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Is the battle to replace General Khalifa Haftar already on?

September 10, 2020 at 9:00 am

Libya Chief of Staff, Marshall Khalifa Haftar (C) in Paris, France on 29 May 2018 [LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images]

Hardly mentioned in local media and rarely appearing in person, Major Hassan Maatouk is being groomed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a possible leading role within General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). Since the LNA lost its offensive to take Tripoli last June, when it retreated instead to the Sirte-Jufra region, there have been whispers about the fate of the octogenarian general and whether he could continue his divisive role in war-torn Libya.

Many young officers have been blaming him for their defeat at the gates of the capital. They point to his “lack of effective leadership”, as one officer recently told, and to his leadership from afar, instead of being situated on the battlefield for the moral support of his troops.

With a new round of talks between Libya’s warring factions, starting on 7 September in Morocco, the question of Haftar being part of any political settlement is again being raised. The Government of National Accord (GNA) has been threatening that it will not accept any deal that could give Haftar a role. His supporters, including Speaker of the Tobruk-based parliament Aguila Saleh, have not been on good terms with the general recently. The recent court filing against Haftar in the US, accusing him of crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings, further complicates his situation.

The possibility of distancing Haftar from his position as commander of the self-styled LNA army is opening the door for new faces to step forward and fill his shoes.

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Possessing good connections with foreign backers is an advantage, and Major Hassan Maatouk appears to enjoy good relations with the UAE. This association means financial and material support for Libya’s open proxy war.

While still loyal to Haftar, Maatouk is known to travel to the UAE almost once a month. He also has access to “loads of cash that can only come from abroad”, as one of his close associates anonymously told me. The young officer began shining during the LNA’s campaign in southern Libya, between 2017 and 2019.

Maatouk spearheaded many of the operations particularly in Sabha, the strategic regional capital, and Murzuq to the south. His tribal credentials seem to be right too. Originating from the Awlad Suleiman tribe, concentrated in Sabha, gave Maatouk the advantage of familiarity with internal local politics and the “who’s who”. Most of his tribal men in the region, already allied with the LNA, supported him not only because he is one of them, but because having him will strengthen their local control. Awlad Suleiman’s local militias were already in control of most of Sabha, specifically former army barracks and security buildings. If Maatouk can succeed in climbing the ladder within the LNA – or even better, if he ascends to the top – it will benefit his tribe in a society sharply divided along tribal lines.

Liberation of Tripoli from Haftar - [Cartoon/Arabi21]

Liberation of Tripoli from Haftar – [Cartoon/Arabi21]

Some members of Awlad Suleiman also live in a little town called Harawa, 70 kilometres east of Sirte, on the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, Maatouk and his extended family live there, and it was in Harawa that he started his army career with the LNA around 2014. He first used cash provided by his older and richer brother, Salem, who lives abroad, to form a local militia to protect the town. He got in touch with the LNA offering his services around 2016, and when the LNA troops arrived in 2018, his militia was incorporated into what became known as Battalion 128.

Maatouk led his Battalion 128 into Sabha, which he acquired without fighting – thanks to his tribal men already being in control. Awlad Suleiman has dominated Sabha, since the 2011 toppling of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. On many occasions, they have clashed with their former ally, Gaddafi’s tribe Al-Gaddafa, as well as the Toubou tribe.

After Sabha, he advanced to Murzuq in August 2019, where his men are alleged to have committed a series of crimes against the local Toubou tribe. Fearing the backlash, Maatouk quickly distanced himself from the supposed extrajudicial killings that took place in the town. He even apologised to locals for the events.

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Lieutenant Colonel Abdulsalam Zadma also enjoys a special status. Late security officer Zadma was very close to Gaddafi and quite popular among Libyans, despite his harsh tactics. During the early 1990s troubles in Benghazi, it was Zadma who managed to bring the city under control. He went to the city with an open mind, seeking cooperation with the locals. He quickly gained popularity and trust, enabling him to relax much of the firm security grip blamed for much of the disturbances in the region. However, he was heavy-handed with Islamists operating in eastern Libya. Well-known in Benghazi and across Libya for his kindness and courage in solving problems, he is still remembered with respect. His sudden death in 1998 while horse riding in his hometown of Harawa, greatly saddened the late Gaddafi.

Earlier in June, Maatouk, sensing that Harawa could become a frontline after the LNA retreated from Tripoli to Sirte, ordered the evacuation of his family to the relative safety of Benghazi. One of his relatives communicated to me: “In the early morning hours, a convoy of armed cars arrived and started picking up the family.” My source added that the size of the convoy and its security provision: “Says much about how well-financed Major Maatouk is.” In the process, his troops, mostly Chadian mercenaries, rounded up two dozen young men, but released them shortly afterwards.

Does Haftar approvingly know what is going on, or does he merely ignore what is happening? Sources close to Haftar report rarely seeing Maatouk around the headquarters. This means little is occurring in terms of coordination, or any close personal relationship between the ageing general and the aspiring rising major.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.