A Libyan Revenant

Betrayed to his factional rivals by Saudi Arabia and left for dead, a Libyan militia commander got his chance at revenge

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A Libyan Revenant
The wreckage of a truck next to a biscuit factory outside Tripoli, struck by an alleged Emirati piloted drone, November 2019 / Courtesy of author

Early in the afternoon of June 25, 2017, Saudi authorities at the immigration counter at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah pulled aside for questioning two young Libyan men who were flying back to Libya after performing the umrah pilgrimage. At first, one of the men, who ran a religious tourism company, thought that the questioning would be related to an overstayed visa on a previous visit and therefore nothing to be overly alarmed about. In fact, the Saudis had stopped them because Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s ally, had placed the Libyans on a terrorism list months before, for their alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood and their alleged earlier involvement in kidnapping Egyptian diplomats in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

After detaining the men for more than a month, the Saudis returned them to Libya, but not to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord or GNA — as they were required to do by international law. Instead, they dispatched them to a rival and unrecognized administration in eastern Libya, aligned with the anti-Islamist militia commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who was backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. It was not a repatriation, then, but a rendition. And the Saudis likely knew full well what lay in store for the men at the hands of their bitter foe.

In the months ahead, the two Libyans, who hailed from the seaside town of Az Zawiyah west of Tripoli, were incarcerated in eastern Libya’s most notorious prisons, where they were allegedly tortured by pro-Haftar militias. But in the end, Riyadh’s transfer of these prisoners backfired spectacularly.

Approaching the port of Az Zawiyah by speedboat, July 2016 / Courtesy of author

Released from captivity a year and half later after pledging support to Haftar, one of the men, a militia commander named Mahmud bin Rajab, reneged on his promise and played a role in thwarting Haftar’s plan in April 2019 to quickly seize Tripoli — a scheme that Saudi Arabia had promised to bankroll and that received military support from the UAE and Egypt, among other countries. In the following year of war, bin Rajab’s fighters and other militias allied with the GNA, bolstered by Turkish drones and Syrian mercenaries, and pushed Haftar well out of western Libya, frustrating his plan to take power by force.

For bin Rajab, this battlefield victory was payback to the aspiring Libyan strongman and to the Persian Gulf monarchy that had backed him — and betrayed the two Libyans on their pilgrimage. For the Saudis and their autocratic Arab allies, the saga of the Zawiyans’ captivity was but one blunder in their larger Libyan misadventure, which has handed their rival Turkey uncontested influence over much of western Libya. More broadly, the episode illustrates in stark clarity how the Middle East’s proxy wars and ideological rivalries have spilled across borders, ensnaring both the innocent and not so innocent — and perpetuating Libya’s vicious cycles of retribution.

I first met bin Rajab in the summer of 2019, when Haftar’s assault on Tripoli had slowed to a stalemate. By this time, he was three months’ fresh from his prison ordeal and had taken command of GNA-aligned militia fighters from Az Zawiyah battling the forces of his former jailer. Days before our meeting, I’d encountered some of these fighters at a swath of the Tripoli front called the Naqliya Camp, named for a nearby military logistics base.

A scrubby field furrowed by an empty vineyard, Naqliya was a place of desolation. Young men rested in dugouts carved into berms while others crouched by a tree trunk charred from a drone strike by Haftar’s regional backer, the UAE. The Emiratis had been flying hundreds of drone sorties in support of Haftar since the start of his attack, and the resulting psychological impact on the GNA forces had been severe. The twisted remains of Toyota trucks at the Naqliya Camp were evidence of this. Fearing the drones, none of the GNA fighters slept in their trucks anymore, and hardly anyone used them for movement on the battlefield.

Yet even with this formidable weapon, Haftar’s troops were unable to roll back the Tripoli defenders. It would be another three months before the arrival of Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group would shift the momentum in Haftar’s favor by improving the precision of his artillery, and then another two months before a larger Turkish intervention, including drones and Syrian mercenaries, would arrive to save the embattled GNA and turn the tables once again. In the meantime, the fighting that summer was marked by long stretches of waiting, punctured by ferocious exchanges of artillery, mortar, and small arms fire.

I didn’t see bin Rajab on the front line with his men that day but rather several evenings later, at a gated apartment complex called Palm City on Tripoli’s western flank, where he was enjoying a break with his family. His ensconcement in this luxury compound, normally home to foreign diplomats and oil executives, epitomized the vast privileges accrued by Libyan militia bosses since 2011. Fittingly, he met me in a BMW SUV.

In person, he was wiry and compact, wearing camouflage pants and running shoes. We sat around a table on a concrete patio lit by the glow from a glass-paned door. Inside, I could hear the murmuring of his small children. Artillery thudded in the distance to the south. He opened our meeting with a comment on the state of the war.

“We are no longer defending,” he said. “We are now attacking.” But, he qualified, “we are not advancing.”

“And what will break the stalemate?” I asked.

“More SPGs.”

He meant recoilless rifles, short-range rockets that he said were ideal for the close-quarters combat in the suburbs. Once they pushed Haftar into the open areas, they needed more advanced, longer range, anti-tank missiles.

“Kornet, Konkurs, Metis,” he continued, rattling off the names of Russian-made weapons.

It was a breezy display of military jargon, one that I’d often encountered among Libya’s young militia commanders. Like many of them, bin Rajab’s military experience was gained through battles during and after the revolution. He rose through dint of charisma, patronage, and social ties rather than formal training.

He was born in 1984 in Az Zawiyah, a longtime fishing hub that is also home to an oil refinery. Since the 2011 revolution, Az Zawiyah has gained notoriety as a smugglers’ den, especially for the human traffickers who have ferried thousands of irregular migrants, many from sub-Saharan Africa, on perilous Mediterranean crossings. Az Zawiyah is also known for its fierce and often dissenting religiosity; during the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, the town produced a number of dissident clerics and leading militants.

Unsurprisingly, Az Zawiyah was one of the first places in western Libya to erupt in anti-Gadhafi protests in early 2011, eliciting a brutal crackdown by the regime’s ultra-loyal military unit, the 32nd Reinforced Brigade, commanded by the dictator’s youngest son, Khamis al-Gadhafi. Bin Rajab, at the time, had graduated from university with a degree in marine engineering and was working as a travel agent organizing pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, he said. He participated in the clashes. When Az Zawiyah fell to Gadhafi’s forces, he fled across the border to Tunisia and then to the liberated eastern city of Benghazi and later Misuratah, where he coordinated weapons shipments to Az Zawiyah via rubber dinghy.

In the months and years after the dictator’s death at the hands of NATO-backed rebels in October 2011, bin Rajab assumed a mid-level role in the town’s militant milieu, following a prominent Islamist named Shaaban Hadiya, also from Az Zawiyah.

The two became leaders of a militia coalition, Libyan Revolutionaries Operations’ Room (or LROR), that pursued an uncompromising, exclusionary vision for Libya. In 2013, LROR used strong-arm tactics to force the passage of a parliamentary bill that would bar a broad spectrum of Libyans who’d worked for the Gadhafi regime from future government employment. Later that same year, the group kidnapped the Libyan prime minister, deepening the polarization in Libya between Islamists and their opponents.

Events in neighboring Egypt sharpened these fault lines. That summer, Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted the elected president, Mohammed Morsi. Backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the coup had a seismic effect in Libya. The massacre of up to a thousand Morsi supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood left Libyan Islamists fearing similar suppression in their own country. For their part, Libyan anti-Islamists were emboldened by the ascent of al-Sisi’s friendly regime next door.

In January 2014, the Egyptian security services detained Shaaban Hadiya during his visit to the Egyptian city of Alexandria, accusing him of being part of al Qaeda. In response, Hadiya’s Islamist compatriots kidnapped five Egyptian diplomats, including the Egyptian ambassador, in Tripoli that same month. In our conversation, bin Rajab denied any participation in the abduction, but one of his former militia comrades confirmed it to me in a separate meeting. Regardless, the gambit succeeded, and the Egyptian government freed Hadiya. He would go on to play a major role in that summer’s outbreak of open civil war in Libya.

The civil war erupted in May 2014, when Haftar and his militia allies launched a military campaign called Operation Dignity in Benghazi, framed as an effort to eliminate the city’s Islamists, including radical jihadists, and restore security. In fact, the operation was the first step in Haftar’s bid for national power. His public threats to expand his military campaign to Tripoli triggered a countermove by anti-Haftar and Islamist armed groups in western Libya.

By late summer, these militias, which included those led by bin Rajab and Hadiya, had seized the capital. Libya was now split into two warring political camps: the anti-Haftar and Islamist factions in Tripoli, who called themselves “Libya Dawn,” and Haftar’s Operation Dignity based in the east. Foreign powers quickly joined, sending arms and advisers and conducting airstrikes. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France backed Haftar’s side, while Turkey and Qatar backed his opponents.

Libyans residing or traveling abroad were increasingly at risk from this regional proxy war — as bin Rajab discovered during his visit to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2017.

After his arrest at the Jeddah airport immigration section that June afternoon, bin Rajab and the other Libyan prisoner from Az Zawiyah, a 33-year-old man named Muhammad al-Khadrawi, were transferred to Jeddah’s Dhahban prison. Run by the Saudi secret police, Dhahban has long housed political prisoners and activists, many of whom have been subjected to torture and sexual harassment, according to rights groups.

During their stay, the Libyans endured days and nights of forced sleep deprivation and hours of interrogation. A white-robed officer asked bin Rajab about his relationship to Qatar, his contact with Al Jazeera, his views on Haftar, and his involvement in the kidnapping of the Egyptian ambassador to Libya. And most importantly, it seemed, the Saudis wanted to know about bin Rajab’s participation in the anti-Haftar “Libya Dawn” military operation.

A little over a week after their arrest, the two prisoners were joined by a third young Libyan, also from Az Zawiyah, who had briefly sought refuge in the Libyan consulate in Jeddah. Back home, their families and friends believed that the Tripoli government had been slow to act and had threatened to cut off fuel shipments from the Az Zawiyah refinery to the capital. Finally, after repeated inquiries, the Libyan consul received assurances from the Saudi foreign ministry that the men would be repatriated to the recognized Libyan government in Tripoli. Shortly after, a Saudi official walked into bin Rajab’s cell and announced ceremoniously: “You are not a danger to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and tomorrow you will be sent home.”

On the evening of their departure, an ambulance took the men to the runway at Jeddah’s international airport. During the drive, a Saudi doctor in a white coat asked bin Rajab questions about his health and took his blood pressure. As he exited the vehicle, someone was filming him with a camera. The Libyan consul, whom bin Rajab was told would be present, was nowhere to be seen. Bin Rajab tried to stall, but a Saudi military officer muscled him onto a Libyan military cargo plane. Inside, the Libyan soldiers who bound his mouth with tape spoke in the dialect of eastern Libya, the territory controlled by Haftar.

After a seemingly interminable flight — “we prayed that the plane would crash,” one of the prisoners from Az Zawiyah told me, half-jokingly — the aircraft landed in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, at a sprawling, dual-use, civilian-military airport. Pickup trucks took the prisoners to the nearby base of a powerful militia called the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, unofficially commanded by Haftar’s son Saddam and part of Haftar’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF). Here, the men were confined to a single, windowless cell, measuring 1 meter by 1.5 meters (3 feet by 5 feet), with no mattress, bathroom, or light. The stench was overpowering. A meal of watery pasta was delivered at midnight and was accompanied by beatings. Their captors often appeared inebriated or high. Fungal growth infested their feet, and infections blistered their skin. They showered twice in six months. And then the torture started.

Bin Rajab had electrical shocks applied to his genitals. Al-Khadrawi had his arms bound to a Landcruiser and his feet tied to a metal door, while burning plastic from a water bottle was dripped onto his naked torso and thighs. Personnel from the LAAF’s media department and a pro-Haftar TV station were reportedly filming the torture, demanding that he admit to committing abuses in some previous round of factional fighting. He agreed to all of it, of course; anything to stop the pain.

The Zawiyans witnessed other prisoners who were made to sit on 23 mm anti-aircraft artillery shells or were burned on a stove.

The horrors continued for nearly a year until they suddenly stopped, and the prisoners’ treatment improved due to a fortuitous personal encounter years before.

In late 2017, Saddam Haftar handed operational leadership of the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade to a career Libyan army officer named Omar Mraja’ al-Meqarhi. During the Gadhafi era, al-Meqarhi had served in the elite 32nd Brigade and then, after losing in the 2011 revolution, had fought for Haftar’s side. In 2014, bin Rajab’s Zawiyan militia had captured him during clashes in Libya’s western region and kept him in a prison in Az Zawiyah before releasing him in the summer of 2015. Now, as the new commander of the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, al-Meqarhi appeared to reciprocate the goodwill. He ordered better prison conditions for bin Rajab and the other prisoners from Az Zawiyah: a larger cell, an end to torture and beatings, and three meals a day.

For over a year, Haftar had denied holding the three prisoners, causing GNA officials to suspect they were still in Saudi Arabia. It was not until Haftar’s LAAF swapped a prisoner with the GNA that an eyewitness, a fellow detainee in Benghazi, provided the first confirmation of their incarceration in eastern Libya. Then, in the spring of 2019, a delegation of elders from Az Zawiyah visited Haftar at his base outside Benghazi, who agreed to release the prisoners, reportedly under pressure from the Saudis. Bin Rajab told me that protests by the men’s friends and families in front of Saudi diplomatic facilities in Istanbul, Geneva, and London played a role, as did growing international scrutiny on the Kingdom in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi killing. Human rights organizations and foreign diplomats were also raising the Libyans’ case with the Saudi government. “I told the Saudis, ‘You delivered them to the wrong address,’” a United Nations official told me in a telephone conversation in June.

Emails were sent in May and July to spokespersons for the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the LAAF, respectively, who did not respond to a request for comment on the arrest of the Libyans, their transfer to Haftar’s custody, their torture, or their release.

Beyond this change of Saudi heart, however, the release may have been related to a bargain that Haftar had tried to strike with the visiting delegation. Bin Rajab got the first hint of it when Saddam Haftar called him into his office for a remarkable meeting two days before his release from prison on March 15, 2019.

Anti-Haftar, GNA-aligned fighters on the Tripoli frontline, November 2019 / Courtesy of author

By this time, Haftar’s plan to seize national power was well underway. He had moved his forces out of eastern Libya, across the expansive southern region, and, by early March 2019, was encroaching on Tripoli. His propaganda outlets framed the advance as a counterterrorism operation, to “liberate” the capital from militias aligned with the GNA. But at its core, it was a brazen bid to sabotage an ongoing, U.N.-brokered dialogue and rule the country. And it was being backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Egypt, and Russia.

Much of his battle plan relied on secretly flipping militia groups in and around Tripoli to his side, with inducements of money in some cases and promises that they would maintain their privileges. Az Zawiyah was a particular focus for Haftar because it controlled the western approach to Tripoli via a strategic military base called Camp 27. In February 2019, Haftar succeeded in securing tacit cooperation for his assault — or at least non-opposition — from some armed groups based in Az Zawiyah, guaranteeing, he believed, an easy capture of Tripoli from the west.

It was this supposed swell of support in Az Zawiyah that a confident Saddam Haftar presented to bin Rajab during the meeting in early March, in an attempt to lure him to his side.

“All of western Libya will be with us,” Saddam Haftar announced in his office, ticking off the names of militias in Az Zawiyah and around the capital who’d aligned themselves with Haftar’s imminent invasion.

“We don’t want fighting. Will you join us?”

Bin Rajab offered his assurance. “Of course,” he replied.

Coming from the Zawiyan militia commander, the pledge probably sounded unconvincing, given his long history of opposition to Haftar. But it didn’t matter to Saddam Haftar, bin Rajab believed.

“He had no choice,” he told me. “He thought he can control the Zawiyan militias.” This calculation proved to be disastrously wrong.

Haftar’s assault on Tripoli began in early April with the entry of his forces into the towns of Gharyan and Tarhuna south of the capital, abetted by local militia commanders, according to plan. It was in Az Zawiyah, however, that things fell apart and the LAAF was stopped in its tracks. On April 4, the armed group leaders in Az Zawiyah whom Haftar had secretly recruited allowed his fighters to take Camp 27, all but clearing the way to the capital. But then that evening anti-Haftar militias in Az Zawiyah counterattacked from the south. Among the leaders taking the initiative was none other than bin Rajab.

Since returning to Az Zawiyah, he’d quickly reconstituted fragments of his old allies and aligned himself with the GNA. Now, with his nighttime blitz on Camp 27, he had helped deal a staggering blow to Haftar’s ambitions. The Zawiyans’ capture of 120 LAAF soldiers at the camp sent shockwaves across Tripoli, spurring many militia factions to reconsider or renege on their promises of support to Haftar. Militarily, the setback deprived Haftar of the only realistic ingress into the capital and channeled the bulk of his fighters onto the environs south of Tripoli, where topography and the numerical superiority of the GNA militias conspired to grind the LAAF advance to a halt.

This was the stalemate that I witnessed when I visited the front in June 2019, and later interviewed bin Rajab at his apartment suite. However, within days of my departure from Libya that month, the Zawiyan commander said goodbye to his family and was back in action, participating in a surprise GNA attack on the LAAF forward base in Gharyan, in tandem with an uprising inside the town. It was yet another embarrassing defeat for Haftar.

Aided by drones from Turkey, the assault on Gharyan was, in retrospect, a prelude to the larger Turkish intervention that would come at the end of 2019, when the panicked GNA faced the possibility of a rout by Haftar and the Russian Wagner troops. By mid-2020, Turkish-backed GNA fighters had forced Haftar’s LAAF out of western Libya and compelled him to accept a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

I have not seen bin Rajab since our conversation in 2019, but I suspect any triumphalism might be tempered by the trauma of his incarceration. Already on that hot night at Palm City, he hinted that his imprisonment had changed him.

“I’ve been so tired after my release,” he told me. His companion al-Khadrawi underwent rounds of surgery in Turkey after his release to repair the torn ligaments in his shoulders and his wrists from the torture. On a video call, he lifted his robe to show me the splotches of dark red scars on his thighs and abdomen from the hot melted plastic. The wounds, he said, ran much deeper than the scars suggested — a property of the water bottle plastic is that it keeps on burning long after it has first touched the skin.

The Middle East’s proxy rivalries that entrapped bin Rajab and the other men from Az Zawiyah have played out in other conflict-wracked states, causing untold personal ruin. In Libya alone, countless citizens have lost their lives to the direct actions of foreign states like Emirati drone strikes, or indirect interference like the continued foreign backing of Libyan militias who murder and torture with impunity. Recently, there are signs of a softening of these harmful regional enmities, such as the end of the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar and Ankara’s quiet engagement with Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. But the damage caused by years of foreign interventions has yet to fully mend.

The twists of bin Rajab’s journey underscore a parallel truth: Libyans still have agency to derail the best-laid plans of foreign capitals

Libyans have often told me that their fates are being decided abroad and that Libyan elites have all but surrendered their country’s sovereignty to their foreign patrons. No doubt this is true to a certain extent, as shown by the entrenchment of the Turkish and Russian militaries, including mercenaries, in parts of the country. And yet, the twists of bin Rajab’s journey underscore a parallel truth: Libyans still have agency to derail the best-laid plans of foreign capitals. With his counterattack on Haftar’s forces at Camp 27 on that fateful April night, bin Rajab and the Zawiyan fighters thwarted the designs of the richest and most powerful of Libya’s outside meddlers.

Bin Rajab’s ordeal also highlights the urgent need for the rule of law and legitimate justice in Libya. The Zawiyan militia leaders whom Saudi Arabia transferred to Haftar’s prison were probably implicated in their share of crimes, including the alleged kidnapping of foreign diplomats. And some Libyans might certainly applaud their hardships in Benghazi as a well-deserved comeuppance. But a determination of their guilt or innocence — and the meting out of punishment — was not for a militia rival to decide, rather an independent civilian court. In the absence of such formal accountability, however, Libyans are correct in expecting that a bitter culture of vengeance will dominate their future.

Bin Rajab admitted as much to me at the end of our meeting, describing his prerelease encounter with Saddam Haftar.

“I suffered so much at his hand,” he told me. “It made me hate him more and more.”

Muath Mustapha provided reporting assistance.

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