Arms Sale to UAE Goes Forward Even as U.S. Probes Tie Between UAE and Russian Mercenaries

Earlier this year, intelligence reporting indicated that the UAE may be coordinating with the sanctioned Wagner Group in Libya.

Libyan Army captures ammunition from warlord Khalifa Haftar's militias in Tarhuna, Libya on June 5, 2020. Libyan army seized on Friday weapons, ammunition, and vehicles purchased by the UAE for warlord Khalifa Haftar. (Photo by Volcano of Rage Operation / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Libyan Army captures ammunition purchased by the UAE by warlord Khalifa Haftar’s militias in Tarhuna, Libya, on June 5, 2020. Photo: Volcano of Rage Operation/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Early this summer, U.S. intelligence agencies received reports indicating that one of the U.S.’s closest Middle Eastern partners had signed a collaborative agreement with a sanctioned Russian mercenary group operating in Libya, according to a current U.S. intelligence official and two former officials with knowledge of the matter.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been looking into whether the United Arab Emirates is helping to finance the Libya operations of the Russian Wagner Group. Both the UAE and Wagner have intervened to support Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who has tried to overrun the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.

But the intelligence reporting, according to current and former officials, has done nothing to slow U.S. arms sales to the Gulf country. The Trump administration is seeking congressional approval of an unprecedented $23 billion sale of weapons to the UAE, including of some of the U.S.’s most advanced military technology, like the F-35 fighter and MQ-9 Reaper drones. If it goes forward, the sale will shift the long-term balance of power in the region.

The intelligence community’s effort was hinted at in a report to Congress last week by the Pentagon’s inspector general. The report said that although the Defense Intelligence Agency’s reporting on the Wagner Group’s financing in Libya is “ambiguous,” the DIA has nonetheless “assessed that the United Arab Emirates may provide some financing for the group’s operations.” This detail in the inspector general’s report, which was first surfaced by Foreign Policy, does not mention when or how U.S. military intelligence reached that assessment.

Although outside analysts have long suspected coordination between the UAE and Russia in Libya, interviews with current and former officials, as well as the inspector general’s report, demonstrate that the U.S. intelligence community is probing ties between one of the U.S.’s largest weapons clients and a mercenary company the U.S. State Department has called a “proxy force” for the Russian Ministry of Defense. The officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.

A former senior U.S. official said that the intelligence about the agreement between the UAE and Wagner included financial assistance.

One current official told The Intercept that U.S. intelligence reporting early this summer indicated that the UAE had signed an agreement similar to a “memorandum of understanding” with Wagner, which many suspected of including direct financial support.

A former senior U.S. official told The Intercept that the intelligence about the agreement between the UAE and Wagner included financial assistance.

After the report was circulated to U.S. intelligence agencies, the CIA informed at least one European ally that it believed the UAE was bankrolling at least some of Wagner’s forces in Libya, according to a third source, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

The UAE is one of the U.S. military’s closest partners in the Middle East and is seen, despite its relatively small size, as a rising military power in the region. But the country’s support for military dictatorships, like the regime in Egypt, as well as its increasing ties to Russia and China, have caused some in Washington to view it as a problematic ally. The country nonetheless remains one of America’s largest arms customers, having bought billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from U.S. manufacturers in the past decade.

Neither the DIA nor U.S. Africa Command provided comment before publication. Spokespersons for the UAE Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for the CIA declined to comment.

The massive arms sale the Trump administration is pursuing appears to have come in response to the UAE’s normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel. Many congressional Democrats will try to block the sale.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a frequent critic of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, tweeted on Monday that a classified briefing on the sale raised a “mind blowing number of unsettled issues and questions the Administration couldn’t answer.”

Libya has been engulfed in civil war for much of the past decade, since a U.S.-led NATO intervention helped topple longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But what emerged was a fragile balance of power among increasingly armed groups, and another civil war broke out in 2014.

The so-called Wagner Group — which entered the conflict in 2019 — is a collection of private mercenary companies that are equipped and closely linked with Russian military intelligence, and several of its entities have been sanctioned for work on behalf of Russia. It has allowed Russia to cultivate a military foothold in Libya with a degree of deniability.

A U.N. panel of experts has documented the repeated violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, citing countries supporting both sides of the conflict. Both Wagner and the UAE, as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, have thrown their support in Libya behind the self-described “Libyan National Army,” backing Haftar in the east, as Turkey and Qatar have supported the Tripoli government. Analysts have long observed what appears to be close operational coordination between the Russians on the ground and Emiratis supporting Haftar.

Wolfram Lacher, a Libya researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told The Intercept that last year, Russian mercenaries at times appeared to be acting as ground forces while the UAE, which does not have a large army, operated drones and fighters.

Last year, Russian mercenaries at times appeared to be acting as ground forces while the UAE, which does not have a large army, operated drones and fighters.

“There was clearly also a coordinating role between [Russian mercenaries] and the Emirati drones,” Lacher said. “For the entire autumn until early 2020, the Emiratis were the only ones flying drones and fighter jets around Tripoli. And meanwhile on the ground, the Wagner guys were really pushing forward. They were the ones leading the push forward towards the center of Tripoli. … They made that progress aided by Emirati drones. So clearly there was coordination.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has remained mostly on the sidelines of the Libyan conflict but recently issued a number of sharp condemnations of Wagner for its activities in Libya. AFRICOM, which estimates some 2,000 Russian mercenaries are among the foreign fighters in the country, released aerial imagery purportedly showing them moving military hardware into Libya.

And, as Wagner and the Libyan National Army withdrew from Tripoli this summer, AFRICOM accused the Russian mercenaries of rigging mines and other explosive devices in Tripoli neighborhoods. Wagner, a Navy admiral said, was responsible for the “reckless use of landmines and booby traps,” which were “harming innocent civilians.”

Lacher said that the international presence in the country — particularly from the Russians and from Turkey, which is supporting the Tripoli government — would be difficult to reverse.

“The covert Russian intervention was a consequence of Emirati adventurism in Libya, the Turkish intervention was a reaction to it,” Lacher wrote in an email. “But now that they’re there, Russia and Turkey appear to be establishing themselves for the long term in Libya. And it’s not clear to what extent the Russian presence now still serves Emirati aims, and to what extent it now primarily serves Russian interests.”

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