The stony boom of artillery echoed across Tripoli as the forces of Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter laid waste to civilian neighborhoods. Later, as I walked through the ruins of shattered homes, battered apartment buildings, and wrecked shops, the unmistakable scent of death hung in the air.
It was 2019, when attacks by Hifter, a onetime CIA asset, and his self-styled Libyan National Army killed, wounded, and displaced countless civilians. The following year, relatives of some killed by the LNA sued Hifter in U.S. federal court under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings and torture to hold perpetrators accountable. That case is now heading toward a determination of legal liability.
Meanwhile, Gen. Michael Langley, the four-star chief of U.S. Africa Command, met with Hifter last week during a visit “to further cooperation between the United States and Libya,” according to an AFRICOM press release. “It was a pleasure meeting with civilian and military leaders throughout Libya,” Langley said afterward.
AFRICOM failed to answer questions about Langley’s meeting with Hifter and whether they discussed the warlord’s human rights record.
“It is disgraceful that any senior U.S. official would be interacting, much less seen, with General Hifter, given the allegations against him,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing a group of plaintiffs in the federal case. He described Hifter as “a warlord accused by the international community of horrific crimes against humanity involving his own people.”
Langley’s visit was the latest twist in America’s on-again, off-again relationship with Hifter, once a favorite of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who, in the late 1980s, joined a U.S.-backed group of dissidents seeking to topple his former boss. After their coup plans fizzled and the rebels wore out their welcome on the African continent, the CIA evacuated Hifter and 350 of his men to the United States, where he was granted citizenship and lived in suburban Virginia for the next 20 years.
The 2011 revolution and NATO intervention, including U.S. airstrikes, toppled Gaddafi and plunged Libya into chaos from which it has never emerged. In the years that followed, Hifter renewed his long-dormant project to seize power in his homeland.
In 2014, railing against the Libyan central government’s failure to beat back militants, Hifter announced a military coup that quickly evaporated. But the warlord’s fortunes changed after he launched a campaign to clear the eastern half of the country of Islamist militant groups like Ansar al-Sharia, which conducted the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Hifter quickly gained a reputation for attacking terrorist groups, but critics have long questioned his commitment and effectiveness, casting his activities as a cultivated effort to curry favor, including with the United States.
Over the years, Hifter’s LNA has been backed by France, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2019, a State Department official told The Intercept the U.S. had not aided Hifter’s forces, but retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017, said that under Obsidian Lotus — a so-called 127e program that allows the U.S. to use foreign troops on U.S.-directed missions targeting America’s enemies to achieve America’s aims — U.S. commandos trained and equipped more than 100 Libyan proxies. Those forces, according to three Libyan military sources and a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, became elite troops within Hifter’s LNA. “They could do all the direct-action missions. They could do raids, ambushes, and … go out, sneak around, and do intel,” said Bolduc, referring to intelligence gathering. He described Hifter as a “guy that we could trust.”
By the late 2010s, Hifter’s LNA increasingly controlled the east of the country, while the U.N.-backed central government held the west. On April 2, 2019, Gen. Stephen Townsend, then the incoming AFRICOM commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Hifter’s LNA and other paramilitary groups constituted a grave risk to Libya’s stability. Days later, Hifter ordered his forces to take the capital. “Use your weapons only against those who prefer to confront and fight you,” he commanded, promising, “Anyone who stays at home will be safe.” Safe hardly describes the scores of displaced people I met as Hifter’s forces rained rockets, missiles, and artillery shells on their neighborhoods.
The U.S. civil lawsuits alleged that, among other crimes, Hifter and his subordinates “waged indiscriminate war against the people of Libya … kill[ing] numerous men, women and children through bombings” and that they “tortured and killed hundreds of Libyans without any judicial process whatsoever.” Journalists and human rights groups have chronicled innumerable atrocities by Hifter’s forces. In 2019, for example, Amnesty International documented indiscriminate strikes often using inaccurate weapons, in violation of the laws of war, by Hifter’s LNA. A year later, Human Rights Watch reported that fighters affiliated with Hifter “apparently tortured, summarily executed, and desecrated corpses of opposing fighters.” Last year, Amnesty researcher Hussein Baoumi stated that armed fighters under Hifter’s command, and led by his son Saddam, have “terrorized people … inflicting a catalogue of horrors, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, rape and other sexual violence, and forced displacement — with no fear of consequences.”
On April 15, 2019, then-President Donald Trump spoke to Hifter. Days later, in a striking reversal, the U.S. joined Russia in blocking a British-led U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities. After a brief embrace, however, the Trump administration cooled on the warlord. AFRICOM later took Hifter and his Russian backers to task. “The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend said in a press release that blamed Moscow for prolonging the war and “human suffering.”
But the U.S. continues to send mixed signals about, and to, Hifter. In March 2020, a senior State Department official suggested there might be a “role for Hifter in shaping Libya’s political future.” Months later, as he announced sanctions against two commanders of the Kaniyat militia — part of Hifter’s LNA — then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they “tortured and killed civilians during a cruel campaign of oppression in Libya.”
In March, a State Department human rights report chronicled allegations of “arbitrary or unlawful killings” by the LNA and charges that “contracted elements of Russia’s Wagner Group supporting the Libyan National Army committed numerous abuses.” The next month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf “spoke with LNA commander Haftar on the urgent need to prevent outside actors, including the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, from further destabilizing Libya.”
In a press release issued Friday, AFRICOM focused on America’s humanitarian response to the recent devastating floods in Libya and mentioned only in passing that Langley “met with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar,” without providing any details about their talks. “The United States stands ready to reinforce existing bonds and forge new partnerships with those who champion democracy,” said Langley after meeting with a warlord who has been involved in numerous attempted coups and rebellions going back about 35 years.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress, citing reporting by The Intercept, have recently raised questions about U.S. aid to coup-makers in Africa. The Intercept has revealed that at least 15 officers who benefited from U.S. security assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel over the last two decades. While his rebellions in 2014 and 2019 took place in North Africa, Hifter is yet another foreign military officer with U.S. ties who has engaged in armed uprisings.
A federal judge in Virginia issued a default judgement against Hifter last year after the warlord failed to adequately respond to the lawsuit. The judge later reversed the decision. Next year, Zaid said, the court will likely “render a determination as to whether the unlawful actions of the LNA to target and harm civilians is the legal responsibility of its leader General Hifter.” Faisal Gill, another lawyer representing plaintiffs in the case, said the evidence of Hifter’s crimes would be “overwhelming.”
“It is our hope and intent,” Zaid told The Intercept, “that the same laws and policies that helped show the world that Nazi leaders must be held accountable for their crimes will reveal that General Hifter is legally responsible for his actions, and justice will be achieved.”
Correction: September 27, 2023, 9:30 a.m.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the case against Hifter is headed to trial. The next steps in the case are motions for summary judgment to determine legal liability, which may be followed by a trial.