Introduction to Larger Dynamics at the Start of the Summer of 2014
Even before the Tubroq/Tripoli split and the rise of ISIS, Libya’s politics had ossified into a confrontation between two loose umbrella groupings, with each containing different militias as well as local and national political actors: the Islamist bloc which holds power in the GNC and their anti-Islamist opponents who have held the power in the executive from November 2012 until May 2014. In March 2014, after the federalists tried to smuggle out of Cyrenaica against the will of the Central government. After the government’s weak response to this crisis, the Islamist grouping (JCP/Salafists) joined up with Jadhran’s federalists to evict the anti-Islamist Prime Minister Ali Zidan from office. This led to the defeat of all forms of central authority as the new Prime Minister Abdullah Thinni never consolidated his authority and although he worked with the Federalists, the Islamist faction became so opposed to him and Haftar that they promoted extremist jihadis (especially in Benghazi and Derna). This alliance of the Moderate Islamist/Misratan/Tripoli faction with the Jihadis began in June 2014.
Other Jihadi Actors
Ansar al Sharia condemned Hiftar’s campaign against them and vowed to fight against what they called a “crusade on Islam”. Other political Islamist groups and figures like the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s grand Mufti Sheikh Sadiq al Gheriani have condemned the actions of both Ansar al Sharia and Hiftar accusing both camps of acting outside the law and endangering Libya’s democratic transition. This, however, appears to be Gheriani’s attempt to back-pedal on his earlier statement lambasting Hiftar, which claimed that what Hiftar is doing in Benghazi is much more like terrorism than what Ansar al-Sharia have ever done. This dynamic shows that starting in June 2014 dynamics favouring an alliance of the mainstream Islamist politicians with jihadi elements were beginning to be cemented.
Hiftar’s offensive in Benghazi targets Islamists militias such as Feb17 brigade, Rafallah al-Sahati brigade, and Ansar al-Sharia militias. These militias are mainly based on the western side of Benghazi near the main building of Benghazi University in the Gar Younis and al-Laithi areas. Hiftar used ground forces to take on these militias, and it was reported that 120 armed vehicles entered Benghazi on Friday morning May 30th. Hiftar has the support from army units already fighting jihadists in Benghazi such as the Saiqa Units (Special Forces). Hiftar has also used Air Force jets and helicopters to attack Islamist militia targets in Benghazi.
As of May 31, all military zones in Eastern Libya with all their military units and commanders have now joined Hiftar’s “Operation Dignity” against what they called “terrorist groups,” which effectively means any Islamist militias in Eastern Libya including supposedly “moderate Islamists,” such as those aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood. These military zones include Tobruk, the Green Mountain (al Baida, Shahaat and al Marj), Benghazi and Ajdabiya. This movement’s shocking effectiveness resembles the speed with which Cyrenaican army zones defected to the rebels and against Qadhafi in February 2011. And yet, Khiftar is not a popular figure in Libya given that his past connections with the CIA and with Qadhafi leave him deeply tainted in the eyes of most Libyans.