Who Is Khalifa Hifter?

Who is the American citizen leading one side of the civil war in Libya, and why did he spend 20 years in suburban Virginia, reportedly under the auspices of the CIA?

by , February 23, 2016

In 1991, the New York Times reported that 350 exiled "Libyan soldiers were trained by American intelligence officials in sabotage and other guerrilla skills. The plan to use the exiles fit neatly into the Reagan Administration’s eagerness to topple Colonel [Muammar] Qaddafi."

Former Libyan General Khalifa Hifter was the leader of that group, the Libyan National Army, and was one of those flown to the United States and granted exile.

Within three years, Hifter was given U.S. citizenship and spent much of the next 20 years in suburban Virginia, near the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, VA.

Switched sides in the ’80s

Born in 1943 in eastern Libya, Hifter was an army officer when he participated in the coup that brought Qaddafi to power in 1969.  But in the late 1980s, Hifter was captured in neighboring Chad while fighting for Qaddafi’s army. Qaddafi refused to admit that any Libyans were being held captive in Chad, and thus, many of those captives formed an anti-Qaddafi insurgent group while imprisoned. Shortly thereafter, Hifter and others were flown by the US Air Force to New York for resettlement.

Leader of a US based "contra-style group"

A 1996 Congressional Research Service report claimed that Hifter began “preparing an army to march on Libya.” The report also stated that the Libyan National Army is in exile “with many of its members in the United States.”

In the same year, the Washington Post reported that Hifter was alleged to be the leader of "a contra-style group based in the United States called the Libyan National Army."

Hifter "spent most of the previous two decades, at least some of that time working with the Central Intelligence Agency," according to the New Yorker magazine.

The New York Times’ Ethan Chorin reported that he found "many traces of a long relationship between General Hifter, the United States and the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main exile group opposing Colonel Qaddafi at the time. These included assertions that the CIA recruited General Hifter to help prepare military activity against [Qaddafi]. General Hifter settled in Virginia and … was put in charge of training like-minded Libyans as prospective insurgents."

"So a former Qaddafi general who switches sides is admitted to the United States, puts down roots in Virginia outside Washington, D.C. and then somehow supports his family in a manner that mystifies a fellow who has known Hifter his whole life. Hmm," pondered Russ Baker in the Business Insider.

"The likelihood that Hifter was brought in to be some kind of asset is pretty high. Just as figures like Ahmed Chalabi were cultivated for a post-Saddam Iraq, Hifter may have played a similar role as American intelligence prepared for a chance in Libya," Baker continued.

Hifter and the 2011 US intervention in Libya

On March 20, 2011, the United States joined France and Great Britain in an air attack against Libya.  Eleven days later, Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) addressed congress.

Kucinich challenged the Obama administration’s widely-accepted narrative that the US intervention was being conducted to prevent a deepening of the humanitarian crisis caused by the Qaddafi government.

Kucinich pointed out that it was the Libyan National Army’s "call for opposition to the Qaddafi regime in February which was the catalyst of the conflict which precipitated the humanitarian crisis which is now used to justify our intervention … But I ask … how spontaneous was this rebellion?"

Kucinich continued, “the new leader of Libya’s opposition military left for Libya two weeks ago, apparently around the same time the president signed the covert operations order … The new leader spent the past two decades of his life in Libya? No. In suburban Virginia, where he had no visible means of support. His name, Colonel Khalifa Hifter. One wonders when he planned his trip … and who is his travel agency?"

"Like Clint Eastwood"

Hifter returned to Libya expecting to have no problem winning over others who were attempting to oust Qaddafi.

Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman, said Hifter had swaggered into town “like Clint Eastwood,” with aspirations of leadership.

But after being absent from the country for over two decades, Hifter was unable to wrestle full control of the rebel faction from Abdul Fattah Younes, Qaddafi’s former interior minister.  Within months, though, Hifter gained complete command after Younes was mysteriously assassinated.

By 2014 Hifter had secured his position and he launched Operation Dignity in May of that year.  In March 2015, Hifter was officially sworn in as army chief by Libya’s UN-recognized government based in Tobruk. But Libya’s Supreme Court ruled that Hifter’s opposition in Libya, the General National Congress, was the national legislature, essentially leaving Libya with two competing governments.

US allies currently supporting Hifter

In May 2014, when asked if Egypt and the UAE were behind Hifter, the US Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones said, “I have nothing for you on that.”

But in February 2015, the BBC reported that, "since the 2011 ousting of Qaddafi, no government has managed to establish control over the whole country. Two military coalitions claim to represent the legitimate government.

One is Libya Dawn, a grouping of militias that includes various Islamist groups as well as forces from the east of the country, which supports the former elected parliament … It vehemently opposes any role for former members of the Qaddafi regime in politics, and is backed by Qatar and Turkey.

The other is Dignity, headed by a general, Khalifa Hifter … It would prefer to include some members of the previous regime in politics, and is backed by Egypt and the UAE."

Is Hifter still supported by the US?

The US continues to send mixed signals on whether or not they currently support Hifter.

In May 2014, when asked about Hifter, then US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "we have not had contact with him recently." She went on to say that the department did not condone the violent attacks being led by Hifter in Libya.

But just a few days later, Ambassador Jones said that she would not "condemn blanketly" the actions of Hifter, who declared war on Islamic “terrorists” in Libya and forced the country to call new parliamentary elections. Hifter’s actions were described as "a de facto coup" by some.

The Ambassador added that Hifter is “clearly one of the influencers” in Libya and that “our approach now is to reach out to all the influencers.”

But mixed signals continued to be sent when an anonymous senior US official told The New Yorker magazine, that “the US government has nothing to do with General Khalifa Hifter. Hifter is killing people, and he says he is targeting terrorists, but his definition is way too broad."

Who are US bombs targeting in Libya?

It has been established that Hifter was supported by the CIA for some period of time, but whether he continues to receive direct US support is uncertain.

If nothing else, Hifter’s cause is being aided by the US

In November 2015, two US F-15 aircraft launched an airstrike against Hifter’s rivals in Derna, Libya.  At the time, residents in Sirte and Tripoli reported US drones and spy planes orbiting above.

Another US airstrike followed last week as fighter-bombers struck an alleged ISIS training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border, killing at least 49 people, including two Serbian embassy staffers who were being held hostage by ISIS.

As both airstrikes were directed at some of his rivals, it appears that US citizen Khalifa Hifter will, at worst, have his cause furthered by his second home country.

Chris Ernesto is cofounder of St. Pete for Peace, an antiwar organization in St. Petersburg, FL that has been active since 2003. Mr. Ernesto also created and manages OccupyArrests.com and USinAfrica.com.

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