Islamic State's Setback in Libya Bolsters Defiant General

  • Libyan general scored success over jihadist group in Benghazi
  • Streets still littered with booby-traps, children can't return

Army engineers defused three bombs hidden by Islamic State militants in Ibrahim Mohamed’s home before letting him enter. One was concealed in his mother’s favorite chair.

“I didn’t take anything with me as I thought I’d only be gone for a day or two,” the 39-year-old said as he wiped footprints from photographs discarded by jihadists who used his three-story house as a hideout during 18 months of fighting in Libya’s Benghazi. “It seems they experienced the same feeling during their last moments in my home.”

Mohamed’s return was made possible by Libyan forces’ biggest victory over Islamic State, an achievement welcomed by world leaders alarmed that the holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves is becoming the latest stronghold of the militant group. Yet in a twist typical of the country’s chaos, the success bolstered a general whose ambitions are an obstacle to United Nations efforts to forge a national unity government, highlighting the struggle to catch up with ground realities dictated by local strongmen.

“Khalifa Haftar’s profile is rising,” Mattia Toaldo, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said of the general. “He has a lot of control over everything that happens in Tobruk,” he said, referring to the headquarters of Libya’s eastern administration, which has repeatedly rejected a UN plan that could topple Haftar from his top security role. A rival government is based in Tripoli.

Shifting Priorities

Events in Benghazi, Libya’s second city which shot to prominence in 2012 when U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was killed at the American consulate there, sum up the challenges Libya has posed since the revolution that removed Muammar Qaddafi with the help of a NATO bombing campaign spearheaded by France and Britain.

Two governments and dozens of allied militias have put control over the country’s oil wealth and territory above reconciliation, leaving global powers with no effective partner to ease a crisis that allowed militancy to take root and fueled Europe’s refugee crisis. As it’s pushed back in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has turned its attention to Libya, bringing a new set of priorities for commanders like Haftar.

Flushed by his recent success, the general is less likely to support the UN unity accord, which also calls for new leadership for the national military, a post he occupies, said Toaldo.

‘Held Hostage’

Either Haftar’s allies in Tobruk will “manage to renegotiate the terms of the UN agreement in their favor or they will keep not voting, or voting on things that won’t fly,” he said. “They’ll keep buying time.”

The UN special envoy to Libya Martin Kobler told the Security Council on Wednesday that the process couldn’t be “held hostage by minorities.” There are clear majorities on both sides in favor of moving forward quickly, he said, “and the country needs to do this now to avoid collapse.”

Western powers have been hitting Islamic State in Libya, including a U.S. airstrike on Feb. 19 in Sabratha. Officials in Washington, Paris and Rome have denied reports of special forces deployments, and say they’ll only step up operations when requested to by a unity government.

‘Benghazi Will Remain’

The extremist group still controls coastal territory, and the destruction in Mohamed’s neighborhood of al-Lithie is testament to how entrenched it had become. An airstrike had flattened one home, with others destroyed by gunfire. Last week, shipping containers filled with sand blocked the main road as newly returned residents embraced amid rubble. Women and children are barred until the streets are cleared of booby-traps.

Graffiti that read “Islamic state will remain” had been altered to “Benghazi will remain.” According to a local saying, whoever controls the city, the cradle of the uprising against Qaddafi, controls Libya.

The head of the military’s media office says the entire city will be free within days but that appears unlikely, with only three neighborhoods retaken.

Haftar defected from Qaddafi’s army in the 1980s before heading into U.S. exile. He joined the February 2011 rebellion that ousted the dictator and three years later made his move for a larger role, attempting to rally the nation against Islamist gunmen and their political allies in Tripoli. He’s had failures and successes, the most recent advance in Benghazi.

Rami al-Shihaibie, a security analyst in the city, warned that any unity administration that doesn’t recognize de facto authority will fail.

“To reach a political settlement you need to share the power between those politicians who have a say over the foot soldiers on the ground,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll have an imaginary government.”

The problem for the UN is that few in Libya can agree on much. The two key administrations have feuded since mid-2014 when the Tripoli-based legislature, the General National Congress controlled by Islamists and revolutionaries, refused to hand power to the elected House of Representatives, which fled to Tobruk.

In the past week, lawmakers in Tobruk failed twice to hold scheduled votes of confidence in the UN proposal that appeared heading for success after talks in Tunis in January.

The ever-shifting dynamic of Libya’s conflict is outpacing slow-moving diplomacy, said Zied Ragas, another political analyst in Benghazi. “By the time we reach a deal for the current reality, we might have new parameters that require another agreement.”

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