The story could make people laugh, if it didn’t show, in a dramatic way, to what extent Libya has sunk into a Kafkaesque universe where tragedy vies with absurdity. The findings were made public by the New York Times, who have got their hands on a secret UN report dated February 2020, confirming the involvement of mercenaries in the Libyan conflict, and the dubious financing channels of these foreign fighters.
In June 2019, a commando led by a former British soldier disembarked at the port of Benghazi, in eastern Libya, on an inflatable rubber boat. The team is reinforced by a second arrival from Jordan of makeshift fighters from South Africa, Australia, Great Britain and the United States. At the same time, six helicopters landed in Benghazi. Their original flight plan was to fly from Botswana to Jordan. Officially, the 20 or so men who landed in Benghazi were tasked with “securing oil and gas installations”.
80 million dollars
In fact, all of them are there for a short-term military mission, hired by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, for an alluring sum of $80m, to support him in his final assault on the capital Tripoli. Four days after the commando landing, the deal fell through.
Haftar complains that the helicopters are old and do not match his order. According to documents obtained by the United Nations, the warlord should have received a Cobra attack helicopter and a LASA T-Bird, among other things. An argument breaks out. And on the night of 2 July, the mercenaries are already on their way back, setting course for Malta again, aboard its military patrol boats. A “botched mission” wrote The New York Times.
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“Although clandestine, the operation has left a long trail of evidence,” summarises The New York Times. In the UN report, the United Nations was able to retrace the route of the commando before arriving in Libya.
At its head: Steve Lodge, a former South African Air Force officer who also served in British uniform before turning to private security in Nigeria. The other combattants – 11 South Africans, five British, two Australians and an American pilot – are also former military personnel. The UN says they were asked to “prevent arms shipments” into Tripoli, with orders to board merchant ships to search for hidden stockpiles.
Libya is a case study of the changing character of war. We think of war as political activity, but in Libya it’s becoming a commercial one.
According to the United Nations, this first team could have been part of a larger operation, including other men dedicated to the surveillance and destruction of enemy targets. A mission where the six helicopters flown via Botswana could have been used. The UN has obtained documents proving that the equipment was purchased in South Africa and loaded onto cargo planes at Gaborone International Airport – one of the planes belongs to Ukrainians from SkyAviaTrans, a company mentioned last year in another report as being suspected of transporting weapons to Libya.
Shell companies in the Emirates
As for the maritime portion of the operation, two inflatable boats were rented to James Fenech, a licensed Maltese arms dealer. While the transaction was negotiated by Steve Lodge, payment was made through Dubai-based companies, including Lancaster-6, headed by an Australian citizen, Christiaan Durrant, and Opus Capital Asset, owned by a British citizen, Amanda Kate Perry, who is listed in the Panama Papers as secretary of Lancaster-6.
This is now the route being followed by the United Nations, which is seeking to trace the source of the funds made available to the Marshal of Benghazi. The UN report assures that the entire operation was aborted in June 2019 and was organised and financed via a network of shell companies based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of Khalifa Haftar’s sponsors. What these companies have in common is that they are all wholly or partly owned by Christiaan Durrant, a former Australian fighter pilot who has turned to business.
On his website, Christiaan Durrant presents himself as a committed entrepreneur, posing with a Kenyan baby in his arms. The man is known for his closeness to Erik Prince, the former US Navy Seal who founded Blackwater, one of the giants of private security in the world.
The company operates in Iraq, Somalia, Mali, South Sudan and Afghanistan, among other places. Erik Prince, whose close ties with the Trump administration have been investigated by the US Congress, has also in the past sent private militias to Mohammed ben Zayed, the Emirati Crown Prince and long-time supporter of Haftar.
Prince and Durrant both have a professional and personal relationship. Both men are passionate sailors and co-owners of a catamaran. Prince is also linked to the Maltese James Fenech, with whom he launched a business selling ammunition for assault rifles in 2018. The UN is now trying to find out what precise role the Australian and the American may have played in the failed operation of June 2019. A spokesman for Lancaster-6 cited errors in the UN investigation and said the company has offered its full cooperation to the UN to correct them. As for Prince, he denies any involvement.
A failing arms embargo
The UN report confirms evidence of foreign mercenaries, as late as February 2020. But according to Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute and a specialist on Libya, the first reliable evidence of Russian fighters alongside Haftar, hired by the Wagner company, close to the Kremlin, date from autumn 2019; months before the UN report. The involvement of Turkish, Syrian, Sudanese and Chadian warriors is also certain, both in Benghazi and Tripoli.
Above all, the UN investigation confirms the extent of continuous violations of the arms embargo imposed since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi by the UN resolution of 1970; control of which was entrusted to Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, which has since been succeeded by Irini.
Since 2011, this embargo has never been respected. Sean McFate, a former private security man and now an associate researcher at the Atlantic Council says: “Libya is a case study of the changing character of war. We think of war as political activity, but in Libya it’s becoming a commercial one”.
The United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia and Egypt are therefore pushing their interests, which go far beyond mere geopolitical influence. The lucrative business of selling arms crosses various smuggling channels, including the oil that irrigates Libya’s subsoil, with networks of migrant smugglers, of which the country has now become an open-air stock exchange.
Will the war ever end? As Marshal Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli stalled, the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by him, agreed on 2 June to resume negotiations with the Tripoli GNA for a ceasefire. For its part, the UN is still looking for a replacement for Ghassan Salamé as envoy to Libya to restart the political process. And to the weapons away.
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