Erik Prince, Trump Ally, Violated Libya Arms Embargo, U.N. Report Says

NAIROBI, Kenya — Erik Prince, the former head of the security contractor Blackwater Worldwide and a prominent supporter of former President Donald J. Trump, violated a United Nations arms embargo on Libya by sending weapons to a militia commander who was attempting to overthrow the internationally backed government, according to U.N. investigators.

A confidential U.N. report obtained by The New York Times and delivered by investigators to the Security Council on Thursday reveals how Mr. Prince deployed a force of foreign mercenaries, armed with attack aircraft, gunboats and cyberwarfare capabilities, to eastern Libya at the height of a major battle in 2019.

As part of the operation, which the report said cost $80 million, the mercenaries also planned to form a hit squad that could track down and kill selected Libyan commanders.

Mr. Prince, a former Navy SEAL and the brother of Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s education secretary, became a symbol of the excesses of privatized American military force when his Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

In the past decade he has relaunched himself as an executive who strikes deals — sometimes for minerals, other times involving military force — in war-addled but resource-rich countries, mostly in Africa.

During the Trump administration, Mr. Prince was a generous donor and a staunch ally of the president, often in league with figures like Steve Bannon and Roger Stone as they sought to undermine Mr. Trump’s critics. And Mr. Prince came under scrutiny from the Trump-Russia inquiry over his meeting with a Russian banker in 2017.

Mr. Prince refused to cooperate with the U.N. inquiry; his lawyer did not respond to questions about the report. Last year the lawyer, Matthew L. Schwartz, told The Times that Mr. Prince “had nothing whatsoever” to do with military operations in Libya.

The accusation that Mr. Prince violated the U.N.’s arms embargo on Libya exposes him to possible U.N. sanctions, including a travel ban and a freeze on his bank accounts and other assets — though such an outcome is uncertain.

The report raises the question of whether Mr. Prince played on his ties to the Trump administration to pull off the Libya operation.

It describes how a friend and former business partner of Mr. Prince traveled to Jordan to buy surplus, American-made Cobra helicopters from the Jordanian military — a sale that ordinarily would require American government permission, according to military experts. The friend, Christiaan Durrant, assured officials in Jordan that he had “clearances from everywhere” and his team’s work had been approved “at the highest level,” the report found.

But the Jordanians, unimpressed by those claims, stopped the sale, forcing the mercenaries to source new aircraft from South Africa.

A Western official, speaking to the Times on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss confidential work, said the investigators had also obtained phone records showing that Mr. Prince’s friend, Mr. Durrant, made several calls to the main White House switchboard in late July 2019, after the mercenary operation ran into trouble. The Western official said it was unclear whom Mr. Durrant sought to contact, or if he got through.

Contacted through his Facebook page, Mr. Durrant declined to comment and referred to a statement he issued to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last September. “We don’t breach sanctions; we don’t deliver military services, we don’t carry guns, and we are not mercenaries,” it said.

The sheer breadth of evidence in the latest U.N. report — 121 pages of code names, cover stories, offshore bank accounts and secretive weapons transfers spanning eight countries, not to mention a brief mention of a Hollywood friend of Mr. Prince — provides a glimpse into the secretive world of international mercenaries.

Libya began to fracture a decade ago, when the violent ouster of the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, set in motion a political crisis that splintered the country into armed factions, many eventually supported by foreign powers hoping to shape the destiny of the oil-rich North African nation.

Eastern Libya is now in the hands of Khalifa Hifter, the powerful militia commander whom Mr. Prince agreed to support, according to the report, as the country was wracked by fighting in 2019.

A one-time CIA asset who returned from exile in Virginia after the fall of Mr. Qaddafi in 2011, Mr. Hifter rapidly established himself in the eastern city of Benghazi as an aspiring strongman who was determined to blast his way to power if necessary.

In his late 70s, Mr. Hifter has relied for years on the United Arab Emirates for funding, armed drones and a range of powerful weapons, according to successive United Nations reports. More recently, Mr. Hifter has also received backing from Russia, in the form of mercenaries with the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group that has become an integral part of his war machine.

In April 2019, Mr. Hifter launched a blistering assault on the capital, Tripoli, but formidable obstacles stood in his way, including newly arrived troops from Turkey supporting the U.N.-backed government. So Mr. Hifter turned to Mr. Prince, the U.N. investigators found.

At a meeting with Mr. Hifter in Cairo, 10 days after the start of the campaign to seize Tripoli, Mr. Prince made his pitch for the $80 million mercenary operation, the UN inspectors revealed.

Four days later, Mr. Trump publicly endorsed Mr. Hifter, reversing American policy towards Libya and supporting the assault on Tripoli.

But the mercenary operation turned to disaster just months later.

No sooner had 20 mercenaries arrived in Benghazi in June 2019 — Britons, Australians, South Africans and one American — than they became embroiled in a dispute with Mr. Hifter, who accused them of failing to deliver promised American-made Cobra helicopters, the report found. Tensions rose and, on June 29, the mercenaries bailed out of Libya by boat on an arduous 40-hour journey across the Mediterranean until they reached safety in Malta.

But key elements of the mercenary mission — a cyberwarfare team that arrived separately and several attack aircraft — remained in Libya, the report said. And the fleeing soldiers of fortune left behind a long trail of paperwork that eventually led U.N. investigators to Mr. Prince.

A PowerPoint presentation shown to Mr. Hifter and reproduced in the report lists possible “high value targets” for assassination, including Abdulrauf Kara, a major commander in Tripoli, and two other Libyan commanders who hold Irish passports, suggesting the mercenaries were ready to hit European Union citizens if necessary.

A welter of contracts detailed in the report show how Mr. Prince moved three aircraft into Libya at short notice, transferring one for a nominal sum of $10.

There are also hints of a certain self-regarding bravado inside the group.

The report said that on a trip to Jordan, Mr. Durrant, the friend and former partner of Mr. Prince, used the cover name Gene Rynack — close to Gene Ryack, the cowboy pilot played by Mel Gibson in the movie “Air America,” about a CIA airline that smuggled drugs and weapons during the Vietnam War.

In fact, Mr. Prince knows Mr. Gibson and hosted him in Abu Dhabi for a couple of days in 2013, said Gregg Smith, a former marine who worked with Mr. Prince at the time.

Mr. Prince has been angling for military business in Libya since 2013, mostly through Mr. Hifter, the report says. In 2015, Mr. Prince supplied the Libyan commander with a private jet, owned by the Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group company led by Mr. Prince, and which Mr. Hifter used for travel to meetings in Egypt and across the region, the report says.

That same year Mr. Prince pitched the European Union on a private military force to patrol Libya’s borders and combat illegal migration. The Europeans declined.

To the outside world, the mercenaries claimed to be working on a geological survey or an oil and gas project. The report says that Bridgeporth, a British survey company then owned by Mr. Prince, was used to manufacture cover stories — just as the company had been used as cover for previous mercenary operations in South Sudan and Uganda.

Travis Maki, an American pilot who once worked for Bridgeporth, told U.N. investigators that he flew one of Mr. Prince’s planes into Libya just before the operation. The plane, a Pilatus PC-6, had previously been used by Mr. Prince during his Blackwater days, and is the same model used by Mr. Gibson’s character in the movie “Air America.” In Libya, it had been fitted with powerful optical sensors that made it a piece of military equipment, the arms inspectors concluded.

In an email, Mark Davies, the chief executive of Bridgeporth, denied the company’s aircraft were used for anything other than surveys, and said that Mr. Maki had not worked for the company since 2018. Mr. Prince's Frontier Group, which once invested in Bridgeporth, no longer held a stake in the company, he added.

Mr. Prince has faced accusations of violating international law before. In 2012, U.N. investigators accused his antipiracy force in Somalia, the Puntland Maritime Police Force, of “the most brazen violation of the arms embargo by a private security company.”

Whether he will face sanctions as a result of the accusations against him, though, is highly uncertain. Mr. Prince can no longer rely on allies with the Trump administration to protect him. At the same time, a senior diplomat at the U.N. said, the Biden administration may be reluctant to penalize an American for breaches of the arms embargo when others are guilty of far worse.

In October, the European Union imposed sanctions on Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a wealthy Russian businessman known as “Putin’s chef” for his close ties to the Wagner Group mercenaries fighting in Libya. But Mr. Prigozhin gets only a fleeting mention in the latest U.N. report — perhaps because investigators, blocked by Russia, struggled to build a case against the Russian businessman.

On the other side of the fight, the report identifies Turkey — an ally of Libya’s internationally backed government — as a major violator of the arms embargo.

The big question about Mr. Prince left unanswered by the U.N. report is who funded the $80 million mercenary operation he is accused of undertaking.

“He’s been linked to the Trump administration, the Emirati leadership and the Russians,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “For me, the question is who is tacitly backing him?”

Analysts and Western officials said the U.A.E. was the most likely foreign funder of the mercenary operation Mr. Prince is accused of launching. The report points out that the mercenaries had offices, bank accounts and shell companies in the Emirates. Moreover, the powerful ruler of the Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, has longstanding ties to Mr. Prince and is probably Mr. Hifter’s most important foreign backer.

Last year, the U.A.E. poured tons of weapons into Libya in blatant disregard for the arms embargo, even as Sheikh Mohammed traveled to Berlin for a major peace conference on Libya, where he posed with European leaders.

As with previous U.N. investigations, the Emirates refused to cooperate with requests for information about the operation involving Mr. Prince and the mercenaries.

“They have yet to respond,” the report noted.

Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.

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