Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan dictator, is seeking to make a comeback after years in detention, and claims to be leading a military campaign against terrorist groups around Tripoli.
Gaddafi was freed in June after six years as the prisoner of a militia in the town of Zintan following the Nato-supported uprising in 2011 that led to the killing of his father, Muammar Gaddafi, and the fragmentation of the country.
Saif Gaddafi was once the heir apparent of the Libyan regime, a London School of Economics graduate touted as a moderniser who mixed with British high society. Now, he stands accused of ordering the killing of protesters as the Gaddafis fought desperately to hold on to power.
But in recent weeks he has told a longstanding US contact he was gathering a force that had taken control of the coastal town of Sabratha – and claimed he would fight his way to Tripoli.
“Saif al-Islam is inside Libya and is committed to his word, which he gave to all Libyans in 2011, when he said that he will remain in Libya to defend its territory or die a martyr for it,” a spokesman for Gaddafi said in a written statement, supplied through the US contact who had extensive dealings with him before the fall of his family’s regime.
“The forces who fought in Sabratha against Isis, the gangs of illegal immigrants and the oil-smuggling mafias were mainly members of the tribes who support Saif al-Islam, and those who were part of the former Libyan army, also loyal to Saif Gaddafi.”
It is unclear, however, to what extent Gaddafi is claiming credit for military operations carried out by others. Much of the recent fighting has been between tribal militias vying for control of smuggling routes. Observers said they doubted the dictator’s son would be able to muster sufficient loyalists to pose a serious threat to the capital.
“Developments on the ground have not been in his favour,” said Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He can dream, but he can’t get anywhere.”
Observers say Gaddafi could still emerge as a political force if elections are held next year and he is allowed to stand despite his 2011 indictment from the international criminal court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity. He was also sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli in 2015, though that trial was conducted in absentia and was widely criticised by international human rights groups.
A diplomat involved in election preparations said the ICC indictment against Gaddafi would not necessarily stop him from standing, or winning.
“We don’t control who stands in the election. That is up to the Libyans,” the diplomat said, pointing to the precedent of Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 presidential election win in Kenya despite ICC charges. “You can see he has popularity on the ground, particularly in the south.”
Gaddafi is seeking to benefit from the chronic sense of uncertainty and insecurity since his father’s fall. Libya has two rival parliaments, and a kaleidoscope of competing fiefdoms run by warlords and militias. A tenuous UN agreement designed to hold the nation together is wearing thin and its critics claim it will expire on 17 December, the anniversary of its signing.
If there is no agreement between the factions to amend and extend the agreement, there are fears that the current most powerful military figure, General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which holds sway in the east, will seek to capture Tripoli, and oust the UN-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and his Government of National Accord (GNA).
Haftar has backing from Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Russia is reported to have established a small military presence in western Egypt, and Cairo and Moscow have come to a preliminary agreement this week that would allow Russian warplanes to use Egyptian airspace.
Haftar is also reported to have held talks in Paris last month with militia leaders based in Tripoli, on whom Sarraj depends for his security, seeking to persuade them to stand down or defect. The outcome of those contacts is unclear, but they are likely to have increased Sarraj’s nervousness about his future.
The prime minister met Donald Trump on Friday, but his requests for a more active US role, including a guarantee of personal security for himself and his government, were rebuffed.
“They wanted a military guarantee from the United States that we would basically defend their block in Tripoli,” a US source familiar with the talks said. He added that there were deep misgivings about corruption in the GNA and the human rights record of the militias protecting it.
There are serious doubts over whether elections are feasible in the current climate of general insecurity, and Salamé acknowledged over the weekend those elections might not take place in 2018 as planned if the conditions were not met.
If or when a vote does go ahead, Libya observers said Saif Gaddafi could benefit from general weariness of political divisions and nostalgia for the relative stability of the Gaddafi era.
Salamé has said that any election law adopted by Libya should be “open for all” including loyalists from the old regime and Saif Gaddafi.
Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian defence attache in Libya and Tunisia, described Gaddafi as a polarizing figure, but one with outside support.
“There are businesses in the west who were dealing with the old regime who would like to see Saif back,” Pusztai, now a security consultant who writes extensively about Libya, said. “But if he joined the political landscape it would make it even more divided.”