Italy Seizes Drones En Route to Libya

Trent Barr
Trent Barr
Trent has years of experience and training in open source intelligence gathering and journalism. He specializes in Latin American, German, and Vatican affairs, with a broader interest in European politics. Trent serves as the Latin America Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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Italian authorities seized a shipment of military-grade drones bound for Libya on Tuesday, the shipment of which is in direct violation of a UN embargo on the nation. The drones were originally sent from China through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and arrived in Italy, where they were to be loaded onto a separate ship and sent to Libya.

An Illicit Shipment

The shipments, which were disguised as wind turbines, were discovered by US authorities who later tipped off their Italian counterparts. From there, Italian authorities in Gioia Tauro, Calabria, impounded the shipments, which consisted of various components for Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones, with one drone having “The energy saving world” printed on the side. The drones were first shipped to the UAE before their transport to Italy, leading some to speculate the weaponry was either stolen and illicitly transferred or purchased by the UAE as a straw purchase for resale for Libya.

“The components were hidden among composite material replicas of wind turbine blades to conceal them and avoid checks,” Italian tax police and customs officials said in a statement.

Italian authorities with one of the seized drones. (Photo – Italian Government)

Sources close to the issue told Defense News that the drones were meant to arrive in Benghazi on orders of General Khalifa Haftar, who currently controls Libya’s eastern reaches under the Libyan National Army (LNA). Notably, Haftar’s LNA has sought to expand its control throughout Libya, previously launching an attack in 2020 against the UN-backed government headquartered in Tripoli with support from the UAE, who sent the same type of drone to Haftar’s forces, further solidifying the theory that the drones were part of a straw purchase for the LNA. The UAE viewed Libya as a central battleground after the 2011 Arab uprisings to curtail the role of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE’s policy crystallized as political and military support for General Haftar and his armed forces in 2014.

Arms for Libya

The intercepted shipment follows an increase in military drone production by China, with clientele including Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, and Jordan, among others. This is the second operation that resulted in the seizure of Chinese drones. In April, a sting operation conducted by Canadian police uncovered a plot by two Libyan men formerly employed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to purchase Chinese drones and military equipment in exchange for crude oil from General Haftar. Investigators have suggested the deal was made between the Libyan men and the Chinese government directly, claiming that the deal was made largely for its favorable conditions for China.

One of ICAO’s buildings. (Photo – Jordan Adkins/Shutterstock)

“We’re basically looking at a case of Chinese interference in Libya,” the investigator, Royal Candian Mounted Police Sgt. Charles Poirier, stated. “It all boils down to activities in Canada that were made to facilitate that deal.”

Poirier further stated that the suspects “certainly met at ICAO” where they profited from diplomatic immunity. The ICAO themselves stated the pair had left the organizations “a number of years ago” but failed to clarify further regarding the case.

The UN sanctions have been in effect since 2011, when the Security Council ordered all nations to “prevent the sale or supply to Libya of arms and related materiel of all types.” The same sanctions also targeted several private individuals and entities and prevented Libya from exporting oil and other petroleum products. These sanctions were established following crackdowns on anti-government protestors under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime during the 2011 Libyan Civil War which resulted in the death of Gaddafi and his overthrow.

General Khalifa Haftar. (Photo – NPR)

The sanctions have continued amid ongoing fighting between various factions active within Libya despite a 2020 peace deal between the LNA and the UN-backed interim Government of National Accord (GNA). Militias subservient to a number of Libya’s political and military factions continued to clash across the country as, while a unified government—The Government of National Unity, or GNU—was formed in 2021, full control over national territory has not been established. These factions have gained material support from a number of foreign powers who seek to expand their control over Africa, including the aforementioned UAE, and Russia, who once supported General Haftar’s faction through the deployment of the Wagner Corps.

The seizure of Chinese-made drones showcases attempts by militant factions within Libya to subvert the UN-mandated sanctions placed on the country, with the mischaracterization of the drones as wind turbines marking an interesting form of arms smuggling. The smuggling of Chinese-made drones coincides with renewed interest by non-Western-aligned powers toward Africa as a whole as US influence has diminished in recent years.