Libya: Erik Prince and Failed Plot to Arm a CIA Asset-Turned-Warlord

Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater
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The Intercept has published an exclusive investigation by reporter Matthew Cole revealing how Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater, aided a plot to move U.S.-made gunships, weapons, and other military equipment from Jordan to a renegade commander fighting for control of war-torn Libya.

The plan, known as Project Opus, would have seen an assault team of mercenaries use the helicopters to help the commander, Khalifa Hifter, a U.S. citizen and former CIA asset, defeat Libya’s U.N.-recognized and U.S.-backed government. But the plan encountered a serious problem: Jordanian officials were holding up the $80 million arms deal, which would have violated U.N. sanctions and possibly U.S. law.

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A confidential U.N. report issued last week concluded that Prince and his business associate, Christiaan Durrant, violated the U.N. arms embargo for Libya. If the U.N. Sanctions Committee approves the report, Prince could face a travel ban and frozen bank accounts.

Prince, through his attorney, denied any involvement in a military operation and demanded the report be retracted “immediately.” Durrant’s attorney said that Opus was an oil and gas logistics company and that Prince had no relationship with the company.

For more than a year, The Intercept has been investigating the failed mercenary effort. This account is based on dozens of interviews, including with people involved in the ill-fated mission, as well as the U.N. report and other materials obtained exclusively by The Intercept.

After Jordanian officials held up an arms deal, Prince sought out an adviser to Jordanian ruler King Abdullah to help his associate, Durrant, with a shipment of humanitarian aid. The adviser was troubled by Prince’s vagueness. “I didn’t know Prince as a humanitarian,” he later told The Intercept.

Months after Prince and Durrant’s backdoor efforts failed to convince Jordan to approve the arms transfer, Prince called a senior member of President Trump’s National Security Council to request a meeting for Durrant. As Prince sat silently, Durrant described a campaign to back Hifter. “It wasn’t something I wanted to be involved in,” the official told The Intercept.

The U.N. report uncovered an $85 million contract for a geological survey of Jordan that it called “counterfeited with the deliberate intent to disguise the true purpose.” The document led back to a company in which Prince had an ownership interest, according to the U.N. report. The U.N. is continuing its investigation, and the FBI has been asking questions about Prince’s involvement in the Jordanian deal and his connections to the Libyan conflict. The FBI would not confirm the existence of an investigation.

Many questions about Project Opus remain unanswered, including who paid for the operation, which allegedly cost $80 million, or whether the architects of the mission had help from other governments, such as the United Arab Emirates. At least four countries have also opened criminal investigations into the alleged plot as a result of the U.N. investigation, according to a Western official.

About Matthew Cole:

Matthew Cole has covered national security since 2005 for U.S. television networks and print outlets. He has reported extensively on the CIA’s post-9/11 transformation, including identifying and locating a secret CIA prison in Lithuania used to interrogate Al Qaeda detainees. Since 2005, Cole has traveled extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan to cover conflict and investigate U.S. intelligence operations.

For six years, Cole worked as an investigative producer for ABC and NBC News. At each network, Cole broke several stories of global significance. Among the subjects he has reported on are Blackwater’s covert work with the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command; the Raymond Davis affair in Pakistan; the death of Osama bin Laden; missing Libyan surface-to-air missiles after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi; classified CIA documents related to its drone program; and a SEAL Team 6 raid in Somalia.

For NBC News, Cole worked closely with Glenn Greenwald to report stories based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, and secured the only American television interview with Snowden.

About The Intercept:

The Intercept is an award-winning nonprofit news organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism. Its in-depth investigations and unflinching analysis focus on surveillance, war, corruption, the environment, technology, criminal justice, the media and more.

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