K. Oanh Ha

The Queen Majeda, a tanker seized by Albanian authorities in September 2022, in the port of Durres, Albania, on July 14, 2023. The capture of a Libyan tanker in Albanian waters opened a window on a $5 billion trade in smuggled fuel — much of it coming from Russia.

On a clear morning in September 2022, the Queen Majeda, a faded blue and white tanker loaded with marine gas oil worth more than $2 million, left the Libyan port of Benghazi and set off for Porto Romano in Albania, 600 nautical miles to the north.

Zuhair Alkuafi, the 55-year-old Libyan captain, treated the trip like previous ones he had made: He had a signed certificate showing that the fuel originated in Libya from Brega Petroleum Marketing Co., an arm of the country’s state-owned National Oil Corp.

Four days later, as the Queen Majeda entered Albanian waters, Alkuafi saw a small boat come into view, he later recounted. It was a coast guard vessel, and when an officer came aboard, Alkuafi offered him tea while he looked at the cargo documents. “He said there was no problem,” Alkuafi said. Then, a larger coast guard vessel came alongside. “That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Getting Busted

The Queen Majeda, carrying $2 million of marine diesel oil, set sail from Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 8, 2022. Four days later, it was intercepted when it entered Albanian waters

Albanian inspectors found that even the water tanks had been pumped full with thousands of gallons of gas oil. They also suspected that the documents showing the fuel originated in Libya were forged. One red flag: Brega handles fuel inside Libya, while the national oil company is the only entity authorized to import and export petroleum products in the conflict-ridden African nation.

Alkuafi was instructed to take the Queen Majeda to the port in Durres, where a line of police vehicles awaited. He and some of his 10 crew members were driven to a police station and charged with smuggling.

The intended recipient, Albanian prosecutors and crew members said, was Kastrati Group SH.A., an energy company that operates a network of gas stations across the country. It wasn’t charged. Nor was the ship’s owner, Nuri Eldawadi, a Libyan businessman whose Facebook profile shows him posing with foreign cars and yachts. His company, Eldawadi Shipping Ltd., operated the Queen Majeda out of Turkey until early 2022. It is now registered in the Marshall Islands, according to the International Maritime Organization database. In June 2022, he changed the ship’s flag from Libya to Cameroon, deemed a blacklisted registry by the maritime industry for its lack of oversight.

Kastrati confirmed in an email that it had received deliveries of marine gas oil from the Queen Majeda in July and August, contracted through a company in Dubai. But Kastrati said it didn’t have a purchase contract for the cargo the Queen Majeda was carrying at the time of its detainment. “Kastrati Group has conducted every business transaction with the utmost integrity and transparency,” a spokeswoman for the company said. Eldawadi didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The ship’s detention raised more questions about the alleged fuel smuggling than it answered: Who was behind it? How widespread was the theft? Why was it able to happen? Where did the fuel come from? And where was the money going?

It would take almost a year to answer those questions. But a Bloomberg News investigation based on shipping records and interviews with Libyan officials, people familiar with Libya’s oil business and members of the crew found that as much as 40% of the fuel being imported into the country under a government subsidy program — or about $5 billion a year — is leaking out through illicit trade. Much of that imported fuel is coming from Russia. And it’s being diverted to countries in Europe that have banned imports of those same products.

“The closure of European markets following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing Western sanctions drove a sharp uptick in exports for Russian refined petroleum to North Africa, a region with a scarcity of refineries,” said Charles Cater, director of investigations at the Sentry, a Washington-based nonprofit that recently reported on a surge in corruption and illicit activities in Libya and provided research assistance for this story. “This flood of petroleum imports is directly linked to Libya’s thriving fuel-smuggling operations.”

The port in Durres, Albania’s largest, was eerily quiet on a scorching hot Tuesday afternoon in July. The yellow and blue cranes that move containers were idle, and few workers could be seen in the heat radiating from the docks. At the eastern end of the port, the Queen Majeda was tied to Quay 2.

Ten months had passed since the ship was forced into port, and telltale streaks of rust marred its hull. A lone metal chair with a frayed nylon back sat on the foredeck. Closer to the bridge, where the ship’s officers would normally be found, a few t-shirts and towels hung from a jerry-rigged clothesline.

Alkuafi, the captain, had responded to questions over WhatsApp. He denied wrongdoing, saying it wasn’t his job to verify the paperwork. He said he had been hired in April 2022 on a five-month contract for $3,500 a month. “We are workers under a contract between us and the company,” Alkuafi said. “We are not the owners of the ship or the shipment. I don’t know why they are holding us.”

The captain had indicated he would be willing to talk more in person, but he had stopped returning messages in June and was nowhere to be found that afternoon in Durres. Instead, the ship’s chief officer, Emad Shaalah, emerged from a doorway at the top of a rusty gangway. He was reluctant to speak at first, saying he didn’t want to upset the ship’s owner, who he said was paying for a lawyer representing the crew.

But over the next few days he shared his despair. After six months in prison, he said, he and other crew members were allowed to return to the ship under house arrest. He missed his daughter, who was born just before he set sail from Benghazi and was approaching her first birthday.

An experienced seaman from Tripoli, Shaalah started working on the Queen Majeda in July 2022. He said the ship had made deliveries to Albania that July and August without incident and that he was surprised when it was detained in September. “It was all the same, same paperwork, same buyer,” he said. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

Albanian investigators tell a different story. By the time of the Queen Majeda’s last voyage, they had intelligence suggesting that it was sailing with forged documents. They suspected that the fuel, had it entered Albania, would have been sold locally at gas stations and possibly re-exported to other countries, according to a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified because the case is ongoing.

Not far from where the Queen Majeda was docked is a two-story building with an Italian flag at the entrance. It’s an outpost of the Guardia di Finanza, a police force that investigates economic and financial crimes. Italian military personnel there work closely with Albania’s coast guard to monitor suspicious activity on the Adriatic Sea, which separates the two countries.


Related Articles