The Conflict in Libya Is Getting Even Messier

A U.N. report suggests the UAE is using Sudanese fighters to battle the internationally recognized Libyan government.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sudanese demonstrators protest outside the Foreign Ministry in Khartoum
Sudanese demonstrators protest outside the Foreign Ministry in the capital, Khartoum, on Jan. 28, 2020. The protesters alleged that their relatives had been recruited by an Emirati firm as security guards but were dispatched to war zones in Libya. Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

A new United Nations report alleges that the United Arab Emirates has established direct contact with armed Sudanese groups fighting in Libya’s proxy conflict on the side of Khalifa Haftar. 

The report by the Panel of Experts on the Sudan, released in January, says that for around a year the UAE has had “direct relations” with armed groups from Sudan’s Darfur region fighting in Libya on the side of Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the UAE had, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo, increased its deliveries of weapons to Haftar, who ended his unsuccessful 14-month assault on the capital, Tripoli, last June. 

The UAE’s contact with the Sudanese armed groups in Libya, bypassing Haftar’s forces, is seen by some experts as a sign of the country’s appetite for a more hands-on role in the conflict and of growing mistrust of the renegade general. 

“I think there’s an argument to be made that they distrust Haftar’s battlefield competence. Many outside backers have [distrusted it], including the Russians,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Haftar’s international backers have stuck by him so far out of concern that eastern Libya could descend further into chaos fueled by fracturing rebel groups in the absence of clear leadership. But in establishing closer direct ties with Sudanese groups in Libya, the UAE could be well positioned to shift its support to another leader, should one emerge.

“Whoever takes on Haftar’s mantle later on, they’ll definitely try to endow him with the same sort of support that includes, inter alia, the mercenaries,” said Emadeddin Badi, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Program of the Atlantic Council.

The UAE is one of several countries that have waded into the complex conflict in Libya as they jostle to further their own objectives in the fragile North African nation. The proxy war has pitted allies against each other. France, Egypt, and Russia (through the Wagner mercenary group) have thrown their support to Haftar and his Libyan National Army. Turkey, Italy, and Qatar have provided military backing to the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Complicating matters further is the presence of militias from Sudan, Chad, and Syria.

A report by the U.S. Department of Defense’s inspector general for counterterrorism operations in Africa last year assessed that the UAE was possibly helping to fund the activities of the Russian mercenary group Wagner in Libya. The Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, strenuously denied the claims. 

In October 2020, the U.N.-backed government and Haftar’s Libyan National Army signed a peace deal that stipulated that all foreign parties leave the country by Jan. 23. But satellite imagery reveals that Russian fighters are digging enormous trenches, and the UAE’s outreach to Sudanese groups suggests that foreign parties are in no hurry to disentangle themselves from the conflict. 

According to the U.N. report, leading Darfuri commanders had regular meetings with Emirati officers in Benghazi, Libya, to discuss how the UAE could support the logistical and financial needs of the groups. The report details how Abu Dhabi sought to cultivate close ties with the senior commanders, and it alleges that at least two of them spent several weeks in the UAE in late 2020, where they reportedly met with members of the country’s security services. 

Analysts have suggested that the UAE’s intervention in Libya stems from a deep fear of political Islam and is intended to send a message about the perils of popular uprisings. “The Libyan story is meant to push an almost moral lesson not just to the Libyans but other populations that if you revolt against the ruler, it brings instability,” Badi said. 

The embassy of the UAE in Washington declined to comment. Last week, the UAE ambassador to the U.N., Lana Nusseibeh, called for a renewed diplomatic effort to bring the conflict to an end.

A peace deal signed between the Sudanese government and an alliance of rebel groups this past August called on all members of armed groups to return to the country, but the authors of the U.N. report noted they expected a significant Sudanese presence to remain in Libya—though it’s unclear how many even remain there now.

One commander from the Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawi group told the U.N. panel that they had recruited 3,000 new fighters since mid-2019. That group and the Justice and Equality Movement recruited fighters in Darfur and in refugee camps in eastern Chad, according to the report. The U.N. panel noted that the Justice and Equality Movement had focused its activities in Libya on smuggling and was the only major Darfurian group not aligned with Haftar’s forces. 

Sudanese fighters have a long history in Libya. “They’ve been used as pawns in the Libyan conflict since 2011,” said Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment. It’s estimated that former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi recruited as many as 10,000 fighters from Sudan, Chad, Mali, and Niger to fight on his behalf before he was ousted and killed in the wake of the Arab Spring protests in 2011.

In November 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that an Emirati security company, Black Shield Security Services, had recruited more than 390 Sudanese men on the pretense of working as security guards in the UAE, before transferring them to Ras Lanuf in oil-rich eastern Libya, controlled by Haftar. Several men interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they lived alongside Haftar’s forces and were expected to guard oil facilities in the region. The company has previously denied any allegations of misleading the Sudanese men about the nature of their work in Libya, and it said that it does not offer any services that are military in nature. 

Katie Livingstone contributed to this report. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack