Forces led by Khalifa Hifter, known as the Libyan National Army, pushed west toward Tripoli on Friday, after Hifter announced his intention to seize the city. Tripoli is controlled by the Presidential Council and Government of National Accord, which is backed by the United Nations.
Militia groups that support the accord government have reportedly captured 100 of Hifter’s soldiers, but the fighting risks returning the country to the worst violence seen since the 2011 civil war.
But who is Hifter? And why has he sent troops toward Tripoli?
Hifter, 75, first became a military man in 1966 under King Idris I. Just three years later, he joined Moammar Gaddafi’s coup against the crown. Hifter spent the next two decades rising through the ranks of the Libyan military, and in the 1980s he was a commander in the country’s conflict with Chad. But Chadian forces took him captive, and in 1987 he defected, pledging his loyalty to the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which was U.S.-backed.
The National Salvation Front for Libya called for Gaddafi to be overthrown. Hifter became prominent in the Front’s military component — the Libyan National Army. President Ronald Reagan, who hoped to use Libyan dissidents to oust Gaddafi, dubbed Hifter “the mad dog of the Middle East.” He eventually settled in Langley, Va., where he maintained ties with Gaddafi foes as a U.S. citizen — but returned to Libya after the start of 2011 civil war in which Gaddafi was ousted and killed.
But Hifter failed to become the country’s new military leader and returned to Virginia.
Then, in 2014, he announced a military coup via video address, complaining that the central government had not done enough to take on increasingly powerful armed Islamist groups.
The coup failed, but Hifter wasn’t done. A few months later, Hifter launched “Operation Dignity,” which was meant to clear the country’s east of militant groups. Hifter gained support in the east, as well as from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — but despite claiming to have liberated Benghazi, he left the city in ruins and deepened divisions in Libya.
Those divisions are arguably made worse by the fact that Hifter, flouting the requirements of a U.N. peace deal, refused to recognize the unity government in Tripoli. Hifter’s refusal to recognize that government has for years been seen as a major obstacle to Libya’s achieving stability. Hifter’s precondition is that the unity government secure the backing of lawmakers in Tobruk, a city in eastern Libya that has vied for power with Tripoli since 2014.
On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council tried once more to move Hifter. It called on Hifter’s military forces to stop their movements and for “all parties to resume dialogue and deliver on their commitments to engage constructively with the U.N. political process.”