As Trump Wavers on Libya, an ISIS Haven, Russia Presses On

The Libyan militia leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar, center, on Russia’s only aircraft carrier in January 2017.

Last March, the Pentagon’s top general for Africa made a rare trip to Capitol Hill, bearing a sobering double-barreled warning.

“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” the general, Thomas D. Waldhauser, told lawmakers.

But perhaps just as concerning, he indicated, were intelligence reports that Russia was helping a former Libyan general turned military strongman in a fight for control over the country’s government and vast oil resources. In fact, just two months earlier, in a brazen assertion of the Kremlin’s growing Middle East ambitions, Russia’s only aircraft carrier had entered Libyan waters and, with great fanfare, welcomed aboard the militia leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

During his campaign for president, Donald J. Trump made the United States-backed NATO operation that toppled Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, a cornerstone of his critique of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. The 2011 intervention left Libya with dueling governments — one recognized by the United States and the international community, the other aligned with General Haftar. In the chaos, Libya also became a safe haven for the Islamic State.

But despite a terrorist attack in Britain last spring whose Libyan roots offered a gruesome reminder that the Islamic State in Libya remains a deadly threat, the Trump administration has yet to arrive at a coherent policy for the country. On one hand, the president has said he sees no role for the United States in Libya; on the other, he has said the United States must fight the Islamic State there. The resulting policy vacuum, according to Libyan officials, American military commanders and intelligence analysts, has helped Russia spread its growing influence in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.

For months, the questions around Mr. Trump and Russia have largely focused on a different issue: whether anyone in the president’s inner circle was complicit in Moscow’s effort to disrupt the 2016 election. But even as the president’s approach to Libya offers a case study of what critics say is the dysfunction that permeates his overall foreign policy, it also illustrates the curious dynamic that characterizes his relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

In openly courting General Haftar, the Kremlin was testing one of the incoming American president’s guiding foreign policy assumptions — that he could work with Mr. Putin to tackle thorny issues in the Muslim world — and instead sent a signal to the world that Russia would continue to pursue its own interests there. Yet, as has often been the case when it comes to Mr. Putin, there has been little to no resistance on Mr. Trump’s watch. The president himself has said nothing, and the State Department seems at odds with the Pentagon’s wary assessment of the Russian threat.

In December, Mr. Trump met privately with the Libyan prime minister, Fayez Serraj, in Washington. In an interview, two senior White House aides argued that the United States was fully engaged in finding a diplomatic solution to the country’s civil strife. But the Libyan leader left with no policy pronouncements from the president. Indeed, the administration has deferred the difficult job of brokering a diplomatic settlement almost entirely to the United Nations.

In Libya, as elsewhere, Mr. Trump has been guided largely by his own instincts and by a small circle of advisers who have his ear but little in-country experience. That is because a year into the president’s tenure, many critical foreign policy positions remain vacant or recently filled. The top Africa specialist overseeing Libya at the National Security Council was not installed until early September, and there is currently no American ambassador.

Efforts to arrive at a comprehensive American strategy have also been hampered by infighting between top political advisers, who have argued that foreign entanglements in places like Libya are not in keeping with Mr. Trump’s “America First” campaign promise, and top Pentagon and national security officials, who have urged the president to do more to combat the Islamic State there.

The crossfire has left Libyan officials, Western allies and even some in the United States embassy responsible for the country perplexed, as Libya policy has careened from a hands-off approach to a more recent spate of scattershot airstrikes against ISIS fighters who have regrouped in Libya since the president’s election.

“What U.S. policy in Libya?” Martin Kobler, the former United Nations special envoy there, asked in an interview with The New York Times shortly before he stepped down last summer.

Meanwhile, an emboldened Mr. Putin has seized the opportunity to expand Russian influence over the oil-rich North African nation just 300 miles from Europe. This is part of a broader, more ambitious Middle East strategy that builds on the Kremlin’s successful military campaign to prop up President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, at America’s expense.

In Libya, Russia has publicly offered itself up as a mediator between the country’s warring factions. But Moscow has also been covertly aiding major players like General Haftar, putting a thumb on the scale of a multifront civil war at a time when the United States is supporting the fragile United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord.

According to dozens of interviews with current and former European, Libyan and American officials, Russia’s involvement in Libya goes significantly beyond ushering General Haftar into a stateroom on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to confer with Russia’s defense minister in Moscow over a secure telephone line.

It includes previously unreported instances of attempted weapons-for-oil deals, attempted bribery and efforts to influence top government defense appointments, as well as printing money and stamping coinage for the Haftar-allied government. American and British intelligence officials told The Times that Russia, aided by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, had also provided a range of weapons to General Haftar.

In the last year, Russia has quietly but steadily entrenched its influence, sending military advisers and intelligence officers to the country’s east, and providing General Haftar’s troops with spare parts, repairs and medical care, according to American and other Western intelligence officials.

Mohammed Mensli, a senior adviser to the Government of National Accord, said it was “vital” that America become more engaged and condemn destabilizing interference by other nations.

“We really are not interested at all in the Russians getting involved in our affairs,” he said, “but they are very persistent.”

So risky is the security situation in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that the United States embassy has been temporarily relocated across the border in Tunisia. In late May, at a dinner party at the American ambassador’s residence there, General Waldhauser was grilled by the attendees on the Trump administration’s lack of a coherent Libya policy. He had no real answers, one American guest said.

Mr. Trump, in fact, had supported intervening in Libya before he took to the campaign trail and began calling the military operation a “disaster” that left the nation in “ruins.”

There appeared to be some sense of urgency early on. American officials working out of the Libya Embassy in Tunis said they had been assured that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would make Libya a top priority, several officials said in interviews. And then there were the warnings from some of Mr. Trump’s top military advisers, including General Waldhauser’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Trump’s lack of sustained attention caused consternation in some quarters not just because of the terrorism threat but also because Libya remained a primary transit route for refugees and human traffickers.

“You had this country that was the topic of a lot of campaign rhetoric, and at the same time those of us who had been working on Libya issues in government felt an urgency to build pockets of stability,” said Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior counterterrorism official at the National Security Council under Presidents Obama and Trump. “But over the past year, I haven’t seen much momentum to do that.”

Last spring, two months after General Waldhauser testified on Capitol Hill, a suicide bomber detonated a shrapnel-laden explosive device during a concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and injuring 250 others. The bomber was of Libyan descent and had recently traveled to Libya to meet with an Islamic State commander.

By early summer, there were ominous signs that the Islamic State was recovering from a B-2 bomber attack that, according to the Pentagon, killed more than 80 militants at a Libyan training camp just days before Mr. Trump took office. Amanda J. Dory, who had just stepped down as the Pentagon’s top Africa policy official, warned that “we’re seeing some signs” that the Islamic State was further “regrouping in Libya.”

Some aides urged the president to increase the modest number of military advisers in Libya — roughly two dozen Special Operations soldiers at any given time. But the effort was stymied by Stephen K. Bannon, then Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.

Mr. Bannon clashed frequently with Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who, Mr. Bannon said, kept pushing for more American involvement in a variety of places, including Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. “Every day there was a new ask with no overarching strategy,” Mr. Bannon recalled in an interview after leaving the White House but before his recent public break with Mr. Trump over his comments in a book about the administration’s first year. “Libya was what pushed me over the edge.”

Mr. Bannon was more open to an idea pitched by Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide whom he had gotten to know when he oversaw the conservative website Breitbart News. Mr. Prince had proposed relying on contractors to tackle Libya’s security problems. It seemed, at least to Libyan officials, that the idea was gaining steam: One said Mr. Prince had approached them about it at a conference in London where he was seen with Sebastian Gorka, a Bannon ally and White House adviser at the time.

How was sending American troops to Libya in America’s interest? Mr. Bannon wanted to know.

At a wide-ranging Saturday morning meeting on July 8, Mr. Bannon took his complaints to Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general. The country was a mess, Mr. Bannon said he told the secretary, and greater American involvement could only backfire.

Mr. Mattis listened politely, Mr. Bannon said, but pointed out that Libya, along with parts of Syria and the Philippines, was a critical battlefield in the global fight against the Islamic State. Mr. Bannon responded that if the president was going to be asked to get more deeply involved in Libya, he at least wanted Mr. Trump to have a “strategic overview of U.S. commitments around the globe, everything from military to trade agreements, so that all these requests could be put in a larger context.”

A three-hour follow-up meeting with the president took place on July 20 at the Pentagon. As Mr. Bannon had hoped, once the National Security Council convened to discuss hot spots around the world where the Pentagon might need to bolster its presence, Libya fell farther down the priority list.

At least for the moment, Mr. Bannon had won the day.

But if Mr. Trump’s Libya policy seemed unintelligible to some, the president of another world power had a far clearer vision.

Mr. Putin has had Libya in his sights for years. Ever since he became convinced that the United States, and specifically Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, had double-crossed Russia by toppling Colonel Qaddafi in what had been billed as a limited, humanitarian intervention, the Russian president has been working to regain influence there.

Basit Igtet, a Libyan oil entrepreneur married to the Seagram heiress Sara Bronfman, recalled in an interview that, after announcing in 2014 that he would run for prime minister, he was invited to meet privately at a conference in Greece with Vladimir Yakunin, then the head of the state-owned Russian Railways.

During the Qaddafi era, Libya signed a deal to have the Russians build a high-speed rail between Benghazi and Tripoli, one segment of an envisioned North African corridor. But the project had stalled after the 2011 intervention and, Mr. Igtet said, Mr. Yakunin pressed him to move it forward if elected.

Mr. Igtet said Mr. Yakunin seemed “desperate,” even offering what appeared to be a bribe to restart the project. “They offered to give me a percentage of the contract as a commission,” he said. “I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I just wanted to leave.”

A spokesman for Mr. Yakunin, Grigory Levchenko, said that while Mr. Yakunin could not comment on specifics of confidential talks, he denied “the suggestion of any wrongdoing or ethical misconduct related to those discussions.” He added: “Mr. Yakunin never offered Mr. Igtet anything that ‘appeared to be a bribe to restart the project,’ nor did he ever offer Mr. Igtet ‘a percentage of the contract as a commission.’ These claims are simply false.”

The same year, the Russians also approached Ibrahim Jathran, a militia leader who controlled Libya’s key oil ports before General Haftar. United States Navy SEALs had recently boarded a North Korean-flagged ship and disrupted a plot by Mr. Jathran to bypass Libya’s government and sell oil directly on the international market.

Two of Mr. Jathran’s top deputies, who asked that only their first names, Osama and Ahmed, be used, for fear of reprisals, described how the Russians then stepped in with a “really amazing” proposal to help Mr. Jathran sell the oil — and arm his militia.

The Russians, Osama and Ahmed said, would market the crude oil, moving it through Egypt to Russia. Mr. Jathran would be paid in weapons for the first six months, and in cash thereafter.

“The weapons included everything we have, plus armored cars, antiaircraft missiles, heat-seeking shoulder-held weapons, light weapons and comm gear including Hetra wireless,” Osama said.

But when the Russians demanded exclusivity, Ahmed and Osama said, their boss balked. Fearing that the Russians could not be trusted, Mr. Jathran, who is now in hiding and could not be reached for comment, walked away from the deal.

The next year, in 2015, the Russians came back, Ahmed and Osama said. The same weaponry was on the table, but this time they wanted Mr. Jathran to throw his support behind the Russians’ choice for defense minister: Libya’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.

Officials in the U.N.-backed Libyan government convinced Mr. Jathran that it would be far more productive to align himself with the West. A meeting was set up between Mr. Jathran and Jonathan Powell, then the British envoy to Libya, after which “Ibrahim instructed me to close the file on Russia,” Osama said.

Then, in September 2016, General Haftar’s Libyan National Army seized the oil terminals from Mr. Jathran’s forces. Ahmed, who served as a commander during the fighting, recalled being stunned by the sophistication of the weapons General Haftar seemed to have acquired overnight.

Fast-moving desert vehicles. Self-guided heat-seeking missiles. A newfound ability to launch airstrikes by day and night. Osama and Ahmed, who said he was injured by Russian-made munitions, came to believe that the Russians had begun facilitating arms shipments to General Haftar after their boss turned them down.

“You could notice the difference, and it definitely tilted the balance,” Ahmed said.

That assessment, based on anecdotal evidence and informants, was backed up by American and British intelligence reports. A former senior American national security official and a former senior British official said evidence gathered in late 2015 and 2016 indicated that the United Arab Emirates were cooperating with Russia to provide Russian weaponry to General Haftar’s forces with Egypt’s help.

The British official recalled landing at the airport in Tobruk, controlled by the Haftar-allied Eastern government, in late 2014 or early 2015. A giant Antonov cargo plane was on the runway, and people were unloading crates of what looked like military equipment, he said, adding that the pilot said the matériel was from Belarus.

The official described the weapons shipments as a way for the Russians to expand their influence, and tweak the United States, without being too deeply involved.

For its part, Russia has maintained that it is in compliance with a United Nations embargo on transferring weapons into Libya. Only the United Nations-backed government, which General Haftar refuses to recognize, can import weapons, and only with the approval of the United Nations.

To be sure, Russia’s involvement in Libya pales in comparison to that in Syria, where punishing Russian airpower has been deployed to crush rebel factions fighting to oust Mr. Assad, and Russian and American aircraft are jousting in the eastern skies at cross purposes.

In Libya, the heavy lifting of providing military support to General Haftar has fallen largely to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are engaged in a proxy war for regional influence with Qatar, which supports Islamic factions in the country that the general has vowed to eradicate.

Still, it wasn’t until after Mr. Trump’s election that the Russians were brazen enough to give General Haftar a full-dress parade aboard their aircraft carrier.

Over the last year, Russian assistance has generally been subtler. Russian military advisers and intelligence officers have regularly gone in and out of General Haftar’s area of control, American intelligence officials said. Other Russian support personnel have provided spare parts, equipment repairs and medical care.

Private Russian contractors have guarded factories in Benghazi and provided demining equipment to General Haftar’s troops, the officials said. Russian special forces are using an air base in western Egypt, just over Libya’s border, in an early sign of recent basing agreements between Russia and Egypt.

In August, General Haftar said he had raised the issue of Russia’s providing military assistance with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. And last month, Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and an ally of General Haftar, told the Russian news agency Sputnik that Russia had in fact provided military training to Haftar’s army.

“Putin is pushing the envelope, and will keep pushing and pushing until he is stopped,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, who was the State Department’s second-ranking diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2016.

Appearing to hedge his bets on Libya’s political future, Mr. Putin has also reached out to the Government of National Accord, welcoming its prime minister, Mr. Serraj, in addition to General Haftar, to Moscow.

According to Western officials, Russia is seeking a political settlement — a central government favorable to its economic interests, especially on arms contracts, energy deals and a railway project.

“If they can give the E.U. a black eye along the way, so much the better,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the forthcoming book “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.”

Still, despite evidence in Syria and elsewhere that Russia and the United States have sharply divergent interests in the region, some senior administration officials have appeared open to the idea that Russia could be part of the solution in Libya.

Ari Ben-Menashe, a Canada-based Israeli security consultant who has a contract to lobby on behalf of General Haftar and his ally Mr. Issa, helped arrange the aircraft carrier visit.

He said he had spoken to several top administration officials and his impression was that they believed Moscow could play a useful role.

“Where they are, at least my sense is, is that any settlement is a good settlement and they are kind of happy if someone gets that done,” he said. “They feel the Russians could help.”

Perhaps that explains the reaction of several officials the administration made available for this article. When asked about Russian interference in Libya, a senior State Department official refused to condemn or even comment on it, saying, “That’s a topic I don’t really want to get into today.”

That official referred questions to White House national security aides, who also refused to comment. Then, just days ago, another State Department official suggested Russia was being more helpful in “promoting a stable, unified and prosperous Libya.”

But at least in some quarters, suspicions linger about Moscow’s intentions. “We remain concerned, and it should be no surprise Russia is trying to develop relationships in their best interests,” General Waldhauser said in response to questions from The Times.

A year into Mr. Trump’s presidency, Libya is still an extraordinarily dangerous place. New threats are emerging. Old threats are regrouping or resurfacing in different ways.

In September, after Mr. Bannon’s departure from the White House, the Pentagon persuaded Mr. Trump to approve a limited action against the Islamic State in Libya. American drones conducted strikes on a training camp there on Sept. 22, killing 17 militants. The militants were shuttling fighters in and out of the country and stockpiling weapons, the United States Africa Command said.

Four days later, more American airstrikes rained down 100 miles southeast of Surt, killing several more fighters, the Pentagon said.

And on Oct. 29, American commandos in Libya captured a second suspect in the 2012 attacks against the United States diplomatic mission and C.I.A. annex in Benghazi — terrorist attacks that have been used by Mr. Trump as a political spear against the Obama administration.

The man, Mustafa al-Imam, was brought aboard an American warship and taken to the United States, where on Nov. 9 he pleaded not guilty to criminal charges tied to the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion in April that the United States would have “no role” in helping to rebuild Libya, State Department and White House officials now insist the administration is taking what one called a “leading role” by pursuing “a two-tier strategy”: carrying out counterterrorism strikes aimed at the Islamic State, while supporting political reconciliation aimed at stabilizing the country and bringing Libya’s various contentious factions together to support Mr. Serraj’s government.

To many Libyans, though, the Trump administration’s strategy looks a lot like the Obama administration’s post-Benghazi “lead from behind” approach: carrying out reactive strikes while leaving the difficult tasks of reconciliation to the latest United Nations envoy.

Current and former Libyan and American officials say that while there are no ready solutions for resolving Libya’s woes, a more engaged and effective American policy would include more frequent, highly visible diplomatic engagements with Libyan leaders; a new United States special envoy with a mandate to work closely with the rival Libyan factions; a seasoned diplomat to replace Peter W. Bodde, who retired at year’s end as Washington’s ambassador to Libya; closer support for European and United Nations-led efforts to reconcile the warring parties; and a greater number of Special Operations advisers on the ground.

“We have clearly delegated all of our foreign policy in the Gulf and Libya to a coalition of Emirates, Saudi and Egyptians,” said Jason Pack, executive director of the U.S. Libya Business Association. “That’s essentially letting the Russians win in Libya because they support exactly the same groups.”

The consequences, Mr. Pack added, are far-reaching. “Libya is important because of where it sits. He who can project power into Libya has the ability to deluge Europe with migrants and bring right-wing populists to power there, interfere in the market price of oil, and more.”

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