TARHUNA, Libya — When the militiamen abducted Abdul Ali al-Falus and his four sons last year, their family had every reason to fear the worst.
By then, the Kaniyat militia had killed scores and perhaps hundreds of civilians in this pastoral town, many of them shot multiple times at close range, often blindfolded, handcuffed and with legs tied, according to officials and community leaders. And no one had stopped the militiamen or held them to account.
Not Libya’s internationally recognized government, which was aligned with the Kaniyat until two years ago.
Not the renegade warlord Khalifa Hifter, who had then made common cause with the militia and used Tarhuna to launch an unsuccessful offensive against the capital, Tripoli.
Not the United Nations, which has been trying to prop up the government all these years.
Reports of the militia’s atrocities had emerged as early as 2017 and were known to the governing authorities, Libyan lawmakers, the United Nations and others, according to residents, human rights activists and two former U.N. investigators.
But only in recent months, with the unearthing of mass graves, are the full dimensions of the Kaniyat’s atrocities becoming apparent. Nearly every week, workers in blue uniforms have been recovering more decomposed bodies from the reddish- brown soil of the eight-acre Harouda farm, mounting evidence of possible war crimes committed by the Kani brothers and the local militia they’d formed to subjugate Tarhuna.
So far, 120 bodies have been recovered, said Elias al-Hamroni, head of the mass graves committee in the Libyan Justice Ministry’s forensics department. Cemeteries are filled with the newly buried, a year or more after they disappeared.
Kamal Abubaker, the head of the General Authority for Searching and Identifying Missing Persons, said this is the first time his agency has found mass graves with women and children.
“It’s also extraordinary so many people are missing from the same town. In our culture, you don’t torture close family or neighbors or people from the same community. What we saw in Tarhuna can only be called a massacre,” Abubaker said.
His excavation team said there could be as many as 17 other mass graves around the town. More than 350 families have reported to his office that relatives of theirs are missing.
“Unfortunately, successive governments in Libya did not interfere in the crimes of this militia,” said Mohamed al-Kosher, the mayor of Tarhuna. “If they wanted to, they could have taken out the Kaniyat. But every government turned a blind eye toward the crimes, and in return, the Kaniyat did what the government asked it to do.”
All but one killed
The bodies of Falus and three of his sons were found in February in one of the mass graves, their remains jumbled together, limbs splayed, according to photographs.
Two weeks later, family members gathered in a mourning tent, receiving condolences from visitors. The relatives recounted how, in April of last year, Kaniyat militiamen wearing their trademark camouflage uniforms and insignia came to the family home, seizing Falus and his sons, ages 16, 15, 10 and 8.
The fighters separated the boys from their father and took them to the home of a militia leader. The boys were ordered to line up and face the garden. Then the fighters opened fire, killing all but the youngest.
“I saw my brothers falling down,” recalled Moad al-Falus, now 9, his eyes gloomy and his timid voice shaking from the memory. “And I started to cry.”
Then, Moad said, he ran. But the fighters grabbed him and took him to their leader, a bald man with a black patch over one eye and a disfigured hand. The man told Moad he would be kept alive as a warning to others, the boy recalled.
The man placed a gun to Moad’s head and said: “Are you going to fight the Kaniyat when you grow up?”
“No,” replied the boy.
The birth of a militia
Led by seven brothers, the Kani family and their eponymously named militia ruled Tarhuna with a brutality that even by the standards of Libyan violence was extraordinary. One brother even kept a pride of lions to terrorize residents, locals said.
Before the Libyan uprising 10 years ago against the dictator Moammar Gaddafi, the Kanis were largely unknown. They were a poor family living in a small, two-story house in the center of Tarhuna, a hamlet of cream-colored houses and olive groves roughly an hour’s drive south of the capital, Tripoli.
At the time, Tarhuna was filled with Gaddafi loyalists, and they included members of the Kani clan, who had marginalized the brothers, leaving them bitter and jealous, said residents and Libyan analysts. When the revolution erupted, the brothers sensed an opening.
“The Kanis’ first knee-jerk reaction was to welcome the sudden anarchy as an opportunity,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst and senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “The fog of war was going to make it possible for them to take revenge for old grudges from before 2011, using brute force.”
By the time Gaddafi was ousted and killed in October 2011, the brothers had settled old scores with their tribesmen, killing many of them. This bolstered the Kanis’ revolutionary credentials, convincing anti-Gaddafi forces that the Kaniyat could be trusted to suppress the dictator’s loyalists and keep Tarhuna secure. Left alone, the Kaniyat deepened their grip on the town, brutalizing the population to assert their dominance.
Within a few years, the militia numbered in the hundreds of fighters, said community activists and residents. They controlled police and military units inside Tarhuna. The Kaniyat also enriched themselves by taxing human and fuel smugglers, collecting protection money from scores of small businesses and seizing ownership of other companies, according to the mayor, other community leaders and analysts.
Then, in 2016, the militia found a new source of income: the Government of National Accord, or GNA, installed in Tripoli by the United Nations and backed by Western powers. The Kaniyat allied with this new authority and began receiving salaries and other funding. The Kaniyat were vital because they controlled a key gateway to Tripoli from the south. They were called the 7th Brigade, a designation that gave them a veneer of official authority.
The murders, though, continued.
Early reports unheeded
In April 2017, the Kaniyat militiamen surrounded the house of a family in the Mabrouk clan, family members recalled. The fighters had already executed one relative, Suleiman, for refusing to join the militia. Now they wanted to reduce the odds of their crimes catching up to them, relatives believe, and the gunmen raided the dwelling.
“They shot all the men dead,” said Suleiman’s sister Umm Hanaa Abu-Kleish, whose two other brothers were among 13 killed that day. “They were afraid my other brothers would take revenge for Suleiman’s murder.”
In the murder of Falus and his sons, the motives may have been several, family members said. Falus owned a currency exchange shop and was influential in the community, potentially posing a threat to the militia. He was also wealthy. The Kaniyat fighters stole his Mercedes-Benz and an SUV. His shop was later robbed, said Abdul Rahman al-Mabrouk, 39, Falus’s brother-in-law.
Victims’ families often have been too fearful to report killings or disappearances, said community leaders, activists and victims’ relatives. But some families did file complaints with the general prosecutor’s office, said Kosher, the mayor.
“The full scale was not known, but many of the killings were reported,” Harchaoui said, referring specifically to the years when the Kaniyat were aligned with the GNA.
The family of Ahmed Harouda, an influential Tarhuna businessman, owns the farm where bodies are being uncovered. His neighbors, he said, had alerted him to seeing lights and hearing tractors at night and the sounds of digging. As early as 2017, Harouda notified the attorney general’s office, the prime minister’s office, the Interior Ministry, tribal leaders, the United Nations and regional human rights groups, he said.
“I told them about the farm and the Kaniyat’s killings and disappearances,” said Harouda, a slim man with piercing brown eyes who fled the Kaniyat several years ago and now lives in Tripoli. “But nothing happened.”
‘They chose not to see’
Hanan Salah, a Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch, said much of the responsibility for the Kaniyat’s crimes lies with the GNA, which “seems to have turned a blind eye to the cruelty and to these very serious violations going on.”
But responsibility may not stop there, she said. “The question that can be asked is whether the U.N. Security Council should have reacted sooner,” she said. “Did the U.N. sufficiently, publicly inform them about the situation in Tarhuna?”
A former U.N. investigator in Libya said that GNA figures “absolutely knew” about the Kaniyat’s abuses. The investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern over losing U.N. employment, said the GNA did not keep records of the Kaniyat’s crimes because they made the government “look bad.”
Another former U.N. investigator in Libya said that relations between the GNA and the population of Tarhuna often were tense, with many residents still sympathetic to Gaddafi, and the government wanted to avoid provoking hostilities in the town. “That helps explain the passive attitude of authorities in Tripoli,” said this former investigator, who also spoke anonymously to protect his U.N. job.
According to a former senior GNA official, the GNA bears responsibility for the Kaniyat crimes that happened on its watch. But the militia, he said, never was fully under the GNA’s control. And the international community failed to give the government adequate support to confront the Kaniyat, he said.
This former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationships with prominent political figures, acknowledged that the GNA had little political will to hold the Kaniyat accountable and had taken “a path of least resistance” because of the militia’s importance to the GNA’s security and also because of the strategic value of Tarhuna. “There was a mutual benefit,” he said. It was “the enemy of my enemy is my friend kind of approach. It was an alliance of convenience.”
A GNA Justice Ministry spokesman, Akram Karawan, said ministry officials “were not responsible for holding to account criminals.” That was the job, he said, of the attorney general’s office and the Interior Ministry, both of which did not respond to requests for comments.
Despite emerging reports of atrocities, senior GNA figures and U.N. officials continued to visit Tarhuna. Such contacts convinced many residents that the Kaniyat had political support from the government and the United Nations, Kosher said. “They all knew what happened here. But they chose not to see it,” he added.
But a spokesman for the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) took issue with that characterization. “Any U.N. dialogue with armed groups does not mean the U.N. is legitimatizing these groups or individuals; rather, the U.N. engages in dialogue to prevent abuses,” said Jean Alam, the spokesman.
In response to emailed questions, Alam said the United Nations “has closely followed the situation in Tarhuna since 2017 and documented crimes and human rights violations allegedly committed” by the Kaniyat. Both UNSMIL and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) produced several reports on human rights violations in Tarhuna and “consistently raised concerns” about them “at the Security Council and with relevant Libyan authorities at the highest level.”
“The U.N. repeatedly called on the GNA to respect principles of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Alam said.
In April 2019, the Kaniyat switched loyalties to the warlord Hifter, aligning their domain with his government in eastern Libya and putting their fighters under his command as his newly designated 9th Brigade. Hifter’s senior commanders based themselves in Tarhuna.
The killings and disappearances in Tarhuna dramatically escalated. Kosher estimated that the militia killed more than 1,000 civilians over the past decade, with roughly two-thirds during the 14 months under Hifter’s command.
A spokesman for Hifter’s forces did not respond to a request for comment. Two of the Kani brothers — Mohsen and Abdul Adheem — were killed in a drone strike in September 2019. The remaining brothers, including the two leaders Mohammed and Abdul-Rahim, are believed by pro-government forces to be hiding in the eastern city of Ajdabiya. They could not be reached for comment.
International efforts to hold the Kanis accountable so far have failed. At the U.N. Security Council, the United States and Germany wanted to impose an asset freeze and travel ban on the Kaniyat and Mohammed al-Kani. Russia, however, said it could not approve the sanctions until it had seen more evidence that the militia had killed civilians.
The search for relatives
Last summer, it finally became safe for many in Tarhuna to seek the truth about their missing relatives.
GNA forces had pushed Hifter’s fighters and the Kaniyat out of Tarhuna. The victors, along with hundreds of townspeople, destroyed the vestiges of the militia. The Kanis’ family house and villas were shelled, mortared and torched. So was a commercial mall they’d erected. In one detention center, a large mural of Mohsen al-Kani was defaced and peppered with bullet holes. The lions, residents said, were killed.
Survivors recounted their ordeal. In a now-torched secret prison inside an Agriculture Ministry compound, detainees had been forced to crouch, knees to chin, inside kitchen cupboards the size of a large safe underneath a large oven, said two survivors. One torture tactic: turn up the oven.
Abdul Haleen Muhammed, 28, a blacksmith and one of only three survivors of the prison, said he had been forced to cram his 6-foot-2 frame into a cupboard and spend 47 days there because he had refused to join the Kaniyat.
“They also used horsewhips and pulled out fingernails,” he recalled. “I was beaten and electrocuted. I don’t even know why I was released. Everyone who came here was killed.”
Thousands of locals emerged from their homes and scoured the Kaniyat’s military bases, detention centers and secret prisons, looking for their missing relatives.
The Falus family joined the search, hoping that Moad had imagined his brothers’ deaths. “Even simply asking around about my brother and nephews was dangerous to do as long as the Kanis controlled our town,” said Moad’s uncle Mabrouk, a compact man with a thick salt-and-pepper beard.
But they came up empty.
“At that moment, we realized that Moad was telling the truth,” Mabrouk said. “We lost hope that day.”
Families have been heading to a Tripoli hospital in hopes of identifying the remains of loved ones. The bodies recovered from the mass graves are held in black bags and stacked inside a refrigerated shipping container outside the hospital.
So far, only 59 of the 120 bodies have been identified, mostly through teeth, birthmarks, surgical scars and clothing, said Hamroni of the Justice Ministry’s forensics department.
In February, Mabrouk and another Falus relative went to Tripoli to see the pictures. A worker told them a grave had been unearthed containing the remains of a man and three boys — and showed them the photos, Mabrouk recounted.
His pulse raced. He took photos back to his sister, the boys’ mother. She recognized Muhammed from his underwear, her husband from a gold tooth and her other two sons by the patterns of their teeth.
On Friday, March 5, they received the remains and brought them back to Tarhuna in an ambulance. The next day, they buried the four next to each other in a cemetery in the heart of the town.
“We felt relief,” Mabrouk said. “We know how their story ended.
“Now, we want the government to bring us justice.”