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Onto Libya: Where there's a failed U.S. war policy, Erik Prince is there

A UN report says the Blackwater founder violated arms embargoes by sending weapons and men to aid militia chief Gen. Khalifa Heftar.

Analysis | Europe

Give credit where it is due. Erik Prince, co-founder of the Blackwater private security company, and the “Energizer Bunny” of the private military and security contracting industry, who just keeps going and going, has done it again. Prince has again been accused by the United Nations of plotting and launching a failed mercenary operation. 

On February 19, the New York Times reported that a confidential United Nations report delivered to the U.N. Security Council detailed  how Prince “violated a United Nations arms embargo on Libya, by sending weapons to a militia commander who was attempting to overthrow the internationally backed government.” And from a national perspective that also might be a violation of the U.S. Neutrality Acts.

That commander is Libyan-American warlord and one-time CIA asset General Khalifa Haftar.

According to the report, U.N. monitors said that they had "identified that Erik Prince made a proposal for the operation to Haftar in Cairo, Egypt on, or about, 14 April 2019." 

The report 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.” According to a later report by Rolling Stone, Haftar “saw plans for an operation that would use two Cobra H1 attack helicopters, mounted with 20mm rotary machine guns and crewed by foreign mercenaries, to swoop down and kill or capture 11 of Haftar’s political enemies.”

Furthermore, the operation included a plan to form a hit squad to locate and assassinate commanders opposed to Haftar.

Let’s just pause and consider the implications. If true, Prince, was offering to provide the capability to kill people; like a modern version of Murder Inc. or any organized crime lord. 

Don’t confuse it with permissible battlefield killing. It is extrajudicial execution; like the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, without the up-close butchery. If the charge is true and Prince is not prosecuted and sent to prison over this, the message would be frighteningly clear. The United States would be normalizing criminal behavior.

The U.N. report should come as no surprise. It has been an open secret for over a year that the U.N. is looking into Prince’s activities in Libya. Nor has the U.N. been the only authority looking at Prince’s activities there. In 2016, The Intercept reported that he was “under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies for attempting to broker military services to foreign governments and possible money laundering.”

But given the prolonged fighting of the current civil war in Libya, the latest charges against Prince deserve serious consideration. There are multiple reasons to think the 120-page, richly documented U.N. report is credible, if only because some of its main points have been previously and widely reported. 

An investigative documentary report by the Australian Broadcasting Company ’s “Four Corners” detailed Prince’s “Project Opus,” the failed effort to help Haftar dislodge the U.S.- and UN-supported government of Libya, which included an ultimately failed attempt to buy two Cobra attack helicopters and five "Little Bird" special forces helicopters from the Jordanian military. It found that “the PowerPoint Presentation used to sell the offer to Haftar said Opus, “can be effective within seven days… with export of controlled items including helicopters, air ammunition, ground weapons, ground ammunition, and night vision. Opus will continue their aggressive deployment program [to] support the commander’s strategic intent.” Communications show that “Opus” was willing to break the law if Jordan couldn’t provide false documents for export of the aircraft and equipment to Libya. 

Bloomberg reported last May that, according to the U.N. report. the mercenaries were affiliated with Lancaster 6 DMCC, headed by former Australian air force pilot Christiaan Durrant, who worked for Prince’s Frontier Services Group until 2016, and Opus Capital Asset Limited FZE, both registered at free zones in the United Arab Emirates, which financed and directed an operation to provide Haftar’s forces with helicopters, drones, and cyber capabilities through a complex web of shell companies.

The U.N. report describes how, after 20 mercenaries arrived in Benghazi in June 2019, they became embroiled in a dispute with Haftar, who accused them of failing to deliver as promised U.S.-made combat helicopters but instead airshipping tired civilian versions of Gazelle and Puma helicopters.

Tensions rose and, on June 29, the mercenaries bailed out of Libya by boat, leased by Blackwater Ammunition’s James Fenech’s Sovereign Charterers to Opus Capital, on a 40-hour journey across the Mediterranean until they reached safety in Malta. 

The New York Times reported on this last May, and noted that the 2019 expedition was organized and financed by a network of secretive companies controlled or part-owned by Durrant, former Prince employee and sailing partner.

This isn't the first time Prince has been accused of violating laws against weapons transfers. A Common Dreams article noted that, “In 2012 his anti-piracy security force in Somalia was accused by the U.N. of "the most brazen violation of the arms embargo by a private security company," referring to an international arms embargo on Somalia. Prince was also reportedly the target of an FBI investigation last year for weaponizing crop dusters.” 

Unsurprisingly, Prince denies any involvement, saying “he was in the mountains of Wyoming and later on a road trip to Alaska and Canada with his son.”

“It’s hard to run a mercenary operation from the backcountry of northern Yukon Territory,” he told the New York Times.

According to his lawyer, Matthew Schwartz, "Mr. Prince had no involvement in any alleged military operation in Libya in 2019, or at any other time. He did not provide weapons, personnel, or military equipment to anyone in Libya."

Furthermore, Prince sued The Intercept for defamation in May 2020, saying he had “no choice but to defend himself” because The Intercept accused him “of being a criminal and a traitor based on dishonest and biased anonymous sources that it made no effort to corroborate.” That lawsuit was dismissed last month.

But Prince is not known for his truthfulness. When he was interviewed as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff found his testimony so misleading that he formally referred Erik Prince to the Department of Justice for consideration of a potential criminal prosecution for false testimony.”

Robert Young Pelton, author of “Licensed To Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror,” who has closely tracked Prince’s activities for years, stated that “missing from the Schiff referral is the detailed discussion on Libya Prince had with the Russian envoy and MBZ” — United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — “in the Seychelles.” This meeting was documented under oath in the Mueller investigation, but often overlooked due to the focus on Prince’s efforts to create a Russian backchannel. 

Given that Prince has a longstanding relationship with MBZ and that the UAE has intervened in Libya, in addition to its better known intervention in Yemen, it seems possible that MBZ funded at least some part of the reported $80 million price tag for Prince’s planned operations in Libya.

The UAE’s involvement in Prince’s plot seems even more probable in light of the 2018 BuzzFeed News report that the UAE hired a small private army, comprised of former U.S. Special Forces and SEAL operatives, to assassinate Anssaf Ali Mayo, the local leader of a Yemeni Islamist political party, Al Islah, whose members include Nobel Peace Prize recipients. The UAE wanted Ali Mayo dead not because he was a terrorist, but because he spoke out against the UAE’s involvement in the war that has ravaged Yemen since 2015.

At the time of the failed Libya plot linked to Prince, the United States officially supported the other side, the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli. Any effort by Prince to help Haftar would not only have contravened U.S. foreign policy interests, but also arguably violated U.S. Neutrality Acts. Despite the meticulous and damning U.N. report, it remains to be seen if the Biden administration will support soon to be proposed sanction designations against Prince and gang. 

The U.N. arms embargo on Libya has been ignored by all sides since 2011, even with violators facing travel ban and asset freeze sanctions per U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970

If Prince’s likely involvement in Libya’s chaos and violence goes unpunished it will mean that the Energizer Bunny will be free to plan, and carry out his next mercenary operations wherever in the world he thinks he can make a buck.

Blackwater USA Chief Executive Erik Prince swears in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington October 2, 2007. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES)
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