The Kingmaker: A series of secret flights

After the 2011 revolution, Haftar was viewed by some of his fellow Libyans as an unwanted interloper; to others, he was a savior.

Haftar had learned from his CIA-supported days in Chad that projecting the appearance of strength and support was almost as important as actually having that strength or support. After the 2011 revolution, Haftar was viewed by his fellow Libyans as an unwanted interloper, a relic of the Qaddafi dictatorship and a blue-haired, long-retired exile.

By 2014, the former-prisoner-of-war-turned-warlord was using Libya’s chaos to gain traction in the east by rallying local businessmen, Qaddafists and tribal leaders. At some point Haftar would need financial backing to match his bravado. It would come from an unlikely source — another man who lived in exile and had seen his dreams of a paramilitary empire rise and rapidly fall.

Erik Prince is the son of an auto-parts magnate, a graduate of conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan and a professed libertarian. He is most famous for creating the Blackwater Worldwide private security firm, which leveraged Prince’s brief Navy SEAL career, government connections, family money and the shortcomings of the U.S. Global War on Terror into a profitable business. Until it fell apart.

Like Haftar, Prince became better known for his failures than his successes. After a decade in business, Blackwater become infamous for being the company that shut down the movements of the U.S. State Department and the CIA in Iraq after its employees murdered more than a dozen civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

Since CIA- contracted escorts were needed in Iraq, America’s diplomatic efforts there under George W. Bush had become too reliant on hired guns even to move around the dangerous region.

The Blackwater murders in Iraq, the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and appointment of Prince’s mortal enemy, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state dramatically shifted Prince’s political and financial fortunes.

As a senator, Clinton had supported Bill S.2398, the “Stop Outsourcing Security Act,” introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders in November 2007 to ban businesses like Blackwater. When Clinton effectively became Prince’s boss, she supported the canceling of all his government business contracts.

In August 2010, Prince retreated to a seaside villa in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to work on wide range of aspirational projects: fighting pirates in Somalia; hunting down Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army; supplying Colombian mercenaries; and weaponizing civilian aircraft for South Sudan. Prince kept busy.

Prince’s real motivation to move to the tiny Gulf nation was an offer from the house of Nahyan, one of six ruling ruling families in the UAE, to work on projects to ensure the regime’s survival, given the upheavals across the region following the Arab Spring.

Most of those secret projects were exposed by the media or failed — or both — but Prince persisted. He had been trained by his father to keep firing off ideas until one hit big.

Some of Prince’s plans evoked the mercantile tone of the East India Company or mimicked the cold, technical plot of a Tom Clancy assassination novel. All incorporated some elements of Prince’s for-profit “Army in Box” concept, his one-stop-shopping security solution. And all were based on the premise that the provision of surveillance, weapons and violence should be a for-profit venture.

By 2012 according to media and U.S. government reports, Prince’s once flourishing empire was on the ropes. He agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement to avoid arrest and a trial for violations of U.S laws committed from 2005 to 2008, including violations of International Trafficking in Arms Regulations. In addition to paying a $42 million fine, he agreed to sell his security-related businesses.

Despite constant failures and setbacks, Prince never stopped looking for ways to create and deploy his Army in a Box, aka “Relief with Teeth.” Considering his focus was on Africa and unstable areas with natural resources blocked by conflict, it almost seems inevitable that the two Americans, Haftar and Prince, would meet one day.

It is not known how Erik Prince met Khalifa Haftar, but they had mutual acquaintances. Haftar’s CIA trainer in Chad in the late 1980s was later a Prince employee, and a female associate who was Haftar’s current case officer served as his lawyer.

At some point, Prince began to pitch the former commander ideas. If Haftar became the head of long-embargoed Libya, it could open enormous new business opportunities for Prince and his corporate clients, China and the UAE.

The only problem was that neither man had the money to achieve these goals. Also Prince could not legally support or provide military support, and American citizen Haftar lacked an official military role in Libya.

At the time, Haftar was a minor figure  backed by wealthy businessmen, using a coalition of militias and soldiers to battle Islamist groups in specific neighborhoods of Benghazi.

One of their joint concepts was to create an air, land and sea security force to stop the smuggling of migrants through Libya and then on to Europe. It was a rapidly growing problem that increased in 2013  but seemed to be escalating exponentially in 2014.

To pay for the force, Prince would pitch the idea to the European Union and then get permission to dip into frozen Libyan government funds.

Prince’s latest venture, Frontier Services Group, was a publicly held logistics company in Hong Kong with direct links to CITIC, China’s largest state-controlled investment bank. FSG’s public investment in Prince gave him the funds to support China’s One Belt and One Road project. Prince quickly acquired Phoenix Air, a Kenyan air charter service, and Maleth Aero  in Malta.

Malta is only 45 minutes by air from Libya and an ideal location to support operations in North Africa — and secret documents reveal a series of what appear to be meet-and-greet flights to introduce Haftar’s cause to regimes in the region as well as present him as the next potential strongman leader of Libya.

According to FSG executives, Prince’s company began to support Haftar even though operating a Cessna Citation jet costs around $4,000 to $5,000 per hour.

In January 2015, Haftar publicly announced he wanted to attend the June OPEC meeting in Vienna. The oil powerbrokers would all be assembled there, and Haftar wanted to be among them. After all, Libya had the biggest oil reserves in Africa and the chaos in the wealthy country were tailor-made for an East India Company–style intervention.

And so began a series of secret flights, which have not previously been reported.

Because FSG deliberately did not keep a record of customers on these flights, there is no proof that Haftar or any of his people were on these flights in a Cessna Citation with Malta registration 9H PAL and an FSG logo emblazoned on its tail. But if they were, the timing, location and end result are clear.

Haftar may have been able to pitch his leadership and cadge an invitation to the Vienna conclave to the right people — the very people that Libyan oil threatened. Using flight logs, it’s possible to reconstruct these itineraries, which coincide exactly with Haftar’s rise to head of the Libyan military.

The first flight took off on Feb. 4, with pilots identified only by the initials “KPW” and “SDH” flying from their home base in Malta to the oil port of Tobruk, east of Benghazi and near the Egyptian border.

There, five passengers boarded — a likely number for Haftar and an entourage — and flew to Amman, Jordan. The next day after meetings in Amman, they returned to Tobruk, and the Frontier Services Group aircraft returned to Malta.

On Feb. 8, 2015, the same aircraft was used to fly four people from Tobruk to Cairo for a two-day stay. Then it was on to Heraklion, the administrative capital of Crete, and back to Tobruk.

On Feb. 21, the flights in the small business jet resumed. The aircraft was dispatched from Malta to pick up seven passengers in Tobruk. The next stop was the resort city Sharm El Shekh, Egypt, at the southern tip of the Sinai, close to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Then it was on to Al Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi, where the entourage could have met with key players from the United Arab Emirates.

After three days in Abu Dhabi, a full complement of eight passengers continued on to central Saudi Arabia for an overnight stop at Gasim Prince Naif Bin Abdulazziz airfield.

On Feb. 25, the aircraft flew to Cairo and back to Tobruk, still with eight passengers, before returning to Malta.

According to the president of FSG at the time, no passenger records were kept in order to preserve the passengers’ anonymity, so it is only speculation that these specific flights were in support of Khalifa Haftar and Erik Prince’s agenda. But the timing is precise, and the end result is very obvious.

That same day, Feb. 25, a spokesman for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives told Reuters that President Aquila Saleh was proposing Haftar as the head of the military, noting “the House of Representatives supports this.”

Haftar was finally getting some traction. Was it because of these secret flights and shuttle diplomacy via an Erik Prince–controlled plane?

Continues in part 10


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