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Libya's Rising Strongman: Gen. Khalifa Abulgasim Hifter Survives Attack

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The December 10 daylight attack on Libyan army commander Khalifa Abulgasim Hifter underscores the extent to which Libyan government stability may depend on his prestige and ability to unify disparate rebel commands and consolidate centralized military control in Libya.

Militia forces in control of Zintan said today they were unaware that Gen. Hifter was in the armored column they had fired upon Saturday, according to a Dec. 12 report from Taiwan News Online.   

"Khaled el-Zintani, a spokesman for the Zintan fighters, denied they tried to kill Hifter, and blamed the violence on the army's failure to notify them that the general was coming," the report said.

Khalifa Abulgasim Hifter by

Khalifa Abulgasim Hifter by

Khalifa Abulgasim Hifter by

Khalifa Abulgasim Hifter by

The charismatic Hifter has since 1987 evinced a prominent role in opposition to the 42-year Gaddafi regime rebels overthrew in a seven-month struggle with substantial NATO backing and punctuated with the Oct. 20 killing of the former dictator.  

Hifter, who will turn 69 on Christmas Day, has overcome many challenges in the last quarter century, including key challenges to his authority during the course of the rebellion.

Power Struggles

First among them was the east-west tug of war between Hifter and the late Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, who was killed July 28, shortly after Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) had recalled him to Benghazi to discuss his command decisions on the western battlefront.

Younes had been Gaddafi's Interior Minister before he joined the rebel side on Feb. 22.   Media reports had referred to him as one of Gaddafi's "most trusted lieutenants," an esteem Younes apparently had not earned among the forces to whose side he had defected.   Rebels interviewed in Libya for a March 28 McClatchy Newspapers report "openly voiced distrust" for Younes.

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Almost immediately after Hifter's return to Libya from exile in the United States, a rebel military spokesman announced during a March 24 news conference that Younes would stay on as Hifter's chief of the staff, the McClatchy report says. Younes was less than comfortable with the subordinate role. 

Some rebel factions believed that Younes had maintained his loyalty to Gaddafi and had been secretly working to stall rebel advances.

His killing, whatever its agency, had shaken the opposition leadership, forcing a reconstitution of the NTC through the dismissal of its 15-member cabinet August 8, but it eliminated the high-level bickering that rebel brigades found confusing at best.

"The rift between Gen Younes and Gen Hifter was seen as an important factor in the pervasive chaos along the front line," according to a July 30 (London) Daily Telegraph obituary of Younes.   

After the death of Younes, the chaos quickly abated, and the rebel command demonstrated clear evidence of healing by almost immediately gaining a string of key victories against Gaddafi forces, including:  

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- Fighting off an Aug. 3 Gaddafi attack on positions around "Zlitan," 100 miles east or Tripoli, and advancing into the strategic eastern oil town of Brega, according to an August 10 Washington Post report

- Initiating a two-pronged offensive in Western Libya, according to an August 13 report by Al-Jazeera.

A second challenge to Hifter arose in September after the forces under command of Hakim Belhaj, took control of Tripoli, the Libyan capitol.

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David Alan Coia is a freelance writer and editor based in Arlington, VA.

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