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Turkish meddling in Libya

Despite seeing its hegemonic dreams fall in tatters following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Turkey under Erdogan continues to prop up Islamist militias where it can

Reda Shaaban , Saturday 16 Feb 2019
Ship deliver weapons to Libya
File Photo: Greek coast guard seizes weapons from ship en route from Turkey to Libya (Reuters)

Last week, Libyan customs authorities in the Khums seaport seized another cargo of illicit arms and military hardware from Turkey. In a statement released 5 February, the customs authorities said the shipment included nine Toyota Sierra Leone 4X4 armoured assault vehicles and Turkish-made combat tanks.

The shipment arrived in the port, located 100 kilometres east of Tripoli, Tuesday, coming from the port of Mersin in southern Turkey.

There was no bill of lading or anything to designate a legitimate recipient in Libya, such as the ministries of defence or interior, which indicated that the military hardware was destined for one of the militias operating in western Libya.

According to informed sources, the confiscated shipment had been imported on behalf of the Special Deterrence Forces (SDF) and the Nawasi Battalion, which are two of the main militias that make up the Tripoli Protection Force.

Informed forces report that the governor of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), Sadik Al-Kabir, who is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had covered the cost of the shipments from the account of the Interior Ministry without its knowledge.

The ministry has filed a complaint with the office of the public prosecutor demanding an investigation.

In response, the sources said, Omar Bayu, media adviser to the CBL governor, attacked the interior minister of the government of national accord (GNA), Fathi Bashaga, on social networking sites and both Bayu and Al-Kabir warned Interior Ministry officials that if they did not withdraw the complaint filed with the public prosecution and settle outside of the courts the CBL would freeze all the ministry’s transactions until it yields to the CBL’s demands.

The Militias Respond

The Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), a coalition of militia groups that includes the SDF and Nawasi Battalion, posted a statement on its Facebook page 5 February urging the Libyan public prosecutor to launch in investigation into the shipment of armoured vehicles that had been seized in Khums and the previous shipments of illicit arms and ammunition that was confiscated in the same port.

The TPF also urged the public prosecutor to probe the latest outbreak of fighting in southern Tripoli and to pursue and bring to justice those responsible for it, including those who issued seditious ministerial decrees — an allusion to the GNA’s interior minister.

The TPF, in the statement, reiterated its refusal to recognise the Presidency Council on the grounds that it did not fully conform to the provisions of the Libyan National Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015.

Previous Turkish Arms Shipments

On 17 December 2018, customs authorities in the port of Khums intercepted the BF Esperanza, a containership that had entered the port en route from Turkey, and confiscated containers containing not building supplies as was claimed, but large quantities of arms and ammunition.

The weapons originated from Turkey and were manufactured by two Turkish military and defence systems manufacturers, Zoraki and Retay.

According to the bills of lading, the designated recipients of the containers were the Al-Sahab and Nardeen Al-Hayat companies, while the firm responsible for the shipping arrangements was Al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services (MARFAMAR) based in the Andalous district of Tripoli, with branches in Misrata and Benghazi. The firm’s Website does not provide the names of its owners.

In January 2018, Greek authorities intercepted a Tanzanian-flagged ship bound for Libya carrying 500 tons of explosive materials. The ship had been loaded at the Turkish ports of Mersin and Iskenderun.

Although the ship’s bill of lading indicated that the shipment was destined for Djibouti and Oman, Greek authorities learned that the captain had been ordered by the ship’s owner to sail to Misrata and deliver the cargo there.

On 12 August 2014, the Libyan National Army (LNA) staged an airstrike against a ship bound for the port of Derna, carrying Turkish weapons to be delivered to the jihadist militias that controlled that eastern Libyan city. The shipment included artillery shells and missiles which fired off in all directions as the result of the direct strike.

These and a number of similar incidents confirm the Turkish regime’s support for terrorists in Libya and their war against the LNA.

In a statement released following the discovery of the large shipment of military hardware from Turkey in December last year, the LNA said the lethal cargo, “which included more than 4.2 million bullets, enough to kill nearly 80 per cent of the Libyan people”, was “proof that [its] purpose is to be used for terrorist operations in the Libyan territories”.

It added: “Turkey has not and will not cease exporting to Libya shipments of weapons such as those previously found in the battle zones [where the Libyan army faced off against Ansar Al-Sharia and the Islamic State group].”

In its December 2018 statement, the LNA urged the UN Security Council and the UN Sanctions Committee to initiate an urgent investigation into Turkish weapons shipments in order to bring Turkey to account for its attempts to undermine Libyan security and stability through its support for terrorism.

The flow of Turkish weapons into Libya violates the UN arms embargo and constitutes a breach of UN Security Council resolutions 1973 on Libya and 1373, a universally binding resolution that prohibits any form of support for individuals and entities involved in terrorism.

Ankara's Relations With Libyan MIitias

Some observers draw a connection between the latest Turkish arms shipments and Ankara’s withdrawal from the Palermo summit on Libya in November 2017 because it was excluded from some of its meetings.

“Any meeting that excludes Turkey would prove to be counterproductive for the solution of this problem,” warned Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay who represented his country at the summit.

Sources report that, in July last year, the Speaker of the High Council of State (HCS) Khaled Al-Mishri, approved a decision to send 11 HCS members to Istanbul for courses in “politics and diplomacy”.

Al-Mishri is a leading member of the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, according to some sources, Libyan militia commanders, such as Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, are frequent visitors to Istanbul and Ankara.

The sources suspect that the visits are part of arrangements to transfer IS operatives fleeing Syria and Iraq via Sudan to southern Egypt and the Libyan border. They also believe that there was a secret agenda behind the official visit of members of the Tripoli-based GNA to Turkey in November 2018.

At the official level, the ministers of health from Tripoli and Ankara signed a MoU in a meeting attended by Chairman of the Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj and Turkish President Erdogan while, behind the scenes, Libyan officials met with officials from Turkish and Qatari intelligence in order to coordinate plans for the coming phase.

Turkey's Ambitions In Libya And North Africa

Turkey’s support for the Islamist militias in Libya dates to the beginning of the Libyan Revolution in 2011, when the Turkish government developed its expansionist plan to assert its influence over North Africa using the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt followed by an Islamist government in Libya after it took control there.

Ankara’s official recognition of the National Transitional Council in Libya may have come five months late but, according to sources from the council, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had good and secret relations with the council and its militant Islamist members, above all.

Simultaneously, it retained relations with the Gaddafi regime, which the Erdogan/AKP government, in keeping with its consummate pragmatism, supplied with military assistance and weapons after evacuating its citizens.

Until the revolution, some 20,000 Turks had resided in Libya in which Turkey invested heavily, especially in Misrata.

By the time Ankara recognised the Transitional Council as the sole representative of the Libyan people, on 1 July 2011, it had secured itself a role conducive to the realisation of its ambitions in North Africa.

Once again, the use of a facade for covert activities came into play. After the fall of the Gaddafi regime and Gaddafi’s death, the Erdogan government stepped in to offer logistical and political services.

One of these services was a direct flight between Misrata and Ankara which, in practice, was only made available to Islamist militia group members screened by Qatari agents.

Another direct flight was opened between Ankara and Matiga airport, which was controlled by Abdel-Hakim Balhaj and Islamist militias, in order to facilitate their travels to and from Turkey for the purposes of training, funding and moving assets abroad.

However, Turkish support for the Islamist militias in Libya would become more prominent after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2013, which threw a spanner into the works of Ankara’s designs.

Jihadist And Muslim Brotherhood Money Laundering In Turkey

The Erdogan/AKP government is closely connected with Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist money. Egyptian and Libyan Muslim Brotherhood members have substantial investments in Turkey, such as the chain of private schools owned by Talaat Fahmi, the official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and the hotel, real estate and construction investments made by Youssef Al-Qaradawi, members of his family and other prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures.

The money connection is ideologically driven. In the pursuit of its neo-Ottoman hegemonic drive, the Erdogan regime is taking advantage of the strife and destruction in Libya to seize upon opportunities to invest in reconstruction, acquire new markets and open avenues of encroachment into Africa.

At the same time, it offers members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups the opportunity to recycle moneys purloined from Libya.

Turkey is a prime investment destination for the assets Libya’s Islamists plundered as spoils of war following the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

Evidence of the Turkish role in facilitating the flow of money out of Libya is to be found in a document published by WikiLeaks in 2016. The document in question is an email, dated 24 August 2013, from Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, who was once emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

When he wrote the email, he was serving as commander of the Libyan Military Council. The subject was a request to the recipient to facilitate the transfer of a large sum of money that Belhaj had acquired as his share of the booty seized from Gaddafi’s Bab Al-Aziziya compound to a Turkish government bank so that he could subsequently invest it in Turkey. He offers a 25 per cent commission of the total sum ($15 million) in exchange for the service.

The document was one of thousands of emails, leaked from the AKP’s Website on 20 July 2016, that triggered widespread controversy in Turkey.

The following day, Turkey’s Internet watchdog said it had taken an “administrative measure” against the WikiLeaks Website, meaning it blocked it.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Turkish meddling in Libya 

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