Wagner group, also known as Private Military Company (PMC Wagner) was first identified in 2014 when it was backing pro-Russian separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since then, it has been involved in many regions including Libya.
The Wagner Group has recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law, obliging the European Union, United Nations, United Kingdom and United States to slap sanctions on Wagner as an entity, its Head, Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, who is also known as Vladimir Putin’s Chef, and other individuals and bodies under the Russian PMC.
Wagner in Libya
Wagner’s initial presence in Libya, since 2018, was meant to be in service of joint Russian, UAE, and Saudi strategic priorities that align with those of its Libyan host: The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by warlord and renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who is based with the LNA militias in eastern Libya, with scattered influences in central and southern regions.
The Wagner Group’s main interactions in Libya have been through the LNA and directly or indirectly with the broader international alliance supporting the LNA during its military offensive against Tripoli. In April 2019, the LNA launched its military offensive against the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and Wagner arrived on the frontlines a few months later. On the Tripoli frontlines, Wagner provided tactical assistance and Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) for artillery and aerial strikes. During the offensive period, 3,000 Wagner operatives were estimated to be in Libya, in addition to a number of Syrian mercenaries recruited and commanded by Wagner. Since entering combat operations in Tripoli alongside Haftar in September 2019, Wagner’s presence there has swelled to roughly 2,000 mercenaries, including both Russian fighters and auxiliaries recruited from Syria.
The international coalition supporting Haftar’s LNA included Russia, the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent France and Jordan (the UN’s Panel of Experts has demonstrated that Jordan breached Libya’s arms embargo in providing military equipment to the LNA). The 23 October 2020 Libyan Ceasefire Agreement, which was signed in Geneva, stipulated that all foreign fighters and mercenaries were to withdraw from the Libyan territories. Libya’s 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) gave a 90-day deadline for this to be completed. To date, there has been no indication that foreign fighters and mercenaries loyal to PMC Wagner have left Libya, with the exception of approximately 300 LNA-aligned mercenaries understood to be of Syrian nationality. Thousands of mercenaries of Russian, Syrian, Sudanese, and Chadian nationality remain in the country.
Wagner has built command-and-control systems in four military air bases in Libya: Qardabiyah, Al-Khadim, Brak Al-Shati, and Jufra, as well as operations rooms in Sokna and Hun.
Local sources, including Libya Alahrar TV, have reported that Brak Al-Shati has been used by Wagner for training exercises, recalling that in the mornings they would frequently hear extended periods of gunfire and explosions from the bases. In the last quarter of 2020, Wagner significantly strengthened their numbers at Brak Al-Shati base. Both women and men have been present at the base. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Wagner has sought to expand its control of military bases further south in Libya, after solid presence in the east and center of the country.
Wagner has also had a clandestine presence at a number of oil and gas facilities in Libya. Sources have attested to the presence of Wagner operatives at Ras Lanuf, Brega, and Es Sidr oil terminals as well as El Feel and Sharara oilfields. The Libyan National Oil Corporation also confirmed the presence of militias and foreign mercenaries in major oilfields and terminals in the Oil Crescent Region. In June 2020, the US Embassy in Libya condemned the presence of Wagner at Sharara as ‘shameful interference’ following reports that armed convoys of Wagner operatives had arrived at the field.
The Russian Wagner Group’s foothold in Libya has directly aided its operations in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, most notably in Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali. This support takes the form of using Libyan airfields to create airbridges and the provision of training in Libya. Access to Libyan airbases facilitates the easy rotation of personnel and equipment.
Wagner has remarkably used its presence and partial control of Libyan airbases such as Qardabiyah, Jufra and Al-Khadim to create airbridges between Libya and Sahel and Sub- Saharan areas of operation.
Flight tracking social media accounts, such as Itamilradar, recently monitored an Ilyushin Il-18 (TL-KBR) at Jufra Air Base in Libya in January 2022. The same aircraft had been seen at Bangui M’Poko International Airport in CAR in October 2020. The aircraft is understood to be operated by the Wagner Group. In April 2021, allegations were made that Wagner operatives were involved in supporting the Chadian rebel group Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT). In April 2021, the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, stated that he believed some members of FACT were trained by Wagner in Libya. He cited unconfirmed reports that Wagner contractors were present in the FACT convoy that advanced into northern Chad during the 2021 Northern Chad Offensive.
Wagner: Crimes and Impunity
A BBC investigation and Libyan sources – both official and unofficial – have revealed the scale of Wagner’s violations in Libya, which includes links to war crimes and the Russian military. Besides all the evidence collected by Libyan authorities for the involvement of Russian snipers in killing civilians during the offensive on Tripoli by Haftar in 2019-2020 and the landmines planted by Wagner mercenaries in south Tripoli and other areas across west Libya, where the mercenaries operated alongside Haftar’s LNA, a Samsung tablet left by a fighter for the Wagner group exposed its key role with Haftar. The Samsung computer tablet also provided evidence of Wagner mercenaries’ involvement in the mining and booby-trapping of civilian areas. UN investigators in 2021 also found a computer tablet used by Wagner that was left behind, detailing where land mines were planted in 35 different places near civilian buildings.
The mainly Russian-made mines had been maiming civilians since June 2020, when a number of people returned to their homes after the defeat of Haftar’s militias and their retreat first to Sirte and central Libya and then to their previous positions in eastern Libya – accompanied by multinational mercenaries including Russian Wagner Group’s.
Besides the war crime of planting landmines that killed civilians in different areas in Libya capital’s suburbs, PMC Wagner is accused by UN reports, especially but not plainly by the Fact-Finding Mission to Libya, of the war crime of murder. This could be applied to the mass graves committed by Al-Kani militia under Haftar’s command during the offensive on Tripoli, especially that Wagner mercenaries had been positioned in different operations room in west Libya to support the takeover of the capital at the time (2019-2020).
The Kremlin-linked Russian Wagner Group remains active in Libya to this date with impunity for all the crimes committed against the Libyan civilians, starting from the training and assisting of Haftar’s militias back in 2018 to allow them to wage offensives on innocent people, and not ending with the massive help they have given Haftar and his LNA to ransack Tripoli suburbs, terrorize civilians, destroy public and private properties and even block the only source of their income: oil production and exports. Libyan, UN, Western and regional powers, especially those involved in the Libyan file, have more than once called for the exit of foreign fighters and mercenaries, including the Russian Wagner Group, from the country so that chances of peace and stability can be retrieved after a long time of exhausting wars.