Shashank Bengali: Khalifa Hifter thought he’d be America’s man in Libya, but he claims US is ignoring his pleas for arms
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Libya, a man who lived not far from Washington, Khalifa Hifter, was in Virginia for 24 years after leaving the Libyan army, where he’d been a commander. Of course, in Virginia he wasn’t very far from CIA headquarters. He’s now back in Libya in Benghazi, playing some kind of role in the rebellion army, or I should say the army of the rebellion. What is that role? Well, we’re not entirely sure. But Shashank Bengali from the McClatchy Newspaper chain is in Benghazi, and he met with Hifter, and he asked what was his role, and here’s what he found out. Thanks for joining us. Shashank joins us from Benghazi.
SHASHANK BENGALI, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERI: My pleasure.
JAY: So you talked to this Hifter fellow. What did you find out?
BENGALI: Well, he has to be one of the most intriguing figures of this two-month-old rebellion in Libya. He, as you say, is a former military commander in Gaddafi’s army. He broke with Gaddafi 24 years ago and spent the remainder of that time in the US, in Virginia. He is now back in Libya, serving as–what he describes as the field commander of the Libyan rebel army. He came back to Libya about one month ago to a hero’s welcome in Benghazi. He’s remembered by many people here as a military hero. He led a Libyan war in Chad. But he’s been gone from the scene for a very long time. And it’s–there’s some controversy about him, because there is an existing Libyan rebel commander called Abdul Fatah Younis. And based on who you talk to, it’s not clear whether Fatah Younis is in charge, Hifter is in charge, some combination. It’s sort of indicative of the disarray of the rebel army that they can’t even quite figure out who’s running the show.
JAY: And Younis was working with Gaddafi up until just, I guess, a couple of months ago now.
BENGALI: That’s right. This is sort of the–one of the two men that differ quite strongly. Younis was with Gaddafi for 42 years, all 42 years, really, of Gaddafi’s rule, up until the very beginning of the uprising two months ago, when he broke with Gaddafi and brought many of the special forces soldiers that he commanded to the side of the rebellion. So although he has a long history with Gaddafi, he is respected a great deal by folks here in Benghazi. On the other hand, Hifter is someone who’s been gone for a long time. He’s known as an opposition figure who was in exile. Early on in the days even before the rebellion officially began, he threw his support behind the uprising from his home in Virginia. He made an online posting that was widely circulated among Libyans. And as I say, when he came back he was quite warmly greeted. Now–but there’s some concern here that Hifter’s long time in the US, his alleged ties to the CIA and other US officials, make him a bit of a controversial figure for Libyans, who really feel this is a homegrown uprising. They want foreign support in the forms of weapons and recognition for the Libyan opposition government. So they also want this to be not a rebellion that’s overtaken by an outside force such as the CIA.
JAY: So CIA that are on the ground, we’re told that they’re doing training. There’s some reports that the Egyptians together with the CIA are trying to bring some arms in. So what are people feeling, and at the leadership level what is the feeling about the role of the CIA in all of this?
BENGALI: Well, Hifter, before he left for Libya, he tells me in an interview we had yesterday, one of the first interviews he’s done with the press since he returned to Libya, he told me that he met with CIA officials in Virginia and that he met with senior state department officials as well, and he gave them a list of–basically a wish list of weapons, including armored personnel carriers, antitank weapons, sort of a laundry list of things that he felt would help the rebel army fight Gaddafi’s forces. Now, since then we’ve heard reports that the CIA has sent teams into Libya to basically have a look at the rebel army and try to figure out, you know, who these guys are. The US still says it doesn’t have a clear picture of who the rebels are. But Hifter claims that despite meeting in the US with these officials, he has had no further contact with any American official since he came to Libya. So for a guy who sort of thought he was going to be America’s man in Libya, he now feels a bit hung out to dry. He’s basically at a senior position in a rebel army that still runs from the sound of gunfire. We still occasionally hear reports from the battlefield of rebels accidentally shooting one another. And, of course, even with the backing of NATO air strikes over the past several weeks, the rebels have lost a lot of territory. They’re now–basically, the front line of the Gaddafi-rebel battle has moved to within 100 miles of the rebel capital of Benghazi. So all these sort of relationships that Hifter may have developed in the US among Western officials and American officials, here on the ground not much really has materialized to show for it.
JAY: Well, do you get a sense that Hifter–or Hafter, depending on how you pronounce it–but do you get a sense that he could be downplaying the relationship he’s having currently with the CIA ’cause it’s not so popular in Benghazi to have this kind of direct relationship? Or do you feel like he’s–they don’t trust him, so he’s just not getting the support they may have said that he might?
BENGALI: It’s really hard to know, Paul. You know, the way Hifter described it to me was he lived in the US for these 24 years. He said that he was never–he never worked for the CIA, in his words. But he did say that whenever he wanted something from the US government, whether it was protection, you know, he said he got it. He claimed that he could travel around the US, into Europe, without any fear of any reprisals from Gaddafi’s side, because he had US protection. Now, I have not been able to confirm any of this independently with US officials, although I understand from sources in the US government that they confirmed that they have not met with Hifter here in Libya. And so it’s not clear. Clearly there is some separation now between Hifter and the US government since he arrived in Libya. The exact reason for that–you know [incomprehensible] that the US is still trying to feel out who all these rebels are. You know, the US government has a special envoy here in Benghazi, Chris Stevens, and he’s been in meetings with Libyan rebel government leaders, but he has not met with Hifter.
JAY: Part of the–some pundits or analysts [that] have been talking about this point to Hifter’s involvement to kind of show that the CIA helped inspire all of this. They had their man ready to sort of parachute in, that being Hifter or Hafter, and that this was all part of a kind of prearranged plan. Do you get any sense that that might be the case?
BENGALI: I don’t think so, Paul. You know, this rebellion, you know, was inspired by the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt. You know, it sort of launched in the days right after Hosni Mubarak left power next-door in Egypt. Gaddafi, of course, is the longest-serving Arab leader. There is no shortage of reasons why Libyans would want to rise up against him. You know, it doesn’t take much to see why a homegrown rebellion here would be very popular, given all that’s happened in the rest of the region. The CIA certainly–you know, if we believe Hifter’s story, they certainly had a man that they dealt with and seemed to know, and perhaps, you know, would have encouraged him to come out to Libya. But from friends of his in the US that McClatchy reporters have spoken to, they claim that he was already thinking about a return. Hifter told me that this is an opportunity he’s wanted to seize for a very long time, to come back and try to fight to topple Gaddafi. So, you know, I don’t think the CIA or any US government branch could have co-opted this rebellion, but certainly, once it was in motion, there would have been reasons to try to put in place somebody that they knew or trusted to keep it going.
JAY: So what is the controversy at the level of the leadership about Hifter’s role? There seems to be several versions of what that role is.
BENGALI: That’s right. So, basically, if you believe Hafter, he is now the field commander of rebel forces, meaning he’s responsible for all the rebels on the ground and commanding and controlling those forces. There’s, as we mentioned, the other main rebel commander, his rival, and they’ve clashed quite bitterly behind closed doors, Abdul Fatah Younis. These two men are sort of vying for control. In the version of events that I heard from a couple of members of the Libyan opposition governing body today, Younis is still the chief of staff, and Hifter reports to him as the commander of field forces. Now, according to another version of events that an opposition spokesman who’s quite close to the leadership told me earlier today, Hifter is still a civilian, and he–as it was told to me, he is welcome, as any other Libyan, to join the rebellion under the command of General Younis. So I think what all this says is, you know, that the sort of–the disarray we’re hearing among the opposition, it just sort of illustrates that even two months into this uprising, and even with the backing of coalition air strikes, weapons from Qatar, special envoys from the US, the UK, and a lot of high-powered diplomacy going into all this, the rebels are still trying to figure out just who they are. And I think we should also–I’d be remiss not to point out that we shouldn’t be too hard on the rebels. After all, you know, this is a country that for 42 years has been ruled by one man. There was absolutely no opposition allowed. You know, you wouldn’t even dare speak against Muammar Gaddafi if you were a Libyan. He was synonymous with the country. And so I think a lot of Libyans who are sort of defensive about the disarray the rebel movement is in would, you know, point out that they’ve had two months to try to resolve 42 years of dictatorship.
JAY: Now, in terms of the public opinion and at the leadership level, Benghazi is fairly devout, Islamic. Generally speaking, this is not a population that’s usually very friendly to the CIA, that the history here would be very critical of Israel and US’s support for Israel. How do people kind of deal with the fact that this guy claims openly to have these connections with the CIA at the same time as he wants to be their military leader?
BENGALI: Well, it’s really interesting, you know. This is–I wouldn’t necessarily say Benghazi is a religious place, but it’s certainly a very closed one, and I think a conservative one. It’s a place that, you know, for reasons of leadership, Gaddafi’s rule in the last four decades, has been quite closed off to a lot of the world. And yet they’re still quite sophisticated, fairly well educated, fairly middle-class population. It’s a very small population. So even though Gaddafi stole a lot of money, some of it did trickle down to the sort of 5 or 7 million people who live in Libya. I think there is a skepticism and a hesitation about the CIA. But, you know, Hifter was greeted as somebody who has been in the opposition for 24 years, somebody who is seen as a war hero from his efforts in the war in Chad back in the ’80s. And so he is sort of–those who have long memories here, maybe the older generation, remember him as someone who served his country, and then left, and then has basically been against Gaddafi since then.
JAY: So when the African Union delegation showed up (I guess it was in the last day or two) with a peace proposal, thousands of people from Benghazi came out and said no, no proposal that allows Gaddafi and his sons to stay in Libya will be acceptable. But all of this kind of–some might even call it bravado, because it’s only really possible because they have this NATO-US air support. What do you make of–is there a debate going on about–I guess, in the end, do they want a government that comes to power because there’s US-NATO air power? In other words, it becomes a Western/CIA supported venture. Is there a debate about this?
BENGALI: I don’t sense a real debate about the intervention. You know, what’s been amazing to me in the streets of Benghazi and all across the east where I’ve traveled in the last couple of weeks, I was–this is the one place in the Arab world where you will see American flags flying, French flags flying. I mean, the number of French flags flying in the streets of Benghazi is quite amazing. Nicolas Sarkozy would be elected mayor of Benghazi in a heartbeat, because he of course led the UN resolution that authorized the no-fly zone and the military intervention that basically stopped Gaddafi’s army in its tracks. You know, they were about to take over Benghazi the day that the UN no-fly zone came into effect. So people realize that Gaddafi’s army is much better equipped, much more powerful. They would not have survived this long without the air power. What they want now, really, is actually more rather than less NATO air strikes, and they want more help from the outside in terms of weapons. They don’t necessarily want troops on the ground, but they want weapons, they want help with training, and they want air strikes to stop Gaddafi’s forces from attacking civilians.
JAY: And what do you–it does not seem to be happening. Do you see signs of any arming, heavier arms entering Benghazi, or any more serious levels of training?
BENGALI: All we have heard–it’s very hard to tell at the front lines, because it’s so chaotic, and mostly, you know, the rebels are still running around the front lines in SUVs with AK-47s that they’re, you know, more often than not shooting at each other rather than training them in the right direction.
JAY: Not only are they shooting each other, but at least once or twice NATO planes have bombed the rebels.
BENGALI: Well, exactly, and this is part of the inexperience. You know, NATO has had two friendly fire incidents where they’ve attacked rebel positions instead of Gaddafi’s positions–killed at least 18 people in these two incidents last week alone. And NATO has quite angrily blamed the rebels, saying that the rebels didn’t tell them what their positions were. You know, at one point the rebels had begun to use tanks they had rehabilitated that had sat in storage in a military facility in Benghazi for years, and the rebels rehabilitated a few of these tanks, brought them to the front line, but didn’t tell NATO that they were doing so, and of course, you know, the rebels’ tanks are the same as Gaddafi’s tanks because they were taken from Gaddafi’s military. So, yeah, there’s a great deal of confusion still, and NATO is working to clean this up. And one of the things that Hifter told me yesterday was that he’s trying to clean up the communication between his forces and NATO. But, you know, it’s still a very fluid situation on the battlefield. And so, you know, there’s still a fear about wayward NATO air strikes.
JAY: Well, a lot of analysts are saying this is sounding like it’s going to end up in a partition, a divided Libya. Is that what it’s looking like? And are people talking about that there?
BENGALI: Well, it’s hard to know where this is going to go. You know, Gaddafi’s forces certainly seem to have the upper hand, but the rebels have managed to hold on to a key flashpoint town called Ajdabiya about 100 miles from Benghazi. As long as they can hang on to that and NATO air strikes keep reducing Gaddafi’s firepower, the rebels could hang on to the east. However, one thing that is clear from talking to folks in Benghazi, nobody wants a partition. There are signs all over town that say Libya is one country, Tripoli is our capital. This is a refrain you hear over and over. Nobody wants a partition. This is a country of 5 million people. They don’t really have tribal issues. They are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. There’s really, if you ask the people here, no reason for the country to split in two. It all comes down to one man, one man who won’t leave power, and nobody wants to see the country divided over one man. And they also say that they don’t believe the rebellion in Tripoli, in the capital, where Gaddafi is, has had the chance to come to fruition. There is just so much fear still. But people claim that there’s pockets of resistance to that. We’ve seen on Arab television a couple of scattered, very small demonstrations, which is a very brave thing to do in Tripoli. And so if the rebellion keeps up, one hope here is that the folks in Tripoli can begin to create a bit of unrest there.
JAY: Shashank, your colleague from McClatchy, Nancy Youssef, who was in Benghazi before you, she reported that there seemed to be more popular support for Gaddafi in other parts of the country than the people in Benghazi thought there would be. They’re–it took a little air out of their sails. Do you get any sense of that, like, just how the rest of the country stands on all of this?
BENGALI: It’s hard to know, Paul. You know, there are folks–I was in Tunisia on the other side of the border, the western side of Libya, and tried to interview folks as they were leaving Libya from Tripoli, and basically, you know, what’s thought to be Gaddafi’s stronghold if he has one, which is the western part of the country. It was really very hard to get a sense from people that are very tightlipped. I think there’s still a fear of speaking really anything to foreigners, to journalists, so I would really hesitate to make a call one way or the other. I mean, I think, you know, there is a great deal that Gaddafi has done for certain pockets of the population. You know, he has–there is a level of education that’s pretty decent. He has brought development to certain places. At the same time, it’s been quite capricious and quite inconsistent, and a lot of money has been wasted. And if you look at the size of the country and the level of oil income, you could argue Libya ought to be a lot richer than it actually is. So I would really hesitate to say whether, you know, we’re underplaying or overplaying his support. It’s just really hard to know what’s happening in the West. We’ve been completely cut off. Even the journalists who are in Tripoli are so closely guarded that it’s hard to get a sense of really what people actually feel.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Shashank.
BENGALI: A pleasure.
JAY: And Shashank will be reporting over the next couple of weeks quite regularly from Benghazi and Libya, and we’ll continue to carry his reports. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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