they will continue to have a bearing on the evolution of the conflict and what comes after it.


Alison Pargeter is a senior research fellow at the School of Security Studies, King’s College London and a senior visiting fellow at its Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. She is also an associate fellow at RUSI. Her primary research focus is on political and security issues in North Africa and the Middle East, with a particular focus on Libya. She is currently carrying out a major study on tribes in Libya and Iraq.


Image: Ziad Fhema