The Concierge of Violence and Terror: Shipping Companies and Weapons Smuggling to Libya

Shipping containers trafficking firearms
Photo: wasi1370, Pixabay.

Wherever we find conflict and war, we find illicit weapons. Illicit firearms are a threat to peace and security, and are often an obstacle to finding peaceful and sustainable resolutions. Firearms can be used to consolidate or gain power or to commit violent crimes. Importantly, once a region is flooded with illicit weapons, it can be easier for new extremist movements to acquire weapons and begin new campaigns of political violence.

Most firearms are originally manufactured and transferred legally, but get diverted to the illicit global firearms market during their life cycle. Illegal firearms enter conflict zones in different ways. Weapons can be stolen, converted, recycled, sold by members of the armed forces, diverted from ex-military supplies, captured from government forces, or diverted from their original destination. Legal weapons can also be exported by states in violation of United Nations Security Council embargoes or international agreements.

The United Nations Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol) supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) defines illicit arms trafficking as “the import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition from or across the territory of one State Party to that of another State Party if any one of the States Parties concerned does not authorize it (…) or if the firearms are not marked in accordance with (…) this Protocol.”

These weapons find their way from the countries that supply weapons to the destination countries over land, by air, or via the ocean. Shipping companies can be unwittingly involved in the smuggling operation. With some types of ships, though, such as roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) vehicle carriers, where weapons and military equipment such as tanks or armored personnel carriers are transported, it is unlikely that the company is not complicit in the smuggling operation. Economic profit is often the motivating factor when shipping companies knowingly get involved in smuggling arms—not necessarily political ambition. Shipping companies traffic weapons for criminal or terrorist groups or ship arms to embargoed or banned destinations. One such embargoed destination is Libya.  

Libya

The fall of the Libyan dictatorship under Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 led to a failed state characterized by the inability of successive administrations to bring the many militias under control. Violence escalated in 2014, and failed elections led to division under two administrations: the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF). The LAAF led an offensive lasting several years that left Haftar in control of eastern Libya and large parts of the south.

Weapons destined for parties in the conflict are being funneled into the county. On 26 February 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1970 (2011), a two-way embargo in response to human rights violations by the Libyan government in the weeks preceding the sanctions. In terms of this resolution:

“All Member States are required to prevent the sale or supply to Libya of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned (with an exception for the Libyan government for non-lethal materiel, technical assistance, training or financial assistance); prohibits the export by Libya, and procurement by Member States, of all arms and related materiel.”

Since then, the supply of small arms to the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) has been allowed upon approval of the Sanctions Committee. The NTC was the de facto government of Libya between 2011 and 2012 following the Libyan civil war. Temporary exports of military equipment for the use of UN personnel and for humanitarian protective use are also allowed. 

On 17 March 2011, Security Council Resolution 1973 called upon member states to inspect suspicious cargo on the high seas and established a panel of experts to monitor the embargo. In June 2016, Security Council Resolution 2292 authorized states to inspect vessels on the high seas off Libya’s coast that are believed to be in violation of the arms embargo, which was extended to June 2020.

In 2019, both the GNA and the LAAF and groups affiliated with both parties received technical assistance and non-Libyan fighters as well as weapons and military equipment by air, land, and sea in breach of the embargo. Countries such as Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have been supporting the LAAF while Turkey is supporting the GNA.

Turkey and the Libyan Conflict

Turkey’s involvement in Libya is part of the country’s larger goal to expand its strategic and economic influence in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Turkey has been covertly supplying the GNA with armored personnel carriers and drones since April 2019. In November 2019 Turkey started to openly give the GNA military support in an effort to stop the advance of the LAAF and regain ground it had lost since April 2019. Since January 2020, Turkey has deployed around 100 Turkish military officers and 2,000 Syrian National Army mercenaries and has sent weapons, military equipment, and aerial defenses to Tripoli and Misrata. This intervention has neither de-escalated the conflict nor led to negotiations between the rival groups in spite of United Nations efforts to persuade the parties to agree to a ceasefire. Some of the Turkish military equipment arrives in Libya by sea, transported in container ships or on large ro-ro vehicle carriers.

The Tale of Two Ships: The Ana and the Bana

Two ro-ro vehicle carriers registered to different owners, the Ana and the Bana, are both suspected of transporting weapons and military equipment to Libya from Turkey. Not only are their names very similar, but they are both older ro-ro vehicle carriers. They have also both made multiple trips in which their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders were disabled when they neared the Libyan coast.

The Bana

On 3 February 2020, the Lebanese-flagged ro-ro cargo vessel Bana was detained in the port of Genoa, Italy, on suspicion of trafficking arms to Libya in violation of the United Nations arms embargo. Arms, including tanks and artillery, have allegedly been loaded in the Turkish port of Mersin and transported to Tripoli, Libya. The Bana’s AIS was turned off after it left Turkey.

A Lebanese crew member turned whistleblower alleged that weapons were offloaded in Libya. He provided photographic proof of weapons in the hold. A video of the alleged weapons also appeared on Twitter. The Bana was on the radar of French authorities long before then. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle shadowed the vessel in late January 2020 after it spotted a Turkish frigate off the coast of Libya. French fighter jets also spotted the Bana during a delivery at the Tripoli port.

The ship’s owner, Merhi Abou Merhi, denies that his ship is involved in arms smuggling, but he is no stranger to controversy. In 2015 the US accused Merhi of enabling the Jourmaa money-laundering and narcotics-trafficking network’s activities that ultimately benefited Hezbollah through his extensive maritime shipping business, Abou Merhi Group. The Jourmaa network laundered money by transferring money to the US to buy second-hand cars that were then transported to Benin. Cash would then be transported to Lebanon, from which Hezbollah received a commission. Merhi, his family members, and ships belonging to the Abou Merhi Group were designated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) for their role in the operation in 2015. They were removed from the list in 2017. 

One of the ships designated was the Panama-flagged vehicle carrier City of Misurata (IMO 7920857), which underwent a name and flag change to the Sham 1 (flagged in Lebanon) in 2016, and once again changed to the Bana in October 2019. In 2015, at the time of the alleged involvement with the operation in Benin, the vessel was named Maestro 1.

In January 2017 the Sham 1 came under the attention of the Panel of Experts on Libya that was established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) when several sources indicated that delivery of over 300 Toyota pickup trucks and armored Land Cruisers to Tobruk, Libya, had taken place. AIS data showed several visits to Tobruk.

Arms smuggling Abou Merhi group
 

The Ana

On 18 February 2020 the LAAF attacked the seaport of Tripoli claiming that they had targeted a ship delivering Turkish weapons to the GNA. The tug Balaban, which was berthed next to a ro-ro vehicle carrier was hit in the attack. Three were killed, amongst them two Turkish officers, and five were injured. Shipping containers were also hit. These containers had been arranged to form a wall around an area of the port where a ro-ro cargo ship was discharging cargo. The Albanian ro-ro carrier Ana had sailed from Mersin, Turkey, arriving at the port on 15 February 2020. The vessel had turned its AIS system off on 13 February off the Libyan coast, but the Ana was the only vessel fitting the description in the area. This was also not the Ana's first trip to Libya.

The Ana (IMO no 7369118) attempted to make another delivery by changing its name to Pray (IMO no 7295666). The IMO number was also spoofed on the AIS system. No record of the Pray could be found before December 2019, and it is clear that the name of the company on the side of the ships has been painted over. The dimensions of the two vessels are also the same. The last AIS transmission from the Ana was recorded on 18 March 2020 in the Bosphorus, Turkey. On 19 March 2020, sources indicated that a vessel carrying weapons departed from Istanbul. The French Navy intercepted the Pray in the Mediterranean and forced it to change direction.

The story of the Ana and the Bana forms part of a pattern where Turkish-manufactured weapons are transported from Turkey to Libya by ro-ro vehicle carriers in support of the GNA. AIS is often turned off during these voyages and Turkish frigates often escort these vessels to prevent interception by European navies enforcing the embargo.

Attack Tripoli

A satellite image taken before the attack showed containers arranged to form a wall concealing the unloading of cargo from a ship. © ImageSat International (iSi)

Conclusion

Often, shipping companies are facilitating transnational organized crime or violence around the world. When these activities become known, the company will change the name of the ship, the flag of the vessel, or even the name of the company. In some cases, these vessels are hidden under several layers of anonymity, making it impossible to trace the legal owners. Some effective measures are in place to provide a link to a specific vessel, such as the IMO number that a vessel will carry throughout its lifetime, but even that can be spoofed. Instituting measures where ships are registered to an identifiable owner with a fixed address should go a long way toward curbing transnational organized crime. In the meantime, greed will motivate shipping company owners to get involved with criminal, militant, and terror groups, thus acting as concierges of crime and terror.