With yet another Libyan-bound ship carrying explosives from Turkey seized by the Greek coast guard on Jan. 10, 2018, the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has once again come under the renewed scrutiny of international monitors who are trying to cut off the flow of arms and ammunition to the war-torn country under the UN Security Council sanctions regime.
Speaking at a Security Council meeting on Jan. 22, 2018, Libyan representative to the UN Elmahdi S. Elmajerbi condemned the attempt to send explosives to Libya in the hold of a ship named the Andromeda and expressed hope that the Greek and Turkish governments would share the results of their investigations into these matters. He asked the UN panel of experts that monitors arms transfers under the sanctions regime established pursuant to Resolution 1970 (2011) to launch an investigation to shed light on the circumstances. He said his government stands strongly against whoever tries to destabilize the security and stability situation and endangers the lives of civilians in Libya.
The Tanzanian-flagged vessel with eight crewmembers set off from Turkey’s Mediterranean ports of Mersin and Iskenderun and was carrying some 410 tons of explosives in 29 containers with detonators, ammonium nitrate and special gel, all materials that can be used in building bombs. The Greek coast guard intercepted the ship off the coast of the Greek island of Crete and impounded it in the port of Heraklion. Although the bill of lading showed the cargo as loaded in Turkey and destined for Djibouti and Oman, the captain confessed that he was ordered to take the shipment to the Libyan city of Misrata.
This incident is reminiscent of the case of a Bolivian-registered ship called the Haddad 1 that was seized in September 2015 by the Greek coast guard while transporting a concealed arms shipment from Turkey to Libya. Two containers of 5,000 weapons produced by Torun Arms and 500,000 rounds of ammunition produced by Yavaşçalar, two Turkish arms manufacturers, were found. Yavaşçalar was taken over by arms dealer Latif Aral Aliş, who is very close to Erdoğan. According to the UN panel of experts who investigated the incident. Turkish authorities tried to mislead on the facts of the shipment. Initially, the Turkish government claimed the arms were destined for Lebanon and the ammunition for the Sudanese police. However, an inspection revealed no evidence to support this claim but rather revealed contradictory evidence in the form of a nautical chart from the bridge and the cargo manifest, which indicated the shipment was bound for Misrata. The testimony of crewmembers also corroborated this account.
The Turkish government changed its story when challenged, and this time claimed “hunting rifles/cartridges, pistol blanks and rubber bullets” are not subject to sanctions and that they did not require a license, either. The UNSC sanctions committee did not agree with that assessment, stressing that they, too, were subject to restrictions. The Haddad 1 already had a record of smuggling arms to Libya according to the UN inspectors who had collected intelligence on an illicit shipment of arms and ammunition to Libya during their visit to Tobruk in July 2015, Libyan authorities reported the seizure of four containers of arms and ammunition destined for Misrata that had been found aboard the vessel. According to maritime data, the Haddad 1 sailed to Tobruk in June 2015.
In November 2016, I discovered a document in a cache of leaked emails from Erdoğan’s son-in-law and energy minister Berat Albayrak, who was approached by the owner of a bankrupt sea shipping and container company asking for compensation from the Turkish government for damage his ship sustained while transporting arms between Libyan ports on the order of authorities in Ankara. The letter was sent to Albayrak by his aide, Ertuğrul Altın, on July 8, 2014 after the latter received it from Mümin Şahin, the owner of the freight company and his brother-in-law. In the letter Şahin revealed all the details of a Turkish government-approved arms shipment to rebels in Libya while trying to secure compensation for damages the freighter sustained during the voyage.
The freighter, the Irmak, was first contracted by controversial charity group the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which is backed by the Erdoğan government. The IHH, accused of arms trafficking to Syria in documents provided by Russia at the UN Security Council, loaded humanitarian supplies on this Libyan-bound ship at Istanbul’s Zeyntinburnu port. The cargo was offloaded at the port of Misrata on April 22, 2011. On its return trip, the ship was contracted by a shell Turkish-Libyan partnership to deliver a cargo from Benghazi to Misrata. The contract said in its manifest that the 16 containers included medical supplies.
During the loading process, the ship’s captain, Abdullah Şahin, became suspicious and wanted to check the contents to make sure they were not listed as prohibited goods under international rules and regulations. When he realized that the cargo was arms rather than medical supplies as indicated in the contract, he refused to load it onto the ship. The next day, the Turkish consul-general in Benghazi, Ali Davutoğlu, and a Libyan official named Muhamed Alreaht paid a visit to the ship’s captain to pressure him. Davutoğlu said the shipment was approved by Erdoğan’s prime ministry and that the shipment was a matter of national security for Turkey. He noted that Çağatay Erciyesoğlu of the Foreign Ministry was aware of the case and was monitoring the shipment’s progress. The captain balked at the pressure.
The captain was later invited to the Turkish Consulate General in Benghazi to be further pressured, but the talks broke down, this time over the shipment fee. In the end, the Libyan official seized the transport documentation, forcing the captain to agree to a deal by allowing 26 (not 16 as originally declared) containers full of arms onto the ship. The ship entered the port of Misrata on May 1, 2011, through a route that had been cleared of mines by NATO warships. While the cargo was being offloaded, forces loyal to Qaddafi opened fire on the ship, prompting the crew to rush to set sail as soon as the unloading was completed. In the meantime, however, the freighter sustained damage when the shaft to its main propeller was cut and had to be towed to Malta for repairs at the Cassar shipyard. The company could not pay the repair costs; the captain and crew were stranded in Malta; and the freight firm went bankrupt with 1.7 million euros of debt. The owner has continued to write to various government agencies in Turkey for relief but to no avail.
When all this is put together, it clearly points to a pattern in which Erdoğan’s Islamist government has been sending arms to their brethren in Libya to fuel the civil war there.
The report that was issued by the UN Security Council on June 1, 2017 as prepared by the panel of experts on Libya contains more information on the illegal arms shipments as well as on oil smuggling that reached all the way to Turkey. The report that was signed by panel coordinator Steven Spittaels and experts Naji Abou-Khalil, Kassim Bouhou, Moncef Kartas, David McFarland and Juan Alberto Pintos Servia also discloses something quite important. It revealed how jihadist groups including Ansar al Charia Benghazi and Ansar al-Shariʽah Sirte competed to control the Civil Registry Authority and passport administrations.
“This allowed them to illegally issue passports, including to foreign fighters who subsequently travelled abroad. The Panel has reviewed copies of illegally issued passports and was able to confirm the identity of one Sudanese national, who obtained such a passport in Misratah and travelled to Turkey in May 2015,” the report said. It included pictures from a Libyan passport that showed arrival and departure stamps at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on May 7, 2015 and Sept. 22, 2015. This is in line with the investigation that uncovered how al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) militants were using Libyan passports to move fighters from North Africa to Syria through Europe and Turkey. That investigation was hushed up by the Erdoğan government.
According to confidential wiretap records I have examined, Libyan militants were actively involved in the trafficking of jihadists to Syria with political cover provided by Erdoğan’s government. One of the key ISIL operatives in Turkey was a man named Farag H. Hamad Ali, a Libyan national. He was working with other Arab nationals to move fighters in and out of Syria using Turkey as a conduit, providing logistical supplies. The wiretap records show Farag worked closely with another ISIL trafficker and procurement person named Mohammed Elsayed Eltokhy Salim Elshiemy (aka Abdulhakem Mısırlı), a 26-year-old Colombian-born Egyptian national. Although both men were spotted by authorities while exchanging money and arrested, they were later let go.
In a wiretap recorded on March 7, 2015 at 12:09 p.m., Elshiemy was shopping for night vision binoculars in Istanbul’s Karaköy district. He was told by Farag that a 50,000 euro transfer was made for him to purchase military-grade goggles. In another wiretap recorded on March 6, 2015 at 12:31 p.m., Elshiemy asked a man Identified as Abu Davud to supply weapons for ISIL. Elshiemy had also arranged for fraudulent passports and secured visas for ISIL sleeper agents who were sent to Europe to identify targets and scout the area. For example, in a wiretap dated Oct. 15, 2014 at 17:49 p.m., Elshiemy asked for a fraudulent Libyan passport to move a person illegally. They were securing official Turkish visa stamps by bribing Turkish authorities.
In a bid to plant a closely aligned Islamist zealot as the ruler of Libya, the Erdoğan government has not only been facilitating the shipment of arms and the smuggling of oil but has also been helping in the transfer of jihadists back and forth between Libya and Turkey. The trace of evidence revealing his government’s involvement has now found its way to the UN documents as well. I hope one day he and his associates will be held accountable for fuelling the war in this North African country.