Report: Frontex Gave Migrant Boat Positions to Notorious Libyan Militia

The Tareq Bin Zayed Brigade's interceptor vessel (David Lohmueller / Sea-Watch.org / Lighthouse Reports)
The Tareq Bin Zayed Brigade's interceptor vessel (David Lohmueller / Sea-Watch.org / Lighthouse Reports)

Published Dec 11, 2023 5:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

According to a new report by a European consortium of newspapers and non-profit journalists, the EU border agency Frontex appears to be handing the locations of migrant vessels in the Central Mediterranean to a group of suspected war criminals based out of Benghazi, known as the Tareq Bin Zayed Brigade (TBZ). 

TBZ is led by Saddam Haftar, the son of Libyan warlord and former Virginia resident Khalifa Haftar. According to Amnesty International, the militia is made up of tribal fighters and soldiers who formerly served under Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Based on interviews with dozens of Libyan residents, Amnesty has accused TBZ of a "catalog of horrors, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, rape and other sexual violence, and forced displacement, with no fear of consequences." It also has covert ties to Russia's Wagner mercenary group, according to EU documents reviewed by the Lighthouse's reporting partners. 

Lighthouse has discovered that TBZ operates a maritime migrant retrieval vessel, also named TBZ, which operates off the coasts of Libya and Malta. Libya is a leading transit country for migrants who wish to travel to Italy illegally, and overloaded migrant boats depart Libyan shores regularly. These migrants are not desired by the EU, and Lighthouse has uncovered evidence that EU border agency Frontex is enabling "pullback" operations by passing mid-voyage boat coordinates to TBZ. 

Frontex regularly provides Libyan authorities with boat coordinates, and in at least one case from August 2023, the agency recorded that the data had been passed on to TBZ. In another instance, a Frontex plane issued a mayday call about a refugee boat in distress, which was picked up and answered by the TBZ. No other ship or agency intervened, even though there were merchant vessels nearby, and it took six hours for TBZ to arrive.

"Frontex knows that this situation is more of a kidnapping than a rescue. You only have to imagine pirates announcing that they will deal with a distress case," international law expert Nora Markard told Lighthouse. 

Migrants are a lucrative opportunity for Libyan militia groups, as the refugees can be held for ransom or sold to smugglers. Though the migrants are destitute, their families will often fund a ransom, and the payouts can be in the four figures per abductee. Often the migrants are held by the militia until a human smuggler buys the right to take over their custody. Either outcome generates illicit income for the militia at the expense of the migrant, and some migrants make the round trip from Libyan prison to boat to prison several times. 

“The smugglers would come knocking on the doors of a detention center and ask if they’ve detained any migrants recently. The militia would tell them that they detained five guys from Syria, and the smuggler offers $1,000 a head for their release," an expert on Libyan militias told Malta Today. "Then, either these Syrians have the money to pay back the smuggler and buy a trip to Europe, or they don’t have the money and they get extorted. It becomes an extortion business that gets really ugly."

TBZ is also involved in the human trafficking business and gets a cut of the take from the front end of illicit maritime migration, according to experts on Libyan militias and to migrants who have encountered the group. “They [boat operators] have a contract and don’t leave before TBZ’s approval, and the TBZ gets a share of the profit," said one migrant, speaking to Malta Today. 

In addition to the alleged involvement by Frontex, Lighthouse Reports recorded a tip-off from a pilot with a Maltese accent to the TBZ militia, and the militia's boat arrived at the scene a few hours later to capture the migrants. The Maltese military did not deny involvement, the group said.