East Libya’s Leader Keeps Tight Control Over Flood Aid

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Khalifa Hifter, who oversees a subject dictatorship that rules the eastbound fractional of the divided, oil-rich nation, is dominating the effect to the catastrophe and could usage it to further entrench his power.

Khalifa Hifter, who is wearing a subject   uniform, walks among a radical  of people.
Khalifa Hifter, the strongman who rules eastbound Libya, visited Abu Dhabi successful the United Arab Emirates successful February. Mr. Hifter has made wide helium volition beryllium the arbiter of the assistance cognition pursuing the deadly flooding successful Derna.Credit...Jon Gambrell/Associated Press

Ben Hubbard

Sept. 19, 2023, 1:42 p.m. ET

CAIRO — Days aft a torrential downpour collapsed 2 aging dams and unleashed a rushing partition of h2o that swept parts of the Libyan metropolis of Derna and thousands of its radical into the sea, the subject strongman who rules the country came for a speedy visit.

Khalifa Hifter, the 79-year-old renegade commandant and longtime C.I.A. plus shook hands with soldiers, took a little thrust done Derna’s muddy streets and flew disconnected successful a helicopter.

The catastrophe that struck Derna connected Sept. 11 has drawn renewed planetary attraction to Mr. Hifter and his alleged Libyan National Army, a subject conjugation that controls the eastbound fractional of the divided North African federation with an robust fist.

More than a week aft the disaster, arsenic rescue efforts displacement to the agelong and costly enactment of caring for the displaced and helping the metropolis recover, Mr. Hifter’s choky clasp implicit eastbound Libya has made it wide that helium volition beryllium the wide arbiter of the assistance cognition successful the oil-rich country.

That makes galore longtime Libya watchers, including immoderate who person spent clip with Mr. Hifter, nervous.

He oversees what is efficaciously a subject dictatorship that competes for powerfulness with an internationally recognized authorities successful the occidental fractional of Libya that is based successful Tripoli, the capital. He has enriched and empowered himself and his sons portion failing to supply basal services oregon support captious infrastructure, similar the dams that burst past week, analysts and diplomats say. Human rights groups person accused his forces of sedate abuses and potential warfare crimes.

His overarching extremity appears to beryllium to regularisation each of Libya, truthful overmuch truthful that arsenic United Nations-sponsored bid talks were acceptable to statesman successful 2019, helium launched a subject battle connected Tripoli with backing from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group. The onslaught yet failed.

Since past week’s disaster, Mr. Hifter has tried to formed himself successful a much benevolent light.


Rescue workers and household members of victims stitchery astatine tents adjacent collapsed buildings successful Derna, Libya, connected Monday.Credit...Muhammad J. Elalwany/Associated Press

“He’s the savior. He is not to blasted for what happened,” said Tarek Megerisi, a Libyan expert astatine the European Council connected Foreign Relations, summarizing Mr. Hifter’s messaging. “He has dominated the response, truthful determination is subject deployed everyplace astir Derna truthful helium tin look similar he’s securing the city.”

Mr. Hifter has fixed his sons salient roles successful his powerfulness structure. One of them, Al-Siddiq, has modeled himself arsenic a politician. Another, Saddam, leads a almighty subdivision of Mr. Hifter’s forces and is overseeing the assistance cognition for Derna.

In caller days, those forces person refused to fto overseas journalists participate eastbound Libya to study connected the situation and restricted the movements of those already there. Checkpoints person been acceptable up astatine entrances to the city. On Tuesday, a United Nations spokeswoman said that a U.N. squad had not been allowed to question to Derna, though different teams continued to enactment there.

Further complicating the assistance effort is simply a past of atrocious humor betwixt Mr. Hifter and Derna.

After section Islamist fighters defeated a franchise of the Islamic State violent radical successful Derna successful 2015, they resisted an effort by Mr. Hifter’s forces aimed astatine taking implicit power of the city. After agelong battles, the Libyan National Army seized it successful 2018.

Mr. Hifter has done small to assistance the metropolis hole the harm near by the battles and blocked its section elections, appointing arsenic politician a nephew of Aguila Saleh, a governmental state of Mr. Hifter’s and the talker of Libya’s Parliament, which is portion of the eastbound Libya administration.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Derna residents protested successful the destroyed city, calling for the ouster of Mr. Saleh for his relation successful an medication they said has failed to support them safe. They did not chant against Mr. Hifter, and it remains to beryllium seen whether the catastrophe successful Derna volition shingle his rule.

A erstwhile Western diplomat who worked successful Libya said Mr. Hifter is well-placed to payment from the situation due to the fact that helium oversaw the lone operation that could bash a immense assistance operation. That could fortify his ties with planetary assistance organizations, further entrenching his control, the erstwhile diplomat said, speaking connected information of anonymity.


Libyans protesting the government’s neglect of the dams and effect to the flooding catastrophe connected Monday successful Derna.Credit...Hussam Ahmed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Hifter has agelong been a deft subsister of Libya’s brutal politics. He was a young service serviceman successful 1969 erstwhile helium participated successful a coup by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi that toppled the monarchy and paved the mode for Colonel el-Qaddafi to go Libya’s ultimate ruler for 4 decades.

The 2 men fell retired aft the coup and Mr. Hifter fled to the United States, wherever helium lived successful Virginia for 2 decades arsenic a C.I.A. plus and fruitlessly explored ways to oust his erstwhile comrade.

He returned to Libya successful 2011, erstwhile the Arab Spring protests erupted crossed the state and became a person successful the rebel question that, alongside a NATO subject intervention, toppled and killed Mr. el-Qaddafi.

In the years since, Mr. Hifter has enhanced his power. A caller civilian warfare that began successful 2014 yet enactment him and the Libyan National Army, oregon L.N.A., successful complaint of eastbound and confederate Libya, wherever helium has acceptable up a shadiness medication successful absorption to the authorities successful Tripoli.

Egypt, Jordan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates person backed his emergence to varying extents, chiefly due to the fact that they presumption him arsenic the champion campaigner to stabilize the state by cracking down connected extremist groups and governmental Islamists.

But his efforts to grow his power person often been brutal, and rights groups person accused his forces of torturing and summarily executing captured foes and brutalizing civilians suspected of disloyalty.

His medication is wide regarded arsenic much funny successful reaping profits for Mr. Hifter and his cronies than successful improving the batch of Libyans.


Mr. Hifter successful Benghazi, Libya, successful 2011, the twelvemonth helium returned to the state aft surviving successful Virginia for 2 decades arsenic a C.I.A. asset.Credit...Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

“It is an medication that focuses archetypal and foremost connected territorial power and repression,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya researcher astatine the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “It is besides an medication that tries to extract arsenic galore resources arsenic it tin from these areas.”

In summation to the income earned from controlling astir of Libya’s lipid production, Mr. Hifter’s forces person made wealth from cause smuggling, trafficking migrants and disassembling eastbound Libya’s infrastructure to merchantability for scrap, Mr. Lacher said.

Since the Derna disaster, analysts person mentioned Mr. Hifter’s absorption connected powerfulness accumulation implicit governance arsenic portion of wherefore thing was done to enactment up the aging dams that experts knew posed a menace and had warned astir successful advance.

“The crushed we got present is because, effectively, Libya has not had a functioning authorities for a agelong time. So the wealth that could person been spent connected governance has been spent connected the L.N.A.,” said Tim Eaton, a researcher astatine Chatham House, a probe group.

Mr. Hifter’s strongman presumption has not made him an planetary pariah. He has received subject enactment from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia and met with high-level Western officials, angering Libyans who accidental that specified meetings bolster the lasting of corrupt, unelected politicians.


Mr. Hifter, apical center, gathering with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, bottommost center, successful Moscow successful 2017. Russia is 1 of Mr. Hifter’s main planetary backers.Credit...Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

President Emmanuel Macron of France welcomed Mr. Hifter successful Paris successful 2020 to sermon a imaginable Libyan cease-fire, and William J. Burns, the caput of the C.I.A., met with him and the caput of the Tripoli-based authorities during a sojourn to Libya successful January.

Analysts said that Western officials had nary illusions astir Mr. Hifter’s aims, but considered him a indispensable interlocutor successful a messy state astir issues including counterterrorism, lipid exports and efforts to stem migration to Europe.

“They are not convinced that the alternate volition beryllium better, and what helium does is supply a known quantity successful his consolidation implicit elements successful eastbound Libya,” said Mr. Lacher, the researcher. “He has go a information connected the crushed that you’ll person to woody with until helium dies.”

Mr. Hifter has leveraged issues the West cares astir to solidify his power.

Recently, the fig of migrants departing for Europe from eastbound Libya surged, a improvement analysts said could not person happened without the engagement of his forces.

In May, Mr. Hifter traveled to Rome for discussions with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and different elder officials.

The apical point connected the agenda: Restricting migration from Libya to Europe.

Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Ben Hubbard is the Istanbul bureau chief. He has spent much than a twelve years successful the Arab world, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. He is the writer of “MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman.” More astir Ben Hubbard

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