Libya risks losing control of its destiny as planeloads of fighters and arms flood the country
By GREG MILLER, MISSY RYAN, SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN AND SOUAD MEKHENNET | The Washington Post | Published: February 25, 2021
The Soviet-era cargo plane rose from a frigid Moscow runway and banked south toward Syria, landing at a Russian air base on the coast several hours later.
It ascended again three hours later and crossed the Mediterranean Sea. From its transponder signal, the flight could be traced for most of its path. As it approached Libya, however, the signal was lost.
A plane matching that mystery aircraft was spotted hours later at an airstrip 70 miles east of Benghazi disgorging dozens of "Wagners" and "shabiha," according to a Libyan intelligence operative, using terms for Russian and Syrian mercenaries who have flooded the conflict zone.
This December flight was one of hundreds, including both Russian and Turkish military aircraft, that funneled fighters and firepower to an already war-torn Libya over the past year.
There was no apparent need for Russian reinforcements. The Dec. 7 flight came in the midst of a months-long cease-fire, as Libyan negotiators held talks in Tunisia in hopes of ending the civil war that has killed thousands of Libyans and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
"This is what is so terrifying for the Libyans," said a senior Western diplomat with access to U.S. intelligence on the conflict. At a time when there is no fighting, and new prospects for peace have taken hold, Russia, Turkey and other countries that have inserted themselves into Libya's struggle "are burrowing in."
Ten years ago, the Arab Spring sparked hopes of a new era of freedom and democratic reform among oppressed populations across North Africa and the Middle East. No country had more to gain than Libya, which had endured four decades of despotic rule by Moammar Gaddafi.
Now, even the bedrock idea of self-determination is endangered in Libya, with foreign powers — not just Libyans — seeking to control the country's fate.
The December flight was just one among more than 330 Russian aircraft that have entered Libya over the past 18 months, bringing fighters and firepower to a landscape that was already overrun with both, according to a still-secret U.N. report reviewed by The Washington Post.
Those Russian transports represent only a fraction of the lethal force brought in by or from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other countries now propping up competing sides in Libya's civil war.
There are now at least 20,000 mercenaries in Libya, including fighters and military advisers from Russia, Syria, Chad, Turkey and Sudan, according to U.S. and U.N. officials. Shipments by air and sea and across the desert border with Egypt have introduced fighter jets, armed drones, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, millions of rounds of ammunition, and land mines that will pose dangers to civilians for decades. The parties involved ignored a recent deadline to remove foreign forces, an ominous sign for a U.N.-led attempt to broker a lasting political deal.
"The foreign intervention today is beyond all imagination," said a second Western official. "The Libyans themselves, many of them, understand now the existential danger it poses. And they are trying to act before it's too late."
The influx of arms is all the more extraordinary because it has largely been at the invitation of Libya's clashing parties. Almost 10 years after the country's political idealists spurned offers of Western help to build a democracy, the country's warring sides have turned to the world's autocrats to help them hold power militarily.
The cost of doing so is only beginning to become clear. Russia and Turkey, the two dominant players in Libya, are now jockeying for shares of the country's oil and gas riches, long-term access to military bases and influence over the shape of any future government. If those ambitions go unmet, Russia and Turkey are in position to effectively split the country in two, turning the front lines of Libya's conflict into a permanent partition.
Even those determined to avoid this outcome acknowledge that Libya may now lack the power to avert it. Mohamed Dayri, the former foreign minister for Libya's eastern government, said in an interview that Libya needs more help from Europe and the United States to pressure Russia and Turkey to depart and get Libya's militias to disarm.
"Otherwise, the foreign mercenaries and foreign powers that now have the upper hand will continue in Libya and the current status quo will prevail," Dayri said. "The status quo with all its miseries."
The United States is not directly contributing arms to this powder keg, but bears significant responsibility.
U.S. airstrikes a decade ago as part of a broader NATO campaign proved crucial in toppling Gaddafi. But neither the United States nor its Western allies were willing or able to contain the chaos that was unleashed. In 2016, President Barack Obama described that failure as one of the biggest regrets of his presidency.
U.S. policy since then has bordered on incoherent. Under President Donald Trump, the State Department supported the interim, U.N.-endorsed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, even while the White House was quietly engaging with Khalifa Hifter, a Russian-backed militant who has mounted repeated offensives to seize control of the capital.
Hifter, 77, has long-standing ties to the CIA and spent years in exile living near the agency campus in Virginia after taking part in a failed coup against Gaddafi. Years later, his CIA ties appear to remain active. When Hifter spoke with Trump in 2019 during his latest assault on the Libyan capital, U.S. officials said, it was the CIA that arranged and put through the call.
There are other, uneasy associations between the United States and Libya, countries that were hostile to one another for most of the Gaddafi era because of Libya's alleged ties to terrorism. In 1986, the United States launched cruise missiles at Tripoli that killed one of Gaddafi's daughters, a strike the Reagan administration said was in retaliation for Libya's role in the bombing of a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. soldiers and airmen.
For Libya, the armed drones and private militias now rampant in the country are to a large extent imitations of the Predator-and-proxy warfare the United States pioneered in its post-9/11 conflicts.
For the United States, there is also the lingering trauma of the 2012 attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi. The incendiary investigations that followed provided an early glimpse of the scorched-earth partisanship and conspiratorial mind-set that would soon consume U.S. politics.
The United States has had no official diplomatic presence in Libya since 2014. Though American diplomats are actively encouraging reconciliation talks, the overriding U.S. focus has been preventing Libya from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda or Islamic State terrorist networks.
Russia, eager to demonstrate relevance in global affairs and upstage Western adversaries, has taken advantage of the West's aversion to deeper involvement as well as Hifter's hunger for power.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was remarkably transparent in December when he declared that Moscow was now entitled to help determine the war's outcome.
"To settle the conflict, we need to respect the interests of all foreign players," Lavrov said in a statement that made no mention of Libyan leaders. "I think this is what Russia, Turkey and other foreign players have managed to achieve."
President Biden has not indicated whether Libya's crisis will be a priority for his administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged during his confirmation hearing last month that Obama officials had "misjudged" how much damage Gaddafi had done to the country's institutions, as well as how much the United States and its allies could accomplish after he was gone.
"I think there was a plan," Blinken said. But it "ran into some reality." The result, he said, is "that there's been more space in Libya for extremist groups who filled some of the vacuum."
Even if Biden is inclined to try to fix his predecessors' mistakes, current and former officials said, U.S. leverage and options will be limited. The United States and its allies left a vacuum of their own that Russia and Turkey have attempted to fill.
"The problem now is that Libya is such an absolute mess that I don't know how you put it back together," said retired U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who was CIA director when Gaddafi was killed. "Unless you are willing to commit enormous forces and maybe end up fighting some formidable powers."
Libya is functionally split along a line that stretches from the port city of Sirte south to the desert district of Jufra. Many Libyans have relatives on both sides of this boundary, but crossing over has become perilous.
The east includes much of the country's oil wealth, and is controlled by Hifter's Libyan National Army, an amalgam of armed factions propped up by Russia, Egypt and the UAE. Hedging its bets on Hifter, Russia has also backed Aguila Saleh, the leader of the Libyan parliament. The parliament, itself divided between eastern and western factions, is now based in the eastern city of Tobruk and serves as a rival seat of power to Tripoli.
The west includes the historic capital city of Tripoli and two-thirds of Libya's population. The interim government, set to be led by newly selected Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah until elections in December, has the support of the United Nations, Washington and other Western governments, but was on the verge of falling to Hifter last year before Turkey came to its rescue. Hifter has signaled support for the new government, but it still needs to form a cabinet accepted by Libya's competing factions and to be recognized by the splintered parliament, among other challenges.
The arms shipments to both sides are in violation of a U.N. weapons embargo whose main enforcement mechanism is a Mediterranean naval patrol that has intercepted a handful of ships but is powerless to stop the parade of cargo flights.
The concentration of weapons and multiethnic militias on sparse, desert terrain draws comparisons to George Lucas films. "It's like the Star Wars bar scene," a former U.S. official said.
On a recent reconnaissance mission, scouts of the Tripoli government armed with AK-47s and walkie-talkies encountered a convoy of pickup trucks 15 miles west of Sirte. Peering through a pair of binoculars, Mohammed Sadeq, 20, said the lead vehicles were filled with mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa while those in the rear carried Libyans from Hifter units.
"The Janjaweed are always in the front and the Libyans behind," Sadeq said in an interview, using a derisive name for Sudanese militias that plundered that country's Darfur region in the early 2000s. Mercenaries from Sudan and Chad have reportedly been paid by Gaddafi loyalists as well as individuals associated with the UAE.
Sadeq and other Libyans described networks of trenches and berms taking shape in the sand along the war's front lines, and stretches of road strewn with mines.
In Hifter-controlled Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace, sub-Saharan mercenaries are routinely seen on patrol and in other visible assignments, breeding resentment among residents. The Russians, for the most part, avoid appearing in public, and remain inside the secure confines of the city's airport.
Farther south, at the sprawling Jufra air base, satellite imagery shows that Russia has been on a building spree, installing runways, reinforced hangars and communications gear to serve as a nerve center for a growing fleet of MiG-29 and other fighter jets, U.S. and other officials said.
Russia's intervention is both audacious and cautious, advancing its aims in the region without committing official Russian troops. Even the aircraft sent are scrubbed of their Russian markings. In this regard, the Libyan operation has followed an increasingly familiar Kremlin playbook developed in Syria and Ukraine.
The approach shields President Vladimir Putin from the political fallout that would accompany battlefield losses by the Russian military or dead soldiers in distant war zones. It also enables Putin to claim — dubiously but persistently — that Russia itself is not involved in the Libyan conflict or in violation of the arms embargo. Officials at Russia's Foreign and Defense ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
Nearly all of the Russian fighters in Libya are contractors with the Wagner Group, though U.N. documents reviewed by The Post indicate that other Russian private military companies are also involved.
Wagner is a secretive organization that acts like a private company but functions as an extension of the Kremlin, with facilities adjacent to Russian military intelligence compounds.
Wagner's ownership is murky, but the company is believed to be part of a private empire run by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch known as "Putin's chef" because of his rise during Putin's tenure from running a hot dog stand to handling government contracts worth billions. Prigozhin's empire includes the St. Petersburg "troll factory" that deluged Facebook and other social media platforms with divisive messages to upend the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
U.S. military officials estimate that there are now at least 2,000 Wagner mercenaries in Libya, and that the organization has recruited, trained and imported an additional several thousand fighters from Syria. Though Prigozhin has denied any involvement, he was slapped with sanctions last year by the European Union for Wagner's activities in Libya.
Ever opportunistic, Putin sees intervening in Libya "like picking up a square on a Monopoly board," said Fiona Hill, who served as the top White House adviser on Russia and Europe in the Trump administration. "Russia's objective is to be in the game, especially anywhere they've got a former asset or relationship."
Moscow had lucrative interests in Libya dating back decades, including $7.5 billion in arms, gas and infrastructure contracts that Putin had secured in 2008 only to see them blown to the wind by the Arab Spring.
The sting of that lost revenue was only part of the reason Putin was so enraged in 2011 when his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, went along with plans for the United States and Europe to patrol Libya's skies under a NATO mission purportedly confined to protecting civilians.
The mission inevitably morphed into an air campaign against Gaddafi. When he abandoned the capital, a U.S. drone was among the aircraft that fired on his convoy and forced him to flee on foot. His death at the hands of a seething mob that dragged him from a culvert was captured on a cellphone camera, footage that Putin reportedly watched obsessively, according to U.S. officials.
Six years later, Russia gave notice that it was reasserting itself in Libya through a conspicuous cultivation of Hifter, who was given VIP treatment aboard a Russian naval vessel in the Mediterranean and subsequently invited to Moscow.
To prop up Hifter's ragtag operation, Russia printed billions in Libyan currency for him to pay out to regional militias, a gambit exposed when shipping containers stuffed with counterfeit notes were seized on a vessel in Malta.
Prigozhin's troll factory launched a pro-Hifter propaganda campaign, flooding Facebook and other social media platforms in Libya and acquiring a controlling interest in one of the country's TV channels. The change in tone on the station's programming was so obvious that Libyan viewers joked that the coverage had been "Hifterized."
In a bizarre episode, authorities in Tripoli arrested two Russians they accused of being spies employed by Wagner to disrupt municipal elections and gather intelligence on the GNA military.
By late 2018, the flow of Russian arms and fighters had begun. Among those deployed were members of a Wagner "specialist sniper group" and operatives from the company's "attack and reconnaissance company," according to the U.N. report reviewed by The Post.
Wagner set up a training camp near the eastern coastal town of Tokra, took control of the Jufra air base and began shipping large quantities of military hardware.
In time, the inventory came to include at least 14 fighter jets, surface-to-air missile systems mounted on truck beds, grenade launchers, sniper rifles and land mines.
In January 2020, the first planeloads of Syrian fighters began landing in eastern Libya, according to the U.N. report. To cover its tracks, Wagner used Cham Wings, a Syrian commercial airline, to transport the fighters.
Accounts of investigators' efforts to get to the bottom of this ruse are among the most comical passages in the U.N. report. When confronted, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that the flights were for routine civilian travel between Damascus and Benghazi. Investigators said they found the Syrian claims "unconvincing" on several fronts.
For starters, "it was not possible to book a flight on that route on the airline's web portal," U.N. officials said. Further, the flights in question were leaving from a military rather than civilian terminal. Finally, U.N. investigators wondered why so "many of the passengers were dressed in military attire."
The Russian buildup came as Hifter was receiving encouraging signals from the United States.
Trump had so little interest in Libya that he "probably couldn't find it on a map," according to a former senior administration official who discussed Libya with the president. But Trump was being lobbied by other world leaders — especially Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who worried about unrest on his country's western border — to help Hifter seize power as a way to restore stability.
White House officials were intrigued, including then-national security adviser John Bolton, who believed that the State Department had wasted years backing futile efforts to restore peace, former officials said. When the CIA began sending reports that Hifter was planning a new offensive on Tripoli, Bolton got the agency to patch through a call with the rebel leader.
Bolton urged Hifter to "be very cautious" but made clear that the United States would not intervene, according to a former official familiar with the conversation who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The signal from Bolton was "a yellow light," the official said, rather than green or red. Bolton declined to comment. A spokesman for Hifter did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Then, as Hifter plunged ahead and casualties mounted in Tripoli, Trump arranged for his own call with the Libyan commander, again using CIA communications gear. The White House readout resembled a Hifter press release.
Trump "recognized Field Marshall Hifter's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources," the summary said, "and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya's transition to a stable, democratic political system."
Russia and the United States suddenly appeared to be on the same side in the Libyan civil war, an alignment that might have proved decisive had another of Trump's favored autocrats — Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — not intervened.
The Russian Pantsir S-1 is a four-axle truck mounted with 10-foot missiles capable of shooting enemy aircraft — including drones — out of the sky. Hifter had a fleet of them, reportedly purchased by the UAE, and Russian operatives to show his forces how to use them.
The systems were expected to be among the most valuable pieces that Wagner brought to the fight, protecting Hifter's ground forces from aerial attack as they advanced toward Tripoli across flat, exposed terrain.
Then, one by one, the Pantsirs started getting picked off. Turkish drones toyed with the lumbering vehicles, tracking their movements and turning them into charred husks. Adding to the humiliation for Wagner and Hifter, highlight reels started appearing online showing Pantsir after Pantisr stray into a Turkish drone's sights, then disappear in a plume of smoke.
The strikes signaled Turkey's dramatic entry into the Libyan war after watching in disgust for months as its NATO allies failed to protect the interim government they supposedly supported from Hifter's onslaught.
The addition of the Turkish Bayraktar aircraft altered the complexion of a conflict that already involved Chinese-made "Wing Loong" drones flown by Emirati pilots on Hifter's side. By February 2020, U.N. officials were describing Libya as the "world's largest theater for drone technology," a consequence of the arms race the United States had unleashed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Turkey had embarked on a crash course to develop drone capability years earlier when the United States had refused to sell Ankara U.S.-made craft. "I don't want to be sarcastic, but I would like to thank [the United States]" Ismail Demir, the head of Turkey's defense industry, said in 2016. By spurning Ankara, he said, the United States "forced us to develop our own."
Unlike Russia, Turkey made no attempt to disguise its entry into Libya's war. Turkish frigates carrying missiles, torpedoes and helicopters began appearing conspicuously off Tripoli's coast. In a statement to The Post, the Turkish Embassy in Washington said that Turkey's intervention had helped stop the fighting in Libya and salvage peace talks. Turkey "is not the cause of the conflict," the statement said. "To the contrary, it helped make [the] ceasefire and political dialogue achievable by counterbalancing Hifter and his attacks by his Wagner, Chadian, Sudanese mercenaries."
"They are one of the root causes of the conflict," the statement said. "When they start to withdraw, the mercenary problem can be solved."
The interim government in Libya has been unapologetic about accepting Turkish help.
"Our deal with Turkey is legitimate," Brig. Gen. Elhadi Idrah, the spokesman for GNA military operations in Sirte, said in an interview. "We are not hiding anything. It's not like Hifter bringing Russians and Janjaweed into the country with secrecy. We haven't done that. Everything is placed on the table."
In addition to drones, Turkey brought in surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft guns, armored troop carriers, and sophisticated electronic systems that jammed Hifter's transmissions, paralyzed the Pantsirs and enabled the GNA's own bombers and fighter jets to gain command of the western Libyan skies.
Turkey also began bringing in Syrian fighters from anti-Assad militias as part of an airlift that rivaled the magnitude of the Russian transports. At least 145 Turkish cargo flights arrived in Libya in 2020, according to online accounts that track the aircraft.
Turkey's motivations mirror Moscow's in that it has billions of dollars in revenue it wishes to recoup for construction contracts interrupted by the war. But Erdogan also secured new maritime agreements from Tripoli before sending help, and relished the chance to outmaneuver rivals including Egypt and the UAE that are hostile to Ankara's brand of political Islam. In its statement, the Turkish Embassy denied that there had been any "economic commitments or deals," but said that "when time and conditions are ripe, our companies would be ready to contribute to the reconstruction and development of Libya."
There are recent indications that Turkey is prepared to escalate its military involvement even further. A Western official with access to intelligence on the conflict said that the installation of new runways, aircraft shelters and other improvements at al-Watiya air base west of Tripoli are seen as signs that Turkey may soon send in U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to offset the Russian MiGs.
Turkey's intervention turned a nearly successful campaign to take Tripoli into a rout for Hifter and his mercenaries, and the chaotic retreat exposed seams in those supposed allies' solidarity. Wagner pulled out of key positions near Tripoli so abruptly that it fueled speculation that Russia had gotten a secret warning from Turkey. Hifter units found themselves caught off-guard by the Wagner withdrawal, then scrambled to join it in a frantic race east.
Captured communications between Wagner operatives in Libya and their counterparts in St. Petersburg have revealed other tensions. Russian operatives complained about the "enormous consumption of ammunition" by Hifter forces and an equally prodigious consumption of alcohol, according to the U.N. report reviewed by The Post. Wagner fighters blamed Hifter militias for friendly-fire incidents, and both sides squabbled about unpaid bills.
Wagner forces suffered dozens of casualties in the failed Tripoli campaign. Among them was Vladimir Skopinov of St. Petersburg, a renowned fighter who had been awarded the Medal for Courage by Putin in 2018, a telling gesture for an employee of a company whose existence is technically in violation of Russian law.
Skopinov, like others, had been drawn by paychecks that can approach $3,350 a month for combat tours, far above the average monthly wage of $650 in Russia. He had enlisted in 2017, fought first in Syria, then sent word to his mother of another deployment.
"Mama, I'm being sent to Africa," he wrote, according to an account Skopinov's mother provided to a Russian investigative journalist. "In Syria, they decreased the pay too much," he said. "I need to earn money."
After his death in January 2020 was reported on social media, Skopinov's mother collected his pay from a business center in St. Petersburg. Families of fallen Wagner fighters have received payments of as much as 5 million rubles — about $67,000 — and are warned not to speak with the press, according to Russian media reports.
By mid-2020, Hifter's forces had fallen back behind the boundary extending southward from Sirte. Turkey-backed GNA units briefly swept into central Libya in an attempt to seize oil facilities, but they, too, were forced to retreat, in the face of threats from Egypt and the arrival of more Russian fighter jets.
As a result, both sides are essentially back to their respective corners, just more abundantly armed and allied with dominating foreign partners pursuing agendas of their own. Paradoxically, the buildup has brought a measure of stability to Libya, a stalemate between sides that have grown strong enough to cling to power in their cordoned portions of the country but not strong enough to win.
A pause in fighting that began in August became a formally declared cease-fire in October.
Both sides had committed to the removal of all foreign fighters by Jan. 23. But neither Russia nor Turkey so much as budged. Negotiators have been meeting for months in Tunisia in hopes of holding national elections by the end of the year. On Dec. 2, Stephanie Williams, a U.S. diplomat who until this month headed the U.N. support mission in Libya, greeted Libyan representatives with a searing assessment of the situation.
"There are now 10 military bases in your country" that are "either fully or partially occupied by foreign forces," she said. "There are now 20,000 foreign forces and/or mercenaries in your country. That is a shocking violation of Libyan sovereignty.
"You may believe that these foreigners are here as your guests," she said, "but they are now occupying your house."
Six days later, the Russian cargo plane carrying fresh Wagner mercenaries and Syrian militants touched down.
The Washington Post's Atthar Mirza in Washington and Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this report.