By The Washington Post, Joby Warrick
And there were the helicopter gunships: three AH-1F Cobras, configured with mounts for machine guns and rocket launchers. The U.S.-made aircraft had been given to Jordan years earlier, and leaders of the operation traveled to Amman believing they had a deal to acquire them. In a status report to comrades, a commando team member described the helicopters as packed up and waiting to be loaded onto transport planes bound for Libya.
"Can be operational in seven days," said the report, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
Only a last-minute intervention by Jordanian officials prevented the gunships' departure for Benghazi, the rebel-held city on Libya's northeastern coast. Once there, officials at the United Nations think, the American-made weapons might have helped tip the balance in an offensive intended to overthrow a U.N.-backed government based in Tripoli that the United States officially supports.
Scores of documents obtained by U.N. experts in an 18-month investigation have shed new light on the unusual 2019 attempt by private security companies to insert Western military experts and weapons into Libya on behalf of Khalifa Hifter, the commander of a rebel army in eastern Libya who is seeking to take control of the country with the backing of Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
The plan, the subject of a U.N. report, underscores a weapons-proliferation challenge that Biden administration officials have vowed to confront: the flow of U.S. arms and equipment into Middle Eastern war zones, aided at times by U.S. allies as well as soldiers of fortune. Among other lines of inquiry, U.N. officials have investigated the role of Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder and former private military contractor who officials allege tried to use his personal influence to help secure the release of military equipment bound for Libya.
Any transfer of U.S.-made military aircraft and heavy weapons to a third party is a potential violation of U.N. arms embargoes as well as U.S. laws governing foreign military sales. But U.S. and U.N. investigators are examining multiple incidents involving different types of American-made military hardware, including C-17 transport planes and Javelin antitank missiles, that ended up in Libya or Yemen, according to current and former U.S. and U.N. officials familiar with the investigations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
Some of the weapons have been traced directly to governments that received the arms from the United States. But often, the transactions involved middlemen, including private security contractors seeking to profit from civil wars and insurgencies from South Asia to North Africa, the officials said.
"There's a wild, wild West of criminal networks and arms traders providing weapons and [flouting] all kinds of international rules and norms," said William Lawrence, a former State Department official and diplomat who served in Tripoli. "Libya is emblematic of the problem."
Last month, the Biden administration announced a temporary freeze on missile sales to Saudi Arabia and a review of a pending sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. Proposed weapons sales to the two U.S. allies had drawn bipartisan objections in Congress, in part because of concerns about the countries' past use of American weapons in proxy wars in the Middle East and North Africa.
Congress is separately investigating the transfers. While private arms traffickers are drawn to wars to pursue profits, the United States is obligated to use its leverage with allies to prevent the unauthorized use of American-made weapons in some of the world's most brutal conflicts, said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"The responsibility here rests with governments to stop this kind of behavior," Malinowski said. "There are countries involved that are considered partners and allies of the United States."
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Documents obtained or seen by The Post offer a rare glimpse into what investigators describe as one of the most unusual guns-for-hire operations in Libya's 10-year history of conflict after the toppling and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The papers, acquired by a panel of U.N. officials probing alleged arms violations, include flight logs, manifests, financial records and communications among individuals allegedly involved in the operation that unfolded over the spring and summer of 2019. Among the records is a status or "situation" report - called a "sitrep" - written by a team member and describing in detail the plan to insert a team of Western military operators and equipment into Libya at the height of a rebel offensive intended to capture the capital and overthrow the country's U.N.-backed government. The memo, obtained by The Post, refers to the private contractors collectively as the "Opus Group." It was written by a team member identified in the document as "Opus 1." Three current and former U.N. and U.S. investigators vouched for the document's authenticity.
The plan fell apart before it could be fully launched, with many of the would-be participants fleeing Libya by boat for the island of Malta, current and former U.N. officials said. While the plan has been previously reported on by other publications, including Rolling Stone and the New York Times, the "sitrep" document and other records reveal the full scale of the group's effort to acquire sophisticated arms - including Cobra helicopters - to support a strike team of up to 20 Western military experts, including South African, British and Australian military veterans and at least one American.
At the time of their arrival in Benghazi in the late spring of 2019, Libya's Government of National Accord in Tripoli appeared to be clinging to power by the flimsiest of threads. The Libyan National Army, or LNA, the patchwork of militias led by Hifter, had captured the capital's outskirts in a spring offensive that appeared poised to overrun the capital within weeks.
According to U.S. and U.N. officials familiar with the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, Hifter had approved a plan to acquire helicopters and experienced, Western-trained military experts to bolster his efforts to storm Tripoli. Among the options under consideration, the officials said, was a plan to use a private commando force to kill or capture top political and military leaders, some of whom had been identified on a hit list as potential targets.
Around April 2019, Hifter procured the services of a group of private security and logistics contractors based in the UAE, and they collectively referred to themselves in the documents as the "Opus Team." According to financial records and other documents obtained by investigators, the chief logistical and financial backers of the team were Opus Capital Assets and Lancaster6, two companies headquartered in Dubai. Lancaster6 is headed by Christiaan Durrant, a former Australian air force pilot. Durrant also has held senior management positions with Opus Capital Assets.
Durrant, responding to a query from The Post, referred to a previous written statement in which he denied any role in the June 2019 operation other than to provide "engineering inspections and recommendations" on aircraft acquired in Jordan.
"I am not, never have or will be a mercenary," Durrant said in a statement provided to the Australian Broadcasting Corp., "or a leader of such." Durrant, who has been interviewed by the U.N. panel investigating the events, acknowledged in his prepared statement that he participated in efforts to set up a "logistics hub" in Libya, in part to help provide security for oil and gas infrastructure. Durrant said neither he nor his companies were involved in efforts to supply weapons to Libyan combatants. "We don't breach sanctions; we don't deliver military services, we don't carry guns," Durrant said in his prepared statement. He said he had no knowledge of the origins of several of the documents attributed to the Opus Group.
Emails and text messages requesting comment from Hifter and from Opus Capital Assets' senior management in Dubai did not receive a response.
The sitrep suggests that the Opus team had invested considerable effort and expense in acquiring weapons and hardware for the strike, and that by mid-June 2019, the group had nearly everything it needed.
By the time the report was written, on June 18, 2019, Opus had significant assets on the ground, including an intelligence "fusion and targeting cell" as well as a "cyber team" for communications and radio jamming, the document states. Two high-speed inflatable vessels had been acquired for the mission and were "ready and fueled in Malta awaiting the advance team's arrival in Benghazi," it said. The boats had been mounted with guns in anticipation of stopping and commandeering enemy supply vessels, the report said.
Investigators who examined the document said the report reflects a sophisticated planning effort for the raid, as well contingency arrangements for evacuating any wounded personnel or captives, and for fleeing Libya in the event the mission failed.
The last of the major acquisitions were waiting in Jordan. Members of the band flew to the Jordanian capital in mid-June, apparently believing they had cut a private deal with a group of Jordanian officials to acquire three AH-1F Cobras, believed to be priced at about $6 million each, according to current and former U.S. and U.N. officials familiar with the investigation.
The gunships had been disassembled for shipping and were ready to be loaded onto a pair of Russian-made cargo planes the team's leaders had arranged to be in Amman for the pickup, current and former U.N. officials said. In addition to the Cobras, the Opus group anticipated getting a supply of small arms, ammunition and night-vision equipment from their Jordanian contacts. A military drone also had been purchased and was due to arrive in Amman within days, the sitrep said.
"Team can be effective within 7 days if the [government of Jordan] supports with an export of controlled items, including helicopters, air ammunition, ground weapons, ground ammunition and night vision," the report said.
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But the plans were thrown into chaos when the Jordanian government refused to cooperate.
Shortly before the Opus team arrived in Amman, the authorities there began looking into the scheme, concerned about potential violations of U.S. regulations, current and former U.N. officials said. At the time, Jordan was in the process of selling some of its surplus Cobras, which were being phased out to make room for newer aircraft. Negotiations were underway to sell some of the helicopters to the Philippines, subject to approval by the U.S. government.
No formal permission had been granted for releasing the Cobras to Opus, so the Jordanians balked at letting the aircraft leave the country, the officials said. Members of the Opus team continued to pressure the Jordanians anyway, insisting that they were conducting a humanitarian operation and that their plans had been approved at the highest levels by the U.S. and UAE governments, according to private communications given to U.N. investigators and seen by The Post.
A flurry of calls to Washington found no support for the visitors' claims, the officials said. Then, an inspection determined that the Opus transport planes that had arrived in Amman were already partly filled with other weapons, apparently bound for Libya, according to an official familiar with Jordan's internal investigation of the incident.
"They [Opus team leaders] were adamant that they had all the approvals," including permission from the Trump administration to acquire the Cobras, said the official, who, citing the ongoing investigations, agreed to an interview on the condition that neither he nor his country be identified. "There was no official approval."
Durrant, in a statement to The Post, denied that Opus ever claimed that the acquisition attempt had official U.S. blessing.
"This is totally false in every part," he wrote in an email message.
As part of the investigation, U.N. officials have sought to interview Prince, a former Navy SEAL and private military services contractor, current and former U.N. officials said. The U.N. panel was seeking information about at least two phone calls made by Prince to Jordanian officials, allegedly asking that the Cobras be released to the Opus team, the officials said. Prince is a former business associate of Durrant's.
A lawyer representing Prince said the former military contractor had broken no laws. "Erik Prince had absolutely nothing to do with any operation in Libya in 2019, or at any other time," the lawyer, Matthew Schwartz, said in an email.
For Opus, Jordan's refusal to release the helicopters was a serious - and ultimately fatal - blow to the mission.
"Despite confirmations by all hierarchical parties involved that [the government of Jordan] would support the Opus operation," the sitrep's author wrote, "the support has not yet materialized, which has had serious impact on the project." The group was arranging to purchase helicopters elsewhere, he wrote, but "this places considerable legal risk on Opus and is beyond the scope of the agreed contract."
Indeed, the planned mercenary raid fell apart within days after the report was penned. When an Opus delegation traveled to Benghazi to brief Hifter on the events, he erupted in fury, angered by the group's failure to secure the U.S.-made gunships that had been promised, according to the two officials familiar with investigation of the incident.
Fearing that they might be arrested, the mercenaries left Libya in their inflatable vessels and fled to Malta, the officials said. They arrived on July 2 and were detained by customs officials, then released.
Hifter's offensive against the Tripoli government faltered soon afterward. Despite weeks of steady advances and drone strikes on central Tripoli, Hifter's fighters were slowly driven back by government troops bolstered by increasing military support from Turkey.
On June 26, just over a week after the memo was written, Hifter's army was driven from Gharyan, a key LNA stronghold south of the capital, and the retreating convoys were decimated in an aerial attack. Hifter would try again to take Tripoli, but he has not regained his momentum.