Small Wars Journal

What You Need to Know About Private Military Contractors Backing Libya’s Rebels

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 1:53pm

What You Need to Know About Private Military Contractors Backing Libya’s Rebels

Crispin Burke

In May, the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced unmarked Russian jets were supporting mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group in their fight against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. The announcement came on the heels of a UN report alleging another group of mercenaries had been involved in a plot to use helicopters to intercept ships ferrying weapons and fighters bound for the GNA.

Mercenaries, often referred to as Private Military Contractors (PMCs), are hardly new. Since the turn of the century, the US has used military contractors to collect intelligence, train foreign armies, and, as many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan remember, guard dining facilities. Whereas modern standing armies take years and billions of dollars to develop, mercenaries – often former trained military personnel – can be hired quickly and relatively cheaply. Best of all, contractors are often exempt from the oversight which usually accompanies uniformed troops, allowing nations to pursue military objectives with little scrutiny.   

Of course, these strengths also make them an attractive option for nations who wish to involve themselves in foreign conflicts on the down-low. Russian PMCs have been spotted everywhere from the Central African Republic to Syria – the latter of which was the site of a pitched battle between Wagner Group contractors and US troops which left over 300 foreign gunmen dead…and almost no political fallout.

So what to make of the latest revelations? Here’s what you need to know about armed contractors in Libya.

What exactly is going on in Libya?

You may not have paid much attention to Libya, given a slew of crises ranging from ongoing tensions with Iran to the Coronavirus pandemic. In short, Libya is deadlocked in a civil war between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), located in the northwest of Libya, and the Libyan National Army in the country’s south and east.  

In 2011, a series of protests known as the Arab Spring erupted first in Tunisia and quickly engulfed the Arab World. In Libya, protestors in the eastern city of Benghazi soon rebelled against the government of longstanding Libyan dictator Moammar Qadaffi. After weeks of fighting between the two sides, the UN Security Council voted to implement a no-fly zone, after which NATO forces began a military operation first to protect civilians, then to support the rebels against Qadaffi’s government. The capital city of Tripoli fell in August and Qadaffi was killed by rebel forces in October of that year. The rebels declared victory and announced they would hold elections within a few months.   

However, the newly-formed government (eventually known as the GNA) was plagued with infighting and inefficiency. After years of instability, Libya was largely divided between the GNA – which controls a small enclave near Tripoli in the country’s northwest – and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls the nation’s oil-rich east as well as much of the south.

In April 2019, Khalifa Haftar’s LNA launched an offensive to capture Tripoli. But while Haftar enjoys major international backing, he has yet to succeed in capturing the city, and as of this writing, the GNA is back on the offensive thanks to Turkish support.  

Who else is fighting in Libya besides the GNA and the LNA?

Both the GNA and the LNA receive both covert and overt international military backing. Haftar’s LNA receives military support from a slew of actors including many of the Gulf States, Russia, and France, the latter of whom allegedly supplied the LNA with US-made anti-tank missiles (France claims they simply lost the missiles). By contrast, although the UN recognizes the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government, it receives lukewarm support from most nations, with one notable exception – Turkey. In late 2019, President Erdogan of Turkey pledged military support to the GNA, eventually sending troops, armed drones, and eventually, mercenaries (more on that later).

It’s worth mentioning Libya is currently under a UN arms embargo, although as many as six nations have willfully violated it, according to the New York Times.  

Who’s behind the plot to intercept Turkish arms shipments bound for the GNA?

A UN report acquired by Bloomberg News alleged that a group of twenty mercenaries – mostly Western-born and led by a South African national – were involved in a plot to use helicopters and speedboats to intercept Turkish shipments bound for the GNA in Tripoli.

According to the New York Times as well as open-source photographs on the Internet, six helicopters – including at least three Super Puma assault helicopters – were transported overland to the south African nation of Botswana, where they were loaded onto cargo planes and flown to an air base in LNA-controlled Benghazi in eastern Libya.

Unfortunately for the mercenaries, Haftar wasn’t exactly pleased with the aging Super Pumas, claiming he was promised more powerful helicopters and armed fixed-wing aircraft. Unable to resolve the dispute, the mercenaries eventually retreated across the Mediterranean Sea to Malta by way of boats leased from a Maltese businessman. The mercenaries were questioned by Maltese authorities in Valetta and eventually released.

The UN report traced the mercenaries to a series of companies in the United Arab Emirates, a nation which hosts several PMCs, including Erik Prince’s Academi (formerly Blackwater). Although there has been no public evidence of a direct link between the UAE government and the operation, the UAE has provided significant support to Haftar in the past, even supplying the LNA commander with arms shipments in violation of the UN arms embargo.  

What’s the deal with Russia’s fighter jets?

Following a series of reversals for the LNA, Russia allegedly sent fighter jets, including MiG-29 multirole jets, Su-24 ground-attack jets, and at least one Su-35 fighter to support Wagner Group mercenaries, who in turn are operating in support of the LNA.

According to AFRICOM, the jets were first flown to Khmeimin Air Base along the east coast of Syria, where they were re-painted to remove Russian Air Force markings. From there, they were flown to Tobruk in eastern Libya, then to al Jufra Air Base. Although AFRICOM Commander Gen. Stephen Townshend referred to the pilots as “mercenaries”, it’s unclear whether the aircraft were flown by PMCs or incognito Russian military members akin to the “Little Green Men” seen in Crimea in 2014.

So who else is using PMCs in Libya?

Turkey has bolstered the GNA with uniformed troops, armed drones, and thousands of mercenaries recruited from Syria. Some Syrian fighters, hardened from years of civil war in their own country, have signed up to fight in Libya, citing the Turkish government’s pay of up to $2,000 per month (duty as a mercenary in Syria nets less than $50 per month).

It’s worth noting Turkey’s Syrian proxies have come under scrutiny in the recent past. In October, a Turkish-backed militia drew condemnation from Amnesty International when they were found to have executed a Kurdish politician.

What does the future hold?

One Libya expert remarked in an interview with the New York Times, “[Libya is] a free-for-all. Everyone is bringing ever more absurd types of weapons and fighters into Libya, with Syrians on both sides, and nobody is stopping them.” Indeed, nearly 3,000 fighters from Sudan recently crossed the border into Libya to fight for Haftar and the LNA.

But the PMC problem extends beyond Libya. Over the past few weeks, private contractors have been involved in everything from cyber operations to a harebrained scheme to overthrow the Venezuelan government.

The latter of those episodes highlights one of the greatest concerns with armed contractors – they often come with their own agendas. The military contractors involved in the botched Venezuelan coup d’état – jokingly called the “Bay of Kids” – appeared to be glory-hunters out to collect a $15 million bounty…without the approval of the US government. The same appears to be true of a group of Wagner contractors who were decimated by US airpower in the Syrian desert in 2018 – sources indicate the Wagner group fired upon a US outpost after authorization not from the Kremlin, but rather, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prighozin, better known as “Putin’s Chef”. (Prighozin, who was indicted by the US government for his role in the Russian “Troll Farm”, allegedly had to grovel for forgiveness from Putin after the incident).

Despite calls to regulate PMCs, it seems likely they will be a cheap, low-risk, and effective alternative for nations who lack America’s power projection. In the future, it seems likely US forces will be squaring off with mercenaries yet again – perhaps even Americans hired by the adversary.   

About the Author(s)

Crispin Burke is a military officer who has written on topics ranging from counterinsurgency to cybersecurity. He can be found on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.