Erik Prince, the US private security contractor and former head of Blackwater Worldwide, tried to help a renegade general take control of Libya and “at the very least” helped evade a UN arms embargo on the country, UN inspectors have said.
Khalifa Haftar, a general from eastern Libya, launched a war in April 2019 to overthrow the UN-backed government in Tripoli. His offensive scuttled a UN process aimed at uniting the divided country and ending years of chaos since the overthrow of Muammer Gaddafi, the former dictator, in 2011. Haftar’s 14-months offensive — backed by the UAE, Egypt and France — ultimately failed after the intervention of Turkey on the side of his opponents. An interim unity government tasked with preparing for elections was sworn in this week, raising hopes for the return of stability.
Days after the war began, Prince met Haftar in Cairo and made a proposal for a private military intervention, said the UN inspectors. The alleged $80m contract included assault aircraft, cyber capabilities and the ability to intercept Turkish ships at sea. One component of the operation, dubbed Project Opus, was to “kidnap or terminate individuals regarded as high value targets in Libya”, said the experts. Prince violated a Security Council resolution on Libya “in that, at the very least, he assisted in the evasion of the provisions of the arms embargo in Libya,” they said.
Matthew Schwartz, a lawyer for Prince, said in a statement to the Financial Times on Tuesday that his client “had absolutely no involvement in any alleged military operation in Libya in 2019. He did not provide weapons, personnel, or military equipment to anyone in Libya”.
He also denied there had been a meeting in Cairo with Haftar. “Prince was not in Egypt at any point in 2019 — as travel records confirm — and has never met or spoken to [Haftar]. This alleged meeting is fiction and never took place.”
The report said three UAE companies were used for the planning, management and finance of the operation and it named a South African citizen as the team leader on the ground.
The UN report said military aircraft for Project Opus were to be procured from Jordan, but senior officials in the kingdom cancelled the sale after they suspected they would be used in an illegal operation. Six former military helicopters were bought from South Africa and three other aircraft were supplied by companies controlled by Prince, according to the UN’s experts.
But Project Opus, said the inspectors, quickly ran into trouble because “Khalifa Haftar was unimpressed with the replacement aircraft procured for the operation and made threats against the team management.” Within days of their arrival in Libya, 20 mercenaries had to be evacuated in a hurry across the sea to Malta aboard two inflatable boats originally bought for the operation.
Prince was once the darling of the US government, which paid his company more than $2bn to provide military support in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But Blackwater became mired in controversy for the massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians by the company’s operatives at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007. Three years later Prince sold the company, which has since changed its name twice.
Prince’s lawyer charged that the UN panel of inspectors which produced the report refused to provide his client with any information concerning the subject matter of the investigation and “has failed to even put forward questions on topics about which the Panel’s report apparently reaches false and slanderous conclusions”.
The report, however, said that Prince was contacted by email and letters sent by courier to his residences but no response was received. It concluded: “His failure to co-operate with the Panel means that the evidence supplied to this document is submitted unexplained and unchallenged by Erik Prince.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington