Mahmoud al-Werfalli — the notorious commander of the Saiqa Special Forces, which is affiliated to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) — along with two of his bodyguards were shot and killed outside a Benghazi hospital on 24 March. The International Criminal Court (ICC) had indicted al-Werfalli twice as a war criminal for extra-judiciary killings of more than 40 prisoners including in a 2018 incident when videos appeared of him shooting ten blindfolded prisoners. This month a widely-circulated video showed him and his men raiding and smashing up a Benghazi car showroom and threatening the owner and staff.
At one time, despite being associated with horrific crimes, al-Werfalli enjoy some popularity in eastern Libya because of his ostensible battle against extremism. While few will now shed a tear over his killing it is further evidence of the deteriorating security situation in eastern Libya and the escalating friction between rival factions could result in a series of retaliatory attacks. UN Special Envoy Ján Kubiš highlighted this situation to the UN Security Council last week when he said that ‘Various armed groups continue to operate without hindrance, human rights violations continue with almost total impunity.’
Al-Werfalli displayed absolute loyalty to Khalifa Haftar but also angered other elements within the LAAF. He was linked to a combination of corrupt businessmen and military figures that utilised him to settle scores against their rivals. One of his deputies, Nasser al-Qarish, was recently arrested for attacking police stations in order to release prisoners he was affiliated with, and burning the homes of his enemies’ families including those of senior LAAF figures. This means that, despite the official statement of mourning from LAAF General Command, it is possibly that al-Werfalli was killed by rival elements inside the LAAF itself. In many ways, an intra-LAAF war would be even more dangerous and violent than its brutal campaign against its enemies.
Colonel Ali Madi, the head of Benghazi’s Haftar affiliated military prosecution, suspiciously claimed that two of the suspects were Mohamad Abdeljalil Saad and Hanine Al Abdaly — daughter of the female lawyer and human rights activist, Hanan al-Barassi, who was gunned down in November 2020 in broad daylight — while a third suspect had fled to Egypt. This, however, seems very unlikely given that authorities have been unable to arrest suspects in the numerous assassinations and kidnappings of activists, dissidents, and others many years after the crimes occurred.
Benghazi appears to be in the middle of a new phase of instability — just as it did in the initial years after the fall of Muammar Qadhafi — as the centre of power shifts to Tripoli. This growing insecurity has led influential tribal elders and groups to increasingly turn against Haftar and instead support new leadership of a unified Libyan army.