The disclosure this week that Barack Obama had authorized the deployment of CIA agents in Libya comes at a bad moment for the US and its allies in their efforts to depose the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
For the second time in as many weeks the rag-tag army of Libyan rebels is fleeing eastwards in the face of Gaddafi’s more numerous and better trained soldiers, highlighting some uncomfortable realities for NATO’s commanders. The rebels are by themselves incapable of dislodging Gaddafi. The allies’ no-fly zone, cruise missile strikes and bombing missions may be sufficient to deny Gaddafi a victory over his rebel opponents but it cannot assure success for the rebels.
Slowly but surely Obama and his French and British allies are being sucked into direct involvement in yet another project to secure regime change in a Muslim country. The next stage will be to give the rebels sophisticated weapons in the hope this can reverse their decline. The rebels will have to be trained of course, the training must take place in Libya and the trainers will have to be protected, in Libya, by NATO soldiers. Slowly but surely the prohibition against “boots on the ground” will be erased. If, as seems very possible, the acquisition of modern weaponry fails to transform the rebels’ fortunes the only remaining option will be to send NATO troops in against Gaddafi. Failure to remove Gaddafi means a humiliating defeat for Obama and his allies and in the end NATO may have little alternative but to fight on Libyan soil.
But the rebels cannot be armed until the Americans and Europeans know exactly who they are dealing with. Who leads them and do the rebels, as some reports suggest, have al Qaeda or other jihadist sympathizers in their ranks? Does Obama risk arming America’s most committed enemies in the rush to overthrow Gaddafi?
Although the rebels’ capital Benghazi has been swarming with foreign media and press for weeks, it is only recently that journalists began looking for answers to those vital questions.
While names and faces of a few top figures are now known, the identities of much of the leadership of the rebel Transitional National Council, as well as who chose them, how they were chosen and why, remain shrouded in mystery. As a Guardian report put it: “Most of their names are kept secret. They often meet in hiding – at times in a church in Benghazi, on other occasions as far away as Tobruk. Some members of what amounts to the government of revolutionary Libya are not seen at all. They are just voices down a phone line.”
There is though one singular exception. We now know the name of the rebels’ military commander although the significance of his presence and his lengthy history in the annals of covert US opposition to Gaddafi has so far escaped the
mainstream media. In the middle of March, Khalifa Heftir arrived in Benghazi from his home near Washington DC to a hero’s welcome from rebel supporters but it is likely that his safe arrival was greeted with as much joy and relief in Washington. The CIA’s man in the Libyan opposition was now in the saddle.
Heftir’s history as a former officer in Gaddafi’s military turned CIA-backed opponent of the Libyan regime goes back nearly twenty-five years and while a number of media outlets noted his return to Libya none, so far, have mentioned his CIA backstory. The Daily Mail in Britain, for instance, reported Heftir’s return on March 19th, saying that the former Libyan army officer had “recently returned from exile in America” to give the rebel force some “tactical coherence” without mentioning the background that had provided him with these talents.
A McClatchy Newspapers’ report on March 27th said that the new military leader of the Libyan opposition had spent the last two decades living in suburban Virginia and that he was the third military leader of the chaos-plagued rebel force in a month. The bureau quoted a friend as saying he “was unsure exactly what Heftir did to support himself” in America but that he had been motivated by his hatred of Gaddafi and sense of responsibility to Libya to return to lead the rebellion.
The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson, writing in the magazine’s April 4th issue, refers to Heftir, whose name is sometimes spelled Haftar, Hefter or Huftur, as living, until recently, as an exile in the US, and that he was one of two competing military chiefs vying for control of the rebel force. Unlike his rival, General Abdel Fateh Younis, wrote Anderson, Heftir, “elicits widespread admiration in Benghazi, but he, too, has kept out of sight, evidently at a secret Army camp where he is preparing elite troops for battle”.
Khalifa Heftir is mobbed by supporters in Benghazi
President Obama’s motives in ordering the bombing of Gaddafi’s forces may well have been driven by humanitarian concerns but the appointment of Khalifa Heftir to lead the armed uprising in the oil-rich North African republic, is a reminder that there is a long and tangled history of secret American efforts to oust the Libyan ruler.
Heftir’s elevation also signals that Obama’s intervention in Libya is now not just about saving civilian lives but is aimed at removing Gaddafi from power, a mission begun a quarter of a century before by a President regarded as an American Conservative icon and supposedly the polar opposite, politically, of the White House’s current resident.
The story of Khalifa Heftir’s entanglement with the CIA begins with the election to the White House of Ronald Reagan in 1980 amid gradually worsening relations with Gaddafi’s Libya and a growing obsession on the part of Reagan and his allies with removing the Libyan leader.
A year before Reagan’s election a Libyan mob, imitating Iranian revolutionaries, burned down the US embassy in Tripoli and diplomatic relations were suspended. Two years later the Libyan embassy in Washington was closed down while US and Libyan jets skirmished over the Gulf of Sidra, which Gaddafi claimed to be part of Libya’s territorial waters.
Later in 1981 American press reports claimed that Libyan hit squads had been sent to the US to assassinate Reagan, shots were fired at the US ambassador to France while the ambassador to Italy was withdrawn after a plot to kidnap him was uncovered. After explosives were found in musical equipment at a US embassy sponsored dance in Khartoum, Sudan, Reagan ordered a travel ban and ordered all Americans out of Libya.
In 1983 there were more air skirmishes off the Libyan coast; two years later five US citizens were killed by bombs planted at Rome and Vienna airports and US officials blamed Libya. The worst clashes came in 1986, beginning with more air skirmishes over the Gulf of Sidra and the destruction of Libyan SAM sites by American missiles. In April a bomb exploded at the LaBelle nightclub in Berlin, a bar frequented by off-duty American servicemen. Three people were killed, two of whom were US soldiers and of the 200 wounded, sixty were American citizens. President Reagan blamed Libya and on April 15th, some 100 US aircraft, many flying out of bases in the UK, bombed Libyan bases and military complexes. The Libyans said that 70 people were killed in the attacks which also targeted Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, killing his adopted infant daughter, Hana. One account claimed that nine of the jets had been directed to blast Gaddafi’s compound in a clear attempt to kill him.
By the mid-1980’s, the Reagan administration and the CIA believed that Gaddafi was supporting terrorist groups or helping fellow radical states throughout the globe. In a November 3rd, 1985 article for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward listed the countries where Gaddafi was said by the White House to be active. They included Chad, Tunisia, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon and Iraq. Gaddafi was also supporting the IRA in Northern Ireland and significantly stepped up supplies of arms and cash to the group after a British policewoman was shot dead and diplomats expelled following a confrontation and lengthy siege at the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.
In May 1984, less than a month after the London embassy siege, gunmen launched rocket and gun attacks against the Tripoli army barracks where Gaddafi’s family compound was located. The initial assault was repulsed and most of the insurgents killed when Libyan tanks shelled the building overlooking the barracks where the gunmen had taken refuge. It was though the most serious challenge to Gaddafi’s hold on power in Libya, made all the more threatening by the fact that it had happened on his doorstep.
The attack was claimed by a group calling itself the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), composed of anti-Gaddafi exiles, some of them supporters of the Idris monarchy overthrown in the 1969 revolution. Claims that the NFSL was at that time supported by US intelligence derive some support from a leak to American newspapers a few days before the attack in Tripoli that President Reagan had recently signed a new directive authorizing US agencies to “take the offensive” against international terrorism by mounting retaliatory or pre-emptive attacks. But the Americans were, at this stage, not directly involved in supporting the exile group’s activities.
The NFSL was getting aid mostly from Saudi Arabia whose ruling family despised Gaddafi after he had accused them of defiling holy Islamic sites in their country but also from Egypt and Tunisia in whose internal affairs Gaddafi had meddled. Sudan was another sponsor. Gaddafi had tried to foment an uprising against its pro-Western leadership and in response Sudan supplied the NFSL with bases from which the May 1984 attack was planned.
The Sudanese, according to one account, kept the CIA informed of the plot. CIA Director, William Casey, was heartened by the attack even though it had failed and renewed his efforts to persuade Reagan to authorize specific covert action against the Libyan leader. Casey is said to have remarked: “It proves for the first time that Libyans are willing to die to get rid of that bastard” (p. 85). From thereon the NFSL was put on the CIA’s payroll.
It was after the unsuccessful effort to kill Gaddafi in his Tripoli compound that Reagan took the intelligence offensive. Bob Woodward revealed Reagan’s move, first in the Washington Post (November 3rd, 1985) and then in his account of Reagan’s secret wars in his book Veil, published in 1987. A secret presidential directive, which Woodward was able to quote, signaled that the exile groups like NFSL would be an important weapon wielded in this campaign against the Libyan leader: “…the exile groups, if supported to a substantial degree, could soon begin an intermittent campaign of sabotage and violence which could prompt further challenges to Qaddafi’s authority.”
The Reagan directive had listed ten options for action against Gaddafi, which ranged from regime change to economic sanctions, although it was obvious that the operation could only be judged a success if Gaddafi was dislodged: “…no course of action short of stimulating Qaddafi’s fall will bring any significant and enduring change in Libyan policies”, the document read.
The former French colony of Chad on Libya’s southern border had already been a major battleground in the war between Reagan and Gaddafi and after the 1984 bid to kill the Libyan dictator it assumed even greater importance. Chad had gained independence from France in 1960 but its history for many years thereafter has been one of coups and civil wars, often sponsored by foreign powers using Chad as an arena for their rivalry.
Libyan interest and activity in Chad pre-dated Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution and centered on a piece of land in Northern Chad called the Aouzou Strip which is rich in uranium and other rare minerals. Gaddafi formed an alliance with the government of Goukouni Wedeye who allowed the Libyans to occupy the strip but in 1982 Wedeye was overthrown by Hissene Habre who was backed by the CIA and by French troops.
Hebre’s was a brutal regime. During the eight years of his leadership some 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or executed. Human Rights Watch observed: “Under President Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help install Habre in order, according to secretary of state, Alexander Haig, to ‘bloody Gadafi’s nose’”. Bob Woodward wrote in Veil that the Chadian coup was William Casey’s first covert operation as head of the CIA.
During the years following Habre’s coup, Gaddafi’s army and the forces of the Chad government, the CIA and French intelligence clashed repeatedly. In March 1987 a force of some 600-700 Libyan soldiers under the command of General Khalifa Haftir was captured and imprisoned. Gaddafi disowned Heftir, presumably in anger at his capture, and the former Libyan General then defected to the major Libyan opposition group, the NFSL.
A Congressional Research Service report of December 1996 named Heftir as the head of the NFSL’s military wing, the Libyan National Army. After he joined the exile group, the CRS report added, Heftir began “preparing an army to march on Libya”. The NFSL, the CSR said, is in exile “with many of its members in the United States.”
In 1990 French troops helped to oust Habre and installed Idriss Debry to replace him. According to one account the French had grown weary of Habre’s genocidal policies while the new resident in the White House, George H W Bush did not have the same interest as Reagan had in using Chad as a proxy to damage Gaddafi even though the Libyan leader formed an alliance with Debry.
A New York Times report of May 1991 shed more light on the CIA’s sponsorship of Heftir’s men. “They were trained” it said, “by American intelligence officials in sabotage and other guerilla skills, officials said, at a base near Ndjamena, the Chadian capital. The plan to use the exiles fit neatly into the Reagan administration’s eagerness to topple Colonel Qaddafi”.
Following the fall of Habre, Gaddafi demanded that the new government hand over Heftir’s men but instead Debry allowed the Americans to fly them to Zaire. There Libyan officials were given access to the men and about half agreed to return to Libya. The remainder refused, saying they feared for their lives if they went back home. When US financial aid offered to Zaire for giving the rebels refuge failed to materialise they were expelled and sent to Kenya.
Eventually the Kenyans said the men were no longer welcome and the United States agreed to bring them to America where they were admitted to the US refugee programme. A State Department spokesman said the men would have “access to normal resettlement assistance, including English-language and vocational training and, if necessary, financial and medical assistance.” According to one report the remnants of Heftir’s army were dispersed to all fifty states.
That was not, however, the end of the Libyan National Army. In March 1996, Heftir returned to Libya and took part in an uprising against Gaddafi. Details of what happened are scant but the Washington Post reported from Egypt on March 26th that travelers from Libya had spoken of “unrest today in Jabal Akhdar mountains of eastern Libya and said armed rebels may have joined escaped prisoners in an uprising against the government….and that its leader is Col. Khalifa Haftar, of a contra-style group based in the United States called the Libyan National Army, the travelers said.”
The report continued: “The travelers, whose accounts could not be confirmed independently, said they heard that the death toll had risen to 23 in five days of fighting between security forces and rebels, including men who escaped from Benghazi prison thursday and then fled into the eastern mountains.”
What part the CIA played in the failed uprising and whether the then US president, Bill Clinton had given the operation his approval are not known. By coincidence or not, three months later, Gaddafi’s forces killed some 1200 political prisoners being held in Benghazi’s Abu Simal jail. It was the arrest of the lawyer representing many of the prisoners’ families that sparked the February 17th uprising against Gaddafi and with it, the return of Khalifa Heftir.