How Libya’s civil war became a war of words: 'Warlord' and 'Islamists'

The LNA said Turkey was sending “terrorists.” Turkey’s government also said that if Tripoli fell then Europe would face a “terrorist threat,” apparently meaning that locals would resort to terrorism.

Libyan National Army (LNA) members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 7, 2019 (photo credit: ESAM AL-FETORI / REUTERS)
Libyan National Army (LNA) members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 7, 2019
(photo credit: ESAM AL-FETORI / REUTERS)
For most of the last decade, Libya has been in the midst of a civil conflict that has pitted numerous groups against one another. In the last year or so the conflict boiled down to primarily a civil war between the Western-Libya based Libyan National Army and the Tripoli-based Government of the National Accord. Islamic State, which once had a foothold in Libya, was mostly brushed aside years ago when Sirte was retaken in 2016.
In the last six months the leader of the LNA, General Khalifa Haftar, laid siege to Tripoli and vowed to take the city.  Haftar and the LNA portrayed the GNA as being hijacked by terrorists and armed gangs. Meanwhile, Turkey signed a deal with the GNA and began sending it support, including Syrian rebels fighters.
The LNA said Turkey was sending “terrorists.” Turkey’s government also said that if Tripoli fell then Europe would face a “terrorist threat,” apparently meaning that angry locals would resort to terror. Haftar said he had a “mandate from the people,” while Turkish pro-government media called Haftar a “warlord,” and “putchist” and Qatar called Haftar a “renegade commander.”
In the war of words over Libya the descriptions are important. While media in the UAE describe Tripoli as dominated by “militias,” the Qatari media slams Haftar as a renegade and calls the GNA the legitimate government. In general the terminology and level of propaganda has increased in recent months as Turkey’s media got its marching orders to portray Haftar as a warlord. There is no semblance of neutrality in most government run media in the Middle East or the local media that is forced to be pro-government.
In the last several months the pro-Turkish voices became more pronounced, they were accused of taking a more clearly Muslim Brotherhood stance on the Libya conflict and portray it as an “Islamic” cause in which Haftar was anti-Muslim. Haftar’s forces are made up of Muslims and there is no evidence that either side is “non-Muslim” or that either side is killing more civilians. But in the world of narratives it is not important what is actually happening, but more important to discredit the other side.
As part of portraying the conflict through a religious lens certain terms were mobilized, such as suggesting that Libya needed an “inclusive” government or a “shura” council. On the other side are those who are critical of Qatar’s role portrayed the GNA as dominated by “Islamists.” Qatar has generally backed more religious extremist groups in the region, while those opposed to Qatar, such as Egypt or the UAE, tend to assert that Qatar is fueling extremism and prefer more traditional leaders, such as monarchs or generals.
As part of the efforts to portray Libya as an “Islamic” issue, even though both sides are Muslim, terms such as “terrorist” are used and  support for Haftar by the UAE was portrayed as somehow anti-Muslim. One can see how regional alliances, such as the Turkey-Qatar alliance and the Egypt-UAE alliance, align their language in Libya. For instance the Libya Observer, which is critical of Haftar slammed Haftar’s LNA for “commemorating the so-called Armenian genocide.” Why some Libyans would suddenly take Ankara’s view on the genocide was entirely linked to Turkish support.
Turkey’s pro-government Anadolu accuses Haftar of being linked to “genocide.” At the same time the pro-Turkey media and commentators generally portray Haftar backers as “fascist” or anti-democratic, and assert that Israel and the Assad regime back Haftar. When some Syrian rebels signed on to fight in Libya the portrayal of the conflict as one between “revolutionary” forces in Tripoli and “reactionary” forces was even more heightened. The reality is that Turkey is increasing an authoritarian state where journalists are jailed and dissidents persecuted.
In the end there may be no clear dividing line between which forces are “religious” or “terrorists” or “warlords” in Libya because the terminology is largely used not due to what the fighters are or what they believe but as a calling card for the region’s narratives. Turkey accuses its enemies of being “terrorists” whether they ever did a terrorist bombing or not, while Ankara hosts Hamas, which the US and others view as terrorists. Turkey backs religious extremists but calls is enemies “warlord.” The “reactionary” forces aligned with Haftar call their enemies foreign terrorists.
Another article on Libya at War on the Rocks portrays Haftar as representing traditional and a tribal base of more conservative rule opposed to the chaos that arose out of the Syrian revolution against Muamar Gaddafi in 2011. Haftar’s first major offensive, Operation Dignity in Benghazi, was against “Islamists and revolutionary elements.” The reality in Libya may be far removed from the press reports in Turkey or Abu Dhabi because those reports are part of a wider struggle.
Some of the discussions about Libya even appear impressively confusing. Pro-Haftar social media accounts claim he is fighting Al-Qaeda-linked groups and mercenaries. However anti-Haftar accounts claim he is supported by Russian mercenaries and “Janjaweed” from Sudan. Yet, it was Sudan’s former regime, with previous links to both Al Qaeda and the Brotherhood, that supported the Janjaweed. The LNA are adamant that, like their supporters in Cairo, they are fighting the Brotherhood.
In the broader regional narrative states that oppose the Brotherhood tend to also oppose Hezbollah and Iran. Iran’s IRGC met with the Brotherhood in Turkey in 2014 to discuss joint work. Yet the Assad regime, which is supported by Iran, is also accused of supporting Haftar. Russia, which sells Turkey  S-400s, is slammed by the Pro-Ankara social media for supporting Haftar as well.