BBC: “Years of Hell” in Tarhuna under the grip of “Al-Kani State”

The BBC reported the story of 6 brothers from the Al-Kani family who controlled Tarhuna for 8 years before they withdrew from it with the forces that they established under pressure from the Government of National Accord (GNA) forces and mercenaries who were sent by Turkey in support of the GNA.

The report described the 6 brothers (Abd al-Khaliq, Muhammad, Muammar, Abd al-Rahim, Mohsen, Ali, and Abdul-Azim) as a “Family from Hell,” and claimed that they had slaughtered men, women and children to preserve their power, saying that now, their crimes are being slowly revealed.

After the exit of Al-Kaniyat from Tarhuna, a group of mass graves for their victims were found. Most of the victims are still unidentified. One of the workers, Waddah Al-Kish, said: “Every time I dig for a new body, I try to be as gentle as possible. You will feel it ”.

Some of them appear to be the corpses of young fighters killed in battles over Tarhuna last summer, in the ninth year of Libya’s civil war. But many civilians – including women and children up to the age of five – bore signs of torture.

A Terrible Legacy

The BBC believes that these graves are “the horrific legacy of the era of terror, which lasted for nearly eight years, imposed on the city by the Al-Kani family and the militia they established.”

Three of the brothers were killed, and the others were forced to flee in June 2020 by the forces loyal to the Government of National Accord, yet so far, many residents of Tarhuna are afraid to talk about their crimes. Some say they are still being threatened from afar by supporters of Al-Kaniyat.

What is striking about this family’s story, the report says, is the horrific accounts of how a poor family benefited from the chaos that swept Libya after the 2011 revolution against Muammar Gaddafi – and ruled their society through sheer cruelty.

The Onset of Power

The lawyer and community activist, Hamza Dilab, who recalled meeting Al-Kani brothers at weddings and funerals before 2011, says: “These seven brothers were rude, unethical people. Their social status was zero. They were like a herd of hyenas when they were together. They were insulting and quarreling. They can even hit each other with sticks.”

In the turmoil that followed the ouster of Gaddafi, these brothers saw their opportunity. “Al-Kani family slowly and discreetly managed to assassinate that family, one by one,” says Hamza Dilab. But it unleashed a cycle of revenge that led to the killing of Al-Kani’s second youngest, Ali, in 2012.

“Ali was a handsome young man, and when he died, they turned him into a legend,” says Jalel  Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands, who has conducted family history research.

“The brothers decided to respond to his murder not only by finding the responsible and killing them. What they did was, in fact, kill their entire families.” He added.

Al-Kani family gradually took over the city and formed some of the military forces present in the city, and they established their own forces of several thousand fighters.

Like most militias in Libya, it had access to state funds. Beginning with revenge, the remaining brothers used it to assert their ultimate authority over Tarhuna.

Hamza Dilab says: “Their policy was to intimidate people for no other reason than to create fear. They were killed for this reason alone. Whoever stood against them will die.”

The BBC report mentions a harrowing story, narrated by Hanan Abu Klish, who said that on April 17, 2017, a number of Al-Kaniyat men stormed her house, and “one of them pointed a gun at her head”.

She said he asked her who was in the house, and she said, “No one.”

“But he dragged me to my father’s room, and they told him, “We will kill you first. And they really did. I did everything I could to stop it. But they just pumped bullets into his chest.” She said.

Three of Hanan’s brothers were also killed that day, along with two of her nephews, ages 14 to 16.

Others lost relatives after they were apparently kidnapped by Al-Kaniyat forces. Hanan says there was no reason other than that her family was well-off and respected in Tarhuna.

A Small State in Tarhuna

By that time, Al-Kaniyat had established their small state in and around Tarhuna, and they even controlled the police force. They ran a business empire, extorting “taxes” from a cement factory and other local businesses, building a mall, and running some legitimate projects, including a laundry. They benefited from the “protection” of drug traffickers and migrants who crossed their lands on their way from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile, they boasted about combating smuggling and establishing Discipline Island in war-torn Libya.

At the head of the mini-state was Mohammad Al-Kani, the second eldest of the brothers who followed the Salafi movement, and was the only member of the family with little education and regular paid work – before the revolution he worked as a driver for an oil company. He was frugal and cool, and generally wore a traditional Salafi outfit.

“Usually the case of gangster families is that the person at the top is not particularly scary or even has an attractive personality,” says Jalel Harchaoui.

“At the top, you usually find someone who can understand all of the complex diagrams needed to make the entire pyramid work. This was the case with Mohammad.” Harchaoui added.

Behind Mohammad, Shaven-headed Abd Al-Rahim was in charge of “internal security” – that is, dealing with any suspected traitor, while Mohsen “the slick” was the “defense minister” in charge of the Al-Kani militia.

“Abd al-Rahim was the first killer, and after him was Mohsen,” Hamza Dilab recalls.

He says that he informed many of those who escaped from the hostage of successive governments in Tripoli about the murders, “but unfortunately these governments ignored all Al-Kani’s crimes because Al-Kani militia was useful to them.”

In 2017, the brothers organized a military parade that included heavy weapons and ranks of black and formal uniformed policemen. Then, in 2019, Al-Kani family decisively changed their positions in the Civil War.

After abandoning their alliance with the Government of National Accord, which was in control of western Libya, they called on their staunch enemy, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the eastern half of the country, to use their town as a springboard to attack the capital.

Suddenly, the small city of Tarhuna became a start point to attack the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, while Turkey directed weapons against them to support the Tripoli government, and it may have been a Turkish drone that killed Mohsen Al-Kani and his younger brother Abdul Azim, 22, in September 2019.

A Bloody Period in Tarhuna

The killing of some of these brothers and their failure to capture Tripoli sparked a bloody period in Tarhuna.

“The murders had to be carried out on a more frequent basis because things did not go well,” says Jalel Harchaoui.

“How can you ensure that your people do not conspire with the enemy? So Al-Kani family had to go further and further in their paranoia.”

However, there were also killings that were apparently motivated by Al-Kani’s need for equipment to continue the war.

One day in December 2019, a housewife fromTarhuna, Rabia Jaballah, saw her cousin Tariq, shot dead on the doorstep of his house by Al-Kaniyat. They took his four-wheel drive truck. The next day, while he was buried, the police stormed the cemetery and kidnapped 10 men from the family, including her husband.

“They had Tariq’s truck – now a grenade launcher installed on it. Suddenly I understood the reason for the attack: The Jaballah family, we live off the car business, mainly SUVs. They attacked us for robbing us, to use our cars in their war.” She explained.

Al-Kani’s Escape

Pro-government fighters finally captured Tarhuna in early June 2020, and the remaining four Al-Kani brothers and their forces fled with Haftar’s forces to eastern Libya.

“We had a lot of hope,” says Rabiaa Jaballah. “We did not sleep that night, and the children were happy.”

The next morning, she and several people whose husbands, brothers, or children had been kidnapped, rushed to the notorious Al-Kani jail in search of them. In one prison, they found a row of cells 70×70 cm – barely enough to sit. There were discarded clothes, but the prison was empty.

“It completely destroyed our hope,” Rabiaa says, adding that the walls were covered in blood. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had a complete meltdown.” She added.

Horrific Witness Accounts

Daniel Hilton of Middle East Eye, one of the few foreign correspondents to have visited Tarhuna since Al-Kani family was defeated, made other disturbing discoveries.

“Above the cells were piles of ash from the fires that the people who kept these prisoners used to light to turn the cells into stoves, as a form of torture,” he says.

“On the floor of another prison, small shoes were found in bright colors, of children now believed to be dead or missing.” He added.

More than 350 people from Tarhuna are registered as missing – although some locals say the real number approaches 1,000, says Kamal Abu Bakr, head of the Government of National Accord’s Search and Identification of Missing Persons Authority.

So far, very few bodies have been identified after being found in mass graves, as the DNA matching work is only a start, but Dr. Abu Bakr says that the burials discovered so far are more shocking than any other burials found in Libya since the start of the conflict in 2011.

He added: “This is the first time that we have found women or children in mass graves. We also found a body buried with medical devices, an oxygen mask, and intravenous tubes. A man, alive, was taken from the hospital and buried. This is a shock for us as well.”


The government in Tripoli says it is investigating responsibility for the killings, although Hanan Salah, a prominent Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch – who published her own report on Tarhuna on Thursday – said the government has announced numerous investigations since its formation in 2015.

“The authorities must work on the horrific discovery of mass graves by taking appropriate steps to identify the bodies and bring those responsible for the violations to justice,” she says.

Hanan Salah reiterated what Hamza Dilab said, noting that the Government of National Accord, which has been allied with Al-Kaniyat for several years, “may turn a blind eye to some of these very serious allegations, which means that the high leadership of the Government of National Accord, not only the military officers and officials, can also be responsible for serious violations.”

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the Tarhuna killings, and Mohammad Al-Kani has been placed on the US government’s sanctions list, but with General Haftar protecting him, he and his surviving brothers are unlikely to face justice any time soon.

In Tarhuna itself, there are calls for revenge, and Waddah Al-Kish, a gravedigger, fears the future.

“The people of Tarhuna have just been released from one militia to another – the government is just a face, the militias are controlling the land, and they only do what they do, which scares people,” he says.

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