A Q&A with Khalifa Hifter, the mastermind behind Libya’s new revolt

May 20

Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter addresses a news conference May 17 in Benghazi, Libya.  (Mohammed el-Shaiky/AP)

On Tuesday, The Washington Post conducted a phone interview with Khalifa Hifter, a former Virginia resident and now a renegade Libyan general leading a revolt against Islamists. Our interview, translated from Arabic, follows:

The Washington Post: What is your strategy to win this battle?

Khalifa Hifter: We have begun the offensive to eliminate the terrorist movement that is present in Libya. It must be eliminated. We started about a week ago with all the organized army units and now we are taking this mission forward.

TWP: There seems to be at a standoff now. Do you think you have enough force to overcome Islamist militias?

KH: There is no difficulty but this is a military pause. It's known that the battle stops and starts, it's called organizing because all the units are there on the ground. We will try to benefit from the initial assault in case of any mistake or error or otherwise — and then the next assault will follow.

TWP: How long do you think this offensive will last?

KH: They were operating in outside bases and we were able to overpower these bases but now they have gone into residential areas so we have to be very careful and the movement is slow because we have to hunt them as if you would hunt something that is among your parents — in other words, you have to be very careful not to hit civilians. It's going to take some time. We have many different types of weapons. We can't use heavy weapons because they are in areas that are restricted or full of residents. Yet things are working, God willing.

TWP: Are you using air force?

KH: We have air force but air power or artillery are not used within cities. They can only be used in areas where it is permitted.

TWP: Is there any possibility of negotiation or is armed conflict the only way forward at this point?

KH: We see that confrontation is the solution. What is the discussion? They are armed, I do not think talks will work with them. These are criminals, international criminals from Europe and Asia and Africa. Unfortunately, we are not defending only Libya but we are now defending the entire world in this way because the escapists and killers they move from place to place. If we expel them from Libya they will go to another place, but if we are following them everywhere the situation will be different for all countries who fight terrorism.

TWP: When did you begin planning this offensive?

KH: We began planning this offensive about a month ago but within the sections of the army that resist terrorism it has been a year and a half, more than 18 months.

TWP: Why did you plan the operation?

KH: We planned it after we saw people being slaughtered in the streets. Army soldiers and officers and police and others. They were taking over people's houses. They left no one, they kill judges, police, army, engineers, lawyers, everyone. All people, whenever they face someone they slaughter them.

TWP: Do you think this battle will spread to Tripoli?

KH: This is one operation. We are one unit, called the National Libyan Army that we have begun to establish and the operation that we proposed to fight back against terrorism in Libya is an operation of dignity. Operation Dignity. Operation Dignity is multiple battles, it's not just one battle, it's not a normal battle.

TWP: Are you coordinating with the militias from Zintan ?

KH: What coordination with Zintan? I'm telling you we are one. All of Libya, from top to bottom. Or don't you follow the news and broadcasts about how the other units are joining? Yes, it began in Benghazi but now it has spread throughout all of Libya. There are no disputes between us or any unit in Libya, south, east, west, they all called, and now we believe that it is everywhere. Now, even the chief of staff, all its forces have announced they are joining the Libyan National Army.

TWP: Are you receiving any support from abroad?

KH: No, there is no foreign support whatsoever given to us, we are fully reliant on ourselves.

TWP: Have you been in contact with the United States government?

KH: Until now, no.

TWP: Will you seek any kind of leadership role in government in the future?

KH: No, not now. Now the only important thing on our minds is security for all our citizens, and we want to form an army that will protect the entire country, and a police force to protect all the civilians. All this needs to be done and this is our goal. But, as for the future, I'm not considering it now.

TWP: Could this lead to all-out civil war?

KH: No, on the contrary, we have the people with us, but these groups are allied to foreign countries. And they are distinctive in the way they dress, from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mali and Niger. All of these places, Sudan, Egypt, Chad, all these countries who have these groups have slipped into Libya. They think Libya is easy and with lots of riches and that they may be able to control it, but we are still fighting and will fight with what we have. I want the world to be aware of that.

TWP: Response of the government, the initiative put forward?

KH: Our initiative is for the people, the people are all with us, if you see the Libyan media and all the people on the streets, they give their word, and they know this mission, and we are carrying it out with confidence in ourselves and our capabilities and its all going the way the Libyan people want it to. The GNC [Libya's General National Congress] has been rejected by the people and its legitimacy has ended. The government is ineffective.

TWP: Any final words?

KH: Yes, there is one message I would like to add, and it is that we are protecting Libya and our people, but we are protecting them from an enemy who is everyone’s enemy, the enemy of all free countries, a terrorist enemy with every meaning of the word terrorist in it. And they are from all different countries, Mali, Niger, Afghanistan, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, India, Britain, even Americans, putting themselves on the death path. There are many from eastern countries and they came together because they are all killers.

So this is an enemy for all the world, so we think the world should lend a hand of assistance to us to help face these groups so they do not extend to other countries, because they know they can cause problems via the boarders for neighboring  countries. We will continue to fight them fiercely. So we want the world to stand with us both politically and economically. Even when we faced them they were cowards and feared to face us. All they know are tricks and betrayal.

You can read more about Hifter's actions in Libya here and his background in Virginia here

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