K. Oanh Ha

Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where the Queen Majeda took on its cargo, is controlled by Khalifa Haftar, an 80-year-old warlord who helped Qaddafi come to power in 1969 and later allegedly attempted to overthrow him with the blessing of the CIA while in exile in Virginia.

Libyan maritime and security officials, along with Western diplomats, said not much happens in the eastern part of the country without the approval and knowledge of Haftar, who returned to Libya in 2011, and his sons. His military group, known as the Libyan National Army, attempted to topple the transitional government in Tripoli and seize the city in 2019 with the help of Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group. That resulted in a ceasefire the following year, leaving Haftar in control of eastern Libya.

Western diplomats and Libyan officials told Bloomberg it’s commonly believed that, in exchange for peace and the resumption of crude production, Dbeibah’s government and the national oil company agreed to look the other way on fuel smuggling. The officials said the Haftars are benefiting from the illicit traffic at the Benghazi port and they suspect the proceeds have been used in part to fund the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary army that continues to operate after the death last year of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Bengdara, the national oil company chairman, said in this statement to Bloomberg that the allegations are “definitely not true.” Neither Haftar nor his son Saddam responded to requests for comment sent through a spokesman.

Fuel smuggling from Benghazi has risen significantly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, according to Shekshek’s audit bureau and a report published in September by the UN’s Panel of Experts on Libya. The report called the illegal traffic “rampant” and said it contributes to destabilizing the country.

The invasion led to a cataclysmic shift in the world’s oil and refined fuel markets. Oil prices soared to a 14-year high of $140 a barrel in March 2022. Western countries responded by imposing sanctions on Russian oil and fuel products to curb Moscow’s ability to raise funds for the conflict. The European Union also blocked the purchase and import of seaborne Russian crude as of December 2022. Albania, which isn’t in the EU, has said it supports the sanctions.

As Europe, which was the main market for Russian hydrocarbons, began closing its doors, it turned to Asia and the Middle East for supply. Russia looked for new buyers. It found one some 6,000 miles away — in Libya.

Russian fuel exports to Libya have surged more than tenfold since the invasion, to 2.5 million tons in 2023 from 260,000 thousand tons the previous year, according to an analysis of AXSMarine shipping data done for Bloomberg by the Energy Security and Transition (EST) Lab @energycenter at Italy’s Politecnico di Torino. Russia is now the top exporter of all refined petroleum products to Libya, edging out Greece and accounting for 28% of Libya’s total supply, the analysis showed. That’s up from 4% in 2021. “Russia suddenly became the main Libyan supplier in 2023,” says Ettore Bompard, the center’s scientific director.

Russia has exported 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) worth of fuel to Libya since January 2023, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which has been tracking energy flows from Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine war. About half of that is diesel, gas oil and gasoline — products that are typically smuggled. Using the Libyan audit bureau estimate that 40% is being diverted, that means about half a billion dollars of Russian fuel products that came into the country over the past year were spirited out to Europe and elsewhere.

Since 2022, Libya has exported diesel, gasoline and gas oil to European countries including Italy, Spain, Malta and France, according to shipping data. “Exports of diesel and gasoline from Libya make no legitimate economic sense, given the country’s enormous imports and insufficient domestic refineries,“ said the Sentry’s Cater.

As many as four ships a week were leaving Benghazi last year loaded with smuggled fuel, according to an official familiar with the port’s operations who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. In September and October, at least six vessels made stops in Russia before discharging at Benghazi and other Libyan ports, according to Brega and ship-tracking data.

“It’s suspicious and sketchy,” said Alan Gelder, head of oil research at Wood Mackenzie. “There’s no structural reason why we would see this huge increase of imports from Russia to Libya.”

The Queen Majeda had engaged in two illegal shipments, loading up in Benghazi and unloading in Turkey, according to the memo. “The NOC has been unable to prevent such illegitimate practices that are taking place openly at Benghazi Sea Port from occurring while these practices go totally unnoticed despite being committed openly and for all to see in daylight outside the control and authority of the NOC and Brega Oil Marketing Company,” the memo said.

Shipping location data show that the Queen Majeda stopped mostly in Greek ports prior to 2022. It was in Greece in March 2022 before proceeding to Benghazi, arriving there on April 11.

Twelve days later, still in the Libyan port, the tanker turned off its automatic identification system, or AIS, and went dark, according to data from MarineTraffic, a company that tracks ship movements. International maritime law requires ships to have their AIS turned on, except for certain safety purposes. Going dark is a telltale sign a vessel is likely engaging in illicit activity, according to the US sanctions office.

On April 25, the Queen Majeda began broadcasting its location again and headed northwest to Malta. Then it went dark again for three more days, giving it ample time to travel the roughly 100 nautical miles to Hurd Bank, part of Malta’s territory and a well-known spot for vessels to conduct ship-to-ship transfers at sea without official scrutiny. By April 29, the tanker returned to Benghazi and, within a couple of days, turned off its AIS again.

A month later, on May 24, the Queen Majeda asked for permission to enter Italian waters. The request was denied. When it entered anyway, coast guard officials inspected the ship and discovered 3 million liters of marine gas oil for which there was no documentation. They detained the vessel at the port of Taranto in southern Italy, according to court documents. After the ship’s owner provided paperwork saying the Queen Majeda would be unloading in Albania, it was allowed to leave on July 8.

Two days later the vessel again went dark as it neared Sicily. The UN panel, which also examined the Queen Majeda’s movements, reported it received documentation showing the ship supplied two other vessels via ship-to-ship transfers on July 11 and July 13. Shipping data also show that the Queen Majeda stopped at Albania’s Porto Romano on July 26 and discharged.

Cargo documents obtained by the panel showed the fuel was loaded in Benghazi on May 8, with a certificate of origin from the Ras El Mungar Terminal, which was set up only to receive fuel, not supply it to ships. The panel didn’t say where the fuel had come from.

Bilrahim, Brega’s chairman, said the cargo documents the Queen Majeda presented to Albanian authorities two months later were fake. Brega wouldn’t use the National Oil Corp. logo and seals on any of its documents, he said, and most of them are in Arabic. The ones the captain had were in English.

It wasn’t until November that a crucial piece of the puzzle emerged. That’s when two people helped answer the question of where some of the money was going. The two, who asked not to be identified to protect their safety, said that in recent months they had been in the vicinity of the Al Jufra Airbase about 300 miles southwest of Benghazi. Haftar’s militia captured the base in 2017, and since then Russian aircraft and several hundred Russian mercenaries have been operating there.

Russia has been expanding its military presence in Libya, as well as in other African countries such as Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Wagner, a private military company controlled by longtime Vladimir Putin ally Prigozhin before his death in August in a plane crash in Russia, had been spearheading the effort. Since then, the Russian defense ministry has moved to take over Wagner’s lucrative security, gold mining and oil services contracts, as well as its relationships with African leaders such as Haftar.

Haftar met with Putin in Moscow in September, underscoring Russia’s influence. The US special envoy to Libya, Richard Norland, has called the Russian military’s role in Libya “destabilizing,” and US officials have pressed Haftar to remove foreign forces.

The threat is being taken “very seriously” by the US administration, Jonathan Winer, a former US special envoy to Libya, told Bloomberg in November. He was especially concerned about reports that Putin and Haftar were hammering out a defense accord that could lead to a Russian naval base in eastern Libya. “Keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean has been a key strategic objective,” Winer said. “If Russia gets ports there, that gives it the ability to spy on all of the European Union.”

The two people familiar with activities at Al Jufra said they wanted to speak out against fuel smuggling and Wagner’s presence in Libya. They described an airbase still so tightly controlled by Russian militia that Libyan National Army troops cannot enter on their own. They said they overheard conversations in Russian, saw deliveries of Russian alcohol and observed Russian soldiers barbecuing meat in a desert city where few locals can afford it. They also said they spotted Haftar’s son Saddam, who commands a brigade, entering the base, sometimes several times a month.

Since mid-2022, trucks full of fuel that was supposed to go to nearby gas stations for use by Libyans were sent instead to Al Jufra, according to one of the people.

The deliveries, each comprising dozens of trucks, brought in far more fuel than the base needed for its operations. Some of it was put on planes and sent to Russian-controlled air bases in Mali, the person said military leaders at the base told him. He said he also saw fuel trucks headed for Sudan.

“All of this smuggling activity, including the Russian activities, is made possible by the absence of rule of law and accountability in Libya,” said Stephanie Williams, who served as head of the UN Support Mission in Libya until 2021. “Smuggling is an endemic problem that’s corrosive to society. It’s part of the underground network that feeds into the kleptocratic network that keeps the ruling class afloat. The lion’s share of the blame is on the Libyan ruling elite who allow this to happen and line their own pockets.”

In January, Dbeibah said his government would work to revise the fuel-subsidy program and would poll Libyans on a proposal similar to Shekshek’s that would give citizens a lump-sum payment or a coupon.

Meanwhile, in Durres, the Queen Majeda remains tied to Quay 2, loaded with fuel, 17 months after it was brought into port. Another crew member left the ship in November, according to prosecutors. On Monday, prosecutors charged Shaalah with trading and transporting smuggled goods and asked for a five-year prison sentence. Shaalah is scheduled to appear again in court later this month.


— With Henry Meyer, Vernon Silver, Leonidha Musaj and Gjergji Thanasi


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