Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Tracking Arms Transfers By The UAE, Russia, Jordan And Egypt To The Libyan National Army Since 2014

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

A comprehensive catalogue of weaponry and equipment supplied to the LNA can be found further down in this article.
Since the renewal of a civil war in Libya in 2014 a slow-burning yet at times surprisingly intense conflict has left its future in doubt, with multiple parties vying for control and their international backers not shying away from investing large sums of money to see a favourable result come about. Although a UN-imposed arms embargo (in place since February 2011) is meant to stop both sides from obtaining weapons and equipment, it has since been blatantly and consistently ignored by their foreign backers. A recently released UN panel of experts report aimed to document transgressions of this embargo since its instatement, primarily focusing on analysis of international shipments of arms and equipment by means of air transport. [1] The resulting body of work although painstakingly detailed in some aspects is a testament to shortcomings of this method, and is wholely lacking in competent imagery analysis, failing to note the delivery of a myriad of weapons systems and munitions, while misidentifying others. Its conclusions therefore are far off the mark essentially throwing Turkey as a foreign power in the region under the bus, while categorically ignoring serial offenders such as the UAE, Russia, Jordan and Egypt. This article aims to function as a counterpoint to UNSC's report not by refuting its contents (though a concise rebuffal can be found here), but by providing an actually comprehensive overview of arms transfers by the aforementioned parties to Libya's LNA since 2014.

But before addressing recent developments, it is insightful to consider the background of the conflict. Following a bout of political infighting that ensued the results of the 2014 Libyan parliamentary elections (which had a voter turnout of only 18%), Libya was effectively split in two separate zones. [2] In Eastern Libya, the House of Representatives (HoR) took office in Tobruk, appointing General Haftar as the commander of the Libyan National Army loyal to the HoR. The LNA would receive significant military support from the UAE, Russia, Jordan and Egypt (and to a lesser degree France). Meanwhile in Western Libya, members of the General National Congress formed their own government in the capital Tripoli, becoming what was known as the National Salvation Government. Commonly referred to as Libya Dawn, the National Salvation Government eventually handed power to the GNA interim unity government established in January 2016, which took office in Tripoli in March 2016. While the UN-recognised GNA led by President Fayez al-Sarraj was supposed to act as Libya's new governing body, the HoR withdrew its recognition of the GNA in March 2017, pledging to defeat the GNA and establish itself as the sole legimate government of Libya. [3] Unlike the LNA, Libya Dawn and later the GNA had to make do with little more than political support from across the globe, until Turkey intervened militarily on behalf of the GNA in the summer of 2019.
Already soon after the split of Libya into two warring sides, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan quietly began supplying the LNA with large amounts of weaponry, vehicles and even some aircraft. More advanced equipment secretely began entering the country too, including Chinese Wing Loong unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs) operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA. For this purpose the al-Khadim airbase in Eastern Libya was extensively overhauled and refurbished, receiving new aircraft shelters and tarmac, munitions depots and personnel housing as well as the benefit of air defence coverage by MIM-23 Hawk SAM emplacements. Nevertheless, this strategy of equipping the LNA with large amounts of equipment rather than actually training a capable ground force has translated into little results on the ground. Although there was ample opportunity to ratchet up pressure on the GNA, which received no serious military support from any country whatsoever until 2019, this opportunity was essentially wasted, with the balance of power mostly remaining static while both parties focused on engaging extremist factions. That is not to say that there were no efforts at forcing a breakthrough, but despite escalating involvement, which as the conflict evolved began including even deployment of the infamous Russian Wagner PMC, no such breakthrough was ever effected. Instead, the UAE got for its investments the usual web of controversies that envelop combatants, which has included its implication in a deadly strike on a migrant detention centre as well as a drone strike which killed 26 unarmed cadets. [4] [5]

The UAE's and Russia's combined efforts ultimately failed to deliver the right amount and type of support that was required to enable a hodgepodge of militias united under the banner of the LNA to secure a victory in Tripoli. While a force of Russian-delivered tanks supported by Emirati-operated drones further backed by Russian artillery fire whilst under the cover of sophisticated Russian air defence systems, all operated by the UAE and Russia are an impressive force on paper, it is in fact only as effective as the soldiers that it supports. By not addressing the fundamental shortcomings of the highly irregular and untrained LNA soldier, these force multipliers had not much of a force to act upon, with the mediocre results mirroring the UAE's lack of a cohesive strategy in Yemen. 
When Turkey suddenly intervened on behalf of the GNA in the summer of 2019, the situation in Tripoli and Western Libya was quickly turned around by the effects of Bayraktar Diplomacy, leading to the loss of two major strongholds of the LNA in Western Libya: al-Watiya and Tarhuna. Faced with this new reality, the LNA's foreign backers suddenly went from being just a handful of kilometres away from securing the seat of power in Libya to having to scramble to prevent further GNA advances into LNA-held territory. What exactly the UAE's next course of action would entail became evident already shortly after the LNA's retreat from Western Libya.

Sticking to what it knows best, Abu Dhabi began to look for ways to further outsource the conflict to private military contractors (PMCs) to make up for the LNA's inefficiency in battle. The groundwork for increased mercenary participation in the conflict was already laid during the LNA's failure to advance in Tripoli in 2019, when the involvement of Wagner increased markedly and the UAE began to look for other powers to achieve a breakthrough. The UAE's search would take it to Erik Prince, who subsequently pitched two operations via Christiaan Durrant, both of which ultimately failed to materialise. [6] Other mercenaries include Chadian, Syrian and Sudanese fighters, some of which were lured on the false pretences of working as security guards in the UAE, only to be shipped off to Libya against their will. [7]
In these latter cases, mercenaries unsurprisingly proved to be ineffectual troops, merely suitable for holding defensive positions rather than enabling the offensive breakthrough the UAE was looking for. With little other forces available to outsource the war in Libya to, the UAE then faced a choice. It could significantly increase its backing for Wagner PMC, but in doing so potentially risking its preferential position as one of the U.S.' staunchest allies, possibly even facing the threat of sanctions. Alternatively, the UAE could use the failure of the Tripoli offensive as an excuse to slowly wind down its involvement in Libya and reach a breakthrough not on the battlefield but on the negotiation table. Undoubtedly bolstered by confidence in a U.S. government that was either unwilling or unable to act, Abu Dhabi boldly opted for choice number one, and doubled down on its support for the Wagner PMC.
In what constituted a drastic shift in the UAE's foreign policy of exclusively engaging in coalitions with the US and the NATO, Abu Dhabi quietly entered into alliance with Russia. In doing so, it essentially gave Russia free reign to establish a definite military foothold on the Southern border of NATO. The first effects of this were almost immediately noticable on the ground, as the UAE handed over its remaining Russian-made Pantsir-S1 missile systems to the LNA and later Wagner and opened its al-Khadim airbase in Eastern Libya to Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers (Russia had previously used its own Pantsir-S1s in November 2019 to shoot down two MQ-9 Reaper UAVs - one belonging to Italy, the other to the US - flying near Tripoli). [8] The frequently asked question whether the UAE directly funds Wagner PMC's deployment to Libya is thus entirely irrelevant, as it was the UAE's interference in Libya brought them there in the first place. Of course, the supply of advanced SAM systems to Wagner and the stationing of Su-24s on an Emirati airbase in Libya are all suggestive of some new play in the larger geopolitical game; a turning point for the UAE's ambitions in Northern Africa.

Interestingly, this turn of events appears to have been largely ignored in Western European and U.S. circles. In fact, while Turkey was harshly punished for its decision to acquire the Russian S-400 SAM system, the funding, deployment and equipping of what is essentially the Russian military on the doorstep of the Southern border of NATO by the UAE has so far been left without consequences. On the contrary, the UAE was green-lighted to purchase 50 F-35 stealth fighters as recently as November 2020. Of course, the lack of a clear U.S. policy on Libya during the Trump administration is hardly surprising, but the affair nevertheless raises serious questions about the consistency with which the U.S. deals with its allies.

A Russian Su-24M (with Libyan markings) in Libya.

The UAE's confidence in a U.S. government that was either unwilling or unable to act was further highlighted by several comments made by the its ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba in December 2020. [9] Speaking in response to critism from members in the US Senate regarding the UAE's involvement in Libya, the ambassador made several statements that are clearly false. This included, amongst others, the denial of a characterisation that could only be objectively described as incredibly apt:
As of 2021, the UAE is the only country in the world that housed foreign combat aircraft of both the United States and Russia at its airbases at the same time. Although the Su-24s (and MiG-29s) are officially operated by Wagner, it is an open secret that Wagner acts as the unofficial arm of the Russian military. This is evident by their equipment alone, as no other party can realistically operate (Russian-delivered) MiG-29s, Su-24s, Pantsir-S1s and other advanced equipment inside Libya. Of course, the near constant arrivals and departures of Russian Air Force Il-76s and Tu-154s to LNA airbases should alone be a strong indication that there is de facto Russian state involvement at play.

While most of the delivered weaponry and equipment would eventually be sighted in the hands of the LNA in Libya, or photographed after having been captured by the GNA, the UAE's tendency to source armament from many different countries has long resulted in a steady flow of information about its acquisitions of weaponry for use with the LNA in Libya or proxy forces in Yemen. While some of the information received by the authors comes from confidential sources, others are as simple as airport ground staff photographing planeloads full of weaponry and ammunition heading towards the UAE. As most of these aircraft contain munitions for weaponry that isn't in use with the armed forces of the UAE itself, it is safe to conclude that almost all of this ultimately ends up being used in Libya and Yemen. This practise also implicates several Western European countries in the process, as there appears to be surprisingly little interest in finding out the destinations of weaponry being moved through their ports and airports that is in fact clearly destined for sanctions-ridden Libya and Yemen.

In other cases, the UAE proved too inept or perhaps simply too unconcerned to remove the paint of munition crates it had supplied to Libya. [10] The fact that any traces of its involvement could easily have been obscured by the stroke of a paintbrush speaks volumes about the naive mindset with which the UAE is conducting its Libyan adventure. While nothing screams "illegal arms trade in process" more than shipment details obscured by dripping paint, at least it provides a modest degree of plausible deniability.

Equally inept were attempts made by Erik Prince to drastically alter the course of the Libyan Civil War. Founder of the Blackwater PMC that became notorious for committing serious human rights abuses in Iraq, including the 2007 Nisour Square massacre that killed 17 civilians, Erik Prince's efforts included setting up ill-conceived private military ventures supported by Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE's crown prince. [11] From one such ventures project Opus was born, which Prince had handled by his associate Christiaan Durrant and the company he manages Lancaster 6. Opus was to achieve the breakthrough in Libya the UAE had been looking for, and the plan was as ambitious as it was unrealistic. Involving a small mercenary force centered around airmobile warfare operations, Durrant would end up buying three AS332L Super Puma transport helicopters from South Africa and six MD530FF and three AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters from Jordan. [11] The latter deal ultimately fell through over pesky Jordanians intending to uphold UN sanctions (as well as US law), preventing wild plans which would have included the whole gamut of support operations, such as a maritime unit tasked with tracking down weapons shipments by the GNA's supporters. [11] The fact that such shipments were at the time typically guarded by Turkish Navy frigates, which they were planning to face off with Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) armed with little more than light machine guns, was at this stage of planning glossed over. Perhaps more shockingly, Durrant also presented Haftar with a hitlist of ten Libyans the team was offering to kill. Some of those on the list were European citizens as well as people not living in Libya anymore, and the list actually included several pro-Haftar individuals, showing just how poorly informed and misguided Durrant's efforts were. [12]
A lack of proper equipment wouldn't bring a halt to Opus however, and after the mercenary force arrived in Benghazi in mid 2019 they were joined by three helicopters purchased from South Africa as replacements for the Jordanian AH-1s and MD530s. The helicopters in question were unarmed SA 341 Gazelles that had to be modified in Libya in order to be used as helicopter gunships however, and even then could only provide a fraction of the capabilities of the AH-1s and MD530s. Upon learning that the mercenaries brought with them three unarmed helicopters instead of the nine attack helicopters he was promised and had paid $80 million for, Haftar became enraged and threatened the mercenaries. [11] The latter fled the country for Malta only a few days after their arrival to Libya, using the same two RHIBs that they had envisioned imposing a naval blockade on GNA-held Libya with. So came to an end an affair that was only surpassed in its audacity and potential significance by the sheer arrogance and stupidity of its design.

Even though Christiaan Durrant subsequently released a statement in which he claimed that ''We don't breach sanctions; we don't deliver military services, we don't carry guns, and we are not mercenaries'', these authors have received information and photos indicating that Durrant made several more attempts to obtain combat aircraft, including a bid to acquire Su-25 ground-attack aircraft from TAM in Georgia in March 2019. [13] Of course, the evidence already presented against him through several investigative reports is already sufficient to establish his role in attempting to overthrow the internationally-recognised government of Libya, but his tendency to leave a trail of evidence everywhere he went will surely aid UN investigators in uncovering the full scale of his illicit activities. If found guilty, Durrant could face a travel ban, freezing of all of his assets and up to ten years of jail in Australia. Although the deal to acquire the Su-25s ultimately never went through, there should be little doubt that all were destined for a conflict-ridden area where their arrival would have breached multiple sanctions.

Christiaan Durrant (Right) seen shaking hands with TAM CEO Vaja Tordia (Left) in one of the company's factory halls in Tblisi, Georgia, March 2019.

While Erik Prince's and Christiaan Durrants' influence on the course of the Libyan Civil War appears to have amounted to little more than a temporary spike in Khalifa Haftar's blood pressure, other countries began to deliver increasing amounts of military equipment to make up for the inefficiency of the LNA's military apparatus. These deliveries reached Libya by sea, land (through Egypt) and air. In the case of the latter, both the UAE and Russia maintained air bridges using mainly chartered Il-76s, Russian Air Force Il-76s and UAE Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport aircraft. Many of the flights landed at Sidi Barrani airbase in Western Egypt, near the border with Libya, or at al-Khadim airbase in Libya itself.

A comprehensive list of the supplied weaponry, vehicles, ammunition and equipment can be viewed below. This list doesn't include (up-armoured) Toyota pickup trucks delivered en masse to the LNA, and cargo aircraft that are used to deliver equipment to Libya but otherwise are not operating there. Although deliveries of armoured vehicles are easy to track, items like ammunition are a lot more difficult to pin down and therefore underrepresented in this list. A year in square brackets after the designation refers to the year the equipment was first seen (in Libya) in, which more often than not is also the actual delivery date. When the type of equipment is operated by a party other than the LNA, the actual operator is written in italic. The origins of equipment is denoted by a little flag next to each entry (see the legend on the right) – in case of Project Opus the flag of the UAE is also used as this is where the company behind the operation (Lancaster 6) is located. When the source of the equipment is unknown the flag is in a form of a question mark. Click on the equipment to get a picture of them in Libya.



Armoured Fighting Vehicles

  • BRDM-2 [2017] [Acquired by the UAE from Ukraine]

Armoured Personnel Carriers


Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Vehicles

  • BAE Caiman [2016] Delivered in two configurations: (2) [Acquired by the UAE from the United States]
  • JAIS N35 4x4 [2017] Delivered in two configurations: (2)
  • Valkyrie [2020] (Operated by Wagner PMC)

Infantry Mobility Vehicles


(Self-Propelled) Mortars


Towed Artillery

Multiple Rocket Launchers

Anti-tank Guided Missiles

  • 9M113 Konkurs [2020]
  • 9M133 Kornet [2020] [Acquired by the UAE from Russia]
  • Missing flag.png Dehlaviyeh [2020] [Origin unknown. Likely captured by the UAE in Yemen and sent to Libya or acquired by Sudan from Iran]

Anti-Aircraft Guns


Surface-To-Air Missile Systems

  • S-125 [2020] (Acquired by the UAE from Belarus)
  • Pantsir-S1 [2019] (First operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA. Now used by the LNA and Wagner PMC)
  • MIM-23 Hawk [2019] (Deployed by the UAE to Libya in late 2019 to protect al-Khadim airbase in Eastern Libya)
  • MIM-104 Patriot [2020] (Deployed by the UAE to Libya in January 2020 to protect al-Khadim airbase in Eastern Libya. Returned to the UAE after U.S. pressure)
  • Pantsir-S1M [2019] (Operated by Wagner PMC. Used to shoot down two MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, one Italian, the other US, in November 2019)

Radars and Jammers


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

  • Schiebel Camcopter S-100 [2016] (Operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA)
  • Wing Loong I [2016] (Operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA)
  • Wing Loong II [2019] (Operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA)
  • Yabhon [2019] Delivered in two configurations: (2)
  • Orlan-10 [2016] (Operated by Wagner PMC)
  • 'Orlan-20' [2016] (Operated by Wagner PMC)
  • ZALA 421-16Е [2020] (Operated by Wagner PMC)
  • Mohajer-2 [2017] (Likely acquired by Sudan from Iran)
  • Zagil [2014]
  • Missing flag.png Ababil-2 [2020] [Origin unknown. Likely acquired by Sudan from Iran or transported from Iran via Syria to Libya]



Fighter Aircraft

  • MiG-21MF [2014]
  • MiG-23 [2017] (Delivered to serve as sources of spare parts for Libyan MiG-23s)
  • MiG-29S [2020] (Operated by Wagner PMC. Former Russian Air Force aircraft)
  • Su-24M [2020] (Operated by Wagner PMC. Former Russian Air Force aircraft)
  • AT-802i [2016] (Operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA)
  • Missing flag.png Mirage-2000 [2019] (Operated by the UAE or Egypt, on behalf of the LNA out of Sidi Barrani airbase in Western Egypt)

ISR Aircraft

  • PC-6 ISR [2019] (Operated by Lancaster 6. Used for surveillance and intelligence gathering)


Cargo and VIP Aircraft


Naval Vessels


Trucks, Vehicles and Jeeps

Small Arms



Miscellaneous Items

Acquisitions Still in Progress

  • Mi-35M4 (To be acquired by the UAE from Brazil. Status of deal unknown)
  • CH-4B (To be acquired from Jordan. Status of deal unknown)

Deals that fell through

  • LASA T-Bird [2019] (Acquired by Lancaster 6 but forced to leave Jordan before it could deploy to Libya)
  • An-26 [2019] (Acquired by Lancaster 6 but forced to leave Jordan before it could deploy to Libya)
  • MD530FF [2019] (To have been acquired by Lancaster 6 from Jordan. Deal fell through)
  • AH-1F 'Cobra' [2019] (To have been acquired by Lancaster 6 from Jordan. Deal fell through)
  • T-72M1 [2017] (To have been acquired by Jordan from Poland. Deal fell through) 
Although certainly an impressive list on paper, none of the weaponry in it succeeded in achieving the breakthrough the LNA and its foreign backers were so desperately looking for. After the GNA stopped its breakout out of Tripoli just short of Sirte, the balance on the ground quickly fell back into a stalemate situation that has perhaps best characterised the Libyan conflict, leading to renewed calls to achieve a political solution to the conflict. These concerted efforts finally paid off on the 16th of March 2021, when the GNA formally handed over power to the interim Government of National Unity (GNU), kickstarting a complicated process to end years of civil war and lead elections scheduled for December 2021. Many of the factions in the country are likely reluctant towards surrendering the power and influence they built up over the last years however, and with foreign powers still deeply involved in the entrenched conflict, how successful the GNU will be in restoring stability to Libya remains to be seen.
The implications of the international support for Libya's warring parties far exceed the scope of the Libyan War however. With a new U.S. administration in power that seeks to rapidly break with the policies of the Trump administration, the foreign parties in this conflict suddenly run a renewed risk of political escalation as a result of their past actions. To the UAE, the fact that it now finds itself in open support of a force that has clashed with the U.S. armed forces on more than one occasion (most notably in the 2018 Battle of Khasham in Syria) could mean it has overplayed its hand. Losing the blessing of its traditional ally and still one of the most influential entities in the region could have drastic consequences, not in the least for the purchase of 50 F-35s it managed to secure in the last hours before Biden's inauguration. For now, the UAE might deem the costs of its Libyan adventures worthwhile. The current geopolitical climate is unpredictable and treacherous however, and it might soon be faced with the reality that more than mere monetary costs are at stake.

[1] Letter dated 8 March 2021 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council https://undocs.org/Home/Mobile?FinalSymbol=S%2F2021%2F229&Language=E&DeviceType=Mobile 
[4] Libya migrant attack: UN investigators suspect foreign jet bombed centre https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50302602
[5] UAE implicated in lethal drone strike in Libya https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53917791
[6] The fighter pilot, the mercenary boss, and the warlord: a modern Libyan war story | Four Corners https://youtu.be/yVc7cHG0ATs
[7] Recruited as Security Guards in the UAE, Deceived into Working in Conflict-Ridden Libya Instead https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/01/recruited-security-guards-uae-deceived-working-conflict-ridden-libya-instead 
[8] Lead Inspector General for East Africa And North And West Africa Counterterrorism Operations I Quarterly Report to the United States Congress | July 1, 2020 - September 30, 2020 https://www.dodig.mil/Reports/Lead-Inspector-General-Reports/Article/2427451/lead-inspector-general-for-east-africa-and-north-and-west-africa-counterterrori/ (page 40)
[10] Chinese GP6 guided artillery projectiles in Libya https://armamentresearch.com/chinese-gp6-guided-artillery-projectiles-in-libya/  
[11] Erik Prince and the Failed Plot to Arm a Warlord in Libya https://theintercept.com/2021/02/26/erik-prince-jordan-libya-weapons-opus/
[12] Mission Implausible: The Harebrained (Alleged) Erik Prince-linked Operation in Libya https://libyamatters.substack.com/p/mission-implausible-the-harebrained?r=e0mx3
[13] The fighter pilot, the mercenary boss, and the warlord: a modern Libyan war story | Four Corners https://youtu.be/yVc7cHG0ATs?t=2446

Special thanks to Calibre Obscura.

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