An Islamist Police State: Hifter's Libya

Khalifa Hifter, the military ruler of eastern Libya, is trying to take over the entire country. To see what that would look like, we paid a rare visit to the part he already controls.

A billboard depicting Khalifa Hifter, the 76-year-old military commander known in Benghazi as “the Marshal.”Credit...Ivor Prickett

By David D. Kirkpatrick Photographs by Ivor Prickett

BENGHAZI, Libya — The field marshal stares from billboards into the wreckage of the Libyan city of Benghazi. His uniform is festooned with epaulets and honors, even as the civil war he is waging has stalled into a bloody stalemate.

His plainclothes security agents loiter and listen in cafes and hotel lobbies. He has handed control of the mosques to extremist preachers. And he has showered patronage on a tribal death squad called the Avengers of Blood, blamed for a long string of disappearances and killings of his political opponents.

“We are living in a prison,” said Ahmed Sharkasi, a liberal activist from Benghazi who fled to Tunis because of threats on his life.

Khalifa Hifter, the 76-year-old commander known in his dominion as “the marshal,” is the military ruler of eastern Libya. He has been fighting for nearly six years to take control of the country, and he has been waging an assault on the capital, Tripoli, for the last 10 months.

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and others have lined up behind him, and Russia has sent mercenaries. The largely powerless United Nations-sponsored government in Tripoli is defended mainly by regional militias and, recently, Turkey, which has flown in hundreds of paid Syrian fighters.

Mr. Hifter has cut off Libya’s oil production for the past month to try to deprive the Tripoli government of revenue. This week he began shelling its civilian port, killing three people, narrowly missing a ship loaded with liquefied natural gas and derailing United Nations-sponsored cease-fire talks.

Mr. Hifter has promised to build a stable, democratic and secular Libya, but he has largely shut Western journalists out of his territory. A rare visit there by a New York Times correspondent and photographer revealed an unwieldy authoritarianism that in many ways is both more puritanical and more lawless than Libya was under its last dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Cadets in Mr. Hifter’s militia, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, trained at a military academy in eastern Libya.

In Mr. Hifter’s Benghazi stronghold, we found a half-ruined city beset by corruption, where security agents trailed foreign journalists, residents cowered in fear of arbitrary arrest, and pro-government militias answered to no one.

A few families have returned to the ruins of their former apartments in the center of Benghazi, which was heavily damaged by fighting.

Residents complain of corruption and self-enrichment by tribal militia leaders and former Qaddafi officers. There are reports of unexplained bombings, abductions and detentions without trial. Islamist extremists have taken over the mosques and may be infiltrating the police force.

“Everyone is afraid, even afraid of their fellow citizens,” one Benghazi resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety.

Jonathan Winer, a special envoy to Libya under President Obama, described a brutal system. “If you are with Hifter then you are under his umbrella and you can do whatever you want,” he said. “If you aren’t, you are an enemy and you may be jailed, killed or exiled.”

The United Nations Secretary General warned last month of “a deterioration of law and order” in eastern Libya, “including numerous cases of crimes and intimidation,” reportedly by groups affiliated with Mr. Hifter’s forces.

Aging and distracted, Mr. Hifter is seldom seen in Benghazi. He presides from his mountain home an hour’s drive to the West. He holds salons with tribal elders and depends on family as his closest advisers. Two of his sons are among his top military commanders, as well as his caretakers.

“They make sure he is well fed,” said Faraj Najem, a director of a government-run research center who is close to Mr. Hifter. “They make sure he takes his medicine. They provide him with security when they are around him.”

A Destroyed City. A Fearsome Ruler.

The historic center of Benghazi is still in ruins after years of conflict.

The center of Benghazi is little different today than it was in 2017, when Mr. Hifter seized it after a four-year campaign of shelling and bombing.

Neighborhoods on the periphery now bustle with newly opened stores and cafes. But the streets of the city center are crumbling ruins. A few desperate residents have begun returning with their families to squat in the wreckage of their former apartments. Their crude light fixtures cast an eerie, nighttime glow on the desolate alleys.

Libya is rich with oil, but it is a volatile prize. It has been in turmoil since an Arab Spring revolt and NATO’s intervention toppled Colonel el-Qaddafi nine years ago. Its deserts shelter Islamist militants, and its Mediterranean coastline teems with migrants.

Mr. Hifter had served as an officer in Colonel el-Qaddafi’s army, but later fled to the United States where he lived for decades as a C.I.A. client before returning to Libya during the uprising in 2011.

He began his drive for power by promising to save Benghazi. In 2014, when Islamist militias were terrorizing the city, he vowed to declare military rule and rid the country of Islamists.

Armed by foreign sponsors, he started by recruiting fighters from local tribes and welcoming the help of former Qaddafi officers and officials.

Then he won the support of Saudi-style Islamist fighters — known as Salafists — who saw a common enemy in the rival schools of Islamists that Mr. Hifter was battling. He has never acknowledged any contradiction between his avowed hostility to political Islam and his brigades of Salafists.

The deals he struck with tribal militias, Salafists and former Qaddafi henchmen in Benghazi now threaten to run roughshod over his promises of secular law and order.

Many Benghazi residents celebrate Mr. Hifter for restoring security to the streets, an attitude reinforced in his official media. Images of Mr. Hifter’s face are ubiquitous. A pro-Hifter satellite television network broadcasts his propaganda and sometimes Salafist sermons. Weekly street demonstrations, organized by the government’s Office of Supporting Decisions, recall Qaddafi-era displays of forced enthusiasm. A rally in support of Mr. Hifter’s militia was reminiscent of Qaddafi-era displays of forced enthusiasm.

Libya Alhadath TV, a government satellite channel, broadcasts pro-Hifter propaganda and Salafist sermons.

On one recent Friday, about two dozen adults and an equal number of children marched for about 150 yards while holding photographs of Mr. Hifter. Then everyone settled listlessly into plastic chairs and chanted profanities about the president of Turkey.

During an interview, a spokesman for Mr. Hifter required a visiting journalist to watch a video of more than a dozen gruesome beheadings.

“Some of the terrorists are now in Tripoli and hiding in the militias there,” the spokesman, Col. Ahmed Mismari, said. “That is why we decided to go to Tripoli.”

Access to Benghazi by foreign journalists or rights goups is severely restricted. Residents must obtain official permission to travel abroad, sometimes requiring interrogation by security agents. Some are forced to submit reports about who they met outside Libya — or, sometimes, on friends and neighbors at home.

Return of the Qaddafi Machine

Mr. Hifter leans heavily on members of the old Qaddafi machine, and a surge of former Qaddafi loyalists have rushed back from Egypt and elsewhere over the previous 10 months.

With Mr. Hifter focused on Tripoli, the most powerful figure in the day-to-day governance is widely considered to be Aoun Ferjani, a former senior officer in the Qaddafi intelligence service who is now in charge of the internal security agencies.