Turkey has maintained relations with UN-sanctioned individuals and radical groups in Libya including the Al Somood front, the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) while it has been transporting jihadist fighters to Libya.
Standing firmly behind the Government of National Accord (GNA) and having a more ideological bond to political Islam, Turkey has continuously sought to support militant groups both logistically and financially, going as far as violating UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which was adopted in 2011 in order to refer the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Turkey has also become a safe haven for internationally wanted individuals such as Salah Badi, Mohamed al-Zahawi and Abdulhakim Belhadj.
Following the uprising in Syria in 2011, dozens of jihadist Libyan fighters joined opposition groups in Syria, and Libya became a transit point for fighters from Western Europe and the Maghreb headed to Syria. According to reports, some of these fighters attended training camps in Misrata and Benghazi in Libya.
Today, the transfer of jihadist fighters has been reversed, and Turkey has accelerated its operations to send President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s private paramilitary units (SADAT) and Syrian jihadists, who were previously trained by Libyan commanders, to fight for the GNA. According to reports, Turkey has already deployed over 1,200 Syrian fighters to Libya.
President Erdoğan confirmed on January 5, 2020 that Turkish troops were already in Libya and that “fighting units [jihadists] that are not attached to the Turkish army will take a combat role.”
“Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization [MIT] is already working in Libya,” he also said during the opening ceremony of MIT’s new headquarters on January 6.
The head of the Al Somood front, Salah Badi, was placed under sanctions by the UNSC’s Libya Sanctions Committee, which requires that all UN members impose an asset freeze and travel ban, for his crimes, which include attacking Tripoli International Airport in 2014. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for undermining a political resolution in Libya through his support for armed resistance. Moreover, the US Treasury Department announced on November 18, 2018 the inclusion of Salah Badi within its list of sanctions on Libya. According to the Treasury, Badi undermined the peace process, security and stability in the country, and his militia forces used highly destructive rockets in densely populated areas during clashes in Tripoli in September 2018.
Recently, the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, which was established pursuant to UNSC Resolution 1973, determined that a large consignment of Kirpi 4×4 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, manufactured by Turkish company BMC, were collected by Ashraf Mami on behalf of designated individual Salah Badi of Al Somood and Mohamed Bin Ghuzzi of the Al Marsa Central Shield brigade at the port of Tripoli from the Moldovan-flagged MV Amazon on May 18, 2019. BMC was originally owned by Turkey’s Çukurova Holding but was seized by the government in 2013 and sold to Ethem Sancak, a businessman close to Erdoğan, at a highly discounted price, while the company’s debts were paid by taxpayers. Sancak has been transformed into an important figure in the Turkish defense industry after owning BMC in 2014.
In 2015, Badi sought refuge in Turkey and was based in Istanbul until August 2018. He returned to Tripoli at the end of August to support an operation to seize control of the capital. He maintained his relationship with Turkish intelligence and President Erdoğan’s aides, spoke to the Turkish media and revealed his support in Istanbul for the Turkish government during his stay in the country.
In the aftermath of the coup attempt, he told the Yeni Şafak daily, a mouthpiece for the Erdoğan regime, that he and his men rushed into the streets on the night of the coup attempt and went to the Bosporus Bridge, then welcomed Erdoğan at the airport in Istanbul. He also claimed that they were among the people who managed to stop the tanks in the city. The interview revealed that Libyan jihadist fighters might also have been used by Turkey’s President Erdoğan on the night of the failed coup on July 15, 2016, which many believe was a false flag operation orchestrated by President Erdoğan.
Turkey also has close ties to the LIFG and other Islamist groups that were designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the UN, and Istanbul has served as a meeting point for Libyan jihadists and Syrian opposition groups since 2011.
Similar to other prominent Libyan figures, Abdulhakim Belhadj, former leader of the LIFG, met with Free Syrian Army leaders in Istanbul and on the border with Turkey in 2011, the Daily Telegraph reported. Belhadj sent Libyan fighters to train troops, transferring money and weapons to the opposition groups against Bashar al-Assad.
The LIFG members described President Erdoğan’s willingness to deploy Turkish soldiers in Libya to support the armed groups aligned with the GNA as a major political development.
According the local Libyan media, Mohamed al-Zahawi, the leader of the now-defunct Ansar al-Sharia, which is known for its terrorist attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in 2012, was injured in Benghazi in October 2014 by the forces of Khalifa Haftar. Due to his severe injuries, he spent some time (October 2014 – January 2015) in Turkey, where he received medical treatment, and was then confirmed dead in Libya in January 2015. According to some local media reports, he died from his injuries in the hospital but that the corpse was moved to Libya.
One week after the UNSC decided to designate Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist group, Turkey added Ansar al-Sharia to its terror list. If the reports are true, al-Qaeda-allied jihadist al-Zahawi was receiving treatment in Istanbul when Ansar al-Sharia was declared a terrorist organization by the Turkish government on November 26, 2014.
Nordic Monitor previously revealed a meeting between Yasin Aktay, a chief advisor to President Erdoğan, and Ali Mohammed al-Sallabi, a Qatari-based supporter of the BDB, in Istanbul on January 5, 2019. Ali Mohammed is the elder brother of Ismail Mohammed al-Sallabi, leader of the BDB, which was previously aligned with Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.
The Libyan National Army has repeatedly claimed that Turkey and Qatar supply weapons and vehicles to the BDB.