National Security

Iran, Russia Smuggling Weapons to Libyan Terror Factions

U.S., Libyan officials see evidence of illicit arms network fomenting chaos in Libya

Forces loyal to Libya's UN-recognized GNA parade a Russian-made Pantsir air defense system truck
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-recognized GNA parade a Russian-made Pantsir air defense system truck / Getty Images

Iran and Russia were caught shipping heavy weaponry into Libya, providing new evidence of an illicit arms smuggling operation that has equipped anti-government terror groups with, among other things, anti-tank missiles, according to American and Libyan officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.

A weapons cache was recently flown into Libya by Cham Wings, a Syrian-operated commercial airline tied to Bashar al-Assad and subject to U.S. sanctions. The shipment included Russian-made weapons and, for the first time, Iranian arms, according to information obtained by Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA), the country's U.S.-backed interim ruling council.

The weapons were delivered to Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is in charge of multiple terrorist factions waging war against the GNA and its Western backers. Russia and Iran are supporting Haftar's forces, which have been accused of carrying out war crimes.

Iran's new involvement marks a significant escalation in Libya's years-long civil war, according to American, Israeli, and Libyan officials. By fomenting chaos in the country, Iran hopes to increase its regional footprint and undermine democratic reformers backed by the United States and other Western governments. Haftar's militias used this weaponry to battle GNA forces in and around Tripoli, a central battleground in the civil war.

"The Iranian twist is something that's new," Mohammed Ali Abdallah, a senior adviser to the GNA and its representative to the United States, told the Free Beacon. "Their involvement has not been as visible in this crisis."

As with its involvement in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon—all regional hotspots where Iran is funding and arming terror groups—Tehran hopes to topple the U.S.-backed government and turn the nation into a proxy for the Islamic Republic.

In early May, Syria's Cham Wings airline flew the Russian and Iranian arms into Libya, according to Abdallah. At least a portion of the weapons, including drones and anti-tank missiles, were provided by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Abdallah said the GNA was able to track specific flights and planes that delivered the arms, saying they point to a "supply chain of weapons."

The State Department confirmed it had been provided with this information, telling the Free Beacon that Iran is violating a United Nations-endorsed arms embargo on Libya. The accusations also demonstrate the danger of allowing a U.N. arms embargo on Iran to expire later this month, the official said.

"The United States opposes any violation of the U.N. arms embargoes on Libya and Iran," a State Department spokesperson said. "If true, these reports demonstrate the need for stronger implementation of the arms embargo on Libya and for renewal of the arms embargo on Iran to curtail its destabilizing activities throughout the region."

The spokesperson said Russia and Iran must immediately "suspend military operations" and "halt the ongoing transfer of foreign military equipment" to these Libyan terror factions.

The Israeli government also has evidence that Iran is shipping weapons to Haftar's forces in Libya.

Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the U.N., informed the Security Council last month that satellite imagery confirmed the presence of Iranian anti-tank missiles. "The presence of this advanced Iranian-manufactured system on Libyan soil is another grave violation" of the U.N. arms embargo, Danon wrote in a letter obtained by the Free Beacon.

Israel maintains that Iran's involvement provides "proof of the Iranian regime's ambitions for regional influence, as well as its utter disregard of the international calls for the cessation of hostilities and non-interference," the letter said.

GNA official Abdallah warned that Iran and Russia are seeking to prolong Libya's civil war to establish a greater footprint in the country and region. Russia in particular has much to gain, he said.

With the government in shambles, Russia—and Iran to a lesser extent—can establish a military presence on Libya's Mediterranean coastline, where large natural gas reserves are located. By locking down this territory, Russia can control Europe's supply of natural gas and prevent the continent from seeking alternative sources.

Libya has been entrenched in civil war since former leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011, leaving a power vacuum. Haftar served as a longtime military aide to Gaddafi and sought to consolidate his power as a warlord in subsequent years. Haftar is the GNA's top antagonist and his war efforts have been condemned by most Western nations.

"The endgame is prolonging the crisis," Abdallah said. "This is specifically true for Russia and even a certain extent to Iran."

The Trump administration shares this view. The State Department told the Free Beacon that the Kremlin has exacerbated the Libyan crisis by providing Haftar’s forces with weapons, mercenaries, and counterfeit Libyan currency.

The U.S. military recently released information about Russia's deployment of advanced fighter aircraft to Haftar's militias. In an effort to obfuscate its involvement, Russia allegedly painted over flags on the aircraft.

"Unfortunately for the Kremlin, painting over the flags on its fighter aircraft won't hide the truth," the State Department spokesperson said. "Russia's destabilizing activities in Libya are plain to see. Neither the international community nor the Libyan people are falling for Russia's claims that its mercenaries are somehow distinct from Russia's self-serving agenda in Libya."

On Thursday, the GNA claimed it had retaken Tripoli and the surrounding territory from Haftar's militias.