By: Kevin Truitte, Columnist
Photo credit: Getty Images
There’s an old adage that states, “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” In the fractured landscape of today’s Libya, every warring faction—from former Ghaddafists to federalists, tribal militias to Salafi-jihadists—believes it is in the right. These groups build messaging campaigns, manipulate reporting on events, and empower affiliated media to spin stories in favor of their cause. These clashing narratives not only influence facts on the ground, but also shape international views of the Libyan conflict. Narratives continue to be important drivers of conflict in the North African state, and serve as impediments to reconciliation and lasting peace.
The current civil war in Libya began in 2014, when the previous governing body, the General National Council, and allied Islamist militias drove the recently elected House of Representatives from the capital, Tripoli.[i] At the same time, armed Islamists — including al-Qaeda-linked groups such as Ansar al-Sharia — in Benghazi carried out assassinations and attacks against security officials, politicians, tribal leaders, and religious figures that opposed them.[ii] General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) arose from this cauldron of chaos. The LNA’s coalition of militias banded together under the narrative of “cleansing Libya of terrorism and extremism,” an appealing message to many Libyans who live in fear of violent radical groups.[iii] Aligning with the remaining members of the House of Representatives, Haftar launched Operation Dignity to retake Benghazi under the auspices of cleansing the city of “terrorists.”
In 2017, Haftar and his forces “liberated” Benghazi from the last pockets of Islamist militant resistance in the city.[iv] However, the LNA coalition continues to derive legitimacy from its narrative of security and has expanded its scope beyond the east of the country. For years, top officials — especially the bombastic LNA spokesman, Ahmed al-Mismari – have framed the conflict as an existential struggle that will only end after their forces seize Tripoli and destroy the powerful Islamist militias located there.[v] Similarly, by labeling their enemies “terrorists,” Haftar and the LNA portray their war as a zero-sum game. In the last several weeks, Haftar and his allies have launched a campaign to “cleanse” the coastal city of Derna, long a haven for Islamists and dominated by the Salafi-jihadist Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (labeled “terrorists” in LNA parlance), despite efforts by the Tripoli-based, internationally recognized government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), to broker a settlement between the camps.[vi]
The narrative of security and stability in which Haftar and his coalition cloaks themselves also proves to be a major weakness. Haftar, as the unifying figure in a constellation of militias, tribal, and political forces, curbs internal conflict between constituents.[vii] With his recent health issues, Haftar’s ability to maintain a narrative of stability, as his coalition comes under internal strain, may be in doubt.[viii] Furthermore, the LNA’s security narrative has been challenged by recent terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Car bombs in January and May 2018, killing thirty-five and seven, respectively, undermine LNA claims to have secured the city from violent actors.[ix] Extrajudicial violence and crimes committed by LNA militias within Benghazi further erode the coalition’s “law and order” facade.[x]
The LNA’s destructive campaign to eradicate Islamists from Benghazi made them many enemies. The group’s narrative of uncompromising suppression of terrorism created a large diaspora of opponents from the city. The grievance narrative of the Islamists, al-Qaeda-linked jihadists, former soldiers and police, and others critical of the LNA and forced to flee the city for their lives as it was “liberated” gave rise to the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB). With support from Islamist and anti-Haftar factions in western Libya, the BDB made its mission to oppose Haftar, whom they accuse of war crimes, and to retake Benghazi. The BDB launched several abortive campaigns against the eastern forces, including offensives in mid-2016 against the Libya’s oil crescent and the city of Ajdabiya.[xi] Even these unsuccessful offensive operations against the country’s lucrative infrastructure were publicly framed in the context of the anti-LNA grievance narrative, which claimed that the BDB aimed to assist the return of internally displaced persons to Benghazi.[xii] Today, remnants of the BDB have allied with Ibrahim Jadhran, a former federalist and leader of a rogue Petroleum Facilities Guard militia, and once again seized control of parts of Libya’s oil crescent.[xiii] In a statement, Jadhran explains the continued grievance narrative behind these recent developments not as an act of revenge, but to allow displaced tribesmen to return. Furthermore, the statement labels Haftar and the LNA as a “terrorist organization.”[xiv]
Despite their narrative of grievance against the actions of the LNA, the atrocities committed by the BDB and its allies undermine the validity of their “humanitarian” claims. In 2017, BDB and other militias massacred 130 LNA fighters at an airbase in southern Libya, gruesomely killing “everyone at the base: soldiers, cooks, cleaners.”[xv] This led to a loss of support for the group, and their former backers in Misrata demanded that the militia disband.[xvi] The ongoing actions of Jadhran and the remnants of the BDB today have already drawn rebuke from the GNA in the west, and are likely to further erode their public support as nearly half of the country’s oil output — Libya’s primary source of income — has been halted as a result.[xvii]
The Libyan civil war continues to be driven by conflicting narratives, oftentimes claiming the same goals while branding opponents as terrorists or criminals. Though the Haftar coalition and the BDB only espouse two of many warring narratives, they exemplify the divergence in perceptions on the ground by rival factions in Libya. These divisions ultimately pose the greatest challenge to reconciliation and national reunification in a country that has been plagued by instability for more than half a decade.
[i] ” Global Conflict Tracker: Civil War in Libya,” Council on Foreign Relations, updated June 19, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/civil-war-in-libya.
[ii] Frederic Wehrey, “The Battle for Benghazi,” The Atlantic, February 28, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/02/the-battle-for-benghazi/284102/.
[iii] Camille Tawil, “Operation Dignity: General Haftar’s Latest Battle May Decide Libya’s Future,” The Jamestown Foundation, May 30, 2014, https://jamestown.org/program/operation-dignity-general-haftars-latest-battle-may-decide-libyas-future/.
[iv] “Libyan militia leader declares Benghazi ‘liberated’ of jihadists,” France 24, July 6, 2017, www.france24.com/en/20170706-strongman-haftar-declares-victory-battle-libya-benghazi.
[v] Maha Ellawati, “LNA will go to Tripoli says Mismari, accuses negotiators in Tunis of extending the crisis,” Libya Herald, October 27, 2017, https://www.libyaherald.com/2017/10/27/lna-will-go-to-tripoli-says-mismari-accuses-negotiators-in-tunis-of-extending-the-crisis/.
[vi]“حفتر : أعطينا وقتا كافيا للوصول إلى حـــل سلمي في درنة لكن ذلك لم يتحقق”, Libya’s Channel (قناة ليبيا), April 1, 2018, https://libyaschannel.com/2018/04/01/%D8%AD%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%B1-%D8%A3%D8%B9%D8%B7%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A7-%D9%88%D9%82%D8%AA%D8%A7-%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%84%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B5%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%AD%D9%80%D9%80%D9%80/; Abdulkader Assad, “Presidential Council member reiterates support to Derna and rejection of war,” The Libya Observer, May 8, 2018, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/presidential-council-member-reiterates-support-derna-and-rejection-war.
[vii] Kevin Truitte, “Cracks in Haftar’s Coalition? Internal Challenges to a Strongman’s Political-Military Alliance,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, March 16, 2018, georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2018/03/16/cracks-in-haftars-coalition-internal-challenges-to-a-strongmans-political-military-alliance/.
[viii] Jalel Harchaoui, “Haftar’s Ailing Narrative,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 16, 2018, carnegieendowment.org/sada/76372.
[ix]Ayman al-Warfalli, “Toll rises to 35 in car bombing outside Benghazi mosque,” Reuters, January 24, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security/toll-rises-to-35-in-car-bombing-outside-benghazi-mosque-idUSKBN1FD1LV; Ayman Al-Warfalli, “At least seven killed by car bomb in Benghazi, Libya,” Reuters, May 24, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security/at-least-seven-killed-by-car-bomb-in-benghazi-libya-idUSKCN1IP3XF.
[x] Housam Najjair, “Crime rate in Benghazi is out of control, Saiqa commander admits,” The Libya Observer, November 28, 2017, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/crime-rate-benghazi-out-control-saiqa-commander-admits.
[xi]Andrew McGregor, “Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti,” The Jamestown Foundation, June 2, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/libyas-military-wild-card-benghazi-defense-brigades-massacre-brak-al-shatti/.
[xii] Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “Benghazi Defense Brigades capture Ras Lanuf Airport in central Libya,” The Libya Observer, March 3, 2017, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/benghazi-defense-brigades-capture-ras-lanuf-airport-central-libya.
[xiii] Adam Nathan, “Militiaman who became Libya’s oil kingpin,” Politico, August 25, 2016, https://www.politico.eu/article/ibrahim-jadhran-libya-separatist-gna-qadhafi/; “Haftar forces in ‘major’ operation to reclaim Libyan oil fields from rivals,” AFP, June 17, 2018, www.middleeasteye.net/news/haftar-oil-libya-ras-lanuf-sidra-jadhran-1511343473.
[xiv] Ben Ibrahim, “Ibrahim Jadran designates Dignity Operation ‘terrorist organization’, reiterates allegiance to Presidential Council,” The Libya Observer, June 17, 2018, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/ibrahim-jadran-designates-dignity-operation-“terrorist-organization”-reiterates-allegiance.
[xv] “Massacre reported as Misratans and BDB take Brak Al-Shatti airbase,” Libya Herald, May 18, 2017, https://www.libyaherald.com/2017/05/18/misratans-and-bdb-takes-brak-al-shatti-airbase-in-shock-attack-heavy-lna-casualties-reported/.
[xvi] “Misrata orders BDB and allies to disarm and disband,” Libya Herald, June 6, 2017, https://www.libyaherald.com/2017/06/06/misrata-orders-bdb-and-allies-to-disarm-and-disband/.
[xvii] “Libya clashes at oil ports cut output by nearly half,” AFP, June 20, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/06/libya-clashes-oil-ports-cut-output-180620143239281.html.