Hifter attained the rank of colonel in 1986 and became the commanding officer of Libyan ground troops in Chad's civil war. He was captured in 1987 when his base was overrun by Chadian forces, and he was taken to Chad. Gadhafi, denying that he had any troops in Chad, disowned Hifter and left him, along with 300 of his troops, at the hands of Chadian authorities. Under pressure from the West, particularly France, which supported counter-Chadian factions, Gadhafi never admitted that he had any troops in Chad.
The United States, having already attempted many times to remove Gadhafi from power — including bombing his residence in April 1986 after accusing him of supporting terrorism — came to Hifter's rescue with the hope of enlisting his aid against Gadhafi.
In return for his freedom from Chadian jail, Hifter was asked to join the newly formed opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which enjoyed US military and financial support. Hifter, already angry from being left hopeless in a Chadian jail, joined the front and was flown into the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with troops willing to join him.
Hifter lived comfortably in Virginia, relatively close to CIA headquarters, from the earlier 1990s to 2011. He apparently even became a US citizen, but he never forgot his grudges against Gadhafi.
It is not clear what kind of relations he had with the CIA. Many aspects of his life in suburban Washington are hard to explain — for example, how he supported himself and his family. It is assumed that he became the CIA's man against Gadhafi. He maintained ties with Libyan opposition groups in exile and organized military opposition to Gadhafi from abroad, but without any success until the revolt against Gadhafi erupted in 2011.