Double Benghazi bombing leads to LNA execution of suspects and international backlash against Werfalli
On 23 January, a dual bombing in Benghazi led to at least 40 deaths, with many of those critically injured in the initial attack subsequently dying from their wounds. The first bomb went off outside the Bayaat al-Radwan mosque in the central al-Salmani district, as worshippers were leaving evening prayers. Around 10 to 15 minutes later, after security and health officials had arrived on the scene, a second more powerful blast was reportedly detonated from a Mercedes parked on the opposite side of the street. The victims include both Libyan National Army (LNA) fighters (who control the city) and civilians. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
This shocking attack triggered another atrocity reportedly perpetrated by Mahmoud al-Werfalli, the field commander of the LNA’s Special Forces division. On 24 January, Werfalli publicly executed twelve people imprisoned by the LNA, who were accused of being jihadists. The video of the executions shows a man who resembles Werfalli shooting the prisoners at the site of the bombings. On 26 January, five more bodies were discovered in a dump in the Lithi area of Benghazi, with notices attached to their bodies accusing them of being jihadists. On 28 January, LNA fighters also arrested a ‘terror’ cell in Jalou near Ajkherra after walls were vandalised in support of the bombing attack in Benghazi.
These developments sparked widespread local and international condemnation, with UNSMIL and a number of Western countries calling for the implementation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for al-Werfalli. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Werfalli in August 2017 due to video evidence of his orchestration and participation in the execution of prisoners in Benghazi, which amounts to war crimes. After the ICC issued the warrant, the LNA announced it was investigating him and had detained him, though his whereabouts were unclear. However, it is now clear that the LNA has so far been unable to arrest Werfalli due to public support for his actions in Benghazi.
If LNA leader Khalifa Haftar were to arrest Werfalli or hand him over to the ICC, then he would likely lose a great deal of support in the city and he cannot afford to lose any of his current power base. Despite Werfalli’s brutal tactics, he is supported by many for taking a hard line against the anti-LNA forces that have been carrying out attacks in eastern Libya for many years. While there may be some international pressure on Haftar to arrest and try Werfalli for his crimes, the ICC has no power to extradite Werfalli and the international community feels it has more to gain from persuading Haftar to participate in the UN political process than from ostracising him over his human rights record. Werfalli is theoretically under Haftar’s command, therefore the reoccurrence of public summary executions either has Haftar’s blessing, or means Haftar has little control over the actions of those under his command.