While American news networks were gripped by blanket coverage of the Mueller report on Friday, the White House released a statement describing a most unusual and supportive phone call President Donald Trump placed to a U.S. citizen nearly eight thousand miles away. The man on the other end of the line was Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, one of the world’s most brutal military commanders, whose forces in Libya are leading a surprise assault on the UN-recognized government in the capital of Tripoli.
Trump’s phone call to Haftar was understood as nothing short of an “endorsement.” The president told the warlord that he appreciated Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” according to the White House announcement.
Trump’s outreach to Haftar is an abrupt turn for U.S. policy. Just earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement to reaffirm the US position. “We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital. … This unilateral military campaign against Tripoli is endangering civilians and undermining prospects for a better future for all Libyans,” the Secretary of State said.
The White House’s announcement came after a meeting earlier in the week between Trump and the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, one of Haftar’s key allies, the Wall Street Journal observed.
What makes Trump’s embrace of this particular authoritarian strongman different from his embrace of others—including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—is that it “appears to be the first time that Mr. Trump has embraced an aspiring authoritarian who is not yet in power and may never get there,” noted the New York Times.
What also separates Haftar from the rest of the pack is that, as a U.S. citizen, he is subject to parts of the US federal code that make it a crime to violate the laws of war. As Alex Whiting and I wrote in an article for Just Security in late 2017, “By extension, US officials who provide support to Haftar in the future may also risk criminal liability as aiders and abettors under US domestic law if it can be shown that they intentionally facilitated his crimes or, arguably, if the crimes are particularly grave, if they provided support with knowledge of those crimes.”
Due to a U.N. Security Council resolution that vests the International Criminal Court with jurisdiction over the situation in Libya, the prosecutor in The Hague is also a looming factor in Haftar’s future. With the backing of that resolution, adopted by the United States and other states unanimously in 2011, the prosecutor has already issued an arrest warrant for one of Haftar’s top military commanders, Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli. The allegations against Al-Werfalli include his directing or participating in a series of seven executions of 33 prisoners — that’s the war crime of murder.
In line with Pompeo’s concerns about civilians caught up in Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli, the International Criminal Court prosecutor issued a strong statement last week. Fatou Bensouda stated that her office “continues to actively monitor the developing situation” and that she “will not hesitate” to expand “investigations and potential prosecutions to cover any new instances of crimes.” Bensouda ended with the words, “No one should doubt my determination in this regard.”
Bensouda also appeared to include a message to Haftar: “I also remind all commanders, military or civilian, who have effective control, authority and command over their forces that they themselves may be held criminally responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates. The law is clear.”
There’s a potential weakness in Bensouda’s statement. It is curious that she has apparently not already taken any action against Haftar, despite the fact that atrocities committed by forces under his control are notorious and well-documented. The answer may be that the International Criminal Court has already issued an indictment for Haftar, just that it’s under seal.
To be sure, Haftar has not been shy to record his direct involvement in abuses. In September 2017, Alex Whiting and I uncovered video evidence that appears to show Haftar’s directing atrocities. And a recent video appears to show Haftar saying directly to the camera that any of his soldiers who retreat from the battlefield will be shot in the head.
Any international support for Haftar, including President Trump’s new turn to the warlord, must take into account not only Haftar’s taste for atrocities, but also his willingness to broadcast them.
What follows is an excerpt of Whiting and my article on some of the other videos we found:
It is a clear war crime to summarily kill detainees, including captured fighters, without all the guarantees of a fair trial. It is also a clear war crime to order one’s soldiers to take no prisoners. The so-called “denial of quarter” is a firmly settled part of the laws of war. The U.S. War Crimes Statute prohibits murder in a non-international armed conflict, and the Rome Statute of the ICC criminalizes both murder and a declaration that “no quarter will be given” (see Articles 8(2)(c)(i) and 8(2)(d)x)).
In this video, posted to You Tube on October 10, 2015 and purporting to be from September 18, 2015, General Haftar gives a speech to LNA fighters. Haftar is apparently seated between senior members of his armed forces. The date of the video roughly corresponds with the commencement of new offensive, termed “Operation Doom” in some reporting. That offensive is part of a larger campaign (Operation Dignity), which Haftar launched in May 2014 to target certain jihadist militias. Here is the full video of the event and speech, and here is a clip from the speech in which Haftar directs the fighters to take no prisoners:
No longer will there remain [unintelligible: may be saying a brayza (which is Libyan dialect for electrical socket) or Al-Mrisa (which is a small neighborhood near Benghazi)], and no longer will there be these residential complexes for those to stay and be fed by us (or stay and nest). No, no. All of this will end.
Frankly, all kinds of weapons are permitted for use by us. With all the resources we have at our hands, we will use them [those resources] without any hesitation.
Like I told you, you are more than them in numbers, I swear.
[Turns to the man to his left and asks, “More numbers than them or not?” Appears to get affirmation. Returns to audience.].
You exceed them in numbers. We could say three to one, or [mumbles].
So be calm, be resolute, be strong – the strength we know you for, and a determined strength when confronting them. No mercy. Give up on that story facing the opponent. Never mind consideration of bringing a prisoner here. There is no prison here. The field is the field, end of the story.
Officials reportedly close to Haftar have also apparently made similar statements regarding prisoners. For example, in another video, Beleed Al Sheikhy, identified as a spokesman for Haftar, said with regard to fighting in Ganfouda, a district of Benghazi, “who is above 14 years of age will never get out alive.” Reporting indicates that the Al Sheikhy video is from August 2016.